Episcopal Church continuing its commitment to ecumenical dialogue

April 1, 2003

The Episcopal Church's patient participation in and commitment to ecumenical dialogue, with the stated ultimate goal of full communion, continues on several levels with different partners. Progress is sometimes slow but participants eagerly mark each successful marker along the way.

At the national and international level, Episcopalians and Anglicans regard dialogue with the Roman Catholics as very important--and quite successful over the years in sweeping away some of the dead timber of misunderstanding and stereotypes.

'We're down to the important issues now, the bedrock, where our reasons for staying separate must be for reasons of the highest magnitude,' said Prof. J. Robert Wright of the General Theological Seminary, using an expression of Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner. 'And we do believe there are some issues that mean we must stay apart for the time being--but with a resolve to face those issues head on with renewed vigor because we can see more clearly the issues that divide us.'

Wright said the dialogues with the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox are 'theologically the two deepest ones for us because there is something deep in our Anglican mentality where we know we belong with them, that we are a part of each other. Episcopalians express more discomfort over differences with Roman Catholics because we know these two churches are meant to be one,' he said.

In May of 1999, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) released a statement 'The Gift of Authority: Authority in the Church,' exploring the specific ways that the two churches believe that the community of faith says 'yes' to God. 'There is no turning back in our journey towards full ecclesial communion,' the statement says, calling on both parties to 'make more visible the koinonia we already have' and to explore new forms of joint exercise of authority among the ordained and the laity.

The statement also asks the Anglican Communion to consider a new relationship with the authority of the bishop of Rome, suggesting an interim period of association with the papacy as one step along the way. Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold, who is now co-chair of the international dialogue through ARCIC, said after the statement was released that the catholicity and unity of the church already exist in the mind of God so it's not up to us to create them but rather yield up our various traditions to the motions of the Holy Spirit.

Dialogue in a changing world

At the regular semi-annual meeting of the Anglican-Roman Catholic Consultation in the USA (ARC-USA), participants noted that 'the world situation has changed radically since the publication of The Gift of Authority in 1999. We nevertheless believe that the commitment to ecumenical relations among Christians has a positive contribution to make in times of conflict and vulnerability. In this context the bishops of our two churches have expressed their concern for peace in our country and in the community of nations,' said that final statement, an assessment and response to 'The Gift of Authority.'

'The Gift of Authority sketches a rich ecclesiology of communion, in which the many and varied gifts of the community are integrated into the Gift who is Jesus Christ himself to the honor and glory of God,' the statement said. In a section addressing concerns, however, the statement noted that 'the idealism and optimism of the document, though praiseworthy, do not take sufficiently into account the concrete difficulties on the path to full agreement regarding the matters under discussion or the historical instances of authority's abuse.' It mentioned the role of bishops in the two churches, as well as the role and participation of the laity, as areas of further concern.

Chaired by Bishop Edwin Gulick of the Episcopal Diocese of Kentucky and Archbishop William J. Levada of the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco, participants in the March 27-30 meeting agreed unanimously that the churches 'ought to move ahead, theologically and practically, toward the goal of full communion.' It was the 54th meeting of ARC-USA since it was established in 1965.

Relationships and trust

Commenting on the meeting, Bishop Christopher Epting, deputy for ecumenical and interfaith relations for the Episcopal Church, said, 'While recognizing that we cannot go as far right now as 'The Gift of Authority' suggests, I think ARC-USA wanted to take up the document's challenge to begin living out the 'real but imperfect communion we share' even as we continue the theological dialogue so necessary for full communion. This is consistent with the approach of the new International Anglican Roman Catholic Commission on Unity and Mission (IARCCUM). I hope we can find ways to make that happen.'

After noting that it hasn't addressed 'some of the thorny theological issues' in the statement on authority, ARC-USA concluded, 'We are convinced, however, that the most productive context for dealing with outstanding divisive issues is a relationship of mutual understanding, trust, and affection,' expressing gratitude for the statement's 'invitation to deepen our relationship.'

The response from ARC-USA named issues requiring further investigation before Anglicans and Roman Catholics can take those steps toward a deeper communion. Among the issues are identifying the essential elements essential for full communion, the relationship between Anglicans and the bishop of Rome. Since Anglicans have serious reservations about the doctrine of infallibility, the response asked for further clarification on the issue.

CUIC seeks to resolve ministry issue

The Consultation on Church Union, a church unity effort by nine US churches with roots that go back 40 years, launched a new plan in Memphis January 20, inaugurating a new effort called Churches Uniting in Christ--with more realistic goals in light of continuing roadblocks to church unity. 'Today we celebrate a brave new beginning of a new journey,' said Jeffrey Newhall, the last president of COCU. 'We don't know where it will take us, but now we know we will all get there together.'

COCU's vision was based on a 1960 sermon at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral by Dr. Eugene Carson Blake of the United Presbyterian Church calling for a new church that would be 'truly catholic and truly reformed.' At the official formation of COCU two years later, participants agreed to add 'truly evangelical' to Blake's formula. It began as a movement for organic union but COCU later abandoned its hopes for a merger and looked for ways to establish closer ties among the churches without giving up their own identity.

One of the major challenge now for CUIC is to resolve differing views of ministry among the nine participants--the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the International Council of Community Churches and the Episcopal Church. (The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Moravians are partners in mission and dialogue but not full members of CUIC and the Roman Catholics send an official observer.) Until the ministry issue is solved, it won't be possible to allow clergy exchanges among the churches.

While the Episcopal Church has voted to continue its participation, Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold said that the church's representatives 'will not be able to commend it to our General Convention for consideration until agreement has been reached with regard to the reconciliation of ministries that is called for' in the covenanting document for CUIC. Wright will represent the Episcopal Church on a committee charged with drafting a possible plan for reconciling ministries in CUIC. 'I'm struck by the number of Protestant churches that look upon us as hold-outs,' he said. 'We are not ready to embrace papal authority but neither are we prepared to give up on a visibly structured church with episcopal authority at its core.'

Commitment on fighting racism

The coordinating council of CUIC released a short statement after its March meeting. 'To assist grassroots implementation of this renewed plan for unity, representatives introduced new communication resources including a video, a study pamphlet, and an informative brochure,' the council noted. 'Though complex issues will need to be resolved, members of the Ministry Task Force are hopeful that by 2007 their labors will provide foundational agreements that will eventually lead to full communion among these member churches.'

The council also reported that it 'heard a heartening report from its Racial Justice Task Force' regarding plans for a one-day event next September 15 in Chicago on 'Eradicating Racism: Liberating Tomorrow's Children.' Both COCU and CUIC have made a commitment to fight racism a major cornerstone of the unity efforts, stimulated by the participation of three historic black churches in the conversations.

At the September event 'each member church will be asked to elucidate the meaning of its commitment and how those commitments can be implemented,' said the Rev. Dan Krutz, an Episcopal Church representative on the coordinating council. The Rev. Jayne Oasin, the Episcopal Church's staff officer for social justice, chairs the task force planning the Chicago event.

Krutz said that the local/regional task force 'is working on a model for local implementation of CUIC's goals for moving the churches to a deeper level of commitment to one another in mission, worship and other areas of church life,' highlighting the work in 10 local areas to serve as models. He added that the liturgy used for the inauguration of CUIC in Memphis is being adapted for use in local settings.

'I was very encouraged by this meeting,' said Bishop Christopher Epting, the Episcopal Church's deputy for ecumenical and interfaith relations. 'We have lost some momentum since the CUIC inauguration in Memphis just over a year ago because this is a new organization and new leadership. But the three task forces are functioning well now and important work is being done. We have to remember the exciting prospect of some 22 million Christians working together through this association,' he said.

Other links:

ENS story on CUIC launch: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/article/churches-uniting-christ-b...

History of COCU and CUIC: http://www.eden.edu/cuic/news/html

Ecumenical resources: http://episcopalchurch.org/ecumenism.html

'CUIC and Ministry: The Real Beginning or the Final Ending?', by J. Robert Wright: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/office/ecumenical-and-interreligi...