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This paper was presented at the 2005 Interchurch Families International Conference in Newcastle, NSW, Australia.

“Interchurch Families - Their Ecumenical Significance and Challenge for the Churches"

A Five year Dialogue Between the Roman Catholic Church and the Uniting Church, held in Brisbane. 
Co-chairs Archbishop John Bathersby, bishop of the Brisbane Archdiocese, and 
Professor Rev Dr James Haire, now President of the National Council of Churches in Australia. 
Endorsed in 2001 by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and the Australian Synod of the Uniting Church.

11th International Conference
Newcastle, NSW, Australia
18-21 August 2005

Rev Dr Chris Budden

Some questions/ issues raised in this dialogue which challenge us

Introduction

First, let me say how much I appreciate the Dialogue document, and Elizabeth’s account of that document. The movement in ecumenical relationships which are reflected in that Dialogue are truly monumental.

If the rest of what I say seems critical, it needs to be seen against that sense of appreciation. I simply want to push us to ask the remaining hard questions.

I enter this conversation as both a pastor deeply concerned for the people in both our churches who bear the burden of our divisions, and as a contextual theologian who seeks to understand the saving necessity and promise of Jesus Christ for our day.

Contextual theology assumes that how we respond to the question of who Jesus is, and how we understand the soteriological [saving] necessity of Jesus, is shaped by a dialogue between the particular experiences and context in which human beings live, and the Tradition of the church. That is, it seeks to take seriously, as a dialogue partner in faith, particular people and not simply a generic humanity. It assumes that people in different places bring different issues to their conversation with God, and will read the tradition from a different perspective.

The context we are dealing with is the actual experience of Christian people seeking to live out the shared life of marriage and family, and how they express their following of Jesus Christ within two traditions of discipleship, two understandings of Church, that have been shaped by different experiences of history.

We need to hear about your experience as a genuine source for theology, and with an open-ness to the possibility that your experience is a source of our knowledge of God. In this is not simply problem or opportunity, but real challenge.

At its heart the issue is: how do people relate their discipleship and their vocation as family, when their church’s still are not able to fully accept the claims of discipleship of the other faith community?

Issues

It seems to me that the conversation is not helped if it is implicitly assumed that the Roman Catholic position is the base line position, and others of us must defend our divergence from that position, as if the issue was not we get to a new position but how people adopt the one position. Indeed, when I read Dialogue reports, I sometimes feel that people in my own church assume that, and then do not defend properly either the way questions should be posed or the answers given.

Nor is it helped if there is an assumption that the Protestant position that allows baptized people to share the Eucharist is somehow less thoughtful and conscious in its position than one that excludes people from sharing together. The different positions seem to me to revolve around different answers to the following questions:

  • How do we recognize that people are Christians, including how we acknowledge a valid baptism, and how baptism relates to participation in other parts of the Christian life and community?
  • What constitutes a valid and efficacious sacrament? Here there is value in exploring the difference between Catholic substance and the Protestant Principle that says God’s presence can never be guaranteed, but relies on faith and the Holy Spirit.
  • This implies a question about the role of the church in salvation.
  • The deeper issue is the ongoing debate about the signs of the church, and how we remain One Holy Catholic and Apostolic, and whether each church shows adequate signs of being the church so that we can share the eucharist. There is also the broader issue of the role of the church in marriage, and the place of marriage as sacrament, and the question of the relationship between the general providence of God in marriage, and the special providence of God in Christian marriage (and what constitutes Christian marriage – Christians, intention about life, the act of the church).

As we seek to respond to those broad questions, there are some issues that need further conversation, and I believe that Interchurch families can assist these conversations to occur. Your presence among us forces us to answer these questions.

Some questions to ponder

  • Does the way we do theology and engage in inter-church dialogue take seriously enough the context and experience of real people? That is, do interchurch families challenge the relationship between tradition and context? 
  • Has our entry point for dialogue - ecclesial identity - been the most helpful? What about the necessity and significance of genuine humanness, or the centrality of mission and evangelism?
  • Would our conversation about marriage be helped by an exploration of marriage as vocation (i.e. as the way discipleship is expressed in the ordinary structures of life), rather than as [or alongside] either sacrament or covenant? [I don’t know how the language of covenant helps us draw closer on marriage as sacrament (p. 80). I think that misses the point that sacraments are efficacious signs, and it is the sign and not the covenant that is the issue – at least not the covenant between people which has tended to be the UCA emphasis.] That is, what if our consideration was about marriage as a way we express the presence of God in ordinary life, rather than as sign of Christ and the church, so that it was more important to protect that vocation than the church? What is the difference between marriage outside the church (an expression of the general providence of God) and Christian marriage (the particular providence of God)?
  • How do we help both our traditions confront the words of Jesus that challenge the way we make family the central building block of our lives (e.g. Matthew 12: 46-50), or the way we make church the goal of history in the face of the vision of the new earth in Revelation in which there is no church? That is, how do we review our sense of eschatology and salvation in the face of the challenge of Interchurch marriages that are seeking to give us a glimpse of a new earth, not new church, while seeing the new earth is the whole earth and not simply families?
  • There is clearly, as the Report acknowledges on page 41, a need for continuing dialogue about the signs of the church, and how these are found in both churches. Important in this will be a sensitive exploration of the way episcope is exercised in the UCA, and the way the wholeness of the UCA depends on the way we understand the inter-relationship of the various councils and their particular tasks in the church’s episkopal function. The report's reflection on signs of the church in the UCA is incomplete. In particular, it does not touch on the debate about the holy life over which Protestants are in disagreement, nor what this might mean for any claim that the church subsists completely in any church. Can the church be church and still be incomplete and broken in a sinful world? What is the role of the church in salvation? How can the Roman Catholic Church explain how the essential signs relate to the saving purpose of God, and why the historic form of what was needed must be the present form, in ways that make sense to Protestants? How does the UCA explain the role of the ordained, and the significance of its inter-conciliar structures in ensuring the apostolic nature of the church and the provision of episkope, in ways that make sense to Roman Catholics?
  • The report raises for me, at least, important issues about baptism, confirmation and Christian initiation. 

For the UCA, baptism is the act of initiation, and confirmation the promise to be a full and active member of the church. The Report says that in the Roman Catholic church, confirmation is a seen as a sacrament of initiation which is completed in admission to the eucharist. What does baptism mean if it is not an act of initiation, and where is its ecclesial dimension? What happens when baptism is separated from the act of initiation? If it is an act of initiation, why cannot all baptized persons go to a RC eucharist (even if RCs cannot come to a UCA eucharist because of issues about the validity of the eucharist and the Minister).

There would be a great deal of benefit in further discussion on this crucial issue of baptism, confirmation, initiation and the eucharist.

  • Is there a need for further discussion on Catholic substance and the Protestant principle (God is always free and God's presence can never be guaranteed by human action) as that touches on ministry and eucharist? Is there a place for further discussion about validity and efficacy in the sacraments, and what this might mean for the ability to extend hospitality (a central gospel value, it seems to me)?
  • What would happen if we took hospitality seriously as the entry point and guiding principle for our discussions, and how would this touch on the possibility of double belonging.

FOR REFLECTION:
How do these issues arise for you in your lives and experience?

Rev Dr Chris Budden
August 2005