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Report on the Third Receptive Ecumenism Conference

Receptive Ecumenism in International Perspective: Contextual Ecclesial Learning held at Fairfield University, Connecticut, USA 9-12 June 2014

The conference was organized jointly by the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University and the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University.  It was co-sponsored and promoted by a number of organisations including the Association of Interchurch Families and the South Australian Council of Churches.

There were 130 people present including seventeen Australians, mostly from Queensland and South Australia.  People came from Kenya, Japan, Malawi, Iceland, Colombia, Finland, Greece, Singapore, Indonesia, New Zealand, USA, Canada, UK, Italy, Belgium, Sweden, Ireland, France, Germany, South Africa and Pakistan,.

Jeff and I were there at the invitation of Ray Temmerman from the Association of Interchurch Families.  We went with high hopes, but did not count on getting sick.  I had a bad cold and Jeff had a tummy wog.  We were both tired and washed out and did not attend every session.  It was infuriating to have travelled so far and spent so much money on our registration, and then have to nap in the afternoon.

One thing that really surprised us was that there was never any acknowledgement of the traditional owners of the land.  I asked the President of the University about it and he said that the traditional owners had all been killed by violence or disease and there were no descendents in the area.

Fairhaven University
The university is situated in the town of Fairfield, about two hours from New York by Amtrak.  Run by the Jesuits, it is a very modern university with new buildings in an idyllic situation on 200 acres.  One day we saw a deer from the dining room and someone else spoke about their encounter with a skunk.

Our rooms were Spartan, but adequate.  The chapel was a masterpiece of architecture and design.  Around the exterior are a series lead light windows telling the life of Ignatius of Loyola from his baptism to his death. 

The front of the chapel is gold coloured.  It was like a mosaic of gold Easter egg wrappers giving an interesting textured look.  The crucifix was a statue of the resurrected Jesus, one arm reaching out and the other pointing upwards as the burial wrappings fell away.  It is powerful and dynamic.

A team of students in red T-shirts were there to help us in every way – registration, where to get our washing done, helping us connect our computers to the wifi, driving a fleet of golf carts for those of us with mobility problems, printing papers etc etc etc.  They were endlessly helpful, always cheerful and made the conference run very smoothly.

The food was abundant and delicious.  My only quibble was with breakfast.  I craved muesli and yogurt.

Prayer life
The conference began with an opening liturgy at which we were welcomed by the University’s President, Rev Jeffrey von Arx SJ.  Messages of support were read from Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Kurt Koch, the President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, Olav Fykse Tveit, the Secretary General of the World Council of Churches and Frank Caggiano, the local Catholic bishop.  We were also welcomed by Cass Shaw, a Presbyterian minister who is President and CEO at the Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport.

Cass put our deliberations into context by telling us that Bridgeport has the greatest wealth disparity in the US.  Schools are funded by local income taxes, so a desperately poor area has severely under resourced schools.  62% of students don’t graduate from high school.  The churches in the area are very active in trying to promote justice and equity, but it is a thankless task.  It is one step forward and two steps back.

Frank Griswold who has retired from his role as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal church was the preacher.  We were then invited to renew our baptismal promises and to come forward and bless ourselves with baptismal water.

Cass led our morning prayer each day using a liturgy from the Iona Community.  This was at 7.30am.  With Jeff and me both feeling poorly, our attendance rate was not good.  I went once and Jeff went twice. 

There was Eucharist each day.  On the first day the presider was Elizabeth Welch from the United Reformed Church in the United Kingdom and the preacher was Timothy Lim, a Baptist (we’re pretty sure) from Singapore.  We had communion in the pews which was awkward and clumsy.  On the second night we had a most elegant Eucharist with Agkokhianmeghe Orobator SJ as presider and a Finnish Pentecostal preacher, Veli-Matti Karkkainen.  The third Eucharist was just after our closing panel on Thursday morning.  Karen  Westerfield Tucker presided, using a Methodist Covenant service and Tony Currer preached the sermon.  This was a really great service to use to round off the conference – except that it was long and we all had to get away to catch planes, trains and automobiles. 

In keeping with the theme of the conference, there were plenaries that focused on receptive ecumenism in a variety of contexts. 

Plenary 1
I missed this one because I was too sick to attend.  But Jeff says that David Moxon had recently helped to organize a meeting between Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Francis.  The Archbishop, as a throw away line said ‘We should do something about modern day slavery.’  Pope Francis agreed and this has now become a major campaign within the two churches called ‘Walk Free.’  The Australian, Andrew Forrest, has contributed substantial funding.  David Moxon challenged faith leaders to inspect the supply chains of products for their churches.

Geraldine Hawkes from the South Australian Council of Churches described the difficulties of the Council at the time that she was appointed.  She changed the imagery of ecumenism from seasons to a cake.   People said that ecumenism was like a pancake.   What cake would people like it to be?  Many groups said, ‘A wedding cake.’  Then they spent time in prayer and discernment, nurturing relationships and learning together.  From 2009 receptive ecumenism was introduced as a process and in 2012 Paul Murray was invited to Australia and spent a week in Adelaide.

John Gibaut outlined some of the positives and challenges for receptive ecumenism.  For example the joint working group between the Catholics and the World Council of Churches is working well.  There is a stronger sense of mutual accountability and mutual vulnerability.  He asked whether the receptive ecumenism movement can lead to the reception of dialogical documents.

Lastly Tony Currer spoke.  He said that the Pontifical Commission for Promoting Christian Unity has worked with receptive ecumenism from the start.  He said that ecumenism is not an optional extra to being a Christian.  ‘We’ve got the same problems as they have.’  It becomes an ecumenism of wounded hands.

Plenary 2 was on the North American Context: the Work of the Canadian Anglican-Catholic Dialogue.  ARCIC has done wonderful work, but sometimes it seems that its work is in the stratosphere and that most people do not know what is happening there.  One example was the Agreed Statement, Mary, Grace and Hope in Christ.  For the Anglicans, there were three doctrines that were a real stumbling block – the immaculate conception, the perpetual virginity of Mary and her bodily assumption.  All the same, they continued to work hard at an agreed statement.  It was especially hurtful to the Anglican members of the dialogue team who came from an evangelical perspective when their work was dismissed with facile criticisms by people who had not even read it.  It was noted that no universities or theological colleges in the USA teach ARCIC or BEM.  Denis Edwards, an Australian Catholic theologian said that dialogue in Australia is very difficult since reception of ARCIC documents within certain Anglican circles cannot be assumed.

Plenary 3 dealt with Receptive Ecumenism and the Local Church: A UK Regional Research Project.  The north east of England has been economically depressed for the past 40 years.  A five year research project was undertaken that included nine participating Christian groups or denominations at the beginning, but not all have stayed.  The project included insights from social scientists as well.  The presenters were very clear that they were not producing a blueprint which could be replicated elsewhere. 

They found that Christians were alarmingly ignorant about each others’ churches.  All meetings were structured as opportunities for learning.  Any conclusions about what one church could learn from another were tested against that church’s context based on the concept of dynamic integrity.  Each church is striving to become more of who they are.  Hence they sensitively ask and test what they can gain from another church which they might have lost.

The project found that in all churches there was an overall decline in ordained ministers and laity.  There was a need to facilitate an active laity.  There was an increasing age profile of ministers and members and an increased rationalization of worship centres.

I found further information about this on the web for those who would like to follow up.

Plenary 4 was about Receptive Ecumenism in a Latin American Context: Catholic and Pentecostal Learning in Relation to Mariology.  Pentecostalism in Latin America is growing apace, Catholicism is slowly declining, but the biggest increase is in people who say that they have no religion.

But the dividing line between Pentecostals and Catholicism is not hard and fast.  A person may very well attend a three hour Pentecostal service on Sunday, waving their arms their arms in the air the whole time.  Then on Monday if someone is sick or in some other need, they pray instinctively to the Virgin.  There was some discussion about the ways in which the cult of Mary contributes to the oppression of women.  The members of the panel were all men and they seemed mystified by the question.  A few of us could have given them some pointers, but it didn’t seem appropriate.

Plenary 5 was on the African context.  Jeff and I were both too sick to attend, but by all accounts it was riveting.  Bother.  Joyce Kazuri-Makumi was invited to repeat her talk for the parallel session (see below).  I could easily have listened to it twice.

Plenary 6 dealt with the Asian perspective.  Receptive ecumenism has not gained currency in Asia because Asians are so used to listening and receiving since colonial times.  Hence, the emphasis is more on mission.  The Catholic Bishops Conference found that they could only make progress if there was a triple dialogue – with the poor, with other religions and with other cultures.  Except for a couple of countries – Korea, the Philippines and East Timor – Christians are in a small minority in their countries and most are among the poor and oppressed.  One speaker emphasized the importance of showing compassion to the poor, because churches must show that Christ brings something special to being human.

The triple dialogue means that the church must be open to being changed.  Even though Christians are a small percentage of the population, they provide 25% of education and health care facilities.  Christians need to participate in liberation as co-pilgrims instead of hosts.  Ecumenism is exercised in coming together for the triple dialogue.

The Japanese speaker, Renta Nishihara, introduced us to the concept of the church as a birds nest.  It is made up of many bits and pieces.  It may have gaps, but it stands strong and it provides new life.

We were especially impressed with Septemmy Lakawa who is Dean of Postgraduate Studies at the Djakarta Theological Seminary.  She talked mostly about Indonesian history.  She described two qualities of ecumenism – it is prophetic and transformative.  Hallelujah, sister!!!  It needs to be led by passionate people for the benefit of the poor and the environment.  She invited us to re-imagine oneness as togetherness.

Plenary 7
Francis Clooney SJ was the sole speaker for this plenary.  His topic was ‘Receptive ecumenism, inter-religious dialogue and comparative theology: reciprocity and challenges.’  We need to allow our own faith to be challenged by the truths of another faith.  This requires patient contemplation of the texts of another faith.  There is a Hindu phrase.  One can spend hours contemplating each word and the structure of the phrase.  He had four suggestions. 1) the centrality of textual engagement 2) professionals be really engaged in this work 3) the importance of communal living 4) facing up to the reality of how each faith may have wounded the other and being prepared to repent.

Plenary 8
This was on the last morning.  It was a large panel of six who were responding to the conference and highlighting what were for them significant features of it.  This was introduced by Paul Murray.  He highlighted the risk that receptive ecumenism might lose its distinctive contribution if it becomes all things to all people.  It is more than just a new fancy name for anything ecumenical.  It is an ecclesiological project focused on reform in such areas as decision making and it involves serious testing.  The objectives of the last panel were to answer three questions: 1) where has the light gone on?  2) what do we want to challenge?  3) where to from here?

Elizabeth Welch from the United Reformed Church in the UK was outstanding.  She had some key points to make -  the importance of receiving across the breadth of local contexts and the importance of integrating heart and head.  She encouraged us to hold what gives us life in common amidst the difficulties.  She also encouraged the study of the Holy Spirit allowing us to be changed.

Cass Shaw quoted Leonard Cohen’s song ‘Anthem.’  ‘There is a crack in everything.  That’s where the light gets in.’  She took an incarnational approach as expressed in openness and hospitality.  We need to be bread for the journey for one another.  Don’t just lecture, collaborate with poets, musicians, religious educators and technology geeks.

Parallel Session
This is another name for electives and there were three sessions.  Interchurch families was the topic for two of these.

Parallel session 1
The first of these was chaired by Thomas Knieps-Port le Roi who is the Chair for the Study of Marriage and Spirituality, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, KU Leuven in Belgium.  He is the editor of INTAMS, a magazine for marital spirituality.  He is himself in an interchurch marriage.  He was perfectly charming and very pleased to meet us.

The first speaker was our friend Ray Temmerman.  He is a Catholic and his wife Fenella is an Anglican.  The topic of his talk was ‘Interchurch Families in the Vanguard of Changing ecumenical Discourse’.  Interchurch families focus not only on what has been or is but on what should be.  Marriage creates a new situation of unity.  We are sign and sacrament of that yet to be realized unity.  Benedict XVI described interchurch families as a practical laboratory of Christian unity.  Ray said that there needs to be a dialectic between that laboratory and the wider church.

Ray and Fenella never intended to be that laboratory.  They simply fell in love.  From interchurch families churches can learn to receive and love the other ‘as that church is.’  This gives the power to grow.

The second speaker was Joyce Kazuri-Makumi from Kenya, a Pentecostal who is married to David who is Catholic.  They are both nurses.  They also come from different ethnic and language groups.  In Africa it is expected that the wife will take on the faith of the husband, but a charismatic priest who conducted their wedding said that this was not necessary.  Baptism was another factor.  Joyce was baptized as an infant in the Methodist church and later baptized by immersion in the Pentecostal church.  This latter baptism is known as ‘baptism in many waters.’  If Joyce had become Catholic, she would have needed to be baptized a third time which she felt was unnecessary.

This has created some tension for Joyce with her in-laws who wonder if she loves them.  They have also faced difficulties due to infertility.  The Catholic church does not allow assisted reproduction, so this option was not open to them.  As a childless African woman, Joyce is regarded as having no value.  She said a couple of times that David has protected her.

One interesting aspect was that of Bible studies.  In the Catholic Bible studies, women, men and children learn together.  In the Pentecostal church there are separate groups.  This means that Joyce can attend Catholic Bible studies with David, but they are separated at the Pentecostal studies.

We were the third speakers and our topic was ‘The Red Dust Meets the Bitumen – an Experience of Interchurch Family Life in Australia.’

Parallel session 2
For the second parallel session we decided to stick with the topic of interchurch families.  This session was chaired by Ray and the first speaker was Thomas Knieps.  He is Catholic and his wife Annette is Reformed.   His presentation focused on a document produced in Rome in 2003 at a gathering of interchurch families called ‘Interchurch families and Christian Unity.’

This document says that it is how the differences are managed that is important, not the differences themselves.  It is important for partners to improve knowledge and to gain understanding of and respect for the other and his or her religious affiliation.  This means overcoming ‘cognitive egocentrism’ and to assume the other church’s perspective.

Then Mary Marrocco, a marriage counsellor, spoke about her work in emotion focused therapy.  The person is not the problem.  The problem is the problem.    Her desire is to heal the core wound.  People need to experience their emotions and not suppress them.  Forgiveness is the key.  Sometimes even the change of getting out of hell can be too challenging.  But the story of the gospel is a love story of God pitching a tent among us and drawing us to Godself.

The final speakers, Rebecca and Anthony Spellacy, are a young couple in a Catholic/Anglican marriage.  Their talk was entitled ‘Divided we Stand: How “Mixed Marriages” can teach ecumenism.’  They are a couple who take liturgy seriously and spend long periods discussing the differences between liturgy in their churches.  They were articulate and thought provoking.

Parallel session 3
When it was time for the third parallel session, I chose one at random.  So many of them looked interesting.  A young man read something that appeared to be a journal article, full of technical language and references to obscure writers.  He read for a full twenty minutes without looking up or engaging his audience.  I was bored stiff and went to have a second cup of coffee rather than stay for the rest of the session.  I can’t remember his name, but even if I could my lips would be sealed to protect the guilty.

After dinner speaker
John O’Brien, an Irish Spiritan priest, was the after dinner speaker on the last evening.  He has spent the last umpteen years in Pakistan, working among Indian Hindu bonded labourers whom he described as serfs.  He has especially spent time with women who are especially oppressed.  They are non-Muslim.  They are considered even worse than Christians who at least have a book.  They are poor and they are Dravidian (dark skinned).  They are the first to get up in the morning and the last to go to bed.  Most of them are seriously anaemic which makes pregnancy very dangerous.  Some of the women made a banner of Peter sinking as he tries walking on the water towards Jesus.  This was a gift for the Center for Catholic studies.

The Hindus invite John to pray with them in the name of Jesus.  They understand that their prayer will go through Jesus to their own deity.  John found a translation of the Lord’s Prayer in their language which he put to music and learned for a month.  When he next visited, he sang this to them, only to find it was not their language.  Not to be deterred, he found the right language and sang it with them, over and over, on his next visit.

When he returned, they had forgotten it completely.  Finally, a young person remembered the line – “give us this day our daily bread.”  John said that he thought he was going to teach, but he was going to learn.  When he visits, he stays with them and eats with them, including the women.  The meal becomes a small e “eucharist.”

John paid tribute to the mainly Protestant linguists who work so hard to translate the Bible into minority languages.

Final thoughts
At times I felt as if I had accidentally strayed into the big kids’ yard.  I felt out of my depth.  But at all times I felt incredibly privileged to have been part of this conference.  I felt blessed and overflowing.

Margie Dahl



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