The Association of Interfaith Families had its first congress in Geneva, Switzerland, during the summer of 1998. I had the good fortune of being there with Fr. George Kilcourse and the group from the United States. Other groups came from Canada, Europe and as far as Australia. One of the special moments for us was the Eucharist celebrated by those in full communion with the Reformed Church at the church of St. Peter in the center of old Geneva which was the ancient cathedral and the place where John Calvin gave his lectures and sermons. He was one of the outstanding theologians of the Protestant movement in the sixteenth century. Calvin gave a systematic presentation to the Reformed tradition in his Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536. Reformed, Presbyterian and Congregational churches belong to the World Alliance of ReformedChurches (WARC) and the tradition of John Calvin.
Beginning with the End
While preparing for this series of updates on the international dialogues of the Catholic Church with other Churches and Ecclesial Communities, I have found it useful to begin with the latest document issued by such dialogues. Usually they contain a record of previous agreed statements and update them with the consensus emerging through the dialogue process. The title of the latest Catholic/Reformed document is The Church as Community of Common Witness to the Kingdom of God. It concludes the third phase (1998-2005) of the international dialogue between the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity of the Catholic Church. The first phase (1970-1977) ended with the publication of The Presence of Christ in Church and World. The second phase (1984-1990) published Towards a common understanding of the Church.
What authority do such agreed statements have? They are the work of the joint commissions authorized by their respective churches to discuss points of doctrine and theology that are considered critical to eventual full communion of the churches. Their agreed statements are reviewed by the Churches and are accepted according to the criteria for such decisions by each of the churches and contribute to the realization of the prayer of Jesus, “that they may be one, as we are one, so that the world may believe that you sent me” (Jn 17: 20ff)).
The Common Witness to the Kingdom of God
When WARC and PCPCU began their dialogue, they believed that three issues were critical for promoting Christian unity: christology, ecclesiology and the attitude of Christians in the world. The Community of the Common Witness begins where the second phase left off and probes deeply into the attitude which Christians should adopt toward the world.
Beginning with a scriptural analysis and exegesis of the concept of the kingdom of God, the dialogue develops a rich theological and biblical concept that can be very helpful in clarifying the theological, ethical, and Christian attitude to the world today. Two documents of Vatican II are especially relevant in this context, namely, the document the nature and mission of the Church (Lumen Gentium) and the document on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). The World Council of Churches and the WARC issued similar statements which were helpful to the dialogue.
Scripture and Tradition are very important to Reformed theology. Rather than seeing the truth as something static to be passed on, these churches see truth as something to be discovered and rediscovered with the passing of time. New historic events, discoveries and experiences give greater light to the plan of God for humanity and all creation. The Second Vatican Council urges Catholics to “study the signs of the times” and to be open to the creative Spirit, the power of God “to make all things new”(Rv 21:5).
The document recalls that the kingdom of God will reach its perfection in the eschaton, when Christ comes again and offers himself and “his kingdom” to the Father for eternal praise and glory. The kingdom of God is in our midst and within us, but it will produce its richest fruit in the parousia, when Christ comes in glory. Yet the world must be transformed by the gospel of the kingdom in each and every age. This transformation reveals the kingdom of God which continues to be realized by God’s grace and his gift to the church.
The dialogue partners believe that a common witness to the kingdom of God is best reflected in case studies. Seen with the eyes of faith and with the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit, the lived experience of Christians working together to resolve problematic and difficult divisions reveals how the effort to receive the kingdom of God “in our midst” is a fruitful methodology and an ecumenical experience worth replicating in other situations requiring a Christian attitude and effort.
The case studies presented in this document are the conflict between the rights of Native (Aboriginal) Americans in Canada and the Canadian government, the apartheid scandal in South Africa, and the troubling situation in Northern Ireland, where the rights of the Catholic minority were unfairly suppressed by the Protestant majority, leading to acts of terrorism and insecurity for all. In all of these cases, Catholics and Reformed churches worked together to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom for the resolution of seemingly intractable situations of conflict. In doing so a community witness to the kingdom was achieved. The document stresses discerning God’s will in the service of the kingdom, the value of dialogue in such discernment and the opportunity for faith in action (orthodoxy and orthopraxis) which they provide.
The dialogue concludes, “A new century and a new millennium encourage us to distance ourselves even further from our conflicts and the past and to face the future with uncompromising commitment to continuing reconciliation.”
Forty-four years of dialogue have borne an abundant harvest of faith and insight. Mutual respect and appreciation of common heritage and differences reveal the Holy Spirit gifting Christians in different communions for the final day when Jesus comes again. For those who have read many ecumenical documents, this one is of special value and significance. It shows the path to be taken; not the path of compromise of principle, but the way of Christ, dominated by God’s grace and providence, able to reach out to the stray and pardon the sinful. Thy kingdom come is not an idle plea or prayer, it is a hopeful and faith-filled openness to God’s will and his kingdom so that all may praise God’s name and give him glory and thanksgiving for his goodness and mercy.