Posts Tagged ‘Canadian Council of Churches

17
Aug
12

Remembering Margaret O’Gara

I was saddened to hear that Professor Margaret O’Gara passed away yesterday after a two year battle with cancer.  Margaret was a long-serving professor of theology at St. Michael’s College, with a distinguished record of research, publication, teaching, and service to the church. She will be remembered by many, including myself, as a great theological mentor.

When I began my doctoral studies in September of 2007, I found out that Margaret was on my supervisory committee.  My committee met without her, however, and I didn’t actually come into contact with her until I enrolled in her class “Breakthroughs and Barriers in Ecumenical Dialogue” in January of 2008.   I was somewhat unsure if I should take the class.  The course description looked good, and I was already convinced of the importance of doing theology ecumenically.  But I suppose I carried with me some of that typical evangelical reticence towards ecumenism.  One evangelical colleague even advised me that I should not take the course.  However, I was very glad that I did, because the course material, along with Margaret’s own teaching, played a significant role in shaping the direction of my dissertation.  In fact, I appreciated the course so much that I signed up for another in September of that year, “Ecumenical Dialogue on Authority.”

I was raised in a tradition that has a very strong sense of denominational identity.  Even more than that, The Salvation Army claims to have a distinctive mission within the broader Christian church.  I believe to this day that The Salvation Army does have a special vocation within the church, but I have pushed back against some of the ways that this has been explained and conceived in Salvationist thinking.  I think that Salvationist identity sometimes morphs itself into a prideful triumphalism, wherein The Salvation Army is seen as something “other than” or “more than” the church.  For this reason, I had, before studying ecumenical dialogue, begun to see all claims to a unique denominational identity and mission as problematic and divisive.

Margaret’s approach to ecumenical dialogue was to conceive of it as a “gift exchange.”  This idea was not unique to her – she drew it out of magisterial sources in her own Catholic tradition –  but she was able to express it in a way that brought helpful conceptual clarity to the process of ecumenical dialogue.  She literally wrote the book on the subject (see The Ecumenical Gift Exchange).  Her expertise on ecumenical dialogue was developed out of decades of participation in national and international bilateral dialogues, which included work with Lutherans, Anglicans, Mennonites, the Disciples of Christ, and evangelicals.

When we began the class, she introduced the idea of the gift exchange, and asked us to introduce ourselves by sharing a) one gift which our church tradition could share with others and b) one gift we would like to receive from another tradition.  I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember that both courses I took from Margaret were living examples of this exchange of gifts, as the students, drawn from a variety of church traditions, not only shared from the gifts of our own traditions, but studied the various gift exchanges that have taken place through the ecumenical dialogues of the past fifty years.

The idea of “gifts” found within different traditions is, ultimately, what led me to my dissertation topic of ecclesial charisms, though my argument proceeds along quite different grounds from Margaret’s conceptualization of the process of ecumenical dialogue.  I am looking at a more specific question about a particular kind of gifts (charisms) and how these might expressed corporately in ecclesial bodies of various kinds.  The specific idea of using the language of “charisms” in this regard comes not from the ecumenical dialogues we studied in those classes (though it is occasionally treated there), but rather from the Catholic theology of religious life (religious orders and societies in the church), which I am applying more generally and ecumenically to “movements” in the church.   Indeed, part of my argument is that the language of “charisms” should not be applied across the board to all of the various “gifts” found in our traditions (and shared in ecumenical relationships), but more specifically to personal gifts of grace which carry a vocational obligation.

Nevertheless, in spite of the differences, my dissertation on ecclesial charisms may not have existed if not for Margaret’s work on the gift exchange of ecumenical dialogue.  Not only that, but Margaret also provided a great deal of personal guidance and encouragement for the project.  She helped me work through the ideas as I was conceiving the topic, and also played a pivotal role in shaping my comprehensive exams, which formed the background for my work.  For example, it was Margaret who suggested that my second comprehensive exam should be on reform movements before the reformation – an idea I never would have thought of, but which gave me a wonderful historical perspective on various movements of reform and renewal, and how they  related to the established church.

I suppose, if it wasn’t for Margaret, I also might not have applied to work with the Commission on Faith and Witness at the Canadian Council of Churches.  I worked there throughout 2010 and 2011, and was able to experience the joys and frustrations of ecumenical dialogue for myself.  This only confirmed much of what I had already learned from Margaret in the classroom.  One of the highlights of my two years there was a three-person panel I helped organize for the November 2010 Governing Board meetings, entitled “Ecumenical Dialogue as a Gift Exchange.”  Margaret was one of the presenters.

There is much more that could be said, and I am sure that others, who knew Margaret much better than I did, will offer fitting tributes to her life and work.  I am just one of the many people she influenced.  I am truly thankful that, through God’s providence, I was able to benefit from Margaret’s wonderful gifts as a theologian.

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04
Mar
11

Doctrine in The Salvation Army Tradition

From 2007 to 2010, the Commission on Faith and Witness (Canadian Council of Churches) engaged its members in a dialogue regarding the role of doctrine in the life of the church.   The fruits of this dialogue are reported in the current issue of Ecumenism, published by the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism in Montreal.  Each commission member was asked to articulate their tradition’s answer to the following questions:

  1. What is dogma or doctrine in your tradition?
  2. What are considered to be doctrinal statements?
  3. Who can make doctrinal statements?
  4. What is the relation between doctrine and revelation?
  5. How does your tradition view the first seven ecumenical councils?
  6. How does your tradition understand the reliability of Scripture?
  7. What are those shared convictions without which the Church’s mission would be seriously impaired, or even become.

While ecumenical dialogues often aim at producing some sort of consensus statement, members reported that during this particular dialogue, it became clear at the outset that no consensus would be achieved.  The membership of the commission is very broad, including Catholics, Orthodox, historic Protestants, radical reformation, and evangelical traditions.  Some of these traditions are committed to holding fast to formal statements of  belief (creeds and confessions), while others have historically been opposed to creeds of any kind.

In an introductory article, Gilles Mongeau, Paul Ladouceur, and Arnold Neufeldt-Fast note the general commonalities that they identified in the process:

Every member Church holds to the necessity of some doctrine, explicit or implicit, as a reference point.   In all cases, one or more documents exist which lay out this doctrine, though the authority and form of these documents varies greatly. In all cases, Scripture, tradition, reason, and religious experience interact in some way in the emergence of doctrine.  Similarly, the role of some form of reception by the community of the faithful is a strong component of all of the traditions represented.  Finally, the presenters of the papers agree that the fullness of truth resides in God alone, and that the truth of doctrines is eschatological, that is, oriented to a future complete fulfillment or plenitude.
“Introduction to the Working Papers on Doctrine,” Ecumenism 179-180 (Fall/Winter 2010): 5-6.

While I wasn’t part of the actual discussion, I was able to participate by revising and expanding the Salvation Army contribution to this publication, originally written by Kester Trim, and entitled “Doctrine in the Salvation Army Tradition.”   It is interesting to consider doctrine in the SA’s life via a comparison with the role it plays in the life of other traditions.   Some of our observations that are relevant to the above:

The Salvation Army is not known for placing a particular emphasis on doctrine.  This is not because doctrine is unimportant for Salvationists, but because The Salvation Army has customarily emphasized evangelism and service, rather than theological scholarship.  Nevertheless, The Salvation Army’s official doctrines are viewed as essential to its corporate life and witness.
“Doctrine in the Salvation Army Tradition,” Ecumenism 179-180 (Fall/Winter 2010): 36.

The Army is an interesting ecumenical partner in this dialogue, as it is on many issues, because it treats doctrine as essential, but tries to avoid doctrinal controversy.  It wants its doctrine to be clear, but Salvationists haven’t wanted to spend much time developing their doctrinal tradition.  It envisioned its brief 11 articles as a minimalist list of essentials, which would allow the SA to be “an evangelisitic force free from the entanglements of doctrinal controversy” (Ibid., 37).

Of course, it is not easy to remain aloof from doctrinal controversy!  First of all, the Army’s doctrines are clearly Wesleyan, and therefore anti-Calvinist:

In these brief 11 articles of faith, one can see the seminal Wesleyan themes of total depravity (Article 5), universal atonement (Article 6), justification by faith (Article 8), assurance through the witness of the Spirit (Article 8), and a strong emphasis on sanctification (Articles 9 and 10) (Ibid., 37).

Secondly, from the perspective of “implicit doctrine,” the obvious point of controversy would be the sacraments.  Even here, a large part of Booth’s motivation was to avoid controversy.

The Army’s non-observant stance on the sacraments had its historical precedent in the tradition of the Society of Friends, but was also justified in part by the above-mentioned desire to avoid theological controversy (since the sacraments have often been a matter of theological dispute in Christian history).  It was not Booth’s intent to disrespect the practice of other traditions, nor to make it a matter of dispute. Moreover, Salvationists have never been prohibited from from partaking of the Lord’s Supper in other traditions where they are welcome, and are free to be baptized if they feel it to be of importance (Ibid., 37-38).

Avoiding controversy is a noble aim, but very difficult to achieve in practice.  I would suggest that recent sacramental statements of the Army have lost this early irenic tone and approach, and have become much more controversial than Booth would have liked.  Also, I think one needs to be careful that a desire to be non-controversial does not become a justification for avoiding deep theological discussion, and meaningful engagement with ecumenical partners.

24
Jan
11

What is God’s Plan for Ecumenism?

That was the title of the episode of Perspectives: The Weekly Edition, which aired Firday night on Salt + Light TV.  Host Pedro Guevera Mann invited some representatives of the Canadian Council of Churches’ Commission on Faith & Witness to discuss the topic, and I was privileged to be interviewed along with my colleagues Dr. Mary Marrocco, and the Rev. Dr. Gilles Mongeau, SJ.

It is a huge topic, and we didn’t have nearly enough time, but it is wonderful that Salt + Light TV is showing an interest in ecumenism and trying to generate some discussion among their largely Catholic audience.

There isn’t an overwhelming interest in ecumenism on the grassroots level these days.  It was interesting to hear about why this is the case in Catholic circles.   In spite of clear teaching from Vatican II and subsequent magisterial documents like John Paul II’s Ut Unum Sint, many Catholics are still under the impression that ecumenism means bringing protestants “back to Rome.”    On the protestant side it would seem as if Christians are becoming more “ecumenical” in that denominational differences are no longer as signficant as they used to be.  Many people don’t really care at all about what denomination they belong to, as long as they feel at home in their local congregation.  But I think that it is precisely this dismissal of the significance of denominational differences that can undermine serious discussion about Christian unity.  If our differences don’t matter at all, then there is no reason to try to overcome them!

Still, the current situation is preferable to the hostilities of past generations.  And even if there is not an overwhelming interest in “official ecumenism” via bodies like the Canadian Council of Churches, there is, it seems to me, a lot of interest in “informal ecumenism,” as seen in some current trends in worship and spirituality (such as the growing interest in spiritual direction among evangelicals).

Salt + Light decided to do a show on ecumenism because this is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which runs from January 18 to 25 each year.   This year, the week of prayer is focused on the church in Jerusalem, and the resources for the week (which can be found here) were prepared by Chrisitans from Jerusalem.   The theme is “One in the Apostles’ Teaching,” taken from Acts 2:42.

I’ll leave you with my favourite prayer from this year’s Week of Prayer service:

Merciful God,
may your life-giving Spirit
move in every human heart,
that the barriers that divide us may crumble,
suspicions disappear,
and hatreds cease,
and that, with divisions healed,
your people might live in justice and peace.
We pray to the Lord.





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