Growing Together in Unity and Mission

Bilateral dialogues are ongoing meetings between two partners seeking mutual understanding, finding common ground, and working for unity. In ecumenical conversations, the goal is full communion — and eventually the restoration of the full visible unity of the Church. From March 8-10, clergy and laity from the Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches met at St. Paul’s College in Washington, DC for the 62nd meeting of the Anglican – Roman Catholic Theological Consultation in the USA. This conversatioin has been going on for over 30 years!

We prayed Morning and Evening Prayer together everday, alternating between the Book of Common Prayer and Shorter Christian Prayer (a Catholic daily devotional). Each day we also celebrated the Eucharist. That is both joyful and painful. Because Roman Catholic discipline does not permit Eucharistic sharing until full agreement has been reached on matters of faith, order, and polity, we are unable to receive holy communion together. So, at the Episcopal Eucharist, Roman Catholics come forward for a blessing rather than receiving the sacrament. At Catholic Mass, Episcopalians do the same.

I have often wondered about the wisdom of this. Perhaps we should just pray the Daily Office together and let it go at that. But, over time, I have come to see that participating in “real but imperfect” communion in this way allows us to bear the pain of separation and renews our energy for the long journey forward.

It is excruciating, for example, to have the Roman Catholic celebrant hold up the consecrated Bread and Wine and say (as, of course, he would at any Mass) “Happy are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And to know that we are not!  Equally painful for me to hold up those same sacramental signs and say, “The Gifts of God for the People of God” and know that the Roman Catholics will receive those gifts from me.

Yet, it is for that reason that we press on. At this meeting we shared news of our two churches, listened to and discussed two papers on “Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ” published by the Anglican – Roman Catholic International Commission. We reviewed the first draft of a pastoral guide for Spanish-speaking Christians, which attempts to make clear both the similarities and differences between the Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches for new Latino immigrants who may find the terms “catholic” and “episcopal” confusing.

We discussed “Growing Together in Unity and Mission” which will soon be published for use by clergy conferences, seminaries, and local congregations. This international document summarizes, in very accessible fashion, the progress made in over 40 years of Anglican – Roman Catholic dialogue, clearly articulates where we still disagree and new stumbling blocks which have arisen, and yet suggests very specific ways in which the two churches can engage in mission and ministry together even now.    

In the words of this new document,”Because we hope in the bountiful grace of God, we are encouraged to persevere, and to face the difficulties of growing together. We give glory to God, ‘whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine; glory be to him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. (Ephesians 3:20-21)'”

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