Monday, July 12, 2021

Matthew A. Laferty: Dialogue as a Tool for Unity and Mission

Today's post is by Rev. Matthew A. Laferty. Rev. Laferty an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church and director of the Methodist Ecumenical Office Rome.

The Feast of Peter and Paul on June 29th is a major affair here in Rome. Both Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome, and their tombs remain to this day important pilgrimage sites. Many representations and icons of the two saints exist, but the Eastern Orthodox icon of Peter and Paul meeting and holding each other in embrace remains for me the most powerful. In Rome this icon of the two saints in embrace is an important symbol for the ecumenical movement and holds a prominent place of viewing in the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Vatican’s ecumenical department. The icon reflects the deep longing and love for one another and the reconciliation with God and each other found through Christ; it too remains us that as contemporary followers of Jesus Christ that each of us embodies both elements of Peter and Paul in our lives.

For me this icon engenders our journeys in Christ and the point where the unity of the church meets the mission of the church. In recalling Jesus’ prayer from John 17, the Rev. Dr. Kyle Tau, former ecumenical staff officer at the Council of Bishops, remains us in his blog post on this website of the clear linkage between unity and mission, concluding that, “mission is the beginning and true end of ecumenism.” The church cannot separate mission and unity as if they are two unrelated activities; rather, unity and mission, like Peter and Paul, are intrinsically linked at the heart of our ecclesiology.

Yet, mission and unity too often are severed from one another. Instead of close embrace, unity and mission are broken apart and only gaze at each other from a distance. Equally as disturbing is our impulse to privilege mission over unity as if the unity of the church is a secondary calling to mission in the world; it cultivates a situation where missionary zeal demands theological purity which, in turn, diminishes or entirely negates the call for Christian unity. Methodists are often plagued by both approaches.

It then begs the question – what tools are necessary and fundamental to draw together the mission of the church and unity of the church into loving embrace like Peter and Paul? How do we bridge the division between Christians so that “mission is the beginning and true end of ecumenism”?

In this journey, dialogue remains a relevant instrument in the quest for the full and visible unity of the church and necessary to manifest the greatest expression of the mission of the church.

I am hesitant to strictly define dialogue because many theological/philosophical understandings and typologies exist. In its broadest sense, dialogue is a conversation between two or more people which is characterized by the exchange of ideas or opinions.

In the church, dialogue is often marked by encountering one another to gain greater understanding of our own Christian faith and the Christian faith of others, dispel myths or misperceptions, mutually recognize of a common baptism and faith in Jesus Christ, and grow together in God. Dialogue is formal and informal, local and global, and short and long. Dialogue is contextual and has different points of departure.

For church leaders, dialogue can be viewed within a formal context which seeks to bring one church into dialogue with another church for the purpose of full communion and interchangeability of clergy. Such dialogues for The United Methodist Church have been conducted with the Moravian Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Roman Catholic Church (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), and The Episcopal Church. These formal dialogues also take place between world communions (association of churches with a shared theological heritage and mission like the World Methodist Council or the Lutheran World Federation).

An example of international dialogue is the Methodist-Roman Catholic International Commission, a special theological dialogue between the World Methodist Council and the Roman Catholic Church. The international Methodist-Roman Catholic dialogue celebrates 55 years of continuous dialogue in 2022, working for “a vision that includes the goal of full communion in faith, mission and sacramental life” (§20, The Nairobi Report, 1986). For the international dialogue (and in my opinion, every Christian dialogue), unity and mission are intertwined; we dialogue so we may be in unity and mission together.

I do caution that dialogue should not be viewed strictly as a project of the elite nor within a formal framework. While church-to-church (or denomination-to-denomination) and international dialogues are critical, dialogue should find a home in local congregations, not as formal theological dialogues but rather informal dialogues with siblings from different Christian churches which focus on faith practices, encounter, friendship, and mutual discernment. Local dialogue should give attention to the gifts of each local congregation and what can be shared with one another. Local dialogue can be shaped in learning-settings in small groups or shared action or mission projects in a community. Sometimes it is easier to bring together different Christian congregations through service to the community, thereby building friendship and trust. For local dialogue, encounter is key.

We cannot expect dialogue on its own to resolve all differences or heal all wounds. But dialogue opens Christians to one another, so the Holy Spirit may draw the unity of the church and the mission of the church into loving embrace.

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