Harvesting the Fruits of Dialogue in Canada | One Body
Friday, March 31, 2023
Catholic members of Canadian bilateral dialogues gathered June 26 to 28, 2019 in Châteauguay, Québec.
Dialogues in Canada: Surveying the Fruits
by Nicholas Jesson
I was recently asked how we know if a dialogue is successful. Even in the church, there is a temptation to assess projects and ministries by worldly standards. How much did it cost? How many people attended? How many people watched the video? These practical concerns should be considered, but other questions might be more critical. Did the experience transform people? Did this deepen or strengthen relationships between people or between the churches? What were the fruits of this project? What is the Spirit saying to the churches?The Catholic Church in Canada is engaged in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue in numerous places across the country. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has eight ongoing bilateral dialogues with other Christian churches and three with other faith communities. Our partners are also in dialogue with one another, with at least five other formal dialogues underway. Some dioceses also have regional dialogues, conversations, study programs, and other forms of theological engagement with their neighbours. In multilateral relations, there are councils of churches, ministerial associations, and theological consortia.Across the ecclesial landscape, there are many opportunities for ecumenical and interfaith encounter, whether you are clergy or lay, catechist or catechumen, youth or youth minister, theologian or student, or just interested. As Pope St. John Paul II reminded us, the promotion of Christian unity is the responsibility of every member of the church as part of the baptismal call of the one people of God. (Ut Unum Sint#6, 42, 66)
United Church of Canada
Some years ago, when I served on the Roman Catholic-United Church of Canada dialogue, we were reflecting on the 40th anniversary of the dialogue. Someone asked about the dialogue’s accomplishments, and another half-seriously responded that the greatest achievement is that we are still talking. This is not an easy dialogue for our two churches, and many in both churches ask why we continue. Over the years, there have been attempts by both sides to end the dialogue, yet it has hung on tenaciously. We have considerable agreement in many areas, but we also have profound disagreement on several significant matters as well.These differences have been exposed when our churches have found themselves on opposite sides of public – political and social – issues. However, these disputes derive from fundamental theological differences in our understanding of the Church, ministry, and Christian discipleship. To confront these differences, the dialogue has engaged challenging themes such as the nature of sin and reconciliation, inclusive language in the baptismal formula, and Christian marriage. It even discussed abortion in the 1980s, and apparently found some common ground, although they never published a report on this work.
Anglican Church of Canada
The Catholic dialogue with Anglicans has produced much fruit since it began in 1971. The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) had just begun, and a number of Canadians had been appointed on both sides. As ARCIC began its work, it asked national dialogue teams to study and report on various parts of the larger work. The Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue of Canada (ARC Canada) was carefully coordinated for many years with other national ARC dialogues and ARCIC.Further developments in Canada led to the establishment of the ARC Bishops’ dialogue in 1975. Unlike the theological commission, the bishops took on the task of finding pastoral and practical ways of implementing the considerable agreement uncovered by these dialogues. Mixed marriages were a particular interest of this dialogue, which in1987 developed Pastoral Guidelines for Interchurch Marriages between Anglicans and Roman Catholics in Canada. Starting from the existing wedding liturgies and canon law, the bishops offered an outline of a wedding service that included clergy from both churches and which allowed the community to celebrate together these new families as they share together in sacramental marriage. Very much ahead of its time, this resource continues to be an essential reference for interchurch marriages in Canada. The Bishops’ Dialogue has also proposed pastoral guidelines for the transfer of clergy from one church to the other and for the participation of Anglicans and Roman Catholics in the eucharistic liturgies of the other church.
The oldest dialogue in North America is between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox churches. Established in 1965, not long after the lifting of the anathemas of 1054 and the beginning of what Patriarch Athenagoras called the “dialogue of love,” the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation began in the USA. Since many Orthodox jurisdictions cross the border, Canadian Catholic participation was added in the mid-1990s.This dialogue is known for its theological rigour and focus on issues that continue to divide the churches of East and West. Many of the achievements of the international dialogue were first explored in the North American dialogue, beginning with An Agreed Statement on The Holy Eucharist in 1969. It was even so bold as to offer Steps Towards a Reunited Church: A Sketch of an Orthodox-Catholic Vision for the Future in 2010.
A key element of each dialogue is identifying the goal of that dialogue. The Orthodox-Catholic dialogue holds up the prospect of restoring communion between East and West, and the ARC dialogues have similar hopes for restoring Anglican-Roman Catholic relations. Yet, not all dialogues set their sights on full visible unity as a goal. When the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) joined in dialogue with Catholics appointed by the CCCB, the purpose of the dialogue was expressed as follows: “To engage in dialogue, seeking mutual understanding, learning from one another, dispelling harmful stereotypes, seeking ways and means to foster unity in Christ. To pray together, seeking to gather together on holy ground under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. To witness to our common faith in Jesus Christ.”This dialogue has produced two resources that work towards their goal titled Our Evangelical Neighbours (2016) and Our Roman Catholic Neighbours (2019). The EFC has also joined with the CCCB in several briefs to the Supreme Court of Canada and the Parliament of Canada on issues of shared concern, including abortion, same-sex marriage, religious freedom, palliative care, and physician-assisted suicide.
Dialogue with Lutherans has not resulted in many publications in Canada, though there has been continuing contact since the 1960s. Lutherans in North America belong to several denominations or synods, many of which have historically been identified with a particular national identity, principally German, Norwegian, and Swedish. They have also formed numerous pietistic, or low-church, synods. The process of Lutheran unity is a fascinating ecumenical story, but it has complicated the work of Lutherans with other ecumenical partners. The international dialogue between Roman Catholics and the Lutheran World Federation began in 1967. It has been quite productive, resulting in the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ; For more on this landmark document, see Sr. Donna’s blog from this past January). In Canada, a consultation with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) resulted in a short report in 1992 that mapped the current issues and prospects for dialogue. The prospective dialogue did not develop; however, in 1999 and 2016, writing teams were formed to produce study resources on Justification and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.The ELCIC actively participates in numerous ecumenical projects in Canada and is a Canadian Council of Churches member. Most importantly, the ELCIC is a full communion partner with the Anglican Church of Canada and has been an observer in the ARC dialogue for many years. In 2022, the Anglican Church appointed two Lutherans as full members of the ARC dialogue in recognition of the importance of the full communion agreement for relations of both churches with Catholics.Another Lutheran church has developed from the merger of former Lutheran synods holding a strict adherence to the 16th century Protestant confessions. The Lutheran Church Canada (LCC) is not a member of the Lutheran World Federation, and so does not formally affirm the JDDJ. However, there have been cordial relations between the LCC and Catholics, particularly in the St. Catherine’s area in Ontario. In 2013, a local dialogue between the LCC and the Archdiocese of St. Catherine’s developed into a national dialogue. The purpose of this dialogue is:“To deepen understanding, to foster charity, and to develop common witness through exploration of doctrine and moral issues, and through celebration of appropriate forms of joint prayer.”
The oldest dialogue in Canada is the Canadian Council of Churches’ (CCC) Commission on Faith & Witness, which functions as a multilateral dialogue between the member churches. The CCC was established in 1944, the first national council of churches anywhere. In 1975, Canadian churches agreed on the form and meaning of baptism, allowing five churches to officially recognize Christian baptism as celebrated in each other’s churches. These five, the Presbyterian, Lutheran, United, Roman Catholic, and Anglican churches (aka PLURA), have been the leaders among Canadian churches in almost every ecumenical initiative, including many interchurch coalitions for social justice. The Catholic Church has been a full member of the CCC since 1997, a development that has not been possible in many other countries.How do we know if a dialogue is successful? It is not possible to measure the distance between divided churches or the height of dividing walls, and so it is not possible to offer a quantifiable metric for assessing these dialogues. However, there is now a qualitative difference in our relations with other churches. The warmth of our relationship is seen in the interest and excitement when we gather for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity during the coldest week of January. It is seen in the generosity and energy poured into shared projects to serve the hungry and needy. It is seen in the attention that churches attract when we speak together on matters of public policy. Christ has been tearing down the dividing walls between us as we have engaged in ecumenical dialogue, work, and service. Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches!Nicholas Jesson is the ecumenical officer for the Archdiocese of Regina, former ecumenical officer for the Diocese of Saskatoon, and former executive director of the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism. He is a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue in Canada and of the Canadian Council of Churches’ Commission on Faith & Witness, editor of the Margaret O’Gara Ecumenical Dialogues Collection, and editor of the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue archive IARCCUM.org.