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Sunday, 13 July 2014 17:37

Why are Christians still divided?

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Sr Trish Madigan opThe National Covenant Document, a framework of relations between Australian Christian churches for co-operation and shared hopes, brings energy to mission, writes Dominican Sister Trish Madigan who grew up in a family of mixed Christian heritage.

Like many Australians, I grew up in a family with mixed Christian heritage, with relatives who were not Catholic Christians. 

At the level of everyday relationships, we got along fine. But this familial harmony was disrupted considerably when important occasions such as weddings, funerals or baptisms loomed. My cousin had to marry his non-Catholic bride in a side room (sacristy) of the church and not in front of the altar which was the usual Catholic custom. An aunt was instructed that she could not attend the funeral of her husband (my uncle) as the service was held in the Anglican parish to which he belonged.

How this changed in the 1960s when Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council to bring the Catholic Church up to date and to open the windows to a breath of fresh air! Some years later when my sister married a member of the Uniting Church, the ceremony was held in our Catholic parish church and both were able to receive the Eucharist as an expression of pastoral concern for their marriage.

Two documents which emerged from Vatican II and which were to change Catholic attitudes forever were the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) and the Declaration on Relations with People of Other Religions (Nostra Aetate).

The first years after Vatican II were exciting years in which great changes in relationships occurred. At first we saw Christian leaders, who sometimes had not spoken in centuries, making efforts to reach out to each other. A most significant meeting was that held by Pope Paul VI during his 1964 visit to the Holy Land with Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras – the first in the establishment of a dialogue between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity which had been formally separated since the schism of 1054. With his recent visit to the Holy Land, Pope Francis has commemorated the 50th anniversary of this momentous event.

As migration flows and new technologies continued to shape our world as a “global village”, relations with people of other faiths became more significant if communities were to live together peacefully. Who can forget Pope John Paul II’s one-mile trip across the Tiber to visit the Great Synagogue in Rome in 1986? This is believed to be the first time a pope had entered the Rome synagogue since the time of Peter. John Paul II also became the first Catholic pope to enter and pray in a mosque when he visited Syria's Umayyad Mosque in Damascus in 2001.

These spectacular international events have had echoes in all corners of our modern world. Here in Australia, relations between the Christian churches have been transformed from conflict and competition into models of co-operation and shared hopes, made concrete in a National Covenant Document. Under this Covenant agreement, which has now been signed by nineteen member churches, the churches have agreed to recognise the sacrament of Baptism administered in each other’s churches by their use of a Common Certificate of Baptism, and to work together on common projects whenever this is possible. Another Australian agreement, between the Catholic Church and the Uniting Church on Interchurch Marriages, places a priority on the pastoral care of marriages between Christians of different traditions.

The National Covenant Document provides a framework for a number of regional agreements. In the Newcastle region, Christian life has been invigorated by a covenant relationship between the three overlapping dioceses of Maitland-Newcastle and Broken Bay (Catholic) and Newcastle (Anglican). The Bishops’ Dialogues which have grown out of this relationship have attracted large audiences as they have explored such questions and issues as, “Why are we still divided?” and the place given to Mary in Christian tradition. Relationships have been deepened further by three local covenants in Epping-Carlingford, in Gosford, and among the Ku-ring-gai churches, where Christians collaborate on issues of social justice, to share study programs and to pray for each other.

Some might wonder why the churches are putting so much energy into their relationship with each other when the number of people professing no religion seems to be growing. However, the impetus comes from Jesus himself who, on the night before he died, prayed, “they may all be one….so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).

Prior to the existence of covenant relationships, the degree of ecumenical commitment exhibited by local churches often waxed and waned with the arrival and departure of particular ministers. Our experience has been that the churches where covenants exist have kept ecumenical progress on the agenda in their diocese and communities regardless of clergy changes. Our partners, too, have spoken of the energy a covenant relationship brings to the mission of the churches in the locality. As one Anglican priest said, “Doing things together has made our task easier. We (clergy) feel we have more support.”

People in the local community generally are more aware of what the churches are doing as they generate more publicity if clergy and congregations are seen acting together. For example, the Anglican and Catholic bishops received significant media coverage when they acted together for justice on behalf of workers who were being made redundant in the Newcastle area. Praying for each other in the Sunday Eucharist has made the Covenant a reality for local congregations. Baptism certificates which recognise the common baptism of eleven churches have made interchurch weddings into more meaningful and peace-building occasions for family members with a strong allegiance to their denominational identity.

Wherever Christians have attended to their own internal work of healing their relationships, they are in a better position to build relationships of respect and trust with people of all religions and beliefs. They are better able to join with other people “as precious allies in the commitment to defending human dignity, in building peaceful coexistence between peoples and in protecting creation” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium n257).

Dominican sister Trish Madigan has been engaged in ecumenical ministry for more than fifteen years. She has published widely in such journals as the Australian eJournal of Theology and One in Christ. Trish continues her ministry with the Dominican Centre for Interfaith, Ministry, Education and Research (www.cimer.org.au) and as a member of the leadership team of the Dominican Sisters of Eastern Australia and the Solomon Islands.

This article was first published in the July 2014 edition of Aurora, the publication of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland Newcastle.

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