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Commentary

This Is Not the Time to Turn Away from a Friend

September 10, 2000|BOB EDGAR | Bob Edgar is general secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A

If a valued friend of long standing suddenly declared you "defective," what would you do? Respond in anger? Turn on your heels and leave? Or try to put the remark in perspective and work on how the friendship might be strengthened?

Those personal options are not so different from the choices now facing Christian denominations that have had warm ecumenical relations with the Roman Catholic Church. We are trying to understand the Vatican declaration last week that the Roman Catholic Church is the only "instrument for the salvation of all humanity" and that non-Catholic churches "suffer from defects."

Speaking on behalf of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., I choose to put these remarks, troubling as they are, in the broader context of our decades-long relationship.

The council--whose 35 Protestant and Orthodox communions include about 50 million congregants in about 140,000 congregations across the country--places a high value on its relationship with the Catholic Church.

The NCC was a young organization when we sent official observers to the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. We rejoiced when Vatican II's wide-ranging agenda on the Roman Catholic Church in the modern world included a strong affirmation of brothers and sisters in other churches.

In the decades since Vatican II, many links have developed among the National Council of Churches, our member churches, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and agencies of the Roman Catholic Church. We have worked side by side on issues of poverty, civil rights, refugee and immigration matters and in many other areas in which human dignity is at stake. We have gotten to know one another through this work and through years of formal theological dialogue. Several member communions also have invested significant energy in bilateral dialogues with the Catholic Church.

Our approach to dialogue with fellow Christians and with persons of other faiths is founded on the two-part principle that we must remain true to our own identity and respect the right of others to define themselves. Secure in that identity, we can truly engage each other and find ways together to serve the world in which we live. That is a far cry from the "religious relativism" cited in the Vatican statement. Vatican characterization of the Catholic Church as the "mother" to Protestant churches also affects our dialogue. While the term "mother church" is perhaps accurate historically, the fact is that children grow up. Then new relationships need to be established on the basis of equality and our mutual belonging to the one body of Christ. It may be best to refer to each other as "colleagues in Christ."

NCC member churches are yearning for fuller relationships with other churches, including the Catholic Church, that better express this collegiality. An exciting vision of what we could do together on major national issues has even prompted a willingness on the part of National Council of Churches members to give up our 50-year-old organization if a broader body can be formed. This hope for the new millennium is one that we hold dear. We do not wish to see it dimmed by current controversy. This is not the moment for an angry response, not the moment to turn our backs on ecumenical partners. It may well be the time for more intense dialogue on the nature of our relationship. I, for one, would welcome that.

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