"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Communion of the Churches

When I began my doctoral program, I worked for a time as research assistant to Catherine Clifford at Saint Paul University in Ottawa. She's a thoroughly lovely person and I not only enjoyed our work together, but greatly benefited from it as well. One of the things I did was to build an index for her first book: The Groupe des Dombes (Peter Lang, 2005). Much of Clifford's work has been devoted to the fascinating Groupe des Dombes, which was founded in 1937 by Abbé Paul Couturier to bring francophone Catholics and Protestants in Europe together in the search for Christian unity. Their methods are much more "personal" than the usual big conferences and bilateral or multilateral ecumenical dialogues, but all the more important because of that, I am convinced. As one who has attended his share of big--sometimes huge--ecumenical gatherings, I can attest that these less formal gatherings are often on a more "human" scale and, I would argue, sometimes more efficacious because of that.

The Groupe has, over the years, published a number of important statements, some of which have come into English through Clifford's editorship and translations skills, and the willingness of Eerdmans to publish them, including:

"One Teacher": Doctrinal Authority in the Church (Eerdmans, 2010), 184pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:

In this book the Groupe des Dombes — a widely respected yet unofficial dialogue of Reformed, Lutheran, and Catholic scholars from French-speaking Europe — undertakes a comprehensive study of the complex issue of doctrinal authority in the church. This includes the role of Scripture, of confessional texts, of decision-making bodies, and of individual persons entrusted with authority in service to the unity of faith. While a number of previous ecumenical dialogues have studied the question of authority with a particular focus on the ministry of the Bishop of Rome, the Groupe des Dombes lays out the complex constellation of questions that is at issue in the differing ethos of Protestant and Catholic traditions. Its challenge to the churches reflects the agenda of ecumenical dialogue for decades to come.

The most recent one, which I have just received, is C. E. Clifford, ed. and trans., For the Communion of the Churches: The Contribution of the Groupe des Dombes (Eerdmans, 2010), 231pp.

What is especially useful and welcome about this volume is that it gathers together in one place six statements of the Groupe, from 1971 to 1991, which have not always been easily accessible, especially to ceux qui ne peuvent pas lire le français:
  • Towards a Common Eucharistic Faith (1971) 
  • Towards a Reconciliation of Ministries (1972)
  • The Episcopal Ministry (1976)
  • The Holy Spirit, the Church, and the Sacraments (1979)
  • The Ministry of Communion in the Universal Church (1985) 
  • For the Conversion of the Churches (1991)

That fifth statement of 1985, "The Ministry of Communion in the Universal Church," was a statement about papal primacy, which I read and drew on in an earlier version of my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity. What makes the Groupe's statement unique is that it predates, by a decade, the landmark request by Pope John Paul II, in Ut Unum Sint, for new ways of conceiving and configuring the papal office. What is even more striking is that the statement called for the return to a renewed differentiation of papal roles, taking more seriously once again the office of Patriarch of the West, which title, in 2006, the Annuario Pontificio deleted for reasons that are still not clear.

What do those of us in the Christian East have to learn from this unique Groupe? I think that in addition to benefitting from the wisdom of their actual statements the greatest and most valuable insights are methodological, and in two ways. First, we can never underestimate the value of simple human relationships in informal gatherings, such as are the hallmark of Groupe encounters. To put it in a Levinasian vein, it is easier to succumb to the dangers of dehumanized abstraction ("those Catholics are heretics!" or "those Orthodox are schismatics!") until we have a face-to-face encounter with the other. The Groupe reminds us that seemingly quiet or informal conversations--sitting in front of a fire somewhere, relating as friends--are the necessary foundations to rebuilding shattered Christian unity.

Second,  as Clifford notes in her introduction to this volume, and with especial reference to "The Ministry of Communion" statement,  we have to learn how to re-read history, Tradition, and Scripture together. In this statement, the Groupe offered
an overview of significant historical developments in the life of the churches that have determined the shape of the papacy and resulted in serious differences concerning the understanding of its mission and authority. Only after this reconciling exercise of rereading history together, to arrive at a common understanding of the churches' various positions and biases, does the groupe des Dombes return to the source of Sacred Scripture (8).
This method, which deliberately eschewed polemical, tendentious, or "apologetical" readings of Scripture, Tradition, and history, is surely right. At a symposium in Rome in 2003, the Romanian Orthodox canonist Nicolae Dura, and the great Greek Orthodox theologian Metropolitan John Zizioulas both commended this type of re-reading and re-reception to Orthodox and Catholics--as did Walter Kasper in his introductory chapter. We need, to put it too simply, to examine anew our divided past in order to build together a united future. All three papers were published in Walter Kasper, ed., Petrine Ministry: Catholics And Orthodox In Dialogue.

In that Kasper volume, as in the earlier one, James Puglisi, ed., Petrine Ministry and the Unity of the Church and again more recently (as I noted on here in December) in James Puglisi, ed., How Can the Petrine Ministry Be a Service to the Unity of the Universal Church? Zizioulas has insisted repeatedly that apologetic readings of Scripture (especially the infamous Petrine texts of Matthew 16) have never been able to provide the basis for a Catholic-Orthodox agreement about the papacy. We cannot disregard history, of course, but neither will it solve our problems, especially when read tendentiously or in isolation from other Christians. (As Robert Taft often puts it, history is instructive but not normative.) So we need to re-read history together and only then attempt to theologize together about the papacy. (As Zizioulas has said, "the primacy of the bishop of Rome has to be theologically justified or else ignored altogether.")

And that theological justification cannot come in isolation: it can only be the fruit of our dialogue, our work together seeking the communion of the churches of Christ. All Christians, East and West, are in debt to the Groupe des Dombes for reminding us of this once more.

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