Irish Inter-Church Meeting and post-Vatican II Catholicism

Not much time to blog recently. Last Thursday I was invited to speak at the Irish Inter-Church Meeting (IICM) in the beautiful Dromantine demesne near Newry.

The IICM began in 1973 during some of the darkest days of violence in the North and also a time of new openness to ecumenical dialogue in the post Vatican II era.

The IICM is a place where the Roman Catholic Church and members of the longer established Irish Council of Churches (ICC) meet. There are about 14 member churches of the ICC. The IICM is made up 50% representatives of the Irish Episcopal Conference and 50% representatives from the ICC (various non-Catholic churches).

So it was a novel experience to address a group including a Cardinal, Catholic and Anglican archbishops & bishops and representatives from many other churches. I wore a purple shirt to try to fit in ūüėČ

The theme was Vatican II fifty years on. In the morning, Jim Corkery, a Jesuit scholar, gave an excellent talk on ‘Vatican II and its reception in Ireland’, focusing on Vatican II’s ‘continuity and discontinuity’ with what preceded it and how this has led to ongoing struggles and tensions between progressive and conservative strands of post Vatican II Catholicism. A response was given by Archbishop Richard Clarke, the new Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.

In the afternoon I was up on ‚ÄėVatican II in Contemporary Ireland: a Protestant Perspective‚Äô and a response was given by Brendan Leahy, Roman Catholic Bishop of Galway.

I nicked the idea of structuring the talk around a number of ‘theses’ from my ex-Prof of Christian Doctrine, Tony Lane (who is celebrating 40 years at London School of Theology formerly London Bible College) from when I heard him give a talk on RC-evangelical relationships a few years ago. Here are the nine (not 95) I used:

THESIS 1: THERE IS A FUNDAMENTAL ASYMMETERY IN TALKING OF ‚ÄėPROTESTANT RESPONSES‚Äô TO POST-VATICAN II ROMAN CATHOLICISM

The point here is that no-one can speak for Protestantism. I could only speak from a personal perspective as a Christian, a Presbyterian, an evangelical.

THESIS 2: PROTESTANTS NEED TO REMEMBER WHERE THEY COME FROM

Protestants have a unique theological and historical relationship with ‘mother church’.

THESIS 3: ANY PROTESTANT ASSESSMENT OF CATHOLICISM NEEDS A WORD ABOUT MOTES AND BEAMS

Protestants and evangelicals have lots to be self-critical of (and there is a lot of critical self-reflection going on)

THESIS 4: VATICAN II REPRESENTS A MAJOR THEOLOGICAL SHIFT WITHIN ROMAN CATHOLICISM

While the Catholic Church may not disown the past (Trent for example) it has reinterpreted the past quite radically in Vatican II

THESIS 5: POST-VATICAN II CATHOLICISM IS FLUID, FLEXIBLE, AMBIGUOUS, and DIVERSE

Contemporary Roman Catholicism has multiple strands, some in tension with each other; for example an inclusivity that tends to universalism alongside an exclusive claim to be the one true Church.

THESIS 6: THERE HAS BEEN A SEA-CHANGE IN THE NATURE OF PROTESTANT-CATHOLIC RELATIONSHIPS SINCE VATICAN II

Especially in the USA, but increasingly elsewhere including Ireland, there are all sorts of overlap, dialogues, partnerships, use of common resources etc.

THESIS 7: VATICAN II HAS BEEN ONE OF SEVERAL CONTRIBUTORY FACTORS TO TRANSFORMED PROTESTANT-CATHOLIC RELATIONSHIPS

Other factors are changes in society, increased personal choice, changes in global Christianity, changes in evangelicalism.

THESIS 8: THERE ARE A VARIETY OF PROTESTANT NARRATIVES CONCERNING CONTEMPORARY ROMAN CATHOLICISM

i.                   Narratives of rejection

ii.                 Narratives of irrelevance

iii.               Narratives of constructive critical partnership

iv.               Narratives of Conversion (the Reformation is over)

THESIS 9: THE GREATEST CHALLENGE FOR IRISH CHRISTIANS IS ‚ÄėRE-MISSION‚Äô IN A POST-CHRISTENDOM CONTEXT

Christendom assumptions for Protestants or Catholics just won’t cut it in a post-Christendom context. What’s needed is emphasis on the gospel of Jesus Christ, Scriptures, personal faith and a willingness to engage in a radical rethink around church and mission.

Some comments:

Thanks to the IICM committee and esp Mervyn McCullough for the invite and warm welcome.

Some evangelicals get nervous about engaging in ecumencial discussions with the Catholic Church in particular. Some I guess for theological reasons – a refusal to dialogue and so somehow ‘legitimise error’? Some I guess for practical reasons – the ‘gap’ is too large to bridge and there are more pressing priorities? Some I guess over concerns about a (hidden?) goal of visible structural unity? Some I guess over a worry that truth is sidelined at the expense of a superficial unity?

All I can say is that there isn’t any great reason to fear ‘being ourselves’ and being open to listen and learn in robust discussion with others different from us.

Truth and grace are not mutually incompatible!

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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