The Roman Catholic & United Church Dialogue in Canada

 — Sept. 30, 200330 sept. 2003

The Roman Catholic & United Church Dialogue in Canada

a presentation to the North American Academy of Ecumenists, September 2003
by Angelika Piché, Assistant Director, Canadian Centre for Ecumenism

1. Introduction:

Presuming that you all have some knowledge of the Roman Catholic Church, I will begin with a short presentation of the United Church of Canada:

The United Church of Canada came into being through a church union in 1925 between Methodists, Congregationalists and parts of the Presbyterian Church, which made it the largest protestant denomination in Canada. The United Church kept a self-understanding of being a “united and uniting” church. Some smaller church unions also happened after 1925 (e.g. with the Evangelical United Brethren). The church stands theologically in the reformed tradition, has a strong social commitment, and is usually on the “liberal” side of the range of standpoints on current ethical questions.

History of the Dialogue Group:

In August 1974, the General Council of the United Church of Canada passed a resolution which invited the Roman Catholic Church in Canada to enter into conversations concerning Christian unity. The following month, the Plenary Assembly of the Canadian Catholic Conference responded to the invitation in a positive manner. In November 1975 the first dialogue meeting took place, which means that the dialogue has now been meeting for twenty-eight years!

Each of the two churches designates six delegates to the dialogue, among them one national staff person. The representatives come from different areas of Canada, men and women, lay and clergy, francophone and anglophone. There has always been an effort to work bilingually in order to take into account the different cultural realities which are present in our Canadian context within both of our churches. The Anglican Church of Canada sends an observer to the meetings (which is an interesting practice to make bilateral conversations transparent for other partner churches!).

The dialogue group meets twice a year for two to three days. As we gather for several days this allows at the same time for intense theological work, for common prayer time – and for social events and the building of personal friendships. Integrating these different dimensions of intellectual, spiritual and social sharing is certainly an important part of the dynamic of our dialogue!

2. Mandate and Content for the Dialogue’s work:

The group has given itself a mandate in its earlier stages which reads as follows:

“Within the larger setting of the search for unity among Christians, the dialogue group seeks to increase understanding and appreciation between the Roman Catholic and the United Church of Canada. It explores pastoral, theological and ethical issues, including those which may divide our churches. Participants in the dialogue group expect to learn from and be challenged by one another and commit themselves to countering misinformation, stereotypes and prejudices that may influence the members of our churches.”

I want to highlight two points in the self-understanding of the group:

• The group is open to deal with a wide range of issues related to church-life, of pastoral, theological and ethical nature, and the issues it chooses “may divide our churches” – but the idea is not to discuss only divisive topics but also to find and to work on the common ground!
• The dialogue members commit themselves to become advocates for better understanding of the partner church within their own church: “to countering misinformation, stereotypes and prejudices …”

Thus the concern of bringing back the fruits of the dialogue encounter into the own denomination has been present from the beginning on. In the description of the activities of the group is also included that it not only reports back to the sponsoring bodies but that the group seeks ways of communicating its findings to the members of both churches. This has been realised through the writing of several common statements.

There has also been the practice to meet with a local group involved in ecumenical activities for one evening and to share with them on the current theme. This helps members of congregations to know about the “official” efforts of their churches to talk to each other and at the same time it helps the dialogue group to keep in contact with the questions and insights people at the basis of our churches have.

Another concern of the group has been to be up-to-date in events that are ecumenically relevant. At the beginning of each meeting, and if necessary throughout the meeting as well, time has been set aside to share and to discuss events in the different churches that move the ecumenical endeavour forward or that may put stumbling blocks in its way. Occasionally the group has written letters of encouragement, acknowledging meaningful ecumenical initiatives, or responses to documents (such as the Ecumenical Directory of the Roman Catholic Church).

The topics the dialogue has dealt with have been of a wide range. Let me just give you an overview over the last fifteen years. The dialogue group has chosen topics which were relevant to the church members at that given time. They were often related to the classical “Faith and Order” and to “Life and Work” questions.

• The position of the two churches on ABORTION (1985-1986)
• the meaning of EVANGELISM or EVANGELIZATION in the two churches (1990-1995)

Some Background and Findings of These Topics:

1) ON ABORTION: Despite the fact that the group has discussed this topic for a very short period of time it has marked its history. Participants of the dialogue have often come back to their experience in this context, I think for different reasons:

a) they were aware that choosing this subject was taking a risk, but that they could perhaps make an important contribution to one of the most controversial moral and social problems in contemporary society;

b) they knew from the beginning of the conversation that they would probably not be able to come to a common position. Thus the wish to simply improve the listening to each other and to come to a better understanding and acceptance of the differing points of view was in the forefront.

A good deal of learning about the process of dialogue seemed to have taken place at the time. The group was very content with their improved understanding, but the context in which representatives of a bigger body talk to each other became clear to the members when they wanted to publish their carefully written report and offer it to the wider church community: The Catholic bishops refused the publication of the paper which was a big deception for the dialogue members. [Editor’s note: the word “deception” may be a translation error. Perhaps “disappointment” is a more accurate term.]

2) Ironically the next topic they had chosen for discussion (it seems without a direct relation to the just mentioned deception) was THE ROLE AND EXERCISE OF AUTHORITY IN THE CHURCH. The group discussed this topic for four years and produced a final report.

3) On the question of EVANGELISM OR EVANGELIZATION the dialogue published a report that was sent to all congregations for study and reaction.

4) The topic of the BAPTISMAL FORMULA was chosen by demand of the United Church members. Within the United Church the search for inclusive language had led some ministers to alter the baptismal formula in order to avoid the wording “In the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” which sounded too patriarchal to them.

One example of alternative wording would be: “I baptize you in the name of the Creator, of the Redeemer, and of the Sanctifier.”

Yet the crucial question came up, would such an alternative baptismal formula jeopardize the mutual recognition of baptism which has been achieved in the ecumenical relations.

The Roman Catholic dialogue members recognized the problematic and generously embarked on the question.

Over the term of five years the group has carefully studied together all the implications of the use of the traditional or of an alternative baptismal formula: theology on trinity in both churches; the search for more inclusive language shared in both traditions; biblical examples for feminine metaphors for God and the expressions used throughout church history, etc.

The group did come to a common conclusion:

• At this point we cannot find any alternative formula that would accurately cover the trinitarian theology and that could be acceptable to both of our churches; nevertheless the search for such formula should go on.
• There are three ecumenically acceptable solutions for baptisms:

• to keep only the traditional formula
• to augment the traditional formula (precedents in church history, e.g. Thomas Aquinas).

Example: ” I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; one God, Mother of us all.”

• to precede or to accompany the classical formula by defined credal questions in inclusive language.


“Do you believe in God the Source of Love? Yes.
I baptize you in the name of the Father.
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, Love incarnate? Yes.
I baptize you in the name of the Son.
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, Love’s Power? Yes.
I baptize you in the name of the Holy Spirit.”

The dialogue group published a detailed report on this discussion and on their findings. This report had a direct impact on the decision of the United Church of Canada not to include alternative baptismal formulas in their recently completed Book for Services. This was one of the rare and gratifying cases where the significance of the dialogue encounter became immediately evident.

The report, entitled “In Whose Name?,” can be found on the internet at

5) The current theme SIN, RECONCILIATION AND ECCLESIAL IDENTITY sounds very abstract, but it is rooted in an important and concrete reality, present in both of our churches: the recognition that in the past crimes and sins have been committed in the name of our churches, e.g. in running the Residential Schools for native children in Canada. In the same venue, John Paul II has pronounced an official demand for forgiveness, in the year 2000, for crimes committed by the Roman Catholic Church throughout past centuries (“purification of memory”). In the dialogue we seek to clarify our respective theological understanding of sin, its evolution in time, how we deal with sin liturgically, how we react to accusations that the church as a body has committed sins and therefore carries responsibilities. What are our responses as church and what does that say about our ecclesiology (for instance do we say the church as church can sin or not?) We will probably conclude this theme in the round of the following year.

3. Achievements:

The dialogue has certainly brought forth many fruits over all those years. Yet the fruits may be of different kind and natures.

First of all there is a basic value of two sister churches providing an opportunity for regular conversation – and without any pressure of having to tackle given subjects or to show results. There has been a sense of freedom in the dialogue allowing people to share openly and generously with each other. Some of the fruits of the dialogue are of course related to the personal encounter of the concrete people, representatives of different churches meeting each other and overcoming barriers and prejudices. Some are related to the process of dialoguing itself: improved listening to the other, increased ability to accept our diversity; the occasion to deepen and to redefine our own identity by presenting it to our partner. And last but not least important fruits of the dialogue are the theological findings as expressed in reports and statements.

4. Challenges:

The challenges I can see for this dialogue group are certainly very similar to the challenges you know of from other dialogues. I would simply like to enumerate some of them:

1. For a long standing dialogue like this one: How to carry on the memory within the dialogue group itself?

As the members of the group are rotating regularly it is difficult to keep a long term memory of what has been discussed in earlier stages of the dialogue. Certain people are involved with a theme over a period of time, but how can we assure a continuity and thus build on earlier steps of the dialogue?

2. How to make the fruits of the dialogue available to everybody in the churches?

This is the frequently mentioned problem of transparency and reception. The fruits are of different kinds – we may be able to share our theological findings on our common or distinct positions through statements or reports (although we all know that they are of very limited use). More difficult even is the question of how to share the dialogue experience itself.

3. How to dialogue as a small entity within the wider and constantly changing landscape of ecumenism and of interfaith encounter?

This one group meets in bilateral conversation, but at the same time there are many other bilateral or multilateral, national or international conversations going on. They may treat very similar issues or concerns related to the same topic. How do we ensure a connection and communication between different entities in dialogue?

Finally all these self-critical questions come back to the one fundamental:

4. What kind of contribution can we make to the life of our churches?

My answer would be: we do a small part of that piece of work that is at the centre of our faith commitment – to keep the dialogue going! We heard on Friday evening that faith is essentially dialoguing between Christ and Culture. Maybe we also have to acknowledge that each one of our churches has its own “culture” and that we are therefore invited in bilaterals or multilaterals to an ongoing dialogue between Christ and Cultures!

To me, dialogue (in a broader sense though than used here for the formally structured dialogues) is the form to live faith in this world!

Posted: Sept. 30, 2003 • Permanent link:
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