Thursday, May 22, 2014

Ecumenical Relations between Vatican II and Fifty Years Hence

Last Sunday afternoon, I served as a panelist for the retrospective on Vatican II and its 1964 landmark Decree on Ecumenism.  The Capital Region (NY) Ecumenical Organization (CREO) hosted this event as part of its mission to build Christian ecumenical community and collaboration between Roman Catholics and Protestants.  For many years, CREO has provided a significant ecumenical witness in the Capital Region, which includes includes the Capital Area Baptist Association (CABA), one of the sixteen associations of the American Baptist Churches of New York State. In speaking in an ecumenical forum such as this, I opted to share some of the story about how Baptists and Catholics, particularly through the international Baptist World Alliance had slow yet growing dialogue opportunities in the years after the Second Vatican Council convened.  It is a story that speaks well to the reticence of one era and the hopeful spirit of another. 

I was joined on the panel by three other participants:  Bishop Marie Jerge, Bishop (ECLA--Upstate NY Synod); Rev. Dr. Allan Janssen (Professor at New Brunswick Theological Seminary/Reformed Church in America and Theologian in Residence at the First Church of Albany, NY, and the Rev. James Kane, Ecumenical and Interfaith Officer, Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany.


          You might wonder what a Baptist is doing at a workshop on Vatican II.[1]  You looked at your program and wondered, “Did he take the wrong exit while looking for a church potluck?”, or “Is this the Baptist version of ‘joyriding’?”  To which I reply, “I’m hoping finally to experience having a wine list at communion.  All these years, and I’ve had only Welch’s....”
            I suggest that as a Baptist, and especially as a member of the American Baptist Churches/USA, of course somebody from my tradition would be here today.  If time allowed, I would gladly speak of the deep value of American Baptists place on ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. The ABC/USA is a founding member of the WCC, the BWA and the NCC.  Particularly regarding the National Council of Churches, three NCC presidents have been American Baptist clergy, including the current presiding officer, the Rev. Roy Medley who is the General Secretary of the American Baptist Churches/USA and a strong advocate of Baptist/Muslim dialogue.  We are engaged in ecumenical efforts, not only because of our interest in Christian Unity.  We are being faithful alongside all other Christians to heed Christ’s call to be one (John 17:21).

           The Second Vatican Council (colloquially “Vatican II”) is rightfully hailed as a great moment in church history.  Fifty years later, Christians of varying traditions still find themselves pondering the fruitful insights into doctrine, liturgics, mission and ecclesial structures brought about by St. John XXIII’s decision to convene such a Council. 
In the midst of the ecumenical decree, the spirit of charitable dialogue with other Christians is boldly proclaimed and offers a legacy (so far) of improved relations, if not full unity, with the “separated brethren”.  The Decree acknowledges the harm and division religious differences have created and calls for future encounters to be made with more intention and with an awareness of grace prevailing.  This charitable openness to dialogue is heard in such passages as follows:

           We [Roman Catholics] must get to know the outlook of our separated brethren. To achieve this purpose, study is of necessity required, and this must be pursued with a sense of realism and good will. Catholics, who already have a proper grounding, need to acquire a more adequate understanding of the respective doctrines of our separated brethren, their history, their spiritual and liturgical life, their religious psychology and general background.[2]

            In this aspect of the Council’s legacy, I believe Vatican II generated a great deal of capital in the form of goodwill, warm relations (even if still “separated brethren” as the Decree terms Christians not in full ecclesial communion) and partnerships where we have realized gradually and delightfully more fruitful ways of co-existing, if not overcoming the religious divisions past and present.  As evidenced by the open hands and willing spirit of its Bishops, especially Howard Hubbard, the Diocese of Albany has offered a genuine welcome and friendship to the other Christians and non-Christians of this area, embodying the spirit of Vatican II and the vision of St. John XIII.  At Bishop Scharfenberger’s recent episcopal ordination service, I sat in a pew with three Episcopal priests and a couple representing the Hindu community.  (I’m telling you, did St. John XIII ever foresee the day when a Baptist helped a Hindu navigate the bulletin of a Catholic liturgy?  By the grace of Albany bishops, it was indeed so!)

          I celebrate the desire for relationship evident in Vatican II’s 1964 ecumenical decree, especially in light of the Baptist response at the time.  In looking back at the Baptists responding to Vatican II’s convening, let alone any eventual decrees or outcomes, I regret to note the initial hesitance quite evident among Baptist groups.  Regarding the Baptist World Alliance, the largest gathering of Baptist conventions and denominations from around the world, the Vatican’s call for observers merited a reticent response:

          In August 1962 the BWA Executive Committee spent one whole day considering an inquiry from the Vatican as to whether the BWA would favourably receive a formal invitation to send observers to Vatican Council II. Strong if honest differences of conviction divided the committee which replied: ‘It is not agreed it would be desirable for the Baptist World Alliance to encourage a formal invitation to the forthcoming Second Vatican Council’.
         The BWA was the only world confessional body not to accept the invitation, and the BWA executive resolved to exclude the discussion of the pros and cons from the minutes. Still, as Dr [James Leo] Garrett observed, ‘the fact of such deliberations is important’.[3]

         Curiously, while the minutes were not retained in the official record, the BWA’s centennial retrospective book notes an interesting division among the Baptists making the decision. 

Support for having a BWA observer came chiefly from the unions and conventions that belonged to the WCC, while representatives of U.S. groups who had no formal ecumenical links and of the predominately Roman Catholic Latin American countries expressed opposition.[4]

 In the end, only “a few Baptists were actually present at various sessions of the Council”.[5]  I note with some gratitude that among those few were included Dr. Stanley Stuber, an American Baptist minister and ecumenicist, whose legacy is celebrated annually at Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School with a memorial lectureship.[6]  Further, the National Baptist Convention, the largest African American Baptist denomination, sent their President, the Rev. Dr. Joseph Jackson, who was invited by the Vatican Secretariat.[7]  Other U.S. Baptist observers would follow, though often with their own initiative rather than a denomination or academic institution officially sending them, including persons related to the Southern Baptist Convention. 

Stuber attended a number of sessions and later co-authored a manual for Protestant congregations to explore Vatican II documents. Stuber was said to get along quite well with a Paulist priest Fr. Thomas Stransky, who recounted how his first introduction to Stuber came by way of being asked years before to issue a refutation of Stuber’s earlier work A Protestant Primer on Roman Catholicism.  Despite a ripe opportunity for interchurch tension, Stransky and Stuber embodied the best of the hope found in the Decree on Ecumenism through their friendship and collegiality.[8]

           One would think Baptists and Catholics have very little agreement.  In some ways, it is a strange pairing for dialogue opportunities.  Baptists are so named due to our historic affirmation of believer’s baptism and stressing the need for full immersion.  We are part of a Free Church polity, stressing the liberty of conscience and the primacy of local churches over ecclesial structures (if a given Baptist church belongs to a denomination).  Even as one serving in a Baptist denominational capacity, I have very little power or authority similar to an episcopal form of church governance.  My primary role is to foster common ground and collaboration between congregations who are free to choose when and how they opt in and opt out of denominational relationships.  (Oft invoked is the analogy of leading Baptists is similar to herding cats.)

Many Baptists in the United States would gladly agree with the historical ecumenical creeds, yet we would shy from being overtly creedal.  Our sense of sacrament differs to the point of many of us averring the use of the word.[9] I can discuss at length the debates and divisions that have shaped (or stymied?) the four hundred years since Baptists emerged out of the “radical” Reformation.  Even organizations like the Baptist World Alliance may foster global relationships among Baptists, yet it is a very voluntary and therefore storm-tested relationship.  We may be a global faith tradition within Christianity, however, we look very much like very distant cousins when compared to the Roman Catholic Church. 

           Yet, the call to be at the table in dialogue has not been forgotten. After the Second Vatican Council concluded, seeds sown in these tentative ecumenical overtures began to take root.  By 1967, delegations from the ABC/USA and the US Catholic’s Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs began seven years of annual meetings.  Baptist scholar Curtis Freeman observes, “Rather than being polar opposites it became clear that Baptists and Catholics have much in common.”  Terming the result “a differentiated consensus”, Freeman notes areas of shared affirmation in “faith in the triune God as a source of authority and in God’s unique self-revelation in the Scriptures”.   Whole-world evangelization, salvation by grace through faith and a mutual respect for the freedom of conscience and religious liberty soon followed in these meetings.  While Vatican II did not gain a great deal of immediate opportunity for Baptist and Roman Catholic scholars to be in dialogue, it paved the way for some remarkable dialogues forty years ago between US Baptists and Catholics. 

Eventually, the Baptist World Alliance would find its membership more receptive to dialogue.  From 1984-1988, the BWA engaged in dialogue with Vatican-appointed scholars.  More recently (and some would say more fruitfully), the BWA joined with Roman Catholic counterparts from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity for a five year period (2006-2010), resulting in the remarkable document entitled “Baptists and Catholics Together: The Word of God in the Life of the Church”.

           At the start of this endeavor, the two dialogue partners stated their intention:

The goal of these conversations is to respond to the prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ to his Father for his disciples ‘that they may all be one … that the world may believe’ (John 17:21). Facing the challenges of our world today, we believe this means that we should continue to explore our common ground in biblical teaching, apostolic faith and practical Christian living, as well as areas that still divide us, in order to:

1. Increase our mutual understanding, appreciation of each other and Christian charity towards each other;

2. Foster a shared life of discipleship within the communion of the triune God;

3. Develop and extend a common witness to Jesus Christ as the Saviour of the world and the Lord of all life;

4. Encourage further action together on ethical issues, including justice, peace and the sanctity of life, in accord with God’s purpose and to the praise of God’s glory. 

We envisage that we can move towards the fulfilment of these aims by focusing on the theme: ‘The Word of God in the Life of the Church: Scripture, Tradition and Koinonia.’[10]

            The Joint International Commission met for four successive Decembers between 2006 and 2009.  Each meeting offered opportunities for exploring areas of mutual agreement and opportunities to hear from scholars about areas of difference in teachings and traditions.  Session I explored “The Authority of Christ in Scripture and Tradition”, Meeting II explored “Baptism and Lord’s Supper/Eucharist as Visible Word of God in the Koinonia of the Church”, Meeting III explored the role of “Mary in the Communion of the Church” and Meeting IV dealt with issues of “Oversight and Primacy in the Ministry of the Church”.

          The report of the proceedings was offered in a unique manner, using typeface (bold or regular fonts) to highlight areas of agreement and divergence.  The co-chairs note,

It has been in setting our beliefs side by side in a thorough way that we have come to understand both them and each other more deeply, so that we have been able to move further towards the goal set by our Teacher and Master Jesus Christ, ‘that they all may be one’. While we do not expect our readers to be surprised by differences that remain, we think they will be surprised by the extent of the common mind that has been revealed. We hope that readers may be helped here by the typographical convention we have adopted, placing a summary of our convergence in paragraphs in bold type. Here we simply set out what we can say together, without explicitly making the point each time that we are in agreement. The passages in regular type are a kind of commentary on the statements in bold, either expanding on our agreement, or explaining the divergences that remain.[11]  

            In his appreciative critique of the summary report, British Baptist historical theologian Stephen Holmes observes:

Where there has been mutual suspicion and incomprehension, the report can offer a resource to help promote understanding; where the overwhelming feature of the context is urgent missional needs, the report might help Baptists and Catholics to recognize that they share enough common gospel themes that they might work together, not apart, in mission. 

           Further, Holmes offers a cautionary word:

That said, these advantages can only come if the report is read, or at least its conclusions are transmitted, at very local levels….We have been given a great resource; the process of reception is now vital.[12]

            All conversation about Christian unity is essential, yet it is only fragmentary if left to the scholars and church authorities to debate and seek areas of concurrence.  The fruitfulness of our mutual calling to be One in Christ is found in our everyday ways of being obedient to Christ together.  While we speak with the particulars of tradition, formed as much by one another, more than we are sometimes willing to admit, our mutual desire to be in fidelity to Christ should help us arise together in mutual discipleship wherever the Gospel is needed.

           Fifty years after Vatican II, Baptists and Catholics are more able to be in dialogue in the spirit of Vatican II.  We are still “separated brethren” in many ways.  A Vatican II observer from the Church of Scotland observed in 1965 that the Council did not necessarily accomplish much unity in the Church.  The one-liner still stings:  “The glaciers are melting, the Alps remain”.[13]  Yet in the history of two Christian traditions post-Vatican II, there is an increasing sense of mutuality, even if differences still mark us, likely until Christ makes all things new.

I close with the good word of the North American Protestant ecumenist the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon:
At the heart of the ecumenical movement is the conviction that there is one church and that its members, however fragmented they may seem, are deeply related to one another, thanks to what God has done in Jesus Christ. The ecumenical task, therefore, is not to create unity, but to address divisions of human origin in order that the unity God has given may be visible to the world.[14]

[1] I am grateful to be part of this event coinciding with the first Sunday of the Rev. Peter JB Carman’s new ministry calling at the Emmanuel Friedens Church (ABC/UCC).  Rev. Carman’s ministry experiences at previous congregations in Rochester and North Carolina point toward a significant blessing for our ecumenical and interfaith communities, bringing his passion for social justice and community-based ministry now to Schenectady.  Blessings upon Peter in this new season of ministry!
[2] Unitatis Redintegratio, II.9, para. 1.
[3] Manley, Ken.  “A Survey of Baptist World Alliance Conservations with other Churches and some implications for Baptist Identity”, a paper given at the BWA Seville, Spain, meetings on July 11, 2002., n.p.  Report text available via:

[4] Pierard, Richard V., Elna Jean Young Bentley and Gerald L. Borchert, eds.  Baptists Together in Christ, 1905-2005.  Falls Church, VA:  Baptist World Alliance, 2005, p. 137.  The BWA did send a good word with its decision, hoping “that the Council would ‘contribute to an increased understanding of the will of God and the unity of his people”. Ibid., 138.

[5] Manley, n.p.

[6] For more on Stuber’s work and remarkable ministry, please see the biographical sketch and accompanying Stuber lecture transcript via:

[7] For reference to Stuber and Jackson’s presence at the Council, please refer to:, n.p.

[8] As recorded by a National Catholic Reporter interview available via:, n.p.

[9] As I note, not all Baptists are in lock-step.  Significant reflection on the need for Baptists to recognize their indebtedness to the larger traditions of the Church is being creatively addressed in the work of Steven R. Harmon, Curtis Freeman, Molly T. Marshall and other Baptists, particularly among British Baptists.   Not all Baptists see the need to avoid a wider “catholicity” in doctrine, ritual and values is the only way for Baptists to consider their identity within the greater ongoing story of Christianity.  See particularly Steven R. Holmes, Towards Baptist Catholicity: Essays on Tradition and the Baptist Vision.  London, UK: Paternoster, 2006.   Forthcoming is Curtis W. Freeman, Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists.  Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, September 2014.   According to the publisher’s advance publicity, Freeman’s book will offer “something of a referendum on whether Baptists are truly sectarians or have always been part of the reforming church....[Freeman] remains in constant conversation across the theological spectrum, careful to locate his theological work in the grand tradition.”  My mentor Dr. Molly T. Marshall speaks often of the need for regaining a sacramental understanding within the Baptist tradition.  See her Joining the Dance: A Theology of the Spirit. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2003, pp. 73-96). 

[10] The full report is available online via:   The full text is also published in The American Baptist Quarterly, 31 (Spring 2012), pp. 28-122.
[11] Ibid., introductory preface.  In the ABQ version, see p. 28.

[12] Stephen R. Holmes, “Reflections on The Word of God in the Life of the Church: A Report of International Conversations Between the Catholic Church and the Baptist World Alliance, 2006-2010”, ibid., p. 152.

[13] This quotation by Dr. Alan Mac Arthur of the Church of Scotland to a Time magazine reported, quoted in W. Morgan Patterson, “A Baptist Historian Views Vatican II”, Baptist History and Heritage 1 (July 1966), p. 61.

[14] The Vision of the Ecumenical Movement and How It Has Been Impoverished by Its Friends, St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2003, p. 9.

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