The new dialogue between Catholics and Evangelicals is fraught with difficulties but important for both sides, says JOHN MARTIN
Evangelicals and Catholics Together, Working Towards a Common Mission, ed Charles Colson and Richard Neuhaus SJ, Foreword to UK edition by
David Alton MP. Hodder &
WITHOUT DOUBT Evangelicals and Catholics are the two most energetic amd robust constituencies in world Christianity. Both are self-confident. With exceptions in some regions, both are holding their own in the face of secularism and postmodernism.
Anyone thinking strategically and globally about the future of the Christian faith will have undoubtedly asked themselves about the benefits that would accrue from better understanding and cooperation between these traditions.
For some time now there have been hints that progress might he possible. In the republic of Ireland, for example, there is a network called "Evangelical Catholics". They claim their worship is Catholic in style, but like classic Evangelicals they preach a simple Gospel based on the appeal to the Scriptures.
We have witnessed the partnership of Bishop David Sheppard (whose spiritual toots are Evangelical) and the late Archbishop Derek Worlock in Liverpool. They demonstrated how these traditions can unite in public witness.
Then we have the Movement for Christian Democracy, bringing together more than 11,000 members, 37 per cent of them Roman Catholics, and the remainder mostly Evangelicals from a variety of denominations. Their agenda is gradually widening beyond Pro-Life issues.
For me, the crucial issue has always been whether in
such examples there is a measure of unity because those concerned are united in disagreeing with something, or because a deeper unity actually exists. Is agreement on substantive theological issues possible between Evangelicals and Catholics? Could the day come when there are out-and-out Evangelicals in the Catholic Church, having judged pragmatically (as some Evangelicals in the Church of England have) that it is "the hest boat to fish from."?
The way Anglican Evangelicals and Anglican Catholics have occasionally co-operated in over two decades is a litmus test. In 1974, for example, these constituencies, with their long history of enmity, combined to defeat plans for AnglicanMethodist reunion.
Anglican Catholics were concerned about the understanding of ministry at the core of the scheme. They found allies among Evangelicals concerned that, in common with most unity schemes of that era, this one was based on lowestcommon-denominator theology.
There was a replay in the Anglican debate about women priests. On this occasion the numbers of Anglican Evangelicals and Anglican Catholics were smaller. At times it seemed a very unholy alliance. Even so it spawned New Directions, a robust joint publishing venture begun under the umbrella of the Church of England Newspaper.
These two episodes have prompted thoughtful Anglicans to reflect further as to whether a common faith and commitment to the Gospel exists underneath quite different traditions of worship and devotion. Only time will tell.
Given all these different threads, then, a lot of people
will be interested in developments in Evangelical-Catholic dialogue in North America. Evangelicals and Catholics there have been engaged in discussions since March 1994. This book is the first fruits of the dialogue. It consists of an Agreed Statement, and essays by six key participants.
Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) has not been universally acclaimed, particularly among Evangelicals. Social radicals express nervousness about the political conservatism of participants. Theological conservatives are nervous about fudges, not least over the issue of justification by grace through faith, the key point of departure between Rome and the protestant reformers.
ECT's methodology is interestingly different from the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC). ARCIC sought to look beyond differences to the Scriptures, the Creeds and the teachings of the Early Fathers to discern what Roman Catholics and Anglicans hold in common on key issues.
ECT takes a different course. It first outlines what Evangelicals and Catholics hold in common (the declaration that Christ is Lord and assent to the Creeds). It then spells out what closer engagement between Evangelicals and Catholics might achieve (evangelisation, greater love and unity between Christ's followers). Finally it sets out 10 areas where disagreements or different emphases exist. It is a daunting catalogue ranging from ecclesiology ("the Church as an integral part of the Gospel or the Church as the communal consequence of the Gospel"), the sacraments ("Baptism as sacrament of regeneration or testimony to regeneration"), to
the necessity and warrant for a universal primacy. ECT says this account of differences is by no means complete. All this is refreshingly different from a lot of ecumenical-speak.
Then follow the six essays. some have less relevance to UK readers than others. Charles Colson of Watergate fame, now a Southern Baptist and founder of Prison Fellowship, sketches the Western cultural context, with the challenges of secularism, new-ageism, and post-modernism to faith at the end of the 20th century. Evangelicals and Catholics have no choice but to work as a united front, he says.
Professor Mark Noll of Wheaton College, Illinois, (alma mater of Billy Graham) and author of an important new book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, traces the history of evangelical attitudes to Roman Catholicism in the American, an 4 to a lesser extent British, contexts. There is a useful essay on the nature of unity by Avery Dulles SJ.
The last two contributions make an interesting contrast. Dr JI Packer is one of the foremost Evangelical Anglican theologians and a leading exponent of Puritanism. Richard Neuhaus SJ is a former Lutheran. In typically robust style, Packer tells why he could never become a Roman Catholic, though he wants to draw from Catholic insights. Neuhaus, on the other hand, claims that as a Catholic his hope of salvation rests on justification by grace through faith, This is a dialogue that needs to be kept alive on both sides of the Atlantic.
John Martin was editor of The Church of England Newspaper 1988-95. His book, Gospel People? Evangelicals and the Future of Anglicanism (SPCK) is published next year.