Ecumenism and interfaith relations are often belittled as being ‘only about tea and cake’ and not about facing ‘the hard issues’.
I recently had an unsettling experience in Melbourne one evening. I attended a public panel forum on ‘Social Justice, Israel and Palestine’. My office, the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese, was not involved in organising the event. But I went along to hear what would be said and, perhaps more importantly, how it would be said. I know that this is a topic about which there is deep conflict but I had hoped that in this environment it might have been discussed rationally and respectfully and with a real desire to find common ground for the sake of true justice.
I was setting myself up for disappointment. From the very beginning the rhetoric from the speakers was filled with vitriol, accusation and personal attacks. This was met in return with shouting and jeering from the audience, despite the fact they had agreed at the beginning to the moderator’s rules against interjecting or even clapping until the end. It was everything that true dialogue isn’t. The hard issues were put out there, true enough, but no one was listening to each other. And there was no tea and cake afterwards either.
What a contrast to the many experiences of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue I have had working for the commission these last 15 years. This year the Western world is recognising the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant reformation. That was an event of great, epochal conflict which lasted from 1517 right through to the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648. Even afterward, the dust took centuries to settle and cover over divisions that still exist to this day. There have been Reformation anniversaries in the past, but 2017 is the first time that the Catholic Church has commemorated it with Protestants. Note well: Catholics are not ‘celebrating’ this anniversary. We are recognising that the conflicts of the 16th century also shaped the Catholic Church of today; and we are engaging with the communities and issues that arose from that conflict.
Catholics and Lutherans around the world have decided together to do this under the theme ‘From conflict to communion’. Here in Melbourne the premier event will be a joint service led by Catholic Archbishop Denis Hart and Lutheran Bishop Lester Priebbenow at St John’s Lutheran Church in Southgate on 28 October at 7pm. And yes, tea and cake will be served afterward. The service will include a Bach Cantata. I encourage you to put this in your diary and, if you attend no other ecumenical event all year, make this your one outing.
Back in February, I had another experience of the move ‘from conflict to communion’ when I travelled to Rome with my wife (a faithful Lutheran) to attend a conference at the Gregorian University on the theme ‘Luther and the sacraments: A Catholic reassessment’. Over five days and together with 300 other Lutherans and Catholics from around the world, we heard papers on Martin Luther’s theology of Baptism, Confession, Eucharist and ordination. Each topic was presented by a Lutheran historian or theologian, and then followed by a response from a Catholic professor. The discussions were a time for learning, for being surprised, for being critical, but above all, for engaging with one another. Since we were in Italy, this time there was coffee with the cake, and of course also much good food and wine, although I found the best place for getting to know one another was over breakfast.
Back in Melbourne the Council of Christians and Jews wanted to do something to mark the Reformation. So they chose to address another area of conflict: Martin Luther’s inflammatory writings about the Jews. The vice-president of the council arranged for us to have the event at his home parish, St Paul’s Lutheran Church at Box Hill. We invited the secretary of the South Australian Council of Christians and Jews, a librarian working at Australian Lutheran College in North Adelaide, to tell us about the history of this topic, leading right up to the Nazi Holocaust (although Luther is unjustly blamed for that). I also gave a presentation on those doctrines that Luther held which might have predisposed him to anti-Jewish ideas; doctrines which in many cases are still shared by the Catholic Church.
The topic had the potential for igniting conflict. However, although it was attended by nearly 100 people, each one of them had intentionally come in order to learn and to listen, to dialogue and to understand. After the presentations came the obligatory tea and cake. And I remarked what a blessing it is that after 500 years, Catholics, Lutherans, Jews and others who were once in conflict are now meeting together over afternoon tea, seeking ways of moving forward together.
It is at times like these that I feel the work of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission is really worthwhile. And it is also why I will never belittle God’s great blessing of tea and cake
David Schütz is Executive Officer of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne.