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home : opinion : our neighbors' faith

4/12/2017 9:00:00 AM
OUR NEIGHBORS' FAITH
Solution to a 500-year rift: healthy ecumenism
INTERFAITH NEWS: A rededication ceremony was held April 3 to mark the 20th anniversary of the Hubbard Interfaith Sanctuary at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, along with a roundtable conversation on “Vatican II: 'Nostra Aetate,' Then and Now” with Dr. Judith Banki of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding (center) and Rev. James Kane of the Albany diocesan Commission on Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs (right). Rev. Christopher DeGiovine (left), former Saint Rose dean of spiritual life and now pastor of St. Matthew's parish in Voorheesville, was the moderator. The discussion was part of Saint Rose's Sidney and Beatrice Albert interfaith lecture series. For more information, call (518) 454-5250.
INTERFAITH NEWS: A rededication ceremony was held April 3 to mark the 20th anniversary of the Hubbard Interfaith Sanctuary at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, along with a roundtable conversation on “Vatican II: 'Nostra Aetate,' Then and Now” with Dr. Judith Banki of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding (center) and Rev. James Kane of the Albany diocesan Commission on Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs (right). Rev. Christopher DeGiovine (left), former Saint Rose dean of spiritual life and now pastor of St. Matthew's parish in Voorheesville, was the moderator. The discussion was part of Saint Rose's Sidney and Beatrice Albert interfaith lecture series. For more information, call (518) 454-5250.
BY DR. REX KEENER


October 31, 2017, is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation -- when, legend says, a disgruntled Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany.

As attempts at peaceful dialogue imploded, Luther was subsequently excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church. Thus began 500 years of debate and counter-debate, reform and counter-reform.

Tens of thousands of the faithful and more than a few merely curious will journey this year to various "Luther sites" to pay tribute to the movement and its makers who have helped shape the current landscape of Christendom.

What have 500 years taught us? How have Protestant/Catholic relations evolved during half a millennium? Specifically, how do modern Christ-followers approach ecumenism?

Certainly, the theological basis for Christian unity and an ecumenical spirit in general is profoundly rooted in the New Testament:

•  In his high-priestly prayer, Jesus prayed that His followers "may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (John 17:21).

•  Paul urged the Ephesians to "maintain the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace" because "there is one body and one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Eph 4:3-5).

The word "ecumenical" comes from the Greek "oikoumene," meaning "the entire inhabited earth" (Acts 17:6; Mt 24:14; Heb 2:5). A basic working definition today might be "the organized attempt to foster the cooperation and unity of all true believers in Christ."

The question is how such cooperation and unity, prayed for and promoted by Jesus and St. Paul, can be a practical reality between professing Catholics and Protestants today.

How can we live out the early ideal of unity expressed so sublimely in the Nicene Creed: We believe in the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church." How can we declare that with integrity?

I contend that "three-circle thinking" must be at the heart of healthy ecumenism: in other words, one must be able to discern and differentiate between what is truly important and what is not so important.

During the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Pope John XXIII opened the door to greater ecumenical dialogue and acknowledged there are authentic Christians ("separated brethren") outside the Roman Catholic fold. Implicit in that declaration is the acknowledgment of essentials and non-essentials of faith -- an understanding that not every mole-hill is a mountain worth dying on.

There are essentials that form the "sine qua non" of our faith: the core salvation principles, made clear in Scripture, that center on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and constitute the heart of saving faith.

They do not change or shift with culture and will never be obsolete. These are the matters of first importance, and we hold them with confidence.

The recognition of secondary beliefs that, while we may hold them firmly as personal convictions, we are convinced that not every true believer must agree with our viewpoint, is also a part of healthy ecumenism.

We have a healthy degree of tolerance and genuine humility toward those with different convictions. In fact, although we disagree, we may respect them greatly, because we see how they came to their conclusions honestly by attempting to exegete Scripture, Church history and personal spiritual experience faithfully.

We respect them as fellow believers who are building on the same foundational essentials. We appreciate their sincerity, authenticity, and integrity. This sort of humble, gracious attitude is clearly evident in the lives of diocesan leaders like Rev. James Kane, with whom I worked on the Billy Graham Crusade committee in 1990; and in Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger, who also models it beautifully.

Furthermore, healthy ecumenism acknowledges that there are many preferences we hold dear for which there is no biblical or historical basis. Rather, these preferences are ways of doing things or approaching ministry that our faith community has chosen because, frankly, we like it that way.

Practically speaking, God is blessing these styles, manners, and methods in our specific culture and context, and is bringing positive visible results through them. But, just as with our convictions, we are tolerant and respectful of those who have different preferences.

To change a preference is not to change the essence of Christianity, but simply the style, manner, and/or methodology through which it is expressed. Just as the "cosmetics" or externals of a house are likely to be changed more frequently than its internal beams and walls, so preferences are likely to change more frequently than convictions.

Healthy ecumenism requires a clear understanding of the difference between essentials, convictions, and preferences and, by God's grace, a determination to keep the main thing the main thing. Such humble "three-circle thinking" would serve Christendom well during the next 500 years, should Christ tarry in His coming.

(Dr. Rex Keener is senior pastor of Grace Fellowship Church, which has four locations in the Capital District.)





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