Disciples News Service

The Problems and Promise of Dialogue: WCC dispatch #7

By Nathan Wilson

Dialogue, someone said, is the art of thinking together.

I note this idea often, most recently during a Madang workshop titled “Ecumenical Dialogue: Seeking Consensus or Reconciling Theologies?” held today at the World Council of Churches’ 10th Assembly in Busan, Republic of Korea.

Before describing highlights of the workshop, it is worthwhile to note the sponsor of the workshop: The Johann-Adam-Mohler-Institute for Ecumenics, which was founded by the Roman Catholic Church in 1957.  At that time ecumenical dialogue was not generally accepted within the Roman Catholic Church. 

Then the Second Vatican Council took place (1962 – 1965), and this young Institute took off – actively participating in many national and international dialogues of both the bilateral and multilateral flavors.  Its staff grew, and eventually it was connected to a university and given credibility.  

I’ll name three highlights from the workshop particularly important to Disciples.

  • First, major ecumenical dialogues historically addressed doctrinal questions.  More recently, however, ethical topics have been the focus of some dialogues.  Whereas dialogues about doctrinal questions are difficult largely due to ecclesial history, dialogues about ethical questions are difficult due to different methodological approaches. 

The reason I name this highlight is that it is oftentimes important to identify one’s process of analyzing a given social issue if there is to be progress discussing the issue.  That is true between denominations, just as that is true within congregations!

  • Second, a significant challenge to those engaged in ecumenical dialogue is to think about reception from the beginning.  In other words, who is the audience for the results of the dialogue?  What are best ways for those results to be received?

I mention this highlight because of the many times reports or papers come from assemblies or seminaries corrupted by theological jargon.  Whether it is dialogue reports or Disciples General Assembly resolutions, they must be written in ways that the audience – real life people in the pews – can understand and use.

  • Third, it is well known that Christianity is growing fastest in the global south. Unfortunately, southerners do not tend to participate in ecumenical dialogues.

I mention this highlight because it raises interrelated questions about how to involve more participants from the global south, how to communicate results there, and how to be sure the dialogues address issues relevant to the global south.

One important bilateral dialogue that has been active for over 25 years is the Disciples of Christ – Roman Catholic Dialogue. This dialogue is now in its fifth phase. The current them is “Christians Formed and Transformed by the Eucharist.”  More information is available on the Council on Christian Unity’s web site, www.ccu.disciples.org.

Thinking together is not easy, but it can be fruitful. 

Wilson pastors First Christian Church in Shelbyville, Indiana, and coordinates the “Faith & Values” section of The Indianapolis Star. He is an accredited media representative at the WCC’s 10th Assembly in Busan, Republic of Korea.