Last night, I participated in a dialogue between Roman Catholics and evangelicals at Taylor Seminary in Edmonton. The main speakers were Dr. Brett Salkeld (Catholic) and Dr. Jo-Ann Badley (evangelical). I was one of two respondents.
In my comments, I echoed a point touched on by Salkeld, namely that while “Roman Catholic” is a clearly defined concept with necessary and sufficient conditions, “evangelical” is, rather, a family resemblance term that is consistent with being Roman Catholic. That contrast leads to what Salkeld called an asymmetry in the discussion between these two parties.
Then I pointed out the elephant in the room: participants on each side of ecumenical discussion frequently assume that the other is fundamentally in error and needs ultimately to be converted to their position. While that may, in fact, be true, I offered a different way to think of things. I asked folks to consider the most admired evangelical and Roman Catholic of the 20th century (Billy Graham and Mother Teresa). Does it seem plausible that Graham was so powerful and impactful in his ministry and yet he somehow missed the fact that God ultimately wanted him to become a Catholic? Conversely, does it seem plausible that Mother Teresa was so powerful and impactful in her ministry and yet she somehow missed the fact that God ultimately wanted her to become a Baptist?
If that seems implausible to you, then you have a prima facie good reason to believe that God may call specific individuals to participate in distinct ecclesial communions. And that means that God may likewise be calling contemporary participants in ecumenical discussions to distinct ecclesial communions. And that, finally, means that you and I don’t have to view ecumenical dialogue between intra-Christian communions as a pretence for quasi-evangelistic outreach. It could, instead, be a case of the diversity of the body of Christ engaging in self-discovery as to that very diversity (1 Cor. 12).
In his final reflections, Salkeld addressed my comments and noted that it was a difficult topic. He then speculated on the possibility of non-Catholic communions that could retain their distinctiveness while entering into full communion with Rome so that in addition to Roman Rite Catholics there could be Mennonite Rite Catholics, Lutheran Rite Catholics, and yes, even Baptist Rite Catholics. It’s an intriguing thought … much as the idea of terraforming Mars is an intriguing thought. But in each case, it’s a long road from here to there. Still, we can dream, can’t we?
During my talk, I mentioned that Dave Barrett’s World Christian Encyclopedia estimates 33,000 distinct Christian denominations in the world. That observation became fodder for the best line of the night. In his concluding words for the evening, Taylor’s dean, Ralph Korner, observed that while the God of three persons is One, so may a church of 33,000 denominations be one.
Amen to that.