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Chapter III. Discerning God's Will in the Service of the Kingdom
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Chapter III

 Discerning God’s Will in the Service of the Kingdom

124. The harvesting of biblical and traditional teaching about the kingdom of God and the stories of common witness by our communities in Canada, South Africa and Northern Ireland, presented in the previous two chapters, show how our very identity as Christian communities is rooted in accepting God’s message and seeking to live it out in the circumstances of our time. The pairing of these chapters is of importance for our present report in so far as it highlights the correlation between the Gospel as heard and the Gospel as lived, each illuminating the other. As such they lead directly to this third chapter, which will now consider how our communions discern God’s will for their service to the kingdom within contemporary situations throughout the world.

1. Discernment and the Holy Spirit

125. Discernment may be described as the process of listening to the Holy Spirit in order to discover the presence of God, the signs of God’s activity in human history and God’s will or call in any given situation. It uncovers the presence of the kingdom of God, which St. Paul described succinctly in terms of “justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). Where these qualities are lacking or even violated, disciples of Christ are obliged to work for change, in obedience to his command to “seek first the kingdom” (Matt 6:33). “Discernment of spirits” is one of the gifts bestowed by the Holy Spirit for the common good (1 Cor 12:10); it enables the Christian community to promote the gospel values evident in the words and deeds of Jesus. It gives new insights into the Christ event and new perspectives to the wider community, inviting it to encounter God anew and to profess anew its faith.

126. John’s gospel, in its last supper passages about the Paraclete, illuminates the role of the Spirit in the process of discernment. Jesus promised his disciples: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you” (John 14:16-17). As this passage suggests, the Spirit reveals an alternative outlook to that offered by the world. Moreover, there is continuity between what Jesus has taught and what will be learned from the Spirit: “These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:25-26). Or again, “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:12-13). In light of such texts, discernment may be seen as a process of remembering, in which the prophetic meaning of salvation history illuminates and is applied to the present, proclaiming its implications for the future. It seeks to understand and to communicate the truth of the good news, the liberating power of God in a given context.

127. The Spirit who guides Christians in the process of discernment is also active in bringing about the realization of the kingdom of God throughout the world. As the first Reformed-Roman Catholic dialogue affirmed: “It is through the Spirit that Christ is at work in creation and redemption. As the presence in the world of the risen Lord, the Spirit affirms and manifests the resurrection and effects the new creation. Christ who is Lord of all and active in creation points to God the Father who, in the Spirit, leads and guides history….”82 One of the signs of the presence of the Lord in history can be found “in those movements of the human spirit which, with or without the assistance of the church, are achieving the ends of his kingdom.”83

128. Some might be tempted to contrast Christ’s promise of the kingdom, on the one hand, with the life of the church, on the other. But the Book of Acts militates against such a view, recounting how the Holy Spirit leads the church, through pain and struggle, to discern and accept God’s will. Such discernment can also be doctrinal in nature. Paul emphasizes the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in arguing that gentile converts need not observe the prescriptions of the ceremonial law (cf. Gal 1:6-10). John points out how decisive the doctrine concerning the humanity of Jesus Christ is for the discernment of the community: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God” (1 John 4:2). The Spirit brings newness of life in Christ to the baptized person, allowing the believer to discern the will of God: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2). The Spirit builds up the church by bestowing upon it different gifts (charismata) for the benefit of the whole body. In this way the kingdom touches the church and makes its presence tangible. Moreover, the Holy Spirit encourages us to enter into adoption, freedom and renewal of life of those who, through Christ, are “children of God” (cf. Rom 8:9-17).

129. Discernment also means reading the signs of the times (cf. Matt 16:3). As our consideration of the discernment of our communities in Canada, South Africa and Northern Ireland showed, many factors can be at play in the various social situations in which Christians find themselves called to witness to the gospel. At times, political, economic, racial or other factors can be disguised under the garb of religion or “justified” by appeal to Scripture or tradition. It is not always easy to discover the true nature of particular situations, their causes or solutions. A special danger is that of selective inattention, e.g. overlooking the evidence of injustice because such evidence would require disciples of Christ to abandon a comfortable acquiescence in the status quo and undertake the challenging task of trying to introduce needed change. The research and dialogue needed for discernment demand effort and can be a painful process. At the same time, the witness of exemplary figures of the past and present serves as a guide, pointing the way prophetically to where God is calling the church.

2. Common Sources for Discernment

130. The Word of God is the primary source by which the Holy Spirit guides the discernment of the church. Our dialogue team received testimony about the way in which, through their regular shared reflection upon the Scriptures, communities in South Africa were able to identify situations in daily life which contradicted God’s kingdom and were encouraged to take action to change such situations. Living with the Word of God is a necessary condition for discernment. One of our earlier reports affirmed: “God’s Word in history has taken a threefold form. Primarily it is the Word made flesh: Jesus Christ, incarnate, crucified and risen. Then it is the Word as spoken in God’s history with God’s people and recorded in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as a testimony to Jesus Christ. Third, it is the Word as heard and proclaimed in the preaching, witness and action of the church. The third form depends upon and is bound to the second, through which it has access to the first, the Word incarnate in Jesus Christ.”84 Both of our communities affirm the ultimate authority of the Word of God in discerning God’s will for the church. But the paths by which we claim to have access to that Word can be quite different.

131. The present phase of Reformed-Catholic dialogue has sought intentionally to listen to Christian voices from the past, especially from the patristic era, which provide a common heritage to us, since they date from prior to our divisions. To the extent that this heritage treated the moral implications of discipleship, one can say that we share a common moral heritage of interpreting the Word of God regarding Christian behaviour and conduct in society. Even after the divisions, Reformed and Roman Catholics, although in different ways, continued to be keenly aware of their moral obligation to be servants of the kingdom of God in society. Our traditions learned much from the secular struggles for social change in nineteenth century Europe and North America. Both communities also admit that this history is not only one of success but includes the shadows of failure. This history of reflection upon the moral imperatives of the kingdom of God and of actions or failures to promote its values, especially in the area of social justice, can contribute to discernment today. Moreover, it is important to acknowledge that cultural developments, sometimes without a direct link to the tradition of Christian moral reflection and action, can be decisive for how questions are approached today. For instance, the development of awareness of human rights owes as much to philosophical, cultural and political advances as to insights stemming from explicit reflection on the gospel.

132. Among the indicators essential for discerning God’s will for the church’s witness in society is the voice of the poor. The conviction that the poor must not be overlooked can be gleaned from Jesus’ own words and actions. In Matthew’s depiction of the last judgment, Jesus identifies himself with those in need (cf. Matt 25:31-46); the way one cares for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked and the homeless constitutes the criterion for entering the kingdom of heaven. Jesus was concerned for the wellbeing of people in the present life, not only in the fulfillment promised at the end of time. This echoes the concern already expressed in the story of the Exodus. God spoke to Moses from the burning bush: “I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exod 3:7-8). If the kingdom of God belongs to the poor (cf. Luke 6:20), then we must ask ourselves how the voice of those who are poor, deprived and discriminated against, is effectively and decisively heard in our communities so that they become a guide for our interpretation of the way God is calling us to serve the kingdom today.

133. Discernment takes place within the realization that, while the kingdom of God is present in the life and witness of the church, it is not so in an “exhaustive” way. The church, as foretaste of the kingdom of God, is called to offer a counter-witness to the self-centred acquisitiveness and xenophobia that can characterize cultures today. Christians recognize that the whole of the universe belongs to God and are able to see signs of the kingdom of God in other peoples – signs that the Holy Spirit is at work in them. The first creation narrative repeatedly pronounces “good” the diverse beings fashioned by God in the beginning. This evaluation could be also applied to much of the variety displayed by human cultures and traditions. Respect for others includes respect for all that is good and true in their cultures and in their religions, which we recognize when we see them as in conformity with the kingdom. The church witnesses to the adherents of other religions through the quality of its own life and faithfulness. At the same time, out of obedience to Christ and love for their neighbours, disciples do not shrink from explicitly sharing their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord, according to the possibilities afforded by the conditions of time and place. Not only have Reformed and Roman Catholic Christians been able to work together in a sustained fashion in order to further goals of justice and peace, but also they have been able to collaborate with peoples of other religions in order to transform their societies according to commonly held convictions. We see kingdom values in the life and work of those other faiths and can learn from them and cooperate with them to achieve common goals.

3. Differences Between Reformed and Roman Catholics in the Use of Sources

134. Our use of the above-mentioned sources – the Word of God and its inspired expression in Scripture, the heritage from the tradition, the voice of the poor and the testimony of people of good will who are not Christians – is related to and guided by our distinctive understandings of what can serve as genuine sources for discerning the will of God.

135. The Reformed tradition is well known for its insistence that, in the last analysis, it is only Scripture, read and understood in specific times and places, by people and church assemblies marked by those times and places, that can be the final authority in the communal discernment process. This is not to say that Scripture is the only authority, but it is the ultimate authority. The pattern of discernment regularly emerges from the dialogue between Scripture and life. New insights may emerge when Scripture is read with new eyes or when contradictions appear between certain conditions of life, on the one hand, and the received interpretation of Scripture, on the other. Such discernment is also enriched by the witness of other traditions within the Christian faith and beyond. The fact that Scripture alone has the authority of Jesus Christ in the church means that the other authorities from the past – the creeds and conciliar decisions of the “undivided” church and the recorded convictions of those adjudged to be “fathers”, as well as the pre-eminent confessions of the Reformed churches themselves – can be regarded only as “subordinate standards”. The degree to which these speak in conformity with Holy Scripture is the degree to which they have authority. Reformed believers see such an approach as the proper way to give due place to the Word of God.

136. Reformed people may commit themselves to new interpretations and expressions of the Christian faith, provided these new claims conform to the message of the Scripture, communally interpreted in dialogue with the Reformed tradition. This Reformed position shows a clear awareness of the presence of the Holy Spirit. In the Reformed understanding, church assemblies play a decisive role in discerning, but Reformed Christians know that all ecclesial statements are subject to revision and all institutions are subject to reform, because of the continuing guidance of the Holy Spirit through history. This is precisely the reason why all believers, themselves prophets, priests and kings (servants), are called to become mature in their own faith and able to discern and judge for themselves in all spiritual matters. Ultimately, this is the rationale behind the conciliar system of church governance, widely spread through Reformed churches.

137. Roman Catholics consider Scripture to be “the supreme authority in matters of faith”.85 It is the Word of God, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This Word is “transmitted in an integral way” by the Tradition, which is thus indispensable for its interpretation.86 These convictions are rooted in a deep appreciation of the fact that the writing, recognition and interpretation of the divinely inspired Scriptures are intimately related to the life of the community of disciples. Therefore, in interpreting the Word of God, Catholics refer, as a matter of principle, to the Tradition and to the discernment of the church, especially as the latter is expressed in official teachings. The authority of Tradition derives from the fact that it is guided by the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised to send for the purpose of leading his community into the whole truth (cf. John 16:13). The liturgy provides a privileged place where the Word is contemplated and celebrated in worship and sacrament. Thus the “rule of worship” (lex orandi) is also a most important “rule of faith” (lex credendi).

138. Discernment of the Word and application of it to the circumstances of life also take place in small groups that gather to study the Scriptures and in the personal meditations of individuals as they ponder the riches of the Word in their hearts, after the example of Jesus’ mother Mary. Mindful that Scripture is not a matter of merely human invention (cf. 2 Pet 1:20) and that Jesus himself criticized the way in which some people of his day were “making void the Word of God” (Mark 7:8.13), Catholics believe that the church has a duty to “test everything” (1 Thess 5:21), so as to discern what truly pertains to the Word. The process of discernment involves the whole prophetic people of God (laity and pastors; cf. Lumen gentium 12) who, along with the gift of faith, are endowed with that “sense of the faith” (sensus fidei), which enables them to recognize the Word of God for what it is, to grow in deeper knowledge of it and to apply it to their daily lives. Theologians and exegetes, who dedicate themselves in a specially informed way to exploring revelation at greater depth, offer an irreplaceable contribution to the church’s ongoing task of interpreting God’s Word.

139. Finally, the decisive role in the process of discernment is exercised by the bishops, whose unity in faith and love is confirmed by their communion with the successor of Peter, the bishop of Rome. Catholics believe that one of the reasons Christ selected the apostles and entrusted to them and to their successors the task of guiding the community in his name was to provide the church with a special aid for the process of interpreting God’s Word. In discerning what witness is required regarding social questions, Catholics draw upon the teaching of the universal church, as reflected in the social doctrine of councils, bishops and popes. Ultimately, on the basis of such moral principles shared by the worldwide community, a precise course of action can be discerned locally, by a careful consideration of what the kingdom of God requires in each particular situation.

140. Reformed and Roman Catholics agree that discipleship to Jesus Christ entails the discernment of God’s will regarding ethical issues and moral behaviour. Both of our communities are aware of the complexities involved in moral discernment. The revelation of God’s Word remains for us a lasting source of inspiration in this area, while we acknowledge that one cannot expect to find in Scripture a ready-made solution to the moral situations which human beings face today. Both communities acknowledge the contribution of human reasoning to moral and ethical discernment, although theologians and ethicists within our communities have at times evaluated in differing or even contrasting ways that philosophical understanding of good and evil usually called the “theory of natural law”. As is well known, Catholic teaching affirms the possibility of knowing right and wrong actions on the basis of natural law.

141. Deeply appreciated in both of our communities is the importance of the situation for discerning what should be done in any particular circumstance. Conscience comes in to play whenever there is a question of subjective guilt or innocence. Both of our communities would acknowledge that conscience, as a particular subject’s grasp of what is right and wrong, is formed as one grows from childhood to adulthood and that the church has an important contribution to make to the proper formation of the consciences of believers in light of the gospel. Since moral discernment is increasingly a topic that exhibits church-dividing potential and since our present report has focused upon moral engagement in various social questions, we feel it important to signal some of these aspects of moral discernment here. They need to become part of the ongoing dialogue between our two communities in the future.

142. In this present phase of dialogue, our option to examine the role of the church in relation to the growth of God’s kingdom in society meant that our three stories of common witness focused mostly upon social ethics. We have seen that our common concern for social justice, related to the kingdom of God as an alternative vision for humanity and the locus of gospel values and human hope, enables common witness, which is already going on in many places around the world, even if we are not yet fully united. The kingdom of God urgently calls for our commitment to justice and peace and encourages us to speak with a common voice, as our experiences in Canada, South Africa and Northern Ireland have shown.

4. Different Patterns of Discernment

143. As is true with discernment in general, discerning ethical issues in each of our communions takes place according to different patterns and habits. Roman Catholic moral thought is often guided by the social doctrine that is found in the teachings of councils, synods, bishops’ conferences and papal encyclicals. For Reformed communities, the way of discipleship is aided by an ongoing tradition of social witness policy and ethical reflection that guides action in local contexts and facilitates learning between them. Our communities can find challenge, enlightenment and encouragement in each other’s ethical discernment and witness.

144. Our patterns of discernment are related to, and guided by, our distinctive ecclesiologies and by our distinctive understandings of authority and of the role of experience in our traditions. These patterns encourage Reformed congregations to take their local contexts very seriously and to start with their own experience in that context. While the emphasis on the local context is important in shaping local witness to the kingdom, without wider conversation and discernment it can be too narrow and, in its narrowness, can distort the gospel message. An example of this is the way in which the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa developed a non-accountable kind of local theology in order to justify apartheid. That theology and the life of the church it informed badly needed the correction of the larger Reformed family of churches.

145. However, practice is not always clear, precisely because of the hermeneutical questions involved here. How can one convincingly demonstrate that new claims conform to the clear message of Scripture? The appeal to the principle of sola scriptura might not sufficiently take into account the fact that our understanding is shaped by cultural and other factors. For this reason, many Reformed Christians are wary of immediate appeal to an ostensibly objective deposit of truth, believing that in the face of new challenges in diverse contexts we require renewed guidance from the Holy Spirit.

146. In the Catholic Church, such phenomena as the Catholic Action Movement in the early twentieth century or the development of Basic Ecclesial Communities in more recent decades, commonly followed the method of seeing, judging and acting. First, the given situation was carefully analysed; then it was evaluated in light of God’s Word; finally the community sought to respond to God’s call as that became clear from the previous two steps. Such local discernment takes place under the influence of the sensus fidei, […] that believers receive from the Holy Spirit, whose guidance is necessary for individuals and the whole church in applying the Word of God to the situations of daily life (cf. Lumen gentium 12). Their characteristic sensitivity to the unity of the whole church naturally leads Catholics to look for insight and guidance from other local churches (dioceses) and from organs of discernment and teaching at the universal level, such as councils, papal teachings or synods of bishops. A significant aspect of the ministry of the bishop is understood precisely as that of serving as a link between the local community and the wider regional, national or universal Catholic community. One question that seems to need further reflection is the authority of more localized discernment for the wider community: what weight does a determination by the bishops’ conference of one country have for Catholics of other nations? Our stories of common witness suggested that teachings of the universal church assisted new and positive developments in local settings, such as when the teachings of Vatican II strengthened the ability of many Catholics in Northern Ireland to see Protestants more clearly as their sisters and brothers.

147. It is possible for our two traditions to learn from the strengths of each other’s discernment processes and thus to enrich one another. For example, we can broaden our patterns of moral discernment, not thinking exclusively in ways shaped by our own ecclesiology but seeing how we might learn from each other and support each other. Those whose thought characteristically begins with the general norm which is then applied to the particular situation may learn from giving more attention to the context; those especially attentive to context may gain fresh insight by looking again to the general demands of discipleship which are addressed to all peoples in all contexts. By learning from one another in such a way, not only can the tensions between the local and the universal that sometimes appear within each of our communities be eased, but also we will become more related to one another, each benefiting from the strengths of the other. Thus our different patterns of discernment may begin to converge.

5. The Functioning of these Patterns in Ecumenical Collaboration

148. The fundamental parallel between the approaches of our two communities to discernment lies in our common desire to know God’s will and to respond to grace as disciples of Jesus Christ in specific situations. We do this according to uses and patterns that are somewhat different, as we have attempted to explain above. But the climate created in recent decades by the ecumenical movement has prompted us to join together in this process of discernment and advocacy of the gospel. Living side by side in Canada, South Africa and Northern Ireland, Reformed and Roman Catholics at times were able to witness together about issues of justice, peace and the environment. One significant lesson of these stories of common witness is that they illustrate how distinctive each situation can be. The complex variety of factors woven into each context and the appropriate Christian response thereby called for caution against making facile generalizations about common discernment and witness which would not do justice to this diversity.

149. In Canada (see chapter II), our churches live in a context that has allowed them substantial ecumenical cooperation for quite a number of years. One of the more prominent examples of such recent ecumenical collaboration has been in the area of our common efforts to support the “First Nations” or Aboriginal peoples in their struggle for justice. Our history in relation to the First Nations was not free from that prejudice which overlooked many of the good qualities of these peoples and was, moreover, an occasion for competition and lack of Christian charity between our two communities. In recent decades, by learning more of the values and needs of the people of the First Nations, our approach to them changed. As the narrative showed, the ecumenical climate helped us to join together in supporting their rejection of the recommendations of the “white paper” of 196987 and to act in solidarity with them on a variety of issues. Complex issues regarding the relation of the churches to the First Nations continue to surface. For example, more recently there have been charges and court proceedings related to the residential schools, some of which were run by our two communities. The attempt to assimilate the First Nations by force to the European culture effectively led to the weakening or even loss of their own culture, language and spirituality by many Aboriginals. Nevertheless, it seems clear that a new stage has been reached in which witness for the equality, justice and freedom of the kingdom of God in regard to the First Nations can be a shared effort.

150. Our consideration of Christian social witness in South Africa (see chapter II) focused predominantly upon the single question of apartheid – the policy of racial segregation officially adopted by the government in 1948 – although many other issues were interwoven with that policy. A struggle within the Reformed family was sparked by the theological justification for apartheid offered by the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa. This led eventually to the Belhar Confession, adopted in 1986. The process of receiving this confession demonstrates the significance of confessions within the Reformed pattern of discernment. They are contextual in the sense that the context demands that a confession be made because the truth of the gospel is at stake. For Reformed Christians contextuality implies that confessions are in principle open to revision and evaluation, which may be undertaken by believers from other contexts. A confession has wide ranging authority when it is received by many other churches as an expression of the message of the gospel. Confessions authoritatively define a geographically circumscribed Christian fellowship, but remain open to revision in light of new developments and may be revised or augmented when so required by fresh local insights into the gospel. The process by which the Belhar Confession evolved and was received illustrates how discernment concerning issues that affect the entire church can be made within the synodal structure of the Reformed tradition. It illustrates how the worldwide community cannot remain aloof when a local doctrine or practice is in contradiction with the convictions and practice of the rest of the communion. Moreover, support from Reformed Christians throughout the world served to strengthen the resolve of those who suffered for their witness against apartheid.

151. The Roman Catholic witness from South Africa, on the other hand, showed how that community moved from a more isolated, minority self-understanding to an ecumenical, collaborative role in the struggle against racism and injustice. This local development was influenced by initiatives from the universal level of ecclesial life, such as the appointment of a black bishop to South Africa by the Vatican in 1957 and, soon afterwards, the teachings of Vatican II, which encouraged all the local churches to take up their responsibility as active advocates in promoting a more just society in their various parts of the world. In South Africa, bishops took a leading role in Catholic engagement against apartheid, but they were by no means the only agents in this process. Theologians helped with their reflections on human dignity, on solidarity with the poor and on the church’s role in promoting the kingdom of God. Many individual Catholics, moreover, participated in justice and peace committees and in protests against apartheid, some paying the price for this involvement in imprisonment, torture and death. Discriminatory attitudes within the church also had to be addressed and ecumenical collaboration was gradually fostered.

152. The narrative from Northern Ireland (see chapter II) described a situation quite different from the previous two. Here a bloody conflict between two sides was based on a myriad of social, political and economic factors, but the two opposing groups identified themselves primarily in terms of their church affiliation. Thus this twentieth century conflict shows how the painful divisions stemming back to the sixteenth century are still very much alive and have been used as justification for subsequent division with tragic consequences. The hatred and desire for revenge caused by the violence in Northern Ireland, for the most part politically inspired, posed a huge challenge to establishing reconciliation among members of different Christian communities. Rather early on during these “troubles,” which date from the late 1960s, people of influence within the four main churches began to meet regularly to try to respond to the violence and the sentiments which it caused. The Second Vatican Council stimulated Catholics to relate more to others and made possible some of the steps subsequently taken towards greater appreciation of their Protestant sisters and brothers. The wider ecumenical movement also contributed to such changes for both parties. Various initiatives were sponsored together by the Roman Catholic bishops and the Irish Council of Churches.

153. Believers from both sides took part in frank, often painful, dialogue; and these exchanges witnessed to the possibility of friendship, even within such a tense conflictual situation. Ministry to the families of those who had been killed was a particularly painful way in which the churches tried to make possible reconciliation: funerals of victims became occasions for courageous witness to God’s grace of forgiveness. The isolation of the two communities from one another as well as their self-understandings as churches had contributed to the building up of prejudices and misconceptions. The many efforts by church leaders and their communities were all part of a process that tended towards overcoming these prejudices and misconceptions.

154. Obviously these narratives illustrate, first of all, how Christians face very different situations as they seek to promote the kingdom in various parts of the world. This panorama of ways in which the one gospel inspires a plurality of responses according to the particular needs of time and place illustrates the catholicity of the church. Within such variety, some constant features are present, such as the strength that comes from working together for the kingdom; the participation of the entire people of God – leaders and ministers, theologians and the whole community; the use of public statements issued by churches either individually or together with others; the advocacy organized by committees and task forces; the presentation of programmes of formation in gospel values; the importance of friendship and mutual encouragement; and the role of mutual accountability. Our stories of common witness also show that the discernment of good and evil and of a plan of action in any given context is not, and cannot be, isolated from the interest and contribution of the wider church. Especially when the gospel is at stake in local discernment and action, the community of all the other local churches and, thus, of the universal church as well, cannot remain indifferent, but has both a right and a responsibility to be involved and a duty of solidarity.

155. As our narratives show, the collaboration of different churches on many social questions has contributed to a growing consensus and commitment among Christians about witnessing together on behalf of God’s kingdom. This kind of ecumenical experience participates in the mystery of koinonia. At the same time, when a crisis passes, effort must be made to ensure that cooperation continues to take place. In this perspective, koinonia is directly linked to reconciliation, especially a growing reconciliation of memories, making use of a common reading of history.88 While historical research is of immense value and sheds light on the origins of our differences, reconciliation is possible only when those involved modestly refrain from judging the actions of persons and bodies in the past (cf. TCUC 63), and acknowledge their own responsibility, aware that often the past continues to operate under the surface in the present and thus continues to affect the future. For healing to occur, nothing less than conversion is required. In its study entitled For the Conversion of the Churches, the Groupe des Dombes makes clear that conversion and identity are not exclusive, but mutually presuppose each other: “Far from excluding each other, identity and conversion call for each other: there is no Christian identity without conversion; conversion is constitutive of the church; our confessions do not merit the name of Christian unless they open up to the demand for conversion.”89

6. Possibilities of Common Discernment and Witness

156. The experiences of our communities in Canada, South Africa and Northern Ireland show that we can agree and witness together about some important social issues. Moreover, it is possible to learn from each other and at times to be inspired by each other through such common witness, especially as we come to understand better our differing processes of discernment.

157. There is no disagreement between us regarding the basic affirmation that the church is and should be a community of common witness to the kingdom of God. Common witness evokes and enables the joint action of our churches in advocating the realization of Jesus’ message about the kingdom in different times and places. Our common understanding of the kingdom enables us to read together many of the signs of the times. For example, in South Africa, members of our two traditions, over a sustained period of time and motivated by a common recognition of how Jesus situates the poor in relation to the kingdom of God, learned to work together for economic and racial justice. Both of our communities are committed to listen to the voice of the poor as a privileged source of discerning the demands of God’s kingdom in our world. In this sense, their voice can serve as a kind of “hermeneutical key” for interpreting the signs of the times and for engaging in common discernment based upon our ecclesial self-understanding as moral communities. This is one of the clear implications of the discussions on “ecclesiology and ethics” which took place within the World Council of Churches in the mid-1990s and produced such texts as Costly Unity, Costly Commitment, and Costly Obedience.90 It is also clear around the world in the life of our communions, as Catholics and Reformed Christians live and work together on common projects and concerns.

158. Even as we rejoice in our ability to witness to the kingdom by thinking and acting together in many times and places, especially where we find great injustice and suffering, we recognize that our traditions have distinctive habits of communal discernment. While the paths we take to arrive at conclusions about moral matters sometimes take different routes, we often arrive at similar or even identical moral positions. In such matters as racial or economic justice, the stewardship of creation, violence in our societies or the rights of Indigenous peoples, we not only learn from each other but also encourage one another and work together. In this way we begin to see ourselves as in many ways morally accountable to one another.



  1. The Presence of Christ in Church and World, para. 45.

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  2. Ibid., para. 48.

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  3. Towards a Common Understanding of the Church, para. 96.

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  4. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Ut unum sint, para. 79.

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  5. Vatican Council II, Dei verbum 9.

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  6. See above chapter II.

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  7. See Towards a Common Understanding of the Church, para. 12-63 and 153-156.

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  8. Groupe des Dombes, For the Conversion of the Churches, Geneva, WCC, “Introduction,” para. 8.

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  9. These three texts have been published together in book form under the title Ecclesiology and Ethics: Ecumenical Ethical Engagement, Moral Formation and the Nature of the Church, Thomas F. Best and Martin Robra, eds., (Geneva, 1997).

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