1. After the completion of the first stage of the dialogue between
the Disciples of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church (1977-81)
and its agreed account, Apostolicity and Catholicity (1982), it
was understood that the current state of ecumenism required serious
study of the nature of the Church. This came from our conviction
that the Christian identity in itself and Christian mission in the
world are inseparable from a clear and deep understanding of the
2. The choice we made to focus on the Church coincides with the
choice made by many ecumenical dialogues today: the Anglican-Roman
Catholic, Orthodox-Roman Catholic, Anglican-Reformed, and Disciples-Reformed
International Commissions, and the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission
in the U.S.A. The same focus is found in the Faith and Order Commission
of the World Council of Churches and the Joint Working Group of
the World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church. This
is a sign of our day that reveals the ecumenical movement to be
in the midst of a deep probing of the link between ecumenism and
the nature of the Church.
3. For this second stage of discussions, our dialogue met ten times:
in Venice, Italy (1983), Nashville, Tennessee (1984), Mandeville,
Jamaica (1985), Cambridge, England (1986), Duxbury, Massachusetts
(1987), Gethsemani, Kentucky, (1988), Venice, Italy (1989), Toronto,
Canada (1990), Rome, Italy (1991) and St Louis, Missouri (1992).
In every meeting we prayed together, we met with members of local
congregations, and we studied and discussed together the similarities
and differences that characterize our two communities. In our meetings
we focused on how the Church as communion is linked to the new creation
that God wills. We studied the visibility of the Church's communion
(koinonia) as revealed in the celebration of the Eucharist and maintained
through continuity with the Apostolic Tradition. And we focused
on the role of the ministry and the involvement of the whole Church
in maintaining the faith of the apostles.
The Specific Nature of this Dialogue Withing the Ecumenical Movement
The dialogue between the Disciples of Christ and the Roman Catholic
Church has a specific character. This character may be described
in sociological categories by saying that it comes not only from
an encounter between a catholic and a protestant ethos1,
but more particularly from the ways in which Disciples understand
themselves to express a protestant ethos and Roman Catholics understand
themselves to express a catholic ethos.
Generally in a catholic ethos great emphasis is placed on sacraments
and liturgy. The corporate character of the faith in both the definition
of doctrine and its continuing affirmation in the life of the Church
is stressed. Episcopal oversight, rooted in apostolic continuity
and succession, is regarded as necessary for the preservation of
the Gospel and the life of the Church.
Generally in a protestant ethos great emphasis is placed on the
proclamation of the Word, the necessity of the judgment of each
individual's conscience as it is bound by the gospel, and the individual's
responsibility for the appropriation of the Word of God. Episcopal
oversight may be considered desirable for the well-being of the
Church but not essential. Sometimes it has been denied that a specific
form of oversight originates in the will of Christ for the Church.
The test of church structures is the extent to which they are faithful
to the gospel and facilitate authentic proclamation and Christian
These general differences between a catholic and a protestant ethos
explain important differences between Disciples and Roman Catholics.
Not only are their theological traditions and ecclesial structures
different but they have ways of appropriating the Christian mystery
in daily life that are not the same. Nevertheless on some vital
issues what they share in common is more determinative for them
than their belonging to a protestant or a catholic ethos. The customary
vocabulary of division between protestant and catholic does not
apply exactly to the specific priorities of Disciples and Roman
The Disciples movement emerged out of nineteenth-century Protestantism
but it had nothing to do with a deliberate break from the Roman
Catholic Church and lacked the memories of sixteenth and seventeenth-century
controversies. Moreover some of its most specific concerns were
criticisms of the way in which contemporary Protestantism understood
and lived out fidelity to the apostolic witness. It came from the
desire to lead the Church towards a unity rooted in the weekly celebration
of the Lords Supper. Alexander Campbell was convinced that ‘the
union of Christians is essential to the conversion of the world',
an insight which has lost none of its force in the twentieth century2.
The Roman Catholic Church too proclaims that it has a specific mission
for the unity of the world, and affirms that this unity is signified
and given by the eucharistic communion. It too teaches that the
restoration of unity among all Christians is linked with the salvation
of the world. Indeed Disciples and Roman Catholics pursue these
goals in ways deeply marked by their different histories. But they
have to discern whether all these affirmations and convictions are
not in fact the expression of a very profound communion in some
of the most fundamental gifts of the grace of God.
This is why, after a certain agreement had been expressed in Apostolicity
and Catholicity, Disciples and Roman Catholics continued their dialogue
in order to discover the degree of communion they already share.
Their goal is to be together, growing in this communion and fostering
it, and to be with all Christians (as the First Letter of Peter
puts it) ‘Gods own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty
acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light'
(1 Pt. 2:9 NRSV).
To be honest and not lead to a ‘cheap ecumenism' this dialogue required
two important and complementary investigations. It was necessary
first to discuss clearly the issues on which, because of their history
and ethos, Disciples and Roman Catholics are different. But then
it was necessary to discern in what measure these differences are
really divisive. Are they only two diverse ways of manifesting or
living out the same basic conviction? If that should be the case,
another question has to be asked: how would it be possible to express
visibly this existing communion? More precisely: what kind of changes
would be required to enable this existing communion to contribute
to the full restoration of Christian unity?
in Christian Faith and Life
At first glance the historic differences between the Roman Catholic
Church and Disciples of Christ seem to make the division between
them irreconcilable. Roman Catholics have understood themselves
in the context of the continuous history of the Church: Disciples
have understood themselves in the context of their origin as a reform
movement (developing out of the Presbyterian Church) committed to
find a way to overcome denominationalism. Hence where Roman Catholics
have seen the Church throughout its history as continuous with the
teaching of the apostles, Disciples have considered that some discontinuities
in the life of the Church have been necessary for the sake of the
Gospel. Roman Catholics have found in creeds and doctrinal definitions
a sign of the assistance of the Holy Spirit to bind the Church into
one and to lead it into all truth. Disciples have wanted to remain
faithful to the apostolic Church of the New Testament with its vision
of unity in Christ, but have been distrustful of many of the creeds,
confessions and doctrinal teachings within Christian tradition,
finding in the way they have been used a threat to unity. This has
led them to be suspicious as well of the structure of episcopal
authority which Roman Catholics believe is a necessary means for
maintaining continuity with the apostles and with their teaching.
Roman Catholics have been convinced that the college of bishops
in communion with the See of Rome, teaching in conjunction with
other ordained ministers and with the whole Church, is a necessary
means of preserving the Church in continuity with the apostles.
The celebration of the Eucharist (also called the Lords Supper or
Mass) has been central to both Roman Catholics and Disciples, but
the Eucharist has been understood in different ways.
For Disciples the centrality of the Lords Supper has been highlighted
by its celebration every Lord's Day. In obeying the Lords commandment,
‘Do this in memory of me', Disciples have understood themselves
to be in communion with the faithful in all places and all ages.
Hence they have called all the baptized to the communion table and
in particular have eschewed any formal creeds that kept Christians
from taking communion together. However, they generally did not
recognize the validity of infant baptism until the present century.
Understanding themselves as a believers' church after the pattern
of the New Testament church, the Disciples have practiced baptism
upon confession of faith in Christ and have looked upon faith more
as a trusting attitude and a life of witness than as assent to doctrinal
formulations. They have emphasized the role of the whole eucharistic
congregation in witnessing to the apostolic faith, and they have
felt free to designate, as part of their church order, members of
the community other than ordained ministers and ordained elders
to preside at the eucharist, especially if no regular minister or
elder should be present. In the practice of believers' baptism and
in the recovery of the weekly celebration of the Eucharist, Disciples
have claimed to be in continuity with the faith of the apostles.
In celebrating the Eucharist, Roman Catholics also have claimed
to be in continuity with the faith of the apostles. Indeed, they
have seen the celebration of the Eucharist as a way to enter into
communion with the whole Body of Christ. They have emphasized that
the Eucharist signifies the unity of the Church and so they have
invited to the eucharistic celebration only those in communion with
the bishop and through him in communion with all the local churches
in communion with the Bishop of Rome throughout the world. They
have practiced infant baptism and have emphasized the role of the
whole community in supporting and nurturing the faith. In using
ancient creeds and traditional liturgies, Roman Catholics have understood
themselves to be in continuity with the generations of Christians
who have gone before them since the apostles. Faith for Roman Catholics
is not limited to the assent to such formulations, but it cannot
be recognized without such assent. While different members have
different gifts in the life of the Church, only the bishop or an
ordained minister in communion with him is empowered to preside
over the celebration of the Eucharist.
Disciples have been readily critical of some developments in the
history of the Church, even seeing in these developments errors
needing correction, because of their awareness of human finitude.
They have been inclined to recognize sin in many aspects of the
institutional Church. Roman Catholics have recognized sin within
individual members of the Church but because they believe the Church
belongs to Christ and has received the gifts of the Spirit that
maintain it in holiness and truth, they are slow to find sin and
error in the Church's actions and teachings, and quick to see continuity
with the apostolic teaching.
Both Disciples and Roman Catholics approach Church teachings with
appreciative yet critical eyes. Their two different general attitudes
about the Church as an institution lead Roman Catholics to be more
appreciative and Disciples to be more critical. For this reason
they differ on the relative weight given, on the one hand, to individual
discernment and conscience and, on the other hand, to the communal
mind. It can be said that Roman Catholics are convinced that; although
they must decide for themselves, they cannot decide by themselves.
Disciples, on the other hand, are convinced that, although they
cannot decide by themselves, they must decide for themselves.
Indeed Roman Catholics and Disciples appear so different and live
in such different ways that for many of their members the proposal
that their differences could be overcome is nearly incredible.
Conversion Of Vision?
Through our dialogue we nevertheless discovered that, despite these
real and continuing differences, our understanding of the Church
converges on some notable points which both Disciples and Roman
Catholics believe necessary for the visible unity of the Church.
We are convinced that these convergences are important net only
for our two traditions but also for all the communities in dialogue
to achieve this goal.
We had already begun to discover this convergence in the first stage
of our dialogue. In Apostolicity and Catholicity, we saw that our
two traditions had sometimes pursued the same goal using different
means. We became convinced that ‘ the Spirit of God has already
brought us into Christ and continues to move us toward full visible
unity' (p. 4). We recognized that ‘each Christian's faith is inseparable
from the faith of the community' (p. 9), and agreed that ‘every
generation must come to faith anew through the power of the Holy
Spirit and hand on this faith to succeeding generations' (p.10).
We were convinced that ‘there can be only one Church of God' (p.
11) which cannot be destroyed by divisions among Christians. We
were able ‘to affirm the mutual recognition of baptism administered
by Roman Catholics and Disciples, convinced that the oneness we
received by the grace of God in baptism must find its completion
in visible ecclesial unity' (p. 8). We affirmed a common belief
‘that the Church takes visible shape in history and that one sign
of this visibility is the common profession of the Gospel with reception
of baptism' (p. 11). The restoration of ‘the unique unity of the
one Church of God is the goal,' we agreed, and ‘we are already on
the way' (p. 11); we sought a renewed fidelity to actions that would
intensify and deepen our relationship.
In the second stage of our dialogue together we deepened our conviction
that we are one on some crucial issues, and the goal of this statement
of convergence is to elucidate a shared vision of the Church. We
do net intend to discuss the extent of communion between Disciples
and Roman Catholics. Nor will we focus, one by one, on a number
of separate issues that have divided us. Instead we want to present
our shared understanding of the whole plan of God to draw together
and redeem the human family, and the essential role of the Church
in manifesting and bringing about this plan. By beginning with God's
offer of salvation to the whole of humanity and the means God gives
to remember and announce this offer, we have been able to discover
that we share the same understanding of the basic nature of the
is meant the social, mental, religious and philosophical atmosphere
surrounding a group and influencing its way of life.
A. Campbell, Foundation of Christian
Union,' Christianity Restored, Bethany, Va 1835, 103-4 (more
commonly cited in the 2nd ed, The Christian System, 1839, 115).
Alexander Campbell (1788-1866), son of the Revd Thomas Campbell,
a Seceder Presbyterian minister from Ahorey, Ireland who emigrated
to the U.S.A. in 1807, was President of Bethany College, West
Virginia and one of the leading figures in the emergence of
Disciples of Christ as a distinctive religious movement.
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