Concerning Membership of a New Ecumenical Body

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Most of you already know that for the last few years representatives of the Catholic Church in New Zealand have been investigating the possibility of working more closely with other Christian Churches in a new ecumenical body that would replace the National Council of Churches. Now, after much prayer and negotiation, and consultation of the Catholic people we find there is decisive support for the proposal to join the new body, which will be known as the Conference of Churches in Aotearoa-New Zealand.

By means of this letter, we wish to inform you concerning the nature of this new partnership. In a letter to the heads of the other Christian Churches in 1985, our basic attitude towards the proposal was summed up in three points:

  • that Christians should do together whatever conscience does not require them to do separately, and respect each other's consciences whenever they feel obliged to act separately;
  • that working together should involve the least amount of bureaucracy that is necessary for effective ecumenical operation:
  • that the structures of such co-operation should be rooted in the life and spirituality of our respective congregations

These basic positions seemed to get strong support during widespread consultation of the Catholic people. Helpful criticisms of the earlier draft proposals were taken seriously and incorporated into amendments to the constitution. Similar view to ours were often expressed also by representatives of other Christian Churches. We have also benefited by consultations with the Secretariat for Christian Unity, Rome. The final text of the proposal represents the basis for a new starting point for future developments.

The new Conference of Churches does not represent the entirety of our ecumenical relationships. The Catholic Church will continue its bi-lateral dialogues with the Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist Churches in New Zealand. Moreover, the renewed interest of many Christians in those traditions of spirituality which have nurtured us as Catholics creates a new opportunity for all of us to rediscover the spiritual traditions which are the rightful heritage of all Christians.

Even though the Conference of Churches does not represent the entirety of our ecumenical relationships, it does represent our commitment to pursue together with the other churches the specific goals set out in the constitution.

The Goals of the Conference of Churches
By accepting to become a member church of the new ecumenical body, we shall be accepting the challenge and the responsibility of working more closely with the other member churches. We welcome this closer working relationship as a stage along the road towards something more important than closer co-operation between our churches. The very name and the nature of this "Conference of Churches" remind Christians that they are in fact divided. And so, merely to co-operate while remaining divided can never be sufficient. That is why, in pursuance of the first-named goal of the new body, we seek the eventual removal of whatever divisions detract from our witness to Christ and to the reconciliation for which Christ lived and died.

Even the church's unity is not an end in itself; it is for the sake of the church's mission. The church cannot properly witness to the Gospel of reconciliation in a divided world so long as Christians themselves are seriously divided. Jesus himself prayed on the night before he died that we might be one so that the world could believe in him and in his mission (John 17:20-23). And so the second-named goal of the new Conference of Churches is about our commitment to Christ and to sharing his mission of reconciliation.

Our commitment to Christ would be insincere if it did not involve a commitment to justice, peace and to solidarity with oppressed and disadvantaged people. This commitment, together with a commitment to reflect on our actions in the light of God's word, are what the other goals of the Conference are really all about.

Such commitments as these are part of our obligation as Catholics anyway, even if we were not intending to pursue them together with other Christians. However, it is also a requirement of our Catholic faith that in such matters we should work together with other Christians. The Second Vatican Council is clear on this:

"Co-operation among all Christians vividly expresses that bond which already unites them, and it sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant. Such co- operation .... should be ever increasingly developed .... it should contribute to a just appreciation of the dignity of the human person, the promotion of peace, the application of Gospel principles to social life, and the advancement of the arts and sciences in a Christian spirit. Christians should also work together in the use of every possible means to relieve the afflictions of our times, such as famine and natural disasters, illiteracy and poverty, lack of housing, and unequal distribution of wealth. Through such cooperation, all believers in Christ are able to learn easily how they can understand each other better and esteem each other more, and how the road to the unity of Christians may be made smooth." (Decree on Ecumenism, n. l 2).

The Basic Structure of the Conference of Churches
The basic structures of the Conference of Churches really only provide an ecumenical framework for this co-operation. These structures consist of

(i) an annual forum at which member churches, and people who look to the churches for help, will be able to listen to one another and decide on how to act together;
(ii) an executive committee whose task it will be to carry out what the member churches ask it to do on their behalf;
(iii) regional forums which are intended to make it easier for Christians throughout the country to participate in the work of the Conference of Churches and to choose their own representatives for the annual forums.

Agencies, Commissions, Decisions, and Statements of the Conference of Churches
The new Conference of Churches is not the National Council of Churches, and it has no affiliation with the World Council of Churches.

Membership of the Conference of Churches involves acceptance of the goals and the structures outlined in the Constitution. Membership does not automatically involve a commitment to anything that is not in the Constitution. For example, the present N.C.C. has a number of agencies and commissions. These do not automatically become agencies and commissions of the Conference of Churches.

The new Conference of Churches will establish whatever agencies and commissions it needs for the pursuit of its own goals. These are likely to include some of the existing agencies. However, member churches of the new body will have the freedom to decide whether or not they wish to support any such agencies and commissions which the new body adopts or sets up, because the member churches will have at all times the right to accept or not accept particular decisions of the Conference of Churches. Member churches are not automatically bound by the decisions of the forum or of the executive, and the Constitution provides that they may also dissent from any of the Conference's decisions or positions.

This freedom is a very healthy aspect of the Conference of Churches. It means that the Conference is held together more by a sincere commitment to ecumenical co-operation and mutual respect than by binding prior agreements. It follows that what the Churches do together will be all the more significant for the reason that they are always free to choose their own ways of pursuing even the goals to which they are jointly committed.

It is to be expected that member churches may wish to retain some of their own agencies and commissions. The Catholic Church will retain especially those agencies which serve to focus and to activate the faith formation of Catholics or the commitment of Catholics to the works of the Gospel.

Not a New Church
The Conference of Churches is not itself a church nor is it a merger of churches. It is nothing other than a number of churches acting together in regard to certain objectives. Each church continues to be the centre of Christian life and nurture for its own people. Indeed, the stronger the life of each member church, the more that church will have to offer the other churches. It is important for all that each member church be strong in its own life and clear in its identity.

It is for this purpose, that each church has its own particular ministries. Catholics will continue to minister to Catholics, both in our parishes and in our chaplaincies. In our parishes and in our chaplaincies we shall continue to co-operate ecumenically. But for us, ecumenical co-operation does not mean that the formal ministries of another church can substitute for ministries of the Catholic Church.

There are informal ways of sharing the Word of God, and of counselling etc. in which Christians of any can support other Christians. But those ministries which have been instituted for the nurture and formation of Catholic faith are themselves ministries of the Catholic faith. They are rooted in the faith of the Catholic community and they are accountable to the Catholic community.

This intimate connection between the Catholic community and the nurture of Catholic faith is especially clear in the celebration of sacraments. Throughout the Catholic and Orthodox tradition, it is the faith of the community that finds particular expression in the celebration of the sacraments.

Our decision to work more closely with other Christian Churches in the new ecumenical body is a particular application of Catholic ecumenical principles to the circumstances of our country and of our time. In other countries the Catholic Church is a member of similar conferences of churches.There will be opportunities for Catholics to be involved in various ways. We urge Catholic laity, religious and priests to look for these opportunities to take their part in this historic development.