The next cycle of dialogue with Catholics, on which justice will be the subject, will begin in June

The unity that Jesus prayed for in John 17:21, “that they might all be one,” turned out to be a long-term project, involving much dialogue.

For the United Church of Christ, which considers this prayer its founding motto, the next round of these talks will begin June 5-7.

That’s when representatives of the Reformed churches in the United States will launch the next in a series of dialogues with their Catholic counterparts. This round will include a topic familiar to many UCC “just world for all” members: justice.

The four Reformed participants share roots in a particular branch of the 16th century Reformation. These are the UCC, the Reformed Christian Churchthe Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Reformed Church in America. Each will send three representatives. Their interlocutors will be six representatives appointed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

How Dialog Works

“This is the ninth round of dialogue since Vatican II,” said the Rev. Mark Pettis, UCC’s head of ecumenical and interreligious relations. Vatican II — the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church — revised the official practices of that Church in many areas. One of the results has been a new openness to dialogue with other denominations.

In the case of the American Catholic-Reform dialogue, each cycle typically takes five to seven years, Pettis said. This involves a series of face-to-face meetings to discuss the chosen topic. Between meetings, dialogue partners break into interfaith teams to explore emerging issues. They discuss and write about these issues and report them to the whole group. Finally, a final, formal and common report results.

At each gathering, conversations take place in plenary. But there is also time for Catholic and Reform caucus participants separately. There are even breaks for each of the four reformed denominations, which have their own similarities and differences. For the UCC delegation, Pettis said “part of our responsibility is to present our interpretation of how UCC lives Reformed theology.”

Words from Jesus’ prayer in John 17:21 have appeared in versions of the UCC emblem, including this contemporary “coat of arms”, since the denomination’s early years.

The upcoming round was supposed to start in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed it until now. The parties will meet in person at the Chicago offices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. (The ELCA is, incidentally, a full communion partner of the UCC but is not part of this dialogue. It participates in a separate Lutheran-Catholic dialogue.)

Pettis will be one of three UCC representatives at the talks. Joining him will be the Revs. Stephen Ray Jr.retired president of Chicago Theological Seminaryand Barbara Blodgettassociate dean of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. They succeed the UCC delegation of the last round: the Revs. Karen Georgia Thompson, Sidney Fowler and Randy Walker.

what they will talk about

The dialogues do not shy away from tackling topics that over the centuries have been points of tension between various branches of Christianity.

Past rounds have addressed themes such as:

  • Baptism. A 142-page report in 2007 included a “common agreement” on this sacrament. He encouraged all partners to recognize each other’s baptisms and described the practices that would make this possible.
  • Eucharist / Lord’s Supper. A 63-page report in 2010 said the dialogue had increased understanding between Catholics and Reformed. But he admitted, with “pain”, that “because visible unity does not exist, we are not yet at the point where we can fully participate in this sacrament together”. He also prayed that the two would grow in “deeper communion” with Christ “and therefore in deeper communion with each other until the day when we can share in full communion around your table” .
  • Ministry. An 86-page report in 2017 called the ministry “shared by all of God’s people.” As for ordained ministers and other specially authorized ministers, he discussed a wide range of commonalities and differences on topics such as ordination rites, whether ordination is a sacrament, and the ordination of women.

This time, “Justification and Justice” will be the topic. It has deep biblical roots. To take just two examples, it can be found in the Hebrew prophets (“let justice flow like water”, Amos 5:24) and the Christian epistles (people are “justified” by the grace of God “like a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” Romans 3:23-24).

Pettis said the dialogue will both flow from past topics and connect with them – asking, for example, “How do the conversations we’ve had work with our understanding of our call to seek justice?”

Model honest dialogue

Talking about agreements and differences — and giving those conversations the time and grace they need — is itself an indispensable model in today’s world, Pettis said. Each round takes so long because many problems are “not so simple”.

“What I find intriguing about a dialogue like this is that whatever report we come up with, it will articulate the areas we find agreement on,” he said. “There will also be, I suppose, an acknowledgment of the areas we disagree on. The fact that we can do this is significant in itself, especially in a culture where this rarely happens.

And while the dialogues dig deep into the Bible, theology and history, they also have practical implications for ordinary Christians. Earlier reports answered questions such as: Why might another church offer you the Sacrament of Communion, or why not? Why would a visitor feel comfortable receiving him in your church, or why not? What language spoken at baptism is likely to be recognized by other churches? Why keep baptismal records in a local church?

Indeed, national church officials hope neighbors in local communities will speak up too. “The best ecumenism always happens at the local level,” said the 2010 document on the Eucharist. “While it is good and necessary for religious leaders and theologians to meet in dialogue to discuss issues central to the restoration of Christian unity, no discussion or dialogue will have lasting impact if ideas, knowledge and understanding gained there does not find its way into the daily lives of Reformed and Roman Catholic Christians.

The reason for the Catholic-Reformed dialogue — and others like it — is to “demonstrate movement toward unity in the body of Christ,” Pettis said. And that matters to UCC, he said, “because that’s our goal. As a denomination born out of the movement towards Christian unity in the mid-20e century, it is deep within us to be in these conversations.

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United Church of Christ News

Jessica C. Bell