Friday, 22 January 2016

Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako and ecumenical engagements between the Church of the East and the Chaldean Catholic Church

Thursday 21st January 2016 , Heythrop College, London

Kristian Girling is to be congratulated on obtaining his doctorate. The Theology Group were pleased to receive from him a paper  with a reflection on dialogue and ecumenical engagement between the Roman Catholic, Chaldean Catholic Church and Church of the East. The divisions between the Roman church and the Syriac churches were over the divinity of Christ...was Mary the Mother of God (Roman church) or the Mother of Christ (Syriac churches)?...was Christ wholly human or God in human form?...can a Christ who is God in  human form be as vulnerable as a 'normal' human being?  Was the distinction a matter of definitive vocabulary and/or a matter of essential liturgy? This  was the moot point of the Council of Ephesus in 431. Over 1500 years later, a part of the Syriac community of Churches is in communion with Rome, the Chaldean Catholic Church. However not the Church of the East which was by far the largest missionary church several hundred years ago with congregations throughout Asia and India; with a claim to be the first Christian Church to establish itself in China. The Iraq-Iran war and the many troubles that followed led the decline in the power and influence of the two churches as the diaspora grew apace and power and influence shifted to the Americas. The Chaldean Church, with the backing of a more prosperous western Church Community, weathered the political storms more safely and the relative influence of the two churches have adjusted to this new reality. It is not suprising then that closer union has been more pressingly on the agenda of the two churches and considerable progress has been made towards union between the Roman and Chaldean Catholic churches and discussion at least begun with the Church of the East. Apart from the exigencies of hte political and social circumstance of the Middle East today, the role that patriarchal leadership has played in the movement towards union has been significant and the relative stress of one aspect of this increasing fellowship compared with another has been dependent on the particular strengths of four of the more recent patriarchs; Louis Raphael I Sako, Rpahael I Bidawid, Emmanuel III Delly of the Chaldean Catholic Church and Patriarch Dinkha IV of the Church of the East. Survival of the Christian Church in Iraq and Syria has focused around the need for a clearer national and united Christian identity in Iraq and the Middle East in general. This continues to be a significant driver towards greater unity of the Syriac churches.

Kristian asked nine questons of our understanding of ecumenism in this context.

The questions posed by Kristian were about the nature of the ecumenical movement itself in this context; 1. How does ecumenism benefit us? what are its goals? 2. Is ecumenism a politically expedient response to internal strife and civil war? 3. Is it a populist movement rather than one that necessarily has patriarchal leadership? Non-denominationalism as opposed to ecumenism. 4. What part does migration and dispersal of the church play as a driver towards ecumenism? 5. What gifts do the successes of the Syriac movement towards ecumenism bring to other ecumenical movements elsewhere? 6. What is Pope Francis's vision for the Church as a whole...for the Syriac churches in particular? 7. With all the internal strife in Christian churches, does the drive towards ecumenism with other churches lack a degree of integrity?  8. What role does the interest in or lack of interest in the Church of the East in the rest of the world play in the drive towards ecumenism? 9. What is the ecumenical vision of the newly installed patriarch Gegwargis III of the Church of the East?

Not all of these questions were addressed in a long and empassioned discussion but many were.  The lack of leadership and inappropriate leadership supporting militarism in the face of conflict were impediments to any visible signs of a recovering church in the Middle East. Leadership in the rest of the world in the face of the Middle East conflict was largely absent but Leadership requires information as a basic requirement and that is missing...Pope Francis, for example, coming from a South American background has little understanding of the political world of Islam. Perhaps information is not the answer or only part of the answer. Do we have the spiritual resources, the spiritual depth to have the courage to recognise weakness as strength and a base to seek and find new solutions. Is diversity of creed and liturgy an obstacle to ecumenism or a gift to be treasured as we all seek to grow together? Are we all hidebound by prejudice and past history and do not see beyong these obstacles to progress. Do we all need to listen to each other more carefully and sensitively?

Christian Muslim Relations in the light of Nostra Aetate

Thursday 10th December, Jesuit Centre, Mount Street, London
With thanks to Kristian Girling whose summary is below;

The Holy See's declaration on the Relationship of the Catholic Church with non-Christian religions published in 1965 by Pope Paul VI at the Second Vatican Council. In the fifty years since NA's publication it has perhaps been one of the most significant in its impact of all the documents published and as to its effects on Catholic teaching extending as it does the concept of God's plan of salvation to communities outside of the Catholic Church including to Muslims in light of a shared monotheism. A key outcome of NA's publication has been extensive research and discussion on Christian-Muslim relations and also as to the extent of shared spiritual connections and perceived shared patrimony between the so-called Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

Our discussion ranged widely but focused on four main points:

- Concepts of authority in Islam and their effects on the direction of inter-religious dialogue.

Unlike the Catholic Church, for example, and its relatively centralised structure with --- at least in theory --- an authoritative governing figure to direct the community, Sunni Islam has lacked an equivalent since the end of the Ottoman Empire in the office of the Sultan-Caliph. A significant issue in the context of dialogue with a strong diversity of opinions within the Sunni community as to the best approach to engaging with Christian communities and as to the degree of interaction which is regarded as acceptable.

- The figure of Jesus Christ/Isa in Christianity and Islam as a point of discussion

Given the shared appreciation of Jesus as a central figure to both Christianity and Islam --- albeit for substantially differing reasons --- that reflection on Him can be a key point of engagement between Christians and Muslims. To what extent this is a useful path of discussion is difficult to determine insofar as Islam strongly denies the notion of the possibility of the Divinity of Christ whilst this is the ``ultimate" fact for Christian believers. Nonetheless, shared awareness of Jesus as central to both Christianity and Islam underlines that engagement between the two religions takes place in a context distinct to that between Christianity or Islam and Buddhism by way of comparison.

- How Muslims meet the challenge of being a ``minority"?

Insofar as Christians have extensive experience of being a minority --- whether numerically, politically or socially --- the same cannot always be said of Muslims who especially in the Middle East have enjoyed superior political status and numerical majority size for at least the last six centuries.[1] For Muslims resident in the ``West" (Europe, North America, Australasia) living in such an environment presents a challenge in lacking a social structure or religious paradigm which they had previously enjoyed: Pakistan and Iran, for example, are both explicitly Islamic Republics. In these circumstances is it possible that inter-communal discussion with Christian communities is useful as a means to anchor their shared sense of religious life as an obligation in environments which are increasingly ambivalent to public displays of religion or with religion as outside the frame of reference of the conduct of private and public affairs for many. Can Muslim communities ``learn" how to adapt in such circumstances in the same way that Christian communities have often learnt to cope with being ``minorities" over the last 2,000 years?

- The continuing merits of Christian-Muslim dialogue

Aside from the intellectual curiosity in and engagement with topics arising from the study of Christianity and Islam is there a consensus as to the tangible and practical benefits of continuing to engage in inter-religious dialogue for both religions? Is there instead a greater need and better use of resources dedicated to a dialogue between communities than a particular dialogue of theology and speculation on shared spiritualities? In many instances inter-religious dialogue already exists as a ``thing" or aspect of societies especially in the Middle East and where dialogue is a dialogue of a shared lived reality than an engagement with ideas on a more academic level.[2]

End notes

[1] Although this experience is not uniform given the numerical minority position of Muslims to China and parts of sub-Saharan Africa, for example.
[2] One example of a dialogue of life given in discussion was the attendance of Muslim students at Christian schools and universities in the Middle East.