Grassroots Ecumenism equips laity for meaningful dialogue

By  Laura Ieraci, Register Correspondent
  • March 16, 2023

A joint Lenten series offered by a Presbyterian church and a Catholic parish during the COVID-19 pandemic is the inspiration behind a new book by McGill University professor Karen Petersen Finch that seeks to equip lay people for engagement in ecumenical dialogue at the grassroots level.

Petersen Finch is an ecumenist and professor of pastoral leadership at The Presbyterian College at McGill University. She also teaches in the university’s religious studies department.

Grassroots Ecumenism: The Path Towards Local Christian Kinship, published by New City Press, elaborates on the concept of “local ecumenism.” Aside from the 1984 book Local Ecumenism, edited by André Birmele, the concept of “local ecumenism” has not gotten much traction, and most references indicate “it should be happening, but it isn’t,” Petersen Finch said. 

The local ecumenism she is promoting goes beyond fellowship, neighborliness and shared good works to engage differences in doctrine.

“The idea of actually dialoguing in a doctrinal way at the grassroots level is pretty rare,” she said. However, it “has to have the doctrinal piece,” she insisted.

“Because if doctrine is part of the problem, it needs to be part of the solution. And lay people know that’s what’s keeping them apart, not just culture, not just attitudes. It’s really different truth claims.”

Beliefs underlying Petersen Finch’s proposals are that “lay people can thoroughly understand the doctrine of their own church and can dialogue skillfully with the beliefs of neighboring churches” and that “the work of national and international experts on church unity is not finished until the lay people in local settings participate in it.”

“We’re not assuming that lay people are somehow stupid,” she said. “You don’t need to be trained for 100 years in theology to participate in a dialogue where the seeds of collaboration can happen and begin to grow.”

Adult faith education is “consistent work,” but this does not discount an adult Christian’s ability to engage in ecumenical dialogue that goes beyond good works, she said. 

Occasions for dialogue can be opportunities for “supercharged adult education,” motivating adults to learn more about their own faith tradition in order to have the ability to engage and enter into relationship with the other, she said. 

“You carry the face of your tradition and it’s concretized.”  

Her book tells the story of members of Holy Family Roman Catholic Church and First Presbyterian Church in Clarkston, Washington, meeting online over five weeks last Lent to talk about differences in doctrine. The book elaborates on their method of dialogue — inspired by Canadian Jesuit Bernard Lonergan — and its impact on the local community. 

The lay faithful were joined by their pastors, who were very supportive. Pastors’ involvement “makes a huge difference,” said Petersen Finch, and gives church members “that permission to engage.”

For those interested but intimidated by their lack of skill in ecumenical dialogue, the book has a chapter that teaches dialogue in ways easy to understand. It also offers the theological foundations and reflections on lay participation in ecumenical dialogue in ordinary life.  

At the heart of the dialogue process is friendship, which must be nurtured, said Petersen Finch. She has noticed in many church communities the tendency for some members to be “more naturally ecumenically minded.”

“They’ve already created a web of relationships through an interchurch network. Maybe it’s a Bible study, maybe it’s just a long friendship between a Catholic woman and a Presbyterian woman.” 

She proposed that churches “find these people and put the opportunity and the resources in their hands.”

Petersen Finch said part of her research for the book was conducted during a sabbatical in Rome in 2018. Her experience during that time of living at an intentional ecumenical community of lay scholars, called The Lay Centre, contributed to her ideas on grassroot ecumenism. 

The book was launched last fall, receiving excellent scholarly reviews, but the intended audience is the people in the pew, said the American scholar, adding her hope is that many communities will use Grassroots Ecumenism as a handbook to guide their local efforts. The book even includes samples for flyers and meeting schedules.

Petersen Finch said her book is also about “the power of small movements.”

“While the world is moving away from the other, these small, humble, gentle movements are the kingdom seeds,” she said. “Local ecumenism is really about peacemaking in a dark world.”

(Ieraci is a former Montreal journalist who now writes for Catholic publications from Chicago.) 

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