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By Bishop John Sherrington

Recently I travelled to Kenya for the meeting of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the World Methodist Council and the Catholic Church (MERCIC). The meeting was hosted by the Focolare community at Mariapolis Piero outside Nairobi. Meeting from 10th to 17th October 2019, we continued this round of four meetings on reconciliation as this relates in particular to the unity of the Church.

We experienced a very warm welcome from the Focolare Community at Mariapolis, one of a number of Focolare communities in Nairobi. Inspired by Chiara Lubich’s desire for peace, Focolare is an ecumenical community which aspires to build unity between Christians and with people of other faiths. At Mariapolis, the international community of about 30 people felt very affirmed by our presence. They appreciated our choice of venue and celebrated our presence with dance and song. Their compound has a church which is central to it, a number of houses, workshops for wood carvings and textiles, a sports field as well as a few animals. It is an oasis of peace and tranquility in the bustle of the suburbs of the busy city. Some of the members of Focolare provide education and empowerment to people in the slums: their courage and simplicity of life is humbling. Others run courses and retreats for young people. Mariapolis regularly hosts clergy from the diocese for in-service formation.

This year’s meeting was the third of four sessions. We are at the stage of drafting chapters for the final document on the theme. Draft texts were presented and discussed at Mariapolis and the form of the document evolved to four chapters: soteriology (or the doctrine of salvation) understood as reconciliation; the Church and its structures with a view to how our respective structures might be reconciled; practices of reconciliation in the two traditions; and the Church’s mission to take God’s reconciliation to the world.

The final report will be presented to the World Methodist Council meeting in Gothenburg in 2021 and they will later present it on their website with a critical commentary. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity will also receive it.

The members of the Commission are aware that it is often difficult for these documents to reach parishes unless there is a champion for ecumenism or prior good working relationships between churches and communities at the local parish level. The reception of the work of the Commission can be difficult. For this reason the Commission agreed also to present a liturgy of reconciliation with its document to encourage Methodist and Catholic communities to engage in a healing of memories through joint worship.

Each day the Commission commenced its work by sharing together in morning prayer which was led alternately by Methodist and Catholic members. I celebrated the Catholic Mass on Wednesday evening and offered the intention for the repose of the soul of Mgr Denis Edwards, a member of the Commission from Australia who died suddenly in March. Fr Tony Currer from Rome preached about Denis’ passion for the care of creation as our common home and his great expertise in ecumenical dialogue both in Australia and internationally. The Methodist Eucharist was celebrated by the Reverend Dr David Chapman, well-known to ecumenical circles in Essex and Hertfordshire as the Chair of Bedfordshire, Essex & Herts District of the Methodist Church. When we worship together, we bear the pain of separation which is also deeply felt by many of our family members, friends and parishioners. I pray that the carrying of this cross can help bring about the greater unity for which we work.

We visited the Hekima Institute of Peace Studies and International Relations where we heard from the Reverend Dr Kifle Wansamo SJ, the Acting Dean, about the work of the institute. HIPSIR is run by the Jesuits and is part of Hekima College (founded 1984), which is a constituent college of the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA). Commission members shared MERCIC’s work on reconciliation during a time of discussion with staff and students of the institute. The most challenging questions came from young postgraduates who asked, “How do you bring your work to young people and involve them in the process? How do you serve the poor?”. They highlighted an area of our work to be developed and recalled the words of Pope Francis to the Commission when it celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2017, ‘The blessing of the past fifty years resides in the grace we have discovered in one another, which has enriched both our communities. But the task is not yet ended, and we are called to look ahead as we continue our journey. We have learned to see one another as brothers and sisters in Christ; now is the time to prepare ourselves, with humble hope and concrete efforts, for that full recognition that will come about, by God’s grace, when at last we will be able to join one another in the breaking of the bread. I would ask you to pray for this, as together we ask the Father for the daily bread that can sustain us along the way: Our Father…’

We also visited Archbishop Hubertus van Megen, Apostolic Nuncio to Kenya and South Sudan. He spoke about his work in the ongoing peace process in South Sudan and the wonderful visit of the leaders of South Sudan to Pope Francis some months ago. His earlier posting in Sudan and Eritrea meant that he could speak with passion about the complexity and challenges in these counties.

This plenary was hosted by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU). On behalf of the Commission, I would like to thank the Focolare Community of Mariapolis Piero for the generosity of their hospitality and the warmth of their welcome, and particularly Mary Kristine Amata for her help in the planning of the meeting. Next year we will meet at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem where we will be hosted by the Methodist World Council.

The Commission comprises members from the Catholic Church and the Methodist World Council from England and Wales, the United States of America, Canada, Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa. I co-chair the meetings with the Reverend Dr David Chapman.