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Churches mark 10th anniversary of historic ecumenical covenant in south-east Queensland

Fellowship: Fr Bernie Gallagher, Banyo-Nundah parishioner Dr Rod Perry, seminarian Sean Woods, Fr Odinaka Nwadike, Bishop Robert McGuckin, St Patrick’s Cathedral Toowoomba parishioner Gabrielle Saide, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, seminarian Nathan Webb and Deacon Tom Duncan at St John’s Anglican Cathedral, Brisbane, for the 10th anniversary of a covenant of understanding involving Catholics and Anglicans of south-east Queensland. Photos: Michelle McDonald

CATHOLIC leaders in south-east Queensland have celebrated a decade-long reaffirmation of a “covenant of understanding” with the local Anglican church – part of an ecumenical journey described as “urgent”.

“We are in new territory where everything, even the ecumenical journey, looks different than it did,” Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge said during a homily at St John’s Anglican Cathedral, Brisbane, on May 29, marking the signing of an agreement between churches 10 years ago. 

“But that doesn’t make the journey any less urgent now or any less a gift and a call from God. 

“If anything, the journey is now more urgent even if more difficult, the gift and call more evident even if more puzzling.”

In 2009 the Archdiocese of Brisbane, Diocese of Toowoomba and the Anglican Diocese of Brisbane signed a covenant committing the churches “to work more diligently towards unity and the common witness that comes as its fruit”. 

However, efforts to forge local ties between Catholic and Anglican churches stretch back much further than just the past 10 years, and gained momentum after a landmark meeting between Church leaders in Europe.

On May 29, 1982, Pope John Paul II became the first pontiff to travel to Canterbury Cathedral where he met with the Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie. 

On the second anniversary of that historical meeting, Archbishops Francis Rush and John Grindrod signed a Common Declaration at St John’s Cathedral in Brisbane, which highlighted the warm relationships that had long existed between Brisbane’s Anglican and Catholic communities.

When a covenant was signed 10 years ago, by Archbishop John Bathersby and his counterpart Archbishop Phillip Aspinall, the Diocese of Toowoomba was included because it shares common territory with the Anglican Diocese of Brisbane. 

Growing church relations

“I would say the relationship is good and sound, and there is a connection between the bishops,” Brisbane archdiocese’s Council for Ecumenism and Interreligious Relations executive officer Margaret Naylon said.

Ms Naylon has harboured a lifelong interest in ecumenism and has closely followed growing relations.

The decade-long covenant calls firstly for local Catholic and Anglican communities to pray for one another. 

The covenant includes several commitments that are honoured each year: an annual clergy day (August 16 this year) to reflect on the pastoral, social or theological issues churches face together; an annual service of reconciliation held alternately between Catholic and Anglican cathedrals; and ecumenical committees from the churches meeting regularly.

Ms Naylon said she had seen music and art had flourished between churches, and there were many examples of grassroots connections that happened informally.

“Ministers know each other and meet regularly,” she said.

Ms Naylon described a strong connection that existed in the Woodford community in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, where four churches – Catholic, Anglican, Uniting and Lutheran had forged a covenant partnership almost two decades ago. 

“At a grassroots level they work extremely well together and have lots of community projects,” she said.

Similar covenants exist elsewhere in Australia, for instance in Maitland-Newcastle and Broken Bay dioceses, while in other dioceses ecumenical ties may be strong but without a formally binding document.

“There are reasonably strong ecumenical pockets occurring around the country, particularly in Queensland” Ms Naylon said.

Preacher: Archbishop Mark Coleridge giving the homily at a service commemorating the 10th anniversary of a covenant of understanding between Catholic and Anglican churches in south-east Queensland.

Challenges 

In his homily delivered at the 10-year celebration, Archbishop Coleridge recognised the many challenges faced by both Catholic and Anglican churches today.

“… If we say yes to dying the death of Jesus, as we do in reaffirming this Covenant in his blood, then we really might be ‘salt of the earth and light of the world’, even at a time like this when our ‘brand’, as they say, has been badly tarnished and we can seem like tasteless salt and hidden light,” he said.

“This is a tragically fragmented world, and the Church too knows fragmentation.  

“We almost take it for granted, shrug our shoulders and just get on with business. 

“But the Risen Lord says no to that, and so do we here this evening.

“We say yes to a death in order to say yes to the life of Easter.

“Humbly and hopefully we reaffirm the inspired yes first spoken ten years ago – and we do so not for our own sake or for the sake of a self-absorbed Church but for the sake of the world that asks, desperately at times, ‘Is this life or is it death?’” 

Ms Naylon said she had great hope for ecumenism as churches worked more closely during the next 10 years – “hopefully building on connections in local areas”.

“Because we’ve all got shortages of clergy, we’ve all got reduced numbers attending churches, one sensible and practical way is to get together and do some of things we’ve been trying to do separately,” she said.

Ms Naylon pointed to an agreement with the Anglican Church in Toowoomba for providing pastoral care when, for instance, a priest was needed, but no priest was available. 

This has happened in the case of funerals.

“When there’s no Catholic priest available, the Anglican Church might step in and help out,” Ms Naylon said.

“Practical initiatives, like that, which support pastoral care of people – if we could work at doing that – it would be a great plus – because we are recognising the connection we have through our baptism.”

Ms Naylon said the basis of her work promoting ecumenism and inter-religious relations “was getting people to talk and get to know each other”. 

“Once you start building relationships with people, you discover you do have a lot in common and there is potential to work together,” she said.

“Let’s get to know each other, and from there see what we can do together, because then we provide a far more positive witness to the world, in terms of Christians being relevant, being able to co-operate and actually live the Gospel.”

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