AS a young seminarian at the time of Vatican II, Bishop Michael Putney of Townsville underwent what he describes as “a genuine conversion to the ecumenical movement”.
This enthusiasm led him to key roles within inter-Church dialogue both nationally and internationally.
These roles have included president of the National Council of Churches (NCC), held since 2009 but recently relinquished after a diagnosis of inoperable stomach cancer which has spread to his liver.
Now Bishop Putney’s tireless commitment to the cause of ecumenism has led to him being awarded Member (AM) of the Order of Australia in the 2013 Queen’s Birthday honours.
The decision has received acclaim from many of his colleagues including Uniting Church minister Reverend Tara Curlewis, who is NCC general secretary.
“I was thrilled to be able to support his nomination last year,” she said.
“Since then I’ve waited eagerly to see the outcome, so am now thoroughly delighted he has received this richly deserved award.”
Rev Curlewis was present in Townsville at this year’s Walk of Witness to pay tribute to Bishop Putney’s contribution to ecumenism.
A large number of key ecumenical representatives from around Australia also attended the walk, the planting of an olive tree and unveiling of a plaque in the grounds of Townsville’s Sacred Heart Cathedral to pay tribute to the bishop’s contribution to ecumenism.
“Bishop Michael’s been such a significant figure in helping bridge the gap of centuries of history so churches can grow closer together,” Rev Curlewis said.
“In his gentle way, he’s been able to lead discussions, stayed open to possibilities and looked beyond the divisions to look at ways to work and act together as one Church while respecting the richness of each of our denominations.”
Speaking from Townsville, Bishop Putney said he could trace his enthusiasm for ecumenism back to his time studying as a young seminarian during Vatican II.
“Basically, I bought the whole council,” he said.
“I became enthusiastic about four key areas of discussion – liturgy, scripture, lay apostolate and ecumenism.
“In my third year at the seminary I entered an oratory competition and gave a speech about Fr Paul Couturier, from Lyon.
“He was a key influence in modern ecumenism – he converted me to the notion of spiritual, as opposed to practical, ecumenism.”
From this point, Bishop Putney said he had a series of extraordinary opportunities which helped him understand other Christian churches.
“In the early ’70s in Rome, my post-graduate studies gave me a chance to attend a seminar at a Greek and Russian Orthodox Centre outside Geneva,” he said.
“Here I was, a Catholic priest in a Calvinist country studying Martin Luther with members of the Orthodox faith.”
He was also able to celebrate Mass in the Greek Orthodox Church at Pregny-Chambesy Geneva.
“In the congregation were Orthodox bishops, Catholics and Lutherans,” Bishop Putney said.
“Such experiences would shape, form and educate me and ensure I was prepared for roles later in life such as co-chairing the International Methodist-Catholic dialogue.”
Bishop Putney described the current situation in ecumenical relations “as like a journey of 1000 kilometres”.
“About 900 kilometres has been covered in many instances,” he said.
“However, the last 100 is the hardest as we deal with issues such as the Eucharist and the papacy.”
The increasing presence of Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist believers in Australia is another area of interest for Bishop Putney.
“We’ve had to move into inter-religious relations because these are faiths which don’t share Jesus Christ as their foundation,” he said.
“It requires another shift in consciousness.
“The fundamental truth is there can be no peace in the world, unless there is peace between religions.
“Otherwise political and economic forces can use religion for their own ends – so we must engage in this dialogue.”