Letter to the Moderator, Uniting Presbyterian Church in South Africa

11 JULY 2018

To The Uniting Presbyterian Church In South Africa,
Emseni Brentwood Park, Benoni;
To the out-going moderator Dr R. Munthali;
T0 The General Secretrary Rev Lungile Mpentsheni,
Greeting from the Catholic Church in Southern Africa and from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in particular.

I am bringing greetings, prayers and best wishes to you on your special General Conference.

The Church of Scotland
On the 26th of October 2017, The Pope met the Church of Scotland delegation at the Vatican, just four days before Reformation Sunday. In welcoming the moderator of the Church of Scotland, a Presbyterian church, the pope said, “Let us thank the Lord for the great gift of being able to live this year in true fraternity, no longer as adversaries, after long centuries of estrangement and conflict.”

“The past cannot be changed, yet today we at last see one another as God sees us,” he said. “We are first and foremost his children, reborn in Christ through one baptism, and therefore brothers and sisters. For so long, we regarded one another from afar, all too humanly, harbouring suspicion, dwelling on differences and errors, and with hearts intent on recrimination for past wrongs.”

“Now”, he said, “Catholics and Protestants are pursuing the path of humble charity that leads to overcoming division and healing wounds; are working together to serve the poor and promote justice, and are standing together to defend the rights of Christians undergoing persecution”.

The Rev. Derek Browning, moderator of the Church of Scotland, told the pope that “wise people tell us we must speak the truth in love, but in the first place we must speak together. And so, not only in our words, but also in our actions, may truth and light and love be the things we exchange with each other.”

“Obstacles must be cleared away!”
I am happy to be here and I come to you, inspired by Pope Francis. Pope Francis says that Ecumenical Action is supported and motivated by faith in the Resurrection of Jesus. He is convinced therefore, “that, just as the stone has been rolled away from the tomb, all the obstacles which still stand in the way of Full Communion between us can be cleared away”. (Pope Francis, addressed on the 25th May, 2015, in the Grave Church at Jerusalem: Ecumenical Celebration on the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the Meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, on 25 May 2014)

Unity is a journey
The Pontiff, with his words and gestures, proves himself to be a champion of Ecumenism, a man who succeeds in removing obstacles and building bridges between the Churches. In doing so, Pope Francis does not pursue a “master plan” for the unity of the Church, because he knows that: “Unity will not come about as a miracle…. Rather, unity comes about journeying; the Holy Spirit does this on the journey”. (Pope Francis, sermon on January 25, 2014 in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls).

Meetings are important
It is therefore understandable why the meetings with other Christians and Churches are so important to Pope Francis: “Meeting each other, seeing each other face to face, exchanging the embrace of peace, and praying for each other, are all essential aspects of our journey towards the restoration of Full Communion”. (Address of the Holy Father at the Patriarchal Church of Saint George, Istanbul, on Saturday, 29 November 2014, in www.vatican.va.)

Lessons I take from Presbyterians for me as a Catholic:
1. The Bible as the inspired word of God is a hallmark of many Protestant religions. Presbyterians believe that the Bible is inspired by God to reveal his presence to all people, but the authors of the Bible did so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and in their own words and with the influence of their times and cultures.
2. On the issue of female clergy. Many denominations believe that women should not hold positions as clergy based on the Bible and Tradition. Presbyterians embrace the contributions of women in our church both as elders (lay persons) and as ministers of the Word (clergy). They believe in the ordination of women.
3. Some churches hand down doctrine and simply expect its members to accept it. Being a Presbyterian puts more emphases on personal freedom and responsibility. Every Presbyterian must find a personal set of beliefs through contemplation and worship Presbyterians also believe the Holy Spirit heightens truth, and thus admit different understandings of the Confession of Faith. Finally, they also believe that a church never reaches a “reformed” state. It is always in a state of reformation and needs to be open to the power of the Holy Spirit for change.
4. Presbyterians also follow a stated, though not a strict liturgy in their church services. One feature of many Presbyterian Church services is reading together and aloud different creeds and confessions. These are statements of doctrine which express the beliefs of a church or congregation. The recitation involves the whole congregation in the act of worship and helps reinforce their common beliefs.
5. Presbyterians follow only what they regard as two biblically based Sacraments. They profess that the Sacrament of Baptism unites them with Jesus and makes them members of God’s family, the church. The particulars of the baptism, whether full immersion or a symbolic sprinkling, are not important. It is only important that it occurred under the guiding hand of a Christian Church. It is the initiation into a church community, a public confession of a person’s sinful state and it shows a person’s willingness to make Jesus and His teachings part of their lives.
6. The Sacrament of Communion, also called the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, is a time to renew faith and focus on the responsibilities and gifts they have as Christians. The elements: bread and wine, represent the sacrifice that Jesus willingly made for all sinners. Together, they represent the new covenant God has made with his children. Any member in good standing in any Christian church is welcome to participate in communion. They are open to Inter-Communion.

THIS IS WHAT PRESBYTERIANS BELIEVE ABOUT THEMSELVES.
THEY SAY THAT THEY ARE:

  • Protestant. We come from the protestant Reformation that began in the 1500’s with the theological thought of Martin Luther and John Calvin.
    Reformed and always reforming. We try to always reform our life and practice, both individually and corporately, according to the teachings of scriptures.
  • Elected by God’s grace. We believe we have been chosen by God’s grace. However, this election is not primarily for privilege, but rather for service. It leads us to gratitude and assurance in our faith, and is best recognized in retrospect.
  • Saved to share the good news with the world around us. Missions have always been a strong emphasis of our denomination.
  • Bible centered. The scriptures of the Old and New Testament are our only authoritative guide for faith and life.
  • Yielded to God for God’s work in the world. This means being good stewards of God’s creation. It means working for peace and justice. We seek to change unjust social structures where they exist.
  • Thinkers of our faith. We believe that God has given us minds to use for his service. We believe that the life of the mind is a service to God. Therefore, we study our faith in order to love God with our mind, as well as our heart and soul.
  • Encouraged by what we believe God can do. Presbyterians tend to balance an undue pessimism about the world with a sense that, with God, all things are possible. We pray for and work for the kingdom of God in the world, knowing that all good things ultimately come from God.
  • Relying on God’s grace by faith for our salvation. It is not our works, nor our righteousness that saves us. Our salvation is by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. No matter how much good we do, we are always sinners saved by grace.
  • Inspired to worship God in all we do. Worship is our #1 priority. Our primary reason for existence is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever”. We make personal prayer a priority and regularly gather to worship with God’s people.
  • Attached to one another by bonds of love. Every person matters to God. Every person’s gift is needed in the church. Everyone is of value and worth in God’s sight. We believe that the church is built up by the exercise of God’s peoples’ spiritual gifts therefore we encourage everyone to find a place to serve.
  • Never afraid to adjust our organizational practices in order to share the gospel more effectively. We are slow to change our theology, but quick to change our practices when it helps us take the unchanging gospel into a rapidly changing world

As a Catholic Bishop, I hold different views on some of their principles and beliefs. On the other hand, I respect the position of the Presbyterian Church and allow their position to challenge me. I realize now, how I little I knew about them and I am grateful for this opportunity to get to know them better.

May God bless your meeting and help us to rediscover each other and to journey together towards full unity.

FROM BISHOP VICTOR PHALANA
Chairperson of the Department of Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue
(SOUTHERN AFRICAN CATHOLIC BISHOPS’ CONFERENCE – SACBC)

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