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A Watershed in the Cause of Christian Unity

September 14, 1987

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) _ At the end of that unprecedented ecumenical encounter, Pope John Paul II looked about at the assembled Protestant and Eastern Orthodox chieftains and said: ″Come and see me.″

The pope’s words, in a private meeting Friday, set a gracious tone of Southern hospitality for a weekend of dialogue in the nation’s most heavily Protestant state.

It was a ″mountaintop experience,″ said the Rev. Mack Branham, president of the Lutheran seminary here which joined with U.S. Catholic bishops to sponsor a ″Day of Dialogue″ on Saturday.

In frank but friendly way, they grappled with the search for Christian reunion, including obstacles such as Rome barring inter-communion and women’s ordination.

The mood was optimistic, and mutually appreciative. It was that way, too, at that watershed summit Friday between the pope and U.S. church executives, the first meeting of such scope and openness.

″We experienced an elevated level of trust toward him, and I think he felt the same way toward us,″ said United Methodist Bishop Earl G. Hunt of Lakeland, Fla., president of his denomination’s Council of Bishops.

″It was a historic meeting of free give and take. There was good fellowship, warm feeling and a sense of basic common purpose overriding differences.″

″Fellowship″ - a customary term in Southern religion which also was used by the pope - also pervaded the huge, strikingly Protestant-style worship service he led before a crowd of 60,000 in the University of South Carolina stadium, equipped with Baptist evangelist Billy Graham’s sound system and pulpit.

″We stand side-by-side to confess Jesus Christ, the one mediator between God and man,″ the pope said, explicitly disowning the once-common Protestant charge that Catholicism looks to other mediators, such as the saints.

″Together we are renewing our common faith,″ he said. ″We are here together as sons and daughters of the one Father, calling on one Lord Jesus Christ.″

There were testimonies of faith, in the style of crusade evangelism. There were gospel hymns and Bible readings by lay members of various denominations. As they joined in the Lord’s Prayer, the pope and other church heads held hands.

″If he had issued an altar call, thousands would have gone forward,″ commented the Rev. Robert Dalton of Cincinnati, the U.S. Catholic bishops’ official observer at Southern Baptist meetings.

It was a vast display of interdenominational devotion, the first such event ever led by a pope, but the substantial strides were in the pathbeaking face- to-face discussions at the home of university president James Holderman.

The key advance, as described by those involved, was in the repeated note of newly established friendship, trust and openness.

″It made for the kind of personal confidence that you could pick up the phone and say ‘Here’s something we ought to do together’,″ said the Rev. James Andrews of Atlanta, executive officer of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Several said they likely were to accept the pope’s spontaneous invitation to Rome.

The pope emphasized an old Protestant principle - the continual need for church reform.

He said that includes reform in Catholicism, too, adding that only by rendering ″our witness more authentic″ and ″becoming more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ can we hope to travel the path of unity.″

In their discussion, Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos of New York expressed impatience at the slowness of specific steps to reunion, and the Rev. Harold Bennett of Nashville, Tenn., urged more cooperation in foreign missions.

The pope responded sympathetically on both scores.

He didn’t immediately address concerns voiced by the Rev. Avery Post, president of the United Church of Christ, about ″spiritual gifts of women in the ministry″ and their pain when this is denied.

However, talking with Post afterward, John Paul apologized for not responding and added, ″I want to celebrate with you the charisms (spiritual gifts) of women.″

The same issue came up at the next day’s session between Vatican officials and Protestant and Orthodox leaders when two women pastors - a United Methodist and a Lutheran - pressed Cardinal Johannes Willebrands on the issue.

Willebrands, who heads the Vatican’s ecumenical efforts, said his church, unlike Eastern Orthodoxy, has been willing to discuss the issue and gives ″much study to the question.″

Still, he said, the churches are collaborating and ″consciousness of this fellowship must increase.″

″The Holy Spirit is speaking and working in us, leading us over frontiers beyond our own designs,″ he said.

Lutheran Bishop James R. Crumley Jr., head of the Lutheran Church in America, urged steps toward inter-communion, saying he felt that only human barriers kept Protestants and Catholics from sharing that central rite.

″We cannot afford to address the world apart from each other,″ he said.

Retired United Methodist Bishop James Mathews of Washington, an ecumenical pioneer, concluded that the pope ″is going all out″ for unity.

″He no longer is just speaking to us, but with us,″ Mathews said.

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