by Dr. Glen Alton Messer, II
Associate General Secretary, GCCUIC
One of the things I am often asked when I talk with people about
ecumenical work is, ‘What is a bilateral dialogue and what is its
The simplest and most obvious answer is that a bilateral dialogue is a
formal conversation between members of two communions (churches).
Similarly, a multi-lateral dialogue is one involving three or more
According to one set of logic, the purpose of bilateral and multi-lateral dialogues is as adjuncts to conciliar ecumenism (that
has, for a number of years now, been aimed at the ultimate goal of
‘full communion’ among all council members). Specific discussions are
initiated between two conciliar partners in order to facilitate their
progress in the broader conciliar discussions, moving them past sticking
points that are unique to them — and holding up the progress of the
larger conciliar enterprise.
That’s the theory. And, there is much virtue in this understanding of
bilateral and multilateral ecumenism. It places the primary emphasis
upon the big picture and the multitude of relationships among the
Christian churches. Thus, Christian unity is seen as something
undertaken as a commitment of the whole of the Body of Christ.
In practice, there are a variety of approaches to bilateral and
multilateral relationships — although the ultimate goal in each of these
is the same . . . attainment of full communion status between the
various Christian communities of faith. Each bilateral also serves as an
experiment that informs the wider ecumenical efforts; an experiment in
which different approaches to discussions may be tried, different
methods can be employed, etc. Indeed, bilaterals have been especially
important grounds for discovery and development of ecumenism more
generally since Vatican II (in the 1960s) when the Roman Catholic Church
entered into discussion with various Protestant ecumenical partners.
Since ecumenical efforts are works in progress, there is some lack of
clarity about the status, purpose, and authority of bilateral and
multilateral discussions in relation to the communions that have
authorized them. As the ecumenical movement learns from experience, it
may prove profitable to bring theory and practice more closely together
in a way that unifies all of these relationships within an overarching
Generally speaking, a bilateral dialogue is undertaken in a series of
‘rounds’ (usually lasting about four to five years each — although some
have gone on much longer). A dialogue committee is constituted for each
round with members appointed from each communion. It is common for each
round to be framed by a ‘mandate’ or a ‘memorandum of understanding’
that sets out the goals and a rough outline of the expected process
(e.g., how often and where meetings will take place, whether or not a
‘statement’ will be produced at the round’s end, and so forth).
Returning to the theoretical logic mentioned above, one of the basic
principles of a bilateral is that the committee engages in discussions
in order to speak to the communions that have given it the commission to meet — rather than acting on behalf
of the communions in dialogue. According to this understanding,
dialogue committees raise points of insight, learning, and concern. They
can also suggest ways forward to move the communions closer to the
goals of full communion. In line with this strain of logic is the sense
that a small, select committee cannot truly ‘represent’ the communions
involved. Rather, they are selected for expertise appropriate to the
specific topics to be discussed in the round. The bigger picture is
still the responsibility of the leaders of the communions involved.
For instance, two communions in dialogue may have discussions
concerning their particular understanding of the offices of ministry.
Each communion might choose to appoint scholars or other sorts of
experts who could speak to this topic and explore the similarity and
differences of understanding between the two dialogue partners. At the
end of the round, the committee might draft a statement that summarizes
what was learned and further challenges they may have discovered.
The ‘statement’ produced by a dialogue committee is not authoritative
in itself. It is not necessarily representative of what either
communion holds to be ‘official’ doctrine or policy. Rather, it is a resource
for the communions as they fashion their policy and/or doctrine by
means of their particular processes and procedures. The communions
themselves will decide what value is to be gleaned from the product of
each bilateral round.
Some of the most important things to be gained from dialogues are the
establishment of important personal connections between members of the
communions, and, a deepening sense of self that often comes when
confronted with the task of having to articulate to another those things
held dear by a religious community. The relationships formed help to
infuse the ecumenical efforts with a heart-felt love for one’s
ecumenical partners (recalling that Jesus calls upon us to love one
another as we love ourselves). This changes the emphasis upon the work
of Christian unity from the abstract and institutional to the personal
and familial. It makes the hearts of participants yearn for progress and
for the success of the work. Likewise, it moves members of a communion
out of their world of ‘insider assumptions and givens’ into a relational
space in which feelings, concepts, and ideas need to be explained to
those to whom they may be unfamiliar. Often times in this process,
members of a communion may discover things about themselves — and the
things they take for granted — that they never knew before; or they may
see things in a different light (giving them new insight). One of the
great blessings of a dialogue is that you not only learn more about your
dialogue partner — you also learn more about yourself.
Dialogues have been, and will continue to be, one of the most
important tools in the efforts to actualize broad-based Christian unity.
Among the challenges they pose, however, is the need to keep these
dialogues in harmony with the bigger goals of the ecumenical endeavor.
If this harmony is not maintained, bilateral dialogues could end up
causing the exact opposite of their purpose — breaking down conciliar
ecumenism into a series of dis-integrated two-party relationships
bounded by commitments that hinder goals of broad full communion
relationships among all members of the conciliar ecumenical community.
Here we return to the suggestion above that part of the forward progress
of ecumenism probably lies in the development of a guiding philosophy
that will shape the use of bilateral relationships in the future.
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