Voices July 30, 2020
Evangelicals and Catholics in the trenches
Dr. James Packer was a well-known theologian long before I discovered him in the 1990s in the pages of the local Christian newspaper BC Christian News and the journal First Things, my two go-to publications for ecumenical awareness at the time.
J.I. Packer, as he was commonly known, died July 17 and was one of the most influential Evangelicals in the world. At Oxford, he attended lectures by C.S. Lewis and over time became a prominent Evangelical leader in England. His book Knowing God is a must-read in Evangelical circles. When he moved to Vancouver in 1979 to teach at Regent College at UBC, it was major news.
In 1994, Packer was one of the signatories to Evangelicals and Catholics Together, a groundbreaking document endorsed by major Evangelical and Catholic scholars who called for Protestants and Catholics to deliver a common witness to the modern world.
The document did not receive universal praise in some Christian circles who saw the Evangelical signatories as compromising with Rome. Yet there was Packer, a renowned and faithful Evangelical, signing on with the Catholics.
So I was behind the times when I first read about him in BC Christian News, which covered the Evangelicals and Catholics document at the time. The monthly Christian publication was my window on the world of non-Catholic Christianity and Packer was on the newspaper’s resource board.
Those were heated times. Tensions between Catholics and non-Catholic Christians were greater than they are today, although tensions between Protestant denominations were also greater then. In the 1990s, people were still taking religion and matters of faith seriously.
I wouldn’t describe the newspaper back then as overly Catholic friendly, and I may have responded with a letter or two challenging some of the anti-Catholic comments that would appear. Editor Flyn Ritchie, infused with a spirit of ecumenism, reached out and invited me to contribute a series of articles explaining Catholicism to a Protestant readership.
At the time, anything that smacked of rapprochement and understanding between Protestants and Catholics was often looked at suspiciously, if not heretically, and the newspaper took some heat for my articles. Looking back at them, I can see why.
Ecumenical outreach was new to me as well, and although my tone was tempered, the apologetics style I used was not the right approach for the time or the place.
Fortunately Ritchie has remained a friend over the years and now publishes the current go-to website for ecumenism in the Lower Mainland, Church for Vancouver, which frequently republishes B.C. Catholic articles.
Back to Dr. Packer. The recent death of the prominent speaker, author, and theologian was a shock in the Christian community locally and around the world. Unfailingly, in tributes to him, his signing of ECT would come up, seen as either a step forward or a betrayal.
Packer was willing to try to find common cause with Catholics at a time when it was revolutionary. Hans Boersma, a member of Evangelicals and Catholics Together and who taught at Regent College and Trinity Western University, wrote in First Things that for Packer, today’s deepest division was not between Catholicism and Protestantism, but “between theological conservatives who honour the Christ of the Bible and of the historic creeds and confessions, and theological liberals and radicals who for whatever reason do not.”
ECT was merely “playing catch-up to the Holy Spirit,” according to Packer.
Indeed, Packer was as willing to reach out to Catholics as he was to walk away from his own Anglican synod, the Diocese of New Westminster, in protest over its willingness to bless same-sex unions.
There was no theological compromise for Packer, and “in no way did he ever diminish or ignore real theological differences between Protestants and Catholics,” wrote Boersma.
Packer lived the “ecumenism of the trenches,” a term that came out of the ECT movement and was coined by Timothy George, who in an editorial for Christianity Today back then described it as “born out of a common moral struggle to proclaim and embody the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a culture of disarray.”
Over time, the ecumenism of the trenches that Packer lived bore much fruit, particularly in the pro-life movement, of which Packer was a strong supporter, speaking at one of Vancouver’s Focus on Life dinners.
Over the last couple of decades, the ecumenical movement has grown to where the Archdiocese of Vancouver’s office of Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations is in continual ecumenical dialogue with other believers through meetings, discussions, and services.
Unfortunately, the trenches have gotten wider over the years now that we live in a climate that is increasingly quick to exclude anything Catholic, anything Christian, anything of faith.
The good news, however, is we now have more company in the trenches.