What can we learn from each other?

Picture a meal table in a large hall.

At the table sharing breakfast are two Catholic lay men from Australia, six pastors ‒ two men and four women ‒ from the Lutheran Church in Sweden and a female Uniting Church minister from Australia. Nearby an Australian Coptic priest is in deep conversation with a female pastor from the Lutheran Church in Norway. There is an English Catholic bishop from London, Anglican bishops from Australia, a male Salvation Army Officer from Australia, a female Episcopal priest from New York and a female Lutheran pastor from Iceland.

These were among 140 people from 14 countries, including two from the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, who gathered at the Australian National University, Canberra, in November 2017 for an International Conference on Receptive Ecumenism. The theme of this conference was ‘What can we learn from each other?’, a buzz phrase in ecumenical circles.

That we can learn from each other is significant at the local level as well as the international level.

This is the theme which excites the Ecumenical and Interfaith Council of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

The Council, with Bishop Bill Wright’s encouragement, initiates dialogues and forums with many people of different religious backgrounds. As an Interchurch couple, my husband, Warren, and I were invited to join the Council, and since 2017, I have had the privilege of chairing it, assisted by a group of equally enthusiastic members.

To be a member of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Council in this diocese is a joy. We share the love of Jesus and want to provide spaces for others to share what they can learn from each other. Our vision is to live the joy of the Gospel, to “Love one another as I have loved you that you also love one another and share it with the world.” (John 13:34)

At our monthly meetings, we always set aside time for formation through reading, meeting with those of different traditions and prayer. Over the past six months we have sponsored various ecumenical activities.

Captain Stephen Oliver invited us to the Hamilton Salvation Army Corps where he shared his faith and invited questions.

Father Andrew Eaton from Wallsend Anglican Church invited us to learn about Anglicanism.

At Jesmond Park Uniting Church, we hosted a forum on lay ministry where Anglican, Catholic, Salvation Army and Uniting Church representatives spoke and answered questions.

We always provide hospitality, to give time for conversations to flow.

We meet with the Bishops and Councils of the Dioceses of Broken Bay and Newcastle regularly to decide how the Tri-Diocesan Covenant, established in 2008, can continue to be expressed.

The Council encourages World Day of Prayer in parishes. Sadly, we have been unable to encourage churches to continue to celebrate Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. In 2019, we will continue to encourage Catholic parishes to gather and study ‘The Gift of Each Other’ – Learning from Other Christians (NSW Ecumenical Council).

In 2001, Warren and I completed a Summer School at Tantur in the Holy Land. The faculty was mainly Lutheran and Catholic, with visiting Jewish and Muslim scholars.

When we returned to Newcastle, we met few people of other faiths.

A turning point for me occurred when we first joined the Council. We were invited to an end of Ramadan meal at Marylands. I was bowled over by the hospitality of the Muslim community. A heavily pregnant woman insisted on serving me before herself, even though she would have been fasting that day.

Again, I was challenged to consider, ‘What can we learn from each other?’

Each year, the Council hosts a Sisters in Faith Peace meal, where women of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith gather for a meal. This year we have hosted a Brothers in Faith Peace Meal, where men have gathered for a barbecue at a farm near Singleton.

In 2017, we shared with the Newcastle Jewish community. A member of the community spoke to a gathering and then invited us to worship in the Newcastle Synagogue. Many accepted the invitation.

Similarly, we shared with the Muslim community at the Mayfield Mosque, with one of their leaders speaking to us, and he invited us to worship with them, which many did.

Each member of the Council brings different interests. Consequently, in May we accepted our first invitation to morning tea with the Buddhist community at Morisset and there are plans to meet with the local Hindu and Sikh communities.

For some Christians, Council-sponsored ecumenical or interfaith activities are challenging. For some, there is still the pain of difficult memories linked to families, school or work. The Council recognises this and offers opportunities for meetings and education over hospitality as a way of lessening division.

The question is always, ‘What can we learn from each other?’

For further information on Council activities, click here 


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Reverend Christine Sheppard OAM Image
Reverend Christine Sheppard OAM

Christine Sheppard OAM is the Chairperson, Ecumenical and Interfaith Council, Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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