Institution of The Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission (Originally The Ecumenical Affairs Commission)

On All Saints’ Day (1 November) 1967, Archbishop James Knox established the Ecumenical Affairs Commission of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne. By this measure, it is the longest running Commission in the Archdiocese. Coincidentally (and there is no indication that it was anything other than a coincidence), this date was also the 450th Anniversary of the start of the protestant reformation in 1517. 

It is believed that Archbishop Knox’s motivation in instituting the Commission was the publication by the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity” (later the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity) on 14 May 1967 of the first part of the “Directory for the Application of the Decisions of the Second Vatican Council concerning Ecumenical Matters”. This directory was itself the result of Vatican II which, in the decree Unitatis Redintegratio, “briefly set out the conditions for ecumenical action and the principles by which it is to be directed” (UR §24).



The First Meeting


The first meeting of the Commission (called variously The Commission for Ecumenical Affairs and The Ecumenical Affairs Committee, but finally settling on The Ecumenical Affairs Commission) was held in the Presbytery of St Patrick’s Cathedral on 7 December 1967. It was presided over by the auxiliary bishop of Melbourne, Lawrence Moran (d. 1970). Those present were “Fathers B. O'Connor, J. Cleary, D. Conquest, L. Kelly, P. Willy, D. Murphy, M. Costigan and M. King; Brother [R.S.] Stewart, Sister [M.] Callistus; Messrs. J.J. McKenna, R. Walker, J. Callanan, and P. Conde; and Misses A. Orlebar, and A. Healy. An apology for inability to attend because of University examinations was received from Father D. D’Arcy.” We note that at that time of the 50th Anniversary, the only surviving member of the original Commission is Michael Costigan.

The minutes of the first meeting show something of the concerns of the time:

After a preliminary address by Bishop Moran in which he spoke in general terms of the ecumenical movement and of the Archbishop's initiative in establishing the Committee, the ecumenical directives laid down several years ago by Archbishop Simonds and others issued by Archbishop Knox at the time of the formation of the Committee were read to the meeting.
The meeting then conducted a rapid survey of Catholic participation in ecumenical activities in Melbourne in recent years.
Among activities mentioned were: collaboration with other churches on the question of religious instruction in State Schools; the "Week of Prayer" committee and its two or three annual meetings for clergy; the "consultations" on Vatican II organized by the Anglican Archbishop's Ecumenical Affairs Committee; the Inter-Church Trade and Industry Mission; the ecumenical activities of the Legion of Mary and other lay apostolate organizations ; the meetings of the "Studia Liturgica” group; the Religious Press Association; collaboration between the Catholic Radio and Television Committee and the Christian Television Association; the Biblical Association; participation in or liaison with local inter-church bodies; the commission given to Sister Callistus by Archbishop Simonds as an observer at the: meetings of the Women's Inter-Church Council of Victoria; Y.C.W activity on the Youth Council of Victoria; relationship between Catholic and non-Catholic adult apostolate groups; and the Christian East Association.

It is interesting to see that joint prayer with other Christians was a major concern: 

Bishop Moran asked for the views of members on a suggestion for combined prayer gatherings in St. Paul's and St. Patrick's Cathedrals.
Fr. Cleary said that such a service should be formal, including sermon, hymns and biblical readings. Brother Stewart described a successful combined service of this kind held in the Hobart Town Hall on the occasion of a meeting of the College of Education. Fr. L. Kelly said that Christmas was a suitable and popular time for these functions.
Fr. Cleary said that prayers of unity ought to be offered in this combined way at Pentecost, when the “Week of Prayer for Unity" is observed.
Mr. Conde noted that Catholics had recently attended “Evensong" in an Anglican Cathedral in England and that sung Evensong could be very easily accepted as a type of common service.
Miss Orlebar asked whether or not an exchange of pulpits ought to be recommended at this stage.
The following motion was proposed:
(Proposed by Brother Stewart, seconded by Fr, Murphy). Carried.


 Chairs of the Commission and Episcopal Vicars

The original Chair of the Ecumenical Affairs Commission was auxiliary Bishop Lawrence Moran. Bishop Moran died in March 1970, and Rev. Dr Percy Jones was appointed as Chair in his place (the first meeting he chaired was in April 1970). In December of that Dr Jones was also appointed the first Episcopal Vicar of Ecumenical Affairs. Fr Peter Cross was briefly a member of the Commission in 1972-73, but was appointed Chair of the Commission from 1978 to 1980, while Percy Jones continued as Episcopal Vicar. In February 1981, Dr Jones chaired the meeting, but at the March meeting that year, Fr Peter Kenny took on the role of Chair of the Commission for the first time, for an initial appointment of 3 years. The minutes record that “Dr Jones welcomed the new chairman and wished him well.” Dr Jones continued in the role of Episcopal Vicar, but increasing ill health meant he was rarely able to attend the meetings. He resigned as in November 1989 after 19 years in the office, and Fr Kenny was appointed as the Episcopal Vicar for Ecumenical Relations in addition to his role as Chair of the Commission. Fr– now Monsignor – Kenny was himself to outdo Dr Jones, serving as EV for 20 years until his own retirement at the end of 2009. During his time, the title and role of the EV was changed to Episcopal Vicar for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations. The new Episcopal Vicar and Chair, Fr Denis Stanley, took the Chair at the first meeting in 2010 and continued in this role until his appointment as Rector of Corpus Christi Seminary at the start of 2017. At this date, Archbishop Hart chose to maintain Fr Stanley in the role of Episcopal Vicar, while bringing in Fr Cameron Forbes as the Chair of the Commission.
Most Rev. Lawrence Moran 1967-1970
Rev. Dr Percy Jones 1970-1977
Fr Peter Cross 1978-1980
Fr (later Mons.) Peter Kenny 1981-2009
Fr Denis Stanley 2010-2016
Fr Cameron Forbes 2017 to the Present
Episcopal Vicar
Rev. Dr Percy Jones 1970-1989
Fr (later Mons.) Peter Kenny 1990-2009
Fr Denis Stanley 2010 to the present
Secretaries and Executive Secretary/Officer

The administrative structure of the Commission initially included a member of the Commission who acted as Secretary. Fr Michael Costigan served as the first Secretary until the end of 1968, when Fr K. P. Ellis took over as “acting Secretary”. Miss Agnes Orlebar assisted Fr Ellis in this role, until he resigned the position in May 1970 and she was appointed Secretary in his place. In August 1979, Mr Tom Tierney, who had joined the Commission at the beginning of that year, was elected Secretary. He continued in this role until the employment of the first “Executive Officer” in March 1990.

As early as May 1973, Dr Basil Johns was reporting that “If the ecumenical activities of the Diocese are to even continue, some form of ongoing executive action must be facilitated, and if growth is our objective the need is even more pressing… It seems that the time has arrived for serious consideration of whether or not a full-time officer should be sought.” In June 1973 a plan was drawn up for a structure with an Episcopal Vicar, an Executive Officer and a Secretarial Assistant, the later to act as “a full-time stenographer”! In July 1976 there was a discussion of establishing a Commission Office at 406 Albert Street at one day a week (Mrs Patricia Brock was mentioned in connection with this proposal). A year later, in September 1977, Miss Orlebar reported that “the telephone is now working and that Mrs. P. Brock had indicated her willingness to help the Commission with typing either at 406 Albert Street, as she had done before, or at home.”

Finally, five years after it was first suggested that office staff would be necessary, the first paid employee of the Commission, Mrs Mary McCaig, began working as "office secretary" for two days a week in the Commission Office at 406 Albert Street. In February 1981 Mrs Patricia Brock took on this role, but a year later it was reported in the minutes that “we are making very little use of the office facilities due to the illness of Mrs Brock.” The Commission also, from time to time, appointed minute secretaries, including Mrs Marie Purcell, Sr Mary Lotton (who was appointed 1983 and assisted in the office and with the production of the Bulletin as well) and Mrs Mary Williams.

In August 1989, the Commission recommenced discussion about the appointment of a salaried “Executive Officer”. An advertisement for a part-time position was placed in The Advocate on 14 December and four applicants were short-listed. From these, Mrs Anne Paul was selected and appointed in March 1990, beginning in May 1990 – although still only working 20 hours per week. Reflecting the fact that this role replaced the Secretary of the Commission, the title “Executive Officer” fell into abeyance quite quickly and in June 1992 the minutes were describing Anne as “Secretary of the Commission”. In February 1998, when Mr Jeff Wild began in the position, the minutes record that the “Executive secretary's position is still nineteen hours because of budgetary constraints. The position is to be reviewed in November and that would be the best time to present a case for an extension of the time.” The title “Executive Officer” was revived in 2001 when the position was increased to three days a week. Further increases in funding – in response to an increased demand on the Commission in the new “post-September 11” world – saw the position rise to four days a week in 2005, and finally became full time in 2008.
Fr Michael Costigan 1967-1968
Fr K.P. Ellis 1968-1970
Miss Agnes Orlebar 1970-1979
Mr Tom Tierney 1979-1989

Office Secretaries
Mrs Mary McCaig 1978-1980
Mrs Patricia Brock 1981-?

Executive Secretary/Officer
Anne Paul 1992-1997
Jeff Wild 1998-2001
Paul Taylor 2001-2002
David Schütz 2002 to the present.
Members of the Commission

The initial members of the Commission can be seen above in the facsimile of the 1967 inauguration of the Commission.

(David is currently compiling a comprehensive list of all members of the Commission and the dates on which they served.)

Meeting Venues and Offices

The Commission has had various homes over the years. From 1967 to 1972, the meetings were held in the Cathedral Presbytery. We are missing the minutes that record the shift of the venue to the new “Diocesan Centre” (later named “The Cardinal Knox Centre” after Archbishop James Knox who commissioned the building in 1971) at 383 Albert Street between March and August 1972. But the Commission was not to find a permanent home in this Centre until decades later. In 1973, as discussions were taking place about secretarial assistance for the Commission, it was also realised that any permanent staff would require a permanent office. The Knights of the Southern Cross were approached to see if premises would be available in their building at 780 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne. The result was that from the July meeting in 1973 to the November meeting in1975, the Commission met in the State Board Room on the 2nd Floor of the “The Pan-Australian Building”.

In 1974, the Commission learned that “the two back rooms” of the Archdiocesan-owned 406 Albert Street, East Melbourne, might become available as a permanent office and meeting room for the Commission. Things moved slowly and it was in December 1975 that the Commission first met in these rooms. In March 1976, the Office address was given as “1st Floor, 406 Albert Street, Melbourne East”. In 1979, the Diocesan Liturgy Commission requested the use of the Ecumenical Affairs Commission’s meeting room, and the venue for the meetings of the Commission shifted to the meeting rooms at the Diocesan Centre at 383 Albert Street. In June 1989 it appears that the meeting space at 406 Albert Street became available again and so the meeting venue switched back to that space for the next nine years.

In June 1996, the meeting of the Commission discussed the possibility of relocating the Commission’s office space “within next twelve months, possibly to the Diocesan Centre.” It took somewhat longer than that: a final meeting was held in the 406 Albert Street office in November 1997 and when the first meeting in 1998 was held at the Cardinal Knox Centre, 383 Albert Street, Mr Jeff Wild (the newly appointed Executive Secretary) reported that “settling into the new office has proceeded well”. So at the beginning of 2018, the Commission Office in Room 182 in the Cardinal Knox Centre is celebrating its own 20th Anniversary!
The Ecumenical [and Interfaith] Bulletin

In the early years of the Commission, a “Ecumenical Bulletin” was published and issued 3 to 5 times a year. The Bulletin was published from late 1969 until 1974, at which point it was discontinued for a time, only to be revived under the editorship of Fr Len Thomas in 1984. It then continued until February 2009, at which time we transitioned to electronic communication. All the past Ecumenical [and Interfaith] Bulletins can be read online in the Library section of this website. These provide an interesting historical overview of the work of the Commission.

Ecumenical Summer School

(David is currently compiling a list of the Ecumenical Summer Schools and their themes.)

New Name: The Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission

In 2000 the Commission was given a new name by Archbishop George Pell, and with this change also came a new mission and vision for the Commission.

When the Ecumenical Affairs Commission was instituted, its brief was strictly related to Christian Unity. But the Second Vatican Council had not only issued a decree on Ecumenism, but also a decree on “Relations with Non-Christians” – the Declaration Nostra Aetate. However, while the ecumenical movement was encouraged in dioceses through the publication of the Ecumenical Directory, no corresponding post-Council directives were received with regard to interfaith relations.

The Church’s relationship with Jews was touched upon in an early question in 1968 regarding a meeting of Catholic, Protestant and Jewish school children at Pallotti College in Millgrove – where the issue was the use of the chapel. The following year, it was suggested that the Chairman of the Jewish Board of Deputies be added to the correspondence list of “heads of Churches”. Also in that year, Sister Shirley Sedawie reported that she was asked to “be available” for a possible future “Council of Christians and Jews” that the VCC was trying to “revive”; this prospect continued for some years. But the first case of actual Catholic-Jewish encounter was raised at the March 1973 meeting of the Commission, when Sr Shirley reported that Rabbi John Levi of Temple Beth Israel was interested in liaising with the Commission to form a “Christian-Jewish Social Action Group”. In December 1973, Sr Shirley reported that “some Commission members had met with the Jewish Group: it had been a very open, frank kind of meeting (surpassed all that could have been hoped for) at which problems and areas of interest had been discussed. From that point on, there was a regular report on the Jewish-Christian Social Action Group at meetings.

In mid-1975, Archbishop Little himself expressed a desire for a competent person or persons to be appointed to the Commission with responsibility for Catholic-Jewish relations. At the August meeting “Sister Lenore asked if a sub-committee could be set up to examine the Decree ‘NOSTRA AETATE’ in regard to Catholic-Jewish dialogue. The Archbishop said that he would be happy to hear that the Commission, with Sister Lenore, had a plan which could be implemented on a diocesan level.” In April 1976, the following discussion took place:
CHRISTIAN-JEWISH RELATIONS: Sister Lenore [Sharry] asked if consideration could be given to the extension of the title of the Commission to include Interfaith Relations, in view of the fact that a suggestion had been made, that the time was ready to form a valuable bridge in Jewish/Moslem/Christian relations. One or two Rabbis have been approached and would be interested to come in on tripartite discussions, but the initiative would have to come from the Christians. Rev. Doug. Dargaville (Secretary of the Victorian Council of Churches) asked if the Catholic Church would be willing to engage in this venture, very much in the initial stages. "Ecumenical" in this Commission's title does not come within the ambit of "Interfaith Relations".
Dr. Jones asked Sister Lenore to put something in writing which could be presented to the Archbishop.
Dr. Johns asked if Sister Lenore could speak about the present situation on Jewish relations at the next meeting.
At the next meeting of the Commission, Sr Lenore
distributed notes on the work at present being undertaken at "Shalom" Centre, Kew and elsewhere in Australia, also “Guidelines and Suggestions for implementing the Conciliar: Declaration Nostra Aetate (n.4)” which had been prepared by the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.
Sister then said that she did not feel she should be involved in any approach to the Moslems at this stage : she could be suspected of proselytising. 2or the same reason it was unlikely that the Ecumenical Migration Centre would become involved: already there had been accusations of proselytising. Sister said that the Rabbi who had approached her about Christian-Moslem relations felt it could later help unite Liberal and Orthodox Jews.
At about the same time, it was reported that the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference had approached the Executive Council of Australian Jewry to initiate a dialogue, and that this approach had been accepted. A full report of the establishment and activity of this dialogue group from Fr J.J. Scullion SJ can be found among the Commission minutes for 1979. In July 1983, Fr John Pawlikowski visited Australia for the first time and spoke at Temple Beth Israel. At the September meeting in 1984, a significant part of the meeting was given over to discussion Christian Jewish relations. At this time the establishment of a “Council of Christians and Jews” was still being discussed. In December 1984, the Commission established a Sub-Committee for Relations with Jews, which consisted of “Fr. W. Smith S.J., Fr. Leo Hay O.F.M., Fr. Richard White S.J., Mrs. Anne Bourke, Miss Loan Lloyd, Mrs. P. Malady, Mr. N. Meadley, Sr. Mary Lotton.” The first meeting of the subcommittee was held in March 1985. In 1986, soon after the visit of Pope St John Paul II to the Synagogue in Rome, Rabbi John Levi was a guest speaker at the July meeting of the Commission.

At the August 1989 meeting, there was discussion of creating an “Inter Faith” subcommittee analogous to the Subcommittee for Relations with Jews, but further discussion was deferred “to a later date”. At the September 1991 meeting, guest Mr Martin Chatfield “described the history and basis for modern dialogue with non-Christian religious groups and some of the possibilities for meeting with local groups including Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.” The “interfaith question” was finally propelled forward by a visit from Cardinal Arinze, the President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, in July 1995. This visit involved some encounters with local communities of other faiths. At the Adelaide 1996 National Meeting of Ecumenical Commissions, Melbourne EAC member Margaret Mooney made a presentation on interfaith issues. Margaret also began the practice of giving an “Interfaith Report” at each meeting of the Commission. And at the November 1998 meeting of the Ecumenical Affairs Commission, Fr Peter Kenny reported that he had “recently met a representative from an Indian group wishing to hold a seminar on Hindu Spirituality, and hoping for our support in promoting the event.” A major step forward was the formation of a group called “Catholics Involved in Interfaith Dialogue” on 28 May 1999. Later this became a subcommittee of the Commission known as “The Catholic Interfaith Committee”.

Serious consideration of adding the term “Interfaith” to the title of the Commission first arose at the meeting of the Commission in August 1998, and in October 1999, Treasurer Betty King suggested that in the future budget there could be some item support for interfaith work. Finally, at the September meeting of the Commission voted to change their name at the September meeting in 2000 to reflect this growing involvement with communities of other faiths, and it was reported at the November 2000 meeting that Archbishop Pell had approved the change of name to “The Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission”. Perhaps not coincidentally, at the same meeting it was reported the Fr John Dupuche – Chair of Catholics Involved in Interfaith Dialogue – had agreed to join the Commission and the Archbishop’s ratification of his membership was requested.

The 50th Anniversary of the Commission

On Monday 11 December, the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission marked its 50th Anniversary in a small way with a gathering of members past and present at “The Moat” under the State Library in Little Lonsdale Street. The following attended:

Current Members: Fr Denis Stanley, Fr John Dupuche, Dr Max Stephens, Rev. Joseph Leach, Sr Mary Reaburn, Dr Edmund Chia, Dr Nasir Butrous, Mr Jeff Wild, Mrs Elissa Roper, Mr David Schütz; Apologies: Fr Cameron Forbes, Sr Cheryl Camp, Fr Geoff McIlroy

Past Members: Mons Peter Kenny, Fr Len Thomas, Sr Mary Lotton, Mrs Gwenda Rait, Dr Des Cahill, Mrs Mary Williams, Ms Anne Paul, Mrs Margaret Mooney, Mr Tom Tierney; Apologies: Mons Franco Cavarra, Dr Paul Taylor, Mr Gary Cuthell, Ms Shirley Carroll, Mr Kevin Mark

Interestingly, in the files of the Commission a guest list for the “Silver Jubilee of the Ecumenical Affairs Commission” was found. Here is a facsimile:


From "The Advocate"

"Focus on Unity" The Advocate (Thursday, May 8, 1975) [PDF] A 15 page text and photo "lift out" feature jointly published in The Advocate (Melbourne based Catholic weekly), Church Scene (Melbourne based Anglican weekly) and The Southern Cross (Adelaide based Catholic weekly).
Journey begun, Destination unsighted : the ecumenical movement in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne 1960-1990

We are delighted to be able to publish Sr Mary Leonora Moorhead's important work on the history of Catholic ecumenism in Melbourne. Sr Mary Lou died in 2005, and we publish this work as a tribute to her contribution to ecumenism. Click here to download the PDF file.
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