The Dombes Group on the Lord’s Prayer

The ecumenical Dombes Group, which has gathered twenty Catholic and twenty Protestant theologians for regular meetings since 1937, started out as a prayer group, searching for ways to give life to the desired unity of the church. In time it became also a group for research and publication. It now meets every summer at the Abbaye de Pradines, a Benedictine community of sisters, for a week of retreat, prayer, and work on a burning theme in the quest for unity. Its goal is to contribute to the wider ecumenical task and to encourage the churches and believers to let themselves be transformed by a living encounter with the “other” church. The Institute’s Elisabeth Parmentier is a longstanding participant.

The most recent publication of the Dombes Group is a book entitled ‘Vous donc, priez ainsi’. Le Notre Père, itinéraire pour la conversion des Eglises (Paris: Bayard, 2011), which means “Pray Then Like This: The Lord’s Prayer, A Path for the Conversion of the Churches.” The ninth book to be published by the Groupe des Dombes, it is set against the current stagnation in ecumenism when no one speaks anymore of a “grand vision” of unity. All controversial themes have been studied, all the subjects that divide are well known, and that should theoretically lead toward unity. But the churches make no advance, at least if their official declarations are considered. Thus the concern of this book is to motivate pastors and laity to pursue the quest for unity in this climate of ecumenical withdrawal. It is a short plea on behalf of ecumenism, simultaneously intending a reception of the results thus far and also motivating Christians to keep at the task.

What is it exactly that obliges us to pursue the quest for unity? It must emerge from the experience of the Christian life: and prayer constitutes the principal sign of Christian identity, rather than dogmas or institutions. And what do we all pray? The Our Father! Since 1966 there have been common ecumenical translations of the Lord’s Prayer in many different languages used in many different Christian liturgies. Has this given rise to a change in our ecumenical perception?

The purpose of this book is to show just how the Lord’s Prayer obliges us to move toward reconciliation rather than remain stuck in our personal preferences. At the heart of Christian identity lies the message of reconciliation in Jesus Christ. The path laid out by the book is unprecedented: this time the Dombes Group is starting not from the point of view of division but from that of an already given unity. The book shows how it has nevertheless served not the cause of unity but that of confessionalism… and that tells us exactly where we are in need of conversion. For prayer changes us. Prayer is understood here not as a responsibility of the believer, but as the overflow of a gift received. This particular prayer should become the test case: can we pray the Lord’s Prayer together? (See §164 for the answer!)

This approach of the Dombes Group is an updated return to the problematic of identity and conversion. The Dombes Group book that has been the most theologically fruitful is Pour la Conversion des Eglises (in English, For the Conversion of the Churches, 1993), which posed the question of how to think of conversion without betrayal of one’s own identity. Conversion to what, exactly? The book spoke of three identities: Christian, ecclesial, and confessional. Christian identity is belonging to Christ; ecclesial identity is belonging to a Christian church, though it is often confused with confessional identity, which is described as a “partial manner of living out ecclesial and Christian identity,” leading to stereotypes.

This path reorders the importance of such identities: Christian identity is the most important issue, allowing for genuine conversion to the gospel. In this spirit, the point is to let oneself be converted together with others in order to become one church, in a “full recognition of the ecclesiality of the other” (§14). What, then, to do with one’s confessional heritage? One recognizes its value, but at the same time “one questions it on the basis of the values that others have,” and “one renounces its failures as well as its sinful dimensions.”

The Table of Contents is as follows:

Part 1: The problem

Part 2: Historical diagnosis

Part 3: Biblical foundations

Part 4: Ecumenical foundations and challenges

This last part sketches out a theological itinerary based on part 3’s discussion of the “foundations” of the Lord’s Prayer and its major theological orientations as well as an ecclesiological perspective. The foundations are the Father, the kingdom, bread, forgiveness, and temptation. What follows in the discussion of “ecumenical challenges” is the “conversion” based on the same elements, but in a slightly different order: the gift received (namely the Father we have in common), forgiveness, temptation, bread, and the kingdom. Each petition of the Lord’s Prayer is understood in its theological sense: for the individual, as a challenge for the world, then as a challenge for the churches. From this emerges a plea to the faithful but also to the leadership of the churches to incite a change in our attitudes toward and conceptions of “the other.”