The Holy See
back up


Report of the Methodist-Roman Catholic Dialogue



The more one reads and reflects upon The Word of Life. A Statement on Revelation and Faith, the more impressive this document appears. One senses that those whose efforts produced it were quite aware that dialogue between these two communities has now evolved over a substantial period of thirty years, comprising a journey that has had distinctive and progressively evolving stages (paragraphs 89 and 131).[1] The Word of Life may be considered as an attempt to express the extent of agreement between Methodists and Roman Catholics about some of the most fundamental issues concerning God's revelation and its reception by the Church, and to organize these agreements within an overarching framework which is expressive of the essential elements of ecclesial unity.

The following remarks are divided into four sections. A first part will present the unique context of this Methodist-Roman Catholic dialogue. The second will discuss some general traits about the present document taken as a whole. Part III, the longest subdivision, will comment upon each of its five specific sections, pointing out positive convergences and discussing difficulties which yet remain. On the basis of these remarks, a brief conclusion will look toward the future.

Part I: Context

The Word of Life marks the thirty year milestone of Methodist-Roman Catholic dialogue at the international level. This dialogue, right from its start, has been characterized by a unique circumstance. Unlike dialogue between Roman Catholics and Orthodox, Lutherans or Anglicans, Catholics and Methodists felt themselves to be yet a further step removed from each other, rather analogous to the relation between second cousins, since Methodism originated from within the Church of England (18th Century), long after the division between the latter community and the Catholic Church had occurred (16th Century). This unique circumstance implied that the participants could not look back to a moment in which doctrinal issues were the cause of division between them, issues which thus could serve as a principal theme for their ecumenical discussions.

This particular circumstance seems to have had two major consequences. One the one hand, the process of mutual acquaintance assumed an importance which was more pronounced than in those dialogues which focused on the healing of a specific, historical point of division. Instead, it was necessary to explore at greater length the degree of communion between Methodists and Catholics in faith and life, as well as to delineate more precisely the issues which divide them. For this reason, one gets the impression from the earliest documents produced by this dialogue that the participants were convinced that their work would have to be situated on a longer time-line, in which the discovery of broader perspectives of common faith would need to be made explicit so as to provide a framework within which any specific disagreements subsequently could be addressed.

A second distinctive quality which characterized this dialogue was the fact that there seemed to be a certain congeniality between John Wesley's emphasis upon sanctification, so prominent as a defining trait of Methodism, and some aspects of Roman Catholic faith, especially as it was expressed in response to the Reformation. The emphasis on spirituality, on marriage and the family, and on moral questions which one finds in the Denver Report (1971), the Dublin Report (1976) and the Agreed Statement on the Holy Spirit (1981), as well as the development of the ways in which the Holy Spirit patterns the Christian life within the community of the Church in the statements on the Church (1986) and on the Apostolic Tradition (1991) all reflect a commonly held optimism about the effectiveness of God's activity in human history.[2] Conspicuously absent as a prominent theme in the unfolding of this dialogue is the topic of justification by faith. This absence appears not so much an omission for which the dialogue is to be faulted as rather a recognition that, regarding the question of justification, which was a principal reason for division between many of the communities of the Reformation and the Catholic Church, Methodists and Catholics share a rather substantial common faith. Their common optimism in the effectiveness of God's saving work in history gave hope that the path toward full communion between Methodists and Roman Catholics indeed was more promising than would be the case in the presence of sharp differences over the doctrine of justification.[3]

Within this context of 1) anticipating the need for a longer period of time in which to come to know one another and to render explicit a broader framework within which to address specific divisive issues and 2) a common optimism about the effectiveness of God's activity in transforming individuals and gathering them into the communion which is the Church, one should situate the present document on revelation and faith.

Part II: Remarks of a more general nature

Before turning to the five individual sections of The Word of Life, some general remarks should be made concerning what might be called the maturity of this statement as an ecumenical document. First of all, this document gives evidence of considerable attention to the dialogue process between Methodists and Roman Catholics which has preceded it. Two of the substantial divisions of the text - "Section Two: Faith" (27-72) and "Section Four: Sacramental Life" (94-107) - appear largely as attempts to deepen issues which were raised in the previous statement, The Apostolic Tradition of 1991.[4] Moreover, many issues from previous Methodist - Roman Catholic dialogues, such as the importance of the spiritual life, the role of the Holy Spirit in the Church, the nature of the Church as a communion and common insights into sacraments, ministry and authority, also find echoes in the present text. Thus The Word of Life exhibits a strong sense of continuity with the earlier dialogues between these two communities.

Such continuity is apparent with the general direction of the wider ecumenical dialogue as well. Most notable here is the similarity between its overall structure and content, which reflects the aim of "full communion in faith, mission and sacramental life" (Preface, cf. also 1, 4, 111-125), on the one hand, and - to take but one example - the structure and content of the section reports from the Fifth World Conference of Faith and Order, held at Santiago de Compostela in 1993, on the other.[5] The Santiago reports begin with a general presentation of koinonia, which is then further specified in terms of koinonia in faith, life and witness. The Word of Life substantially parallels this structure and content in its three sections on faith, mission and sacramental life (the Methodist-Roman Catholic document reverses the second and third topics), developing these themes with greater specificity in relation to the doctrinal and spiritual heritage of the two communities in dialogue.[6] This continuity with the previous work both of the Methodist-Roman Catholic dialogue as well as with the wider ecumenical dialogue is a sign of the maturity of the document.

Another such sign can be found in the way in which The Word of Life draws upon or "harvests" the Christian Tradition. Scripture is understood as "the normative witness to the revelation in Christ" and as "central to Christian discernment" (54-55). It is referred to generously throughout the document. Scripture is not employed simply for the purpose of supplying "proof texts," but rather with a certain attention to historical-critical methodology, as, for example, when paragraph 17, in explaining that Jesus Christ is the decisive event of revelation, refers to broad Christological themes which characterize the books of Luke, John and Hebrews. Perhaps, at times, The Word of Life could be accused of adopting a biblical interpretation which may appear a bit arbitrary to some readers, as, for example, when paragraph 25 seems to rely on "the biblical witness" to affirm that Jesus' relation to the Father comes into "sharpest focus around his death," while his relation to the Spirit "is clearly seen in the witness to his life." Such a generalized statement adopts a particular angle of interpretation which may not appear obvious or convincing to all. Nevertheless, the overall use of scripture is impressive, for example, in the various texts used to support the section on agents of discernment (53, 63-67) or in the way that 1 Jn 1,1-3 is employed to provide the basic vision within which the entire document unfolds (2, 108).

But the maturity of this text's recourse to the Christian tradition is clear also from its positive estimation of and deference to many other sources, such as the liturgy (9, 34-35, 43, 49-51, 103, 112), the Fathers of the Church (35), creeds (8, 34-36, 43, 84, 112), early councils (8, 43, 68, 72), Reformation confessions and the Council of Trent (44), the development of doctrine (45, 60-61), the individual traditions of the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Methodists communities (46, 60), traditional theological concepts and syntheses (45, 56, 59) and the history of the devotional life of the Christians (46-48, 60). In addition, Vatican II is used as a source in this document, not only in the four explicit quotations from Dei Verbum (55, 58, 61, 69) but also in the overall approach employed in the sections on revelation and mission. Similarly, the substantial number of paragraphs which refer to John Wesley's writings and theology (10, 36, 46, 55, 57, 60, 63, 65, 70, 88, 100, 102, 110, 115, 122) provide distinctive Methodist foundations for many points made in the text. Finally, one should notice the many positive general references to the "tradition" or the "apostolic tradition" (8, 19, 38, 67, 70, 72, 84-86, 102, 107). All of this suggests that both Methodists and Catholics evaluate the tradition and its various witnesses in fundamentally positive terms. As such, The Word of Life may be seen as putting into practice the spirit of its predecessor in the Methodist-Roman Catholic dialogue: The Apostolic Tradition.

Part III: Remarks on the individual sections

The Introduction is relatively long (1-10), a fact which is not without significance. It seeks to organize the document along the general lines of the fundamental initiative of God in history (revelation) and the fundamental effect of this initiative when it is positively received, assuming a concrete and visible form in the Church (koinonia-communion). Thus the koinonia of the receiving community is the principal effect of the positive acceptance of revelation. This principal effect, koinonia, can be further diversified into three categories, which may be understood as expressing the basic dimensions of the life of the Church: faith, mission and sacramental life. As the opening paragraph states: "God's revelation and the human response to it constitute the substance of the Church's faith, mission and sacramental life" (1).

This way of conceiving the essential dimensions of ecclesial communion within the context of God's initiative in revelation is of great value. First of all, it places the initiative in God. This immediately guards against exaggerating the importance of the human component of the specific topics which the document will take up. But, in a way which could seem paradoxical or ironic (one recalls the divine irony, so often witnessed in scripture, by which God chooses as His instrument the younger or the weaker, precisely to emphasize the decisiveness of His own power accomplishing human salvation), such a perspective invites one to take with utmost seriousness the three principal dimensions of ecclesial communion which will be treated subsequently in the document. If the Church's faith, mission and sacramental life are most fundamentally to be understood in terms of a graced human response to a divine initiative, then they acquire a value which is beyond the merely human factors which enter into their historical unfolding.

Thus, the placing of Revelation as Section One of this text and of Koinonia-Communion as Section Five, with the intervening sections focusing on Faith, Mission and Sacramental Life, takes on great significance. While the subtitle of the document, "A Statement on Revelation and Faith," is certainly accurate, especially because faith cannot be separated from mission and sacramental life, nevertheless, the overall structure of the text suggests that an equally correct subtitle might be phrased "A Statement on Revelation and the Fundamental Dimensions of Communion." Other ecumenical documents have begun to speak of koinonia in terms similar to those of faith, mission and sacramental life, but none has so consistently conceived these within the context of the response to God's revelation. As such, The Word of Life could be a valuable contribution, not only to Methodists and Roman Catholics as they seek full communion, but also to the ecumenical dialogue as a whole.

Section One: Revelation (11-26) is deeply in harmony with the biblical notion of revelation as God's self-manifestation in history by words and deeds so as to establish a covenant of love with the human family which He had created. This way of speaking about revelation owes much to the exegetical approach to the bible of recent centuries, but it had already found expression in many voices from the tradition, especially among the patristic writers. It also contains striking similarities with the presentation of revelation by the two Vatican councils. Thus the emphasis upon the gratuity of God's self-manifestation, with which Section One begins, harmonizes well with what Vatican I states about such gratuity in Dei Filius. The Word of Life goes on to discuss the history of revelation, culminating in Jesus Christ and discernable by "those who have eyes to see and hearts to know" (15; see also 30), in ways which bear a striking resemblance to Vatican II's . The third part of this section affirms that the God who comes to be known through the biblical witness is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, thus anchoring the Church's trinitarian faith firmly in the Scriptures. In these ways, the present document emphasizes what is most basic about revelation: its utter gratuity, its occurrence within the specific conditions of human history and reaching its climax in Jesus Christ, and its manifestation of the one mystery at the heart of all Christian doctrine and life, the mystery of the Triune God. This is all quite well expressed.

If there is any lacuna in this first section, it seems to be in the lack of explicit attention to the means by which revelation is transmitted from one generation to the next. How is revelation related to Scripture, tradition and the life of the Church? It is true that this relation is mentioned earlier in paragraphs 7-8 of the Introduction. Moreover, as I have indicated above, the document as a whole attempts to support its affirmations both by scriptural references and by various witnesses from the tradition. But one has to wait until later sections (37-42 and 54-61) for a direct statement about the transmission of revelation. It would be helpful, precisely in the section on revelation, to explore more explicitly how its authoritative voice becomes accessible to people of today by means of scripture and tradition.

Section Two: Faith (27-72) is by far the longest of the five sections of The Word of Life. It is divided into three parts, the first two shorter ones devoted respectively to the act of faith (fides qua, 28-31) and its content (fides quae, 32-36), while the third, the longest subdivision of the entire document, explores the fruitfulness of faith (37-72). Several comments seem in order.

First of all, the vision of faith in this document is well rounded. It refuses to reduce faith to only one of its constitutive components or, worse, to oppose one to the other. Faith is presented as entirely God's gift (30-31) and as the saving faith which brings forgiveness, justification, sanctification and grace (28-29). At the same time, it engages human freedom and response (31). Moreover, acceptance of the doctrinal content of faith is intimately related to the existential life of faith (32-36), thus holding together both orthodoxy and orthopraxis. Such a comprehensive vision of faith deserves high praise for eliminating false caricatures which may have been at times the source of prejudice between Methodists and Roman Catholics (see the fine comment about this in 113). The unity in faith, toward which so much of ecumenical dialogue tends, must not be reduced to only one aspect of faith.

Secondly, Section Two develops in a substantial way the question of the fruitfulness of faith - its growth in history and within the community of the Church (37-42), its fruits in confession, spiritual life, worship and service (43-52) and the criteria and agents which enter into its discernment (53-72). The basic principle that the Church grows in faith and the presentation of the variety of ways in which this takes place are the themes of these sections. Although attention is focussed upon the fruitfulness of faith, the possibility and actual occurrence of deviations in the course of Church history is mentioned explicitly with regularity (41-42, 45, 48, 51, 59, 64-65) and, indeed, provides the fundamental presupposition underlying the whole discussion of discernment. Thus, while not being vulnerable to the accusation of historical naivete or, worse, of ecclesial ideology, these sections nevertheless present a very positive view of the Church's journey through time. "The Church itself, as a seed which grows with the support of the Holy Spirit and in response to God, has an inherent dynamic. There is no way of understanding the fruitfulness of revelation save in the community of faith. ... Since the Holy Spirit shows the way, no limits can be set to God's assistance in this process" (39).

The four areas which are presented under the title "The Fruits of Faith" - confession, spiritual life, worship and service - seem sufficiently comprehensive, especially if under the heading of "confession" one could include not only the development of creeds and doctrinal statements but also the writings of the Fathers of the Church and the evolution of theological traditions. In general, a more explicit appreciation of the values of patristic literature than the text actually exhibits may have been possible. Be that as it may, one cannot but be satisfied with the attention given to the wide range of development which is included under this category of the fruits of faith.

The section on discernment includes substantial biblical support about the New Testament origins of this activity within the Church (53-54, 59, 61, 63-65, 67). Four criteria for discernment are indicated: 1) fidelity to scripture, 2) sentire cum ecclesia (described in a way which appears quite similar to what Lumen Gentium 12 says about sensus fidei), 3) reception and 4) holiness. A question which comes to mind for a Roman Catholic is the extent to which these criteria can be said to include the tradition. Certainly, the categories sentire cum ecclesia, reception and holiness can be seen as part of the tradition. Other expressions of faith which are usually considered as witnesses to the tradition could perhaps be understood as further specifications of these more general headings. Thus perhaps liturgy could be seen as a specification of "reception" or patristic literature as an expression of the category "sentire cum ecclesiae." Moreover, by listing three criteria in addition to scripture, the report distances itself from a position which would make scripture the sole criterion for discerning the faith. Finally, in the subsequent discussion of pastoral discernment, it is stated that "those who are authorized to speak for the Church as a whole" need to pay careful attention to "Scripture and Tradition" (67). All of these points indicate an important role for tradition in discerning the truth of revelation.

Yet this section of the document refrains from actually calling tradition a criterion for the discernment of faith. Two times the word appears, both in reference to passages from Vatican II's  (58, 61). Moreover, while document explicitly speaks of the normativity of scripture (54), it does not do so of tradition. Because so many positive statements about tradition are made and because the criteria for discernment include more than scripture, this hesitancy could appear a bit surprising and may be only apparent. Nevertheless, it could be helpful to consider more explicitly whether and in what way post-biblical witness to revelation could be normative for the Church.[7] While the present document and its immediate predecessor have given much attention to tradition, perhaps a final step in dialogue between Methodists and Roman Catholics on this matter could be to seek a common position about the precise issue of its normativity. The impressive convergence on the fruitful growth of the Church in understanding revelation which is registered in The Word of Life suggests that the path toward agreement on this precise question is quite promising.

The section on agents of discernment (62-72) convincingly distinguishes between discernment by the whole people, prophetic discernment and pastoral discernment, concluding with remarks about the interdependence and convergence among these agents. Both the distinction between these agents and their interrelation seem very sound. Here, for the first time in the entire document, a substantial difference between Methodists and Roman Catholics is indicated, precisely with regard to the exercise of pastoral discernment (69-71). This is perhaps not as surprising as it at first might seem. Whatever specific doctrinal differences there may be between Methodists and Roman Catholics - several of which are later mentioned concerning ethics (89), sacraments (105-106), ministry (120), Mary (116) and universal unity (130) - it would seem that all of them can be addressed successfully only after exploring at greater length their common belief about God's will concerning pastoral discernment. The document itself recognizes this (71). Methodists and Catholics will find a valuable preliminary work already available to them for this task in the contributions not only of the present document but also of several of their earlier dialogue reports.

Section Three: Mission (73-93) strikes one as a bridge-building section. Its six subdivisions describe in a credible way the various dimensions of the mission of the Church. At the same time, they call to mind both earlier sections of the present document as well as earlier ecumenical or ecclesial texts. To give but one example, the opening subsection (73-76) roots the Church's mission in the activity of the Trinity, which reminds one not only of the beginning of Section One on the divine initiative in revelation (11-13) but also of the way in which Vatican II's Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church, Ad Gentes, addressed this theme. The entire Section Three is full of passages which call to mind other ecclesial and ecumenical documents. Many other examples could be given but one need not belabor the issue. Instead I will briefly mention two points which call for praise.

First, the section on "The Apostolic Mission" (84-88) is valuable both for underlining the relation of the continuity of the Church to the apostles and for relating ordained ministry to apostolicity and mission. In so doing, it takes up some of the themes of the previous Methodist-Roman Catholic document The Apostolic Tradition. This section contains what to the Catholic spirit will appear as a real gem: "The Church is like a living cell with Christ as its centre; the community, as it were grows and multiplies, retains its original pattern. Apostolic communities need people to do for their own time what the apostles did in theirs: to pastor, teach and minister under the authority of the Good Shepherd and Teacher, the Servant Lord" (86). Second, the section "Mission and Cultures" (90-93) deserves credit for bringing the discussion of mission into contact with the themes of inculturation and interreligious dialogue. The delicate questions of cultural discernment and of the proper balance between interreligious dialogue and the proclamation of Christ are handled with sensitivity and care.

Section Four: Sacramental Life (94-107) is presented as a response to the call from the previous Methodist-Roman Catholic dialogue for "deeper common reflection on the nature of sacrament" (94). The incarnational setting for reflecting on sacraments is the most prominent feature of this section, a framework which is certainly harmonious with Catholic doctrine and theology. Sacramental life is rooted in incarnational economy of salvation, finding its fullest and deepest expression in the person of Jesus himself. From this foundation, the Church, the sacraments and other means of grace are considered.

This section appears as a good example of what Vatican II called the use of the "hierarchy of truths" in ecumenical dialogue (Unitatis Redintegratio 11). The interrelation between the "sacramentality" of Christ, the Church and the sacraments is emphasized. Moreover, a certain hierarchy of importance among the sacraments is affirmed, attributing a primacy to baptism and eucharist (100). A clear disagreement is noted concerning the number of the sacraments, which calls for two comments.

First of all, The Word of Life sees a degree of similarity between, on the one hand, Catholic belief that the Holy Spirit is at work in the sacraments of confirmation, reconciliation, anointing, marriage and ordination and, on the other, a similar Methodist belief in the active presence of the Holy Spirit in the life, repentance, healing, marriage and ordination of the faithful. This suggests that the difference between Catholics and Methodists in this area may not be as sharp as might at first appear. This rapprochement recalls a similar discussion of sacraments in the Lutheran-Roman Catholic statement Facing Unity of 1984 (see paragraphs 77-82 of that document). Such texts lead one to think that the degree of similarity of practice between divided Christian communities in the area of the "disputed sacraments" could benefit from further exploration.

Secondly, the text makes it clear that the major difference between Catholics and Methodists centers upon the criteria by which one discerns a particular liturgical rite to be a sacrament. Paragraph 100 suggests that "attributing to Christ their direct institution" is the decisive criterion for Methodists. The text does not mention that Catholics also would understand institution by Christ as a characteristic mark of sacraments. Perhaps a deeper reflection on how one understands "institution by Christ" might open the way to fuller convergence between Methodists and Catholics about the sacraments.

In the concluding Section Five: Koinonia - Communion (108-130), one's attention is drawn once again to the architectonic structure which characterizes The Word of Life as a whole. The first of its three subdivisions succinctly lays before our eyes the fundamental vision that the Church is essentially "an intimate sharing in the communion of the love of the three Persons of the Trinity" (108). The biblical reference to 1 John 1,1-3, which appears also in the Introduction (2) and thus forms a literary inclusion embracing the document as a whole, is shown to be a rich text for understanding both revelation and communion. Its appearance here suggests once more that ecclesial communion comes about in response to revelation. Section Five then moves into a recapitulation of the basic expressions of communion as they have been developed in the body of the text: faith, worship and mission (112-125), pointing out "vital elements in the partial communion we already enjoy" and "delineating some of the problematic differences on which further work needs to be done" (111). A final subdivision follows a similar pattern of indicating convergences and differences regarding the specifically universal dimension of ecclesial communion (126-130).

This overall structure, built upon the pillars of revelation, faith, worship, mission and communion (including also comments about the structures for the universal dimension of this communion), connotes both the solidity and beauty of an inspiring place of worship, whether those simple, well-apportioned churches which most Methodists and Roman Catholics know from their local communities or the elegant cathedrals which appear in many older cities. The solidity and beauty of these commonly acknowledged pillars need to be appreciated. They imply that there is a real "breadth and length, height and depth" (Eph 3,18) to the partial communion which these two communities share.

Along with the many substantial points of unity, three specific issues appear as points of contrast or difference. Paragraphs 114-116 take up the question of the degree of unity in faith which is necessary for full communion. Methodists draw upon John Wesley's distinction between the "essentials" which are necessary for unity and differences of "opinion" which are not of their nature Church-dividing. Roman Catholics do not dispute that one can distinguish between doctrines insofar as they vary in their relation to the centre of Christian faith; this is Vatican II's doctrine of the "hierarchy of truths" (Unitatis Redintegratio  11). Nevertheless, Catholics emphasize that the whole of revelation calls for the assent of faith. These paragraphs touch upon what is surely one of the most important questions facing the ecumenical movement.[8] It is a credit to the writers of this document that they express it so clearly here in their recapitulation on communion in faith.

It could seem that one faces here an irreconcilable opposition: Methodists affirm that only the essential doctrines are necessary for Christian unity, while Catholics affirm that the whole of doctrine is necessary. Yet one wonders if this apparent opposition may not gain some of its sharpness because of a certain misapprehension to which the words "essentials" and "whole" may be prone. When, for example, Methodists speak of unity in the essentials, surely they do not mean that one is able to choose between the various teachings which are contained in God's revelation, designating only a part of the Word of God as the constitutive foundation of communion in faith. One suspects that all Christians would wish to embrace the whole of revelation, because of its divine origin. Moreover, when Catholics speak of the need to believe the whole of revealed truth, surely they do not mean to imply that there is no room for differences of opinion on some ways in which the Word of God can be and has been understood, over the course of the centuries. In addition, wholeness surely would not mean that "face to face" knowledge of which St. Paul speaks when he says "then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood" (1 Cor 13,12). The conviction of Catholics that the Church can progress in understanding the inexhaustible riches of revelation (Rom 11,33) and that, thus, there can be development of doctrine includes as its presupposition a degree of lack of full comprehension during the Church's earthly pilgrimage.

Pope John Paul seems to be inviting further reflection which could overcome the apparent opposition between "essentials" and "the whole" when he affirms that unity requires "the adherence of all to the content of revealed faith in its entirety" (Ut Unum Sint 18), while at the same time stating that "From this basic but partial unity it is now necessary to advance towards the visible unity which is required and sufficient...," adding "... one must not impose any burden beyond that which is strictly necessary (cf. Acts 15:28)" (Ut Unum Sint 78). These texts suggest that there may be avenues for seeking to overcome the apparent dilemma which is expressed in paragraphs 114-116 of The Word of Life.

A second point of divergence between Methodists and Roman Catholics appears in the recapitulative section on worship. Here the text does not restate, as would perhaps have been appropriate, the difference concerning the identification and consequent numbering of the sacraments, which had been treated earlier in Section Four (104-106). Here, instead, differences are noted 1) concerning the freedom to welcome or invite members of the other community to participate in the eucharist and 2) concerning the ordained ministry, the latter being "the most visible obstacle" to communion between Methodists and Catholics (119-120). Furthermore, the text points out that these two problems are intimately related.

Regarding the first of these, it is valid and traditional, reflecting the practice of the Church in patristic times, to speak of eucharistic sharing in terms of welcoming or inviting other Christians to participate in the celebration of the Lord's supper. At the same time, it would be important to guard against a potential misunderstanding that eucharistic fellowship depends primarily on the invitation of the celebrating community. The ability to invite always has been conditioned, even from the earliest period of Christianity, by sufficient communion in faith. This is why the ecumenical Directory of the Catholic Church from 1993, to which The Word of Life refers in this section, speaks not so much of Catholics inviting others to participate in the eucharist but rather of the conditions under which such participation would be permissible because of sufficient commonality of faith and sufficient pastoral need. By using the language of "inviting" the text of this document could, in my opinion, obscure this important aspect of eucharistic communion. Therefore, it is gratifying to see that the document provides a footnote to the more careful texts of the Directory.

Regarding what is identified as "the most visible obstacle" to communion between Methodists and Roman Catholics - the identification and teaching authority of ordained ministers - the text notes several important convergences. This ministry is rooted in Christ the Good Shepherd, who shares his pastoral care with others. Moreover, this ministry is described in terms of witnessing to the truth, leading worship and guiding the community in a way which parallels the three functions of Christ as prophet, priest and shepherd-king, a triad which provides the essential framework for the way in which Vatican II also considers ordained ministry (see, for example, Lumen Gentium 20-21 and 24-28). One should not underestimate the value of these common affirmations. If they could be considered at some further stage in dialogue together with what The Word of Life had already stated under the heading "The Apostolic Mission" (84-88), with its lovely passage on the Church as a living cell which retains its original pattern, and with important insights from the earlier document The Apostolic Tradition, perhaps important progress could be made in overcoming this "most visible obstacle."

The third point of difference mentioned in Section Five (no significant divergence is noted in the recapitulative discussion of mission!) appears under the heading "The Church Universal" (126-130). Here Methodists and Catholics agree that the communion of the Church "has universal dimensions in regard to both time and space" (126), that "God's faithfulness has preserved his Church despite ... shortcomings evident in its history" (127) and that "a structure which binds together local churches" is important (128). Differences emerge when these communities consider "the signs of faithfulness and perseverance in the Church's history" (127) and "the nature and the theological weight" of structures fostering universal unity (128).

Obviously these issues concerning universal unity are not peculiar to the Methodist-Roman Catholic dialogue. One might even say that, insofar as it seeks to reestablish unity among all Christian communities, the entire ecumenical movement is concerned ultimately with discerning what is necessary and sufficient, according to God's revelation as it has unfolded in history, for the precisely universal or - to use the more ancient word of the Nicean creed - "catholic" quality of the koinonia of the Church. That the Methodist-Roman Catholic dialogue has not yet reached agreement on these issues is therefore not surprising. But the common affirmations in paragraphs 126-130 provide a point of departure. Moreover, important preliminary work on these themes has already been done in the Methodist-Catholic Towards a Statement on the Church of 1986. Finally, Pope John Paul's invitation to the leaders and theologians of other Christian communities to dialogue with him about what is essential and about what pertains rather to the contingent exercise of the ministry of universal unity (Ut Unum Sint 95-96) stands as an encouragement to the participants to pursue these themes in the future.

Part IV: Conclusion

The above analysis has pointed out a number of very positive achievements of The Word of Life, among which should be listed the following. 1) The Word of Life demonstrates a shared optimism about the effectiveness of the activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church, without at the same time ignoring human weakness. 2) This optimism is reflected in the positive place given to testimony from the tradition, along side of scriptural testimony, both as an important source for the document itself and as intertwined among the criteria for discerning the faith. 3) Revelation is presented consistently as the source of the communion which is the Church and as the font of her faith, mission and sacramental life, thus enhancing the historical expression of these three. 4) A good foundation for addressing differences on the number of the sacraments is laid, both in the incarnational framework for considering sacraments and in the attestation of similarities between Methodists and Catholics even in those matters were differences still remain. 5) Valuable common statements about the Christological origins and dimensions of ordained ministry provide a solid starting point for addressing what is identified as the "most visible obstacle" between the two communities. 6) In a similar way, agreement that the Church should be universally one and that some structures or ministries need to serve this unity indicate a foundation upon which greater convergence can be built.

Difficulties within the text which call for greater clarification would include the following. 1) There seems to be a hesitancy to specify whether and in what way the tradition may be normative for discernment of the faith. 2) Sacramental differences seem to call for greater examination of how the two communities understand "institution by Christ." 3) The contrast between conceiving unity in faith in terms of "essentials" and "the whole" deserves further exploration. 4) The relation between sharing the eucharist and communion in faith could benefit from further attention.

At the close of The Word of Life, with keen awareness of the road that has already been travelled by Methodists and Catholics in dialogue, the authors write: "The time may have come for concentration ... on some of those more detailed questions that have recurrently caused difficulty among us" (132). The maturity of this document, the foundational nature of the issues addressed and the solid framework within which they are considered all suggest that the members of the dialogue commission are correct in this surmise. To favor this further work, it would be particularly helpful to promote among the faithful of both communities the reception of what has been achieved thus far in this dialogue process. The Word of Life has not, nor does it claim to have, achieved full unity in faith between Methodists and Roman Catholics. But the marks of a firm common foundation are present clearly in this text. These need to be acknowledged widely in both communities, so that prayer and common witness and further dialogue can hasten the day when our present communion in faith can blossom to fullness by the grace and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.


[1] From this point, unless otherwise indicated, the numbers within parentheses will refer to the paragraph numbers of The Word of Life).

[2] The Denver Report (1971), the Dublin Report (1976), and the Honolulu Report (1981), the last of which includes "Toward an Agreed Statement on the Holy Spirit", can be found in H. Meyer and L. Vischer, eds., Growth in Agreement. Reports of Agreed Statements of Ecumenical Conversations on a World Level (New York: Paulist Press 1984) 307-387. Towards a Statement on the Church is printed in Information Service No. 62, 1986 (IV) 206-216, along with a "Commentary" by Jean M.R. Tillard on pages 216-219. The Apostolic Tradition, is printed in Information Service No. 78, 1991 (III-IV) 212-225, along with a "Commentary and Assessment" by Jared Wicks on pages 225-229.

[3] A striking example of Methodist optimism about the effectiveness of the activity of the Holy Spirit which attempts also respond to potential criticism based on the Reformation doctrine of justification is John Wesley's A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, Westminster: Epworth Press, 1952.

[4] One cannot help noticing the correspondence between the effort of Section Two to speak of the fruitfulness of faith, on the one hand, and the suggestion for further work on the "fecundity of the Tradition" in the "Commentary and Assessment of `The Apostolic Tradition'" by Jared Wicks, 228-229. For its part, Section Four of The Word of Life begins with the statement "In its 1991 report on The Apostolic Tradition, the Commission sensed the need for deeper common reflection on the nature of sacrament, starting from the idea of Christ himself as `the primary sacrament' (# 89)."

[5] Printed in T.F. Best and G. Gassmann, eds., On the Way to Fuller Koinonia. Official Report of the Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1994), Faith and Order Paper no. 166, 228-262.

[6] The triad of faith, sacraments and mission as essential elements of communion is found in other magisterial and ecumenical texts: Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 14b and Unitatis Redintegratio  2d; ARCIC II, The Church as Communion 19, 39b and 44; Roman Catholic-Lutheran Joint Commission, Facing Unity 55, 70 and 86; Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism 12, 20; John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint 9. Sometimes the third element, mission, is conceived and expressed in different ways, such as, witness, service, fraternal harmony or even hierarchical communion.

[7] That this is an important question can be seen in many of the responses to the Faith and Order document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry; see Max Thurian, ed., Churches Respond to BEM I-VI, Geneva: WCC, 1986-1988). These show that many communities, even after the famous Montreal statement on tradition from 1963, would not attribute normativity to post-biblical tradition.

[8] Toward the end of his writing career, the great Catholic ecumenist Yves Congar wrote that this was the question which occupied him more than any other. See Y. Congar, Essais oecuméniques, Paris: Centurion, 1984, page 109; and Idem, Diversity and Communion, London: SCM, 1984, page 92.