JOINT INTERNATIONAL METHODIST-CATHOLIC DIALOGUE COMMISSION
STATEMENT BY REV. DONALD BOLEN
Methodist Catholic Relations 2006
When Pope Benedict met with representatives of the World Methodist Council in December of 2005, he alluded to the Speech of Pope Paul VI, noting that when we look back to the nearly 40 years of patient and persevering dialogue between Methodists and Catholics since the end of the Second Vatican Council, "there is much for which we can today give thanks".
The dialogue has treated major themes of fundamental theology, including revelation and faith, tradition and teaching authority in the Church. Pope Benedict noted that while the dialogue reports have clearly identified ongoing areas of difference, they "have also demonstrated a considerable degree of convergence and are worthy of reflection and study".
Along with many other ways in which Catholics and Methodists have come to know and appreciate one another, the dialogue has "allowed us to recognize together some of those "Christian treasures of great value'" in each other.
Indeed, the recognition of gifts in each other has increasingly come to characterize Methodist-Catholic relations, so much so that the forthcoming report of the International Methodist-Catholic Dialogue Commission, which will be released later this Spring, is entitled The Grace Given You in Christ: Catholics and Methodists Reflect Further on the Church. The title is taken from St Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (1: 4), where he writes: "I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus".
As the report relates, it has taken a long time for Methodists and Catholics to come to appreciate the gifts of the Holy Spirit in each other. In the mid-18th century, when John Wesley's Methodist movement was spreading through England, Catholic Bishop Richard Challoner published A Caveat against the Methodists (1760), which argued that "Methodists are not the people of God: they are not true Gospel Christians: nor is their new-raised Society the true Church of Christ, or any part of it".
John Wesley responded by agreeing with Challoner's premise that the Church of Jesus Christ is universal, one, holy and orthodox, but retorted that he found it difficult to recognize these same marks of the Church in "the Church of Rome, in its present form".
Through the ecumenical movement - through dialogue, by joining in prayer and engaging in common mission - Catholics and Methodists have come to a new understanding of each other. Methodists see the Catholic Church as a true church and a means of grace for salvation; Catholics recognize Methodists as fellow Christians and Methodist churches as ecclesial communities in which the grace of salvation is present and operative.
The forthcoming statement of the dialogue commission offers a summing up of what has been jointly said in previous reports about the nature and mission of the Church, and proceeds to address ongoing areas of divergence by further developing a sacramental understanding of the Church. The text then asks what Catholics and Methodists can acknowledge to be truly of Christ and of the Gospel, and thereby of the Church, in the lived faith of each other; and proceeds to identify various ecclesial elements and endowments that might form part of a fruitful exchange of gifts between our two communions. It concludes by offering a number of specific proposals which could help Methodists and Catholics advance towards the full communion we seek.
Faithful to the ecclesial norms and discipline of both dialogue partners, the proposals set forth are seen by the dialogue commission as appropriate given the degree of faith we currently share. It is hoped that the text will give a new impulse to Methodist-Catholic relations in the many contexts where the two communions live side by side.
Methodists and Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification
The work of the International Dialogue Commission has recently been complemented by another theological initiative, which would bring the 76 Member Churches of the World Methodist Council into association with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, signed by the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999. A text has been prepared which articulates Methodist affirmation of the basic consensus statements of the Joint Declaration, indicates their acceptance of the specifically Lutheran and Catholic explanations in the text, and sets forth distinctive Methodist emphases on the doctrine of justification.
Several of the Member Churches of the World Methodist Council have already given their strong support for the initiative, and it will be voted on at the forthcoming World Methodist Conference in Seoul, Korea, in July 2006. Methodist association with the text on justification would mean that any initiative moving forward as a result of the Joint Declaration could now also include the Methodists.
During the recent visit of World Methodist Council representatives to Pope Benedict, the head of the Methodist Delegation, His Eminence Bishop Sunday Mbang, expressed his hope that Methodist association with the Joint Declaration would help to heal the rupture in the Western Church since the 16th century by registering agreement on a matter which "was crucial and which remains crucial to our preaching and teaching of the Gospel". Pope Benedict noted that he was encouraged by this initiative, adding that "it would assist in contributing to the healing and reconciliation we ardently desire, and would be a significant step towards the stated goal of full visible unity in faith".
Visit of World Methodist Council delegation to Rome
The visit of representatives of the World Methodist Council (WMC) to the Vatican, already mentioned above, marked the first time that an official Methodist delegation has visited the Holy See to discuss the future of Methodist-Catholic relations. Headed by Bishop Mbang (President of the WMC), the Rev. Dr George Freeman (General Secretary of the WMC) and the Rev. Prof. Geoffrey Wainwright (Methodist Co-Chair of the Methodist-Catholic dialogue), the delegation met with Pope Benedict, held meetings with Cardinal Walter Kasper and staff at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and also visited the offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
The principal purpose of the visit was to discuss how Methodists and Catholics might build on our theological dialogue, which has functioned quietly but effectively since 1966.
The Methodist delegation's message to Pope Benedict, noting the significant theological convergence registered in the dialogue reports of the past four decades, stated that while "there are still doctrinal matters to be settled between us, we wish now to consolidate these interim achievements".
Following Pope John Paul II's notion that a dialogue is not only an exchange of ideas but also an exchange of gifts, the Methodists proceeded to state: "We know that we have much to learn and accept from the Catholic Church and we believe and hope that we also have a contribution to make towards the fullness of catholicity in the one Church of Jesus Christ".
Pope Benedict concluded his Address to the Methodist delegation by encouraging "a mutual commitment to the Word of God, to witness and to joint prayer". Various proposals for furthering our relations were discussed with Cardinal Kasper, and discussions in this regard will continue, following the hoped-for association of Methodists with the Joint Declaration and the publication of The Grace Given You in Christ.
Methodist Tribute to Pope John Paul II
Upon receiving the news that Pope John Paul II had died, Methodist tributes spoke of him as an inspiring leader, one who pioneered strong ecumenical relations, one who "reached out to the world with compassion, reflecting goodwill, graciousness and the Good News of God's love". Prof. Wainwright recalled Pope John Paul's presence at the Vespers celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Decree on Ecumenism in November 2004: "When he was wheeled into St Peter's Basilica, he looked radiant; and the thought struck me from the Apostle Paul in II Cor 12: 8-10: this was "strength perfected in weakness'".
Both Prof. Wainwright and Dr Freeman attended Pope John Paul's funeral, and just over two weeks later, Dr Freeman returned to lead a Methodist delegation at the Inauguration of the Pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. Prof. Wainwright wrote to express his delight at the election of Pope Benedict, with whom he had met on previous visits to Rome, and expressed his gratitude for the newly-elected Pope's commitment "to the cause of Christian unity in the truth of the Gospel".
The year 2005 has been a fruitful one for Methodist-Catholic relations. It has seen the continuing work of the dialogue commission, a new initiative which would bring WMC Member Churches into association with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, and the building up of relations as we work towards a common future.
Methodists and Catholics have fostered an "ecumenism of the possible", seeking in every way possible to grow closer together in prayer and common mission, while trusting that God is bringing about the reconciliation we all desire.
In the words of the forthcoming dialogue report, "All separations... are ever only temporary for those who seek to follow Christ and can never be definitive. Christ alone knows the timing for the coming together of his followers. They only need to wait upon him and to respond wholeheartedly to the movements of the unifying Spirit".