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PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR PROMOTING CHRISTIAN UNITY

Reflections on
The Grace Given You in Christ:
Catholics and Methodists Reflect Further on the Church

John T. Ford, c.s.c.

 

Introduction

A proper reading of The Grace Given You in Christ: Catholics and Methodists Reflect Further on the Church requires a significant time commitment[1]. The Report leads readers through the same process traversed by the bilateral commission which prepared it, beginning with an assessment of past relations, followed by rigorous ecclesiological work at the heart of the text, and ending with practical proposals for deepening Methodist-Catholic relations. It should not be skimmed; rather, readers will benefit from a careful scrutiny of its arguments and patient reflection upon the implications drawn from them.

As if to suggest that its contents require not simply reading but reflection, The Grace Given You in Christ begins with a “scriptural meditation” [1-10] - a Bible study of the initial verses of the First Epistle to the Corinthians - a text particularly relevant to the divided state of Christianity in the 21st century. Readily apparent are the parallels between the early Corinthian community “beset with dissension, conflict and division” [2] and the “division and separation” that plague Christian churches today [6]. And just as St. Paul called upon his Corinthian readers to “be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Corinthians 1:10), this Report calls upon Christians today to recognize that “[f]undamental unity in faith and in its profession is necessary for the Church’s life of communion and for its witness before the world” [10].

While the recognition of present-day separation is salutary, it is not sufficient. The Grace Given You in Christ singles out “holiness and communion” as “essential features of the Church” [5] which can serve as the basis for strengthening existing bonds as well as for building new bridges between Methodists and Roman Catholics as they seek “to discern the spiritual gifts with which each church is adorned” [7].

Methodist-Catholic relations at present are comparable to a family feud that has endured not for decades, but - unfortunately - for centuries. How do Methodists and Catholics view each other at the beginning of the 21st century? One finds a spectrum of reactions that vary considerably from place to place and from person to person [143]. In spite of the ecumenical climate that has developed during the past four decades, some people are still more or less sensitive about the separation of the two churches. The source of their sensitivity may be long-surviving memories of bitter experiences or recent displays of unecumenical behavior or even unmistakable signs of religious prejudice. For others, this Report may give rise to a vague sense of uneasiness - prompted perhaps by a combination of denominational defensiveness and denominational pride: am I being implicitly asked to sacrifice my cherished religious practices or to disown my deepest convictions? Still other people may simply be puzzled by the discussion of doctrines which they don’t quite understand or devotions which make them feel uncomfortable.

Hopefully however, most people will greet this Report with a sense of enthusiasm: they are more than ready for this Report; indeed, they may even feel that it is long over due; they look forward to the implementation of this Report’s recommendations; they are eager to work on the next steps that will bring a greater sense of unity and community, not only among Methodists and Catholics, but among all the many separated sisters and brothers in Christ[2]. Nonetheless, among the readers of this Report, there may be some people who consider themselves “post-modern Christians” and feel that ecumenical consensus statements like this Report are passé in the modern world - in effect, resolving issues that are inconsequential.

Thus, among those reading and reflecting on The Grace Given You in Christ, there most likely will be a spectrum of personal reactions - ranging from rejection, through suspicion and discomfort to ready acceptance. Perhaps at the margins, there will be some Christians who feel that consensus statements such as this Report are superfluous. Readers then need to ask themselves not only what does the document say to me, but why am I reading this Report in my own particular way? In effect, reading is not only a matter of objectively examining this Report’s contents; it will also challenge many readers to greater ecumenical openness. Accordingly, reflecting on the “teachings” of this Report should entail a “learning” process - a process of critical study and reception that is hopefully, first of all, personal with each reader, and then a process of communal and ecclesial evaluation and reception, not only among Methodists and Roman Catholics, but also among all Christians[3].

Readers of this Report will need to consider the relationship of the past to the present as well as the present to the future. While these three aspects of time are notionally distinguishable, there is a real sense in which the successes and failures of the past have helped mold both the strengths and the weaknesses of the present and so not only provide possibilities for the future, but simultaneously further and limit those possibilities.[4] One of the major accomplishments of The Grace Given You in Christ is its recognition of the interplay of Methodist and Catholic histories not only as a matter of historical juxtaposition, but as providing a real foundation for a special spiritual relationship.

Historical Reassessment

Resisting the tendency for churches and their members to put the best spin possible on all their activities, even those that are questionable, The Grace Given You in Christ candidly confronts the enigma of ecclesial divisiveness and separation. Without attempting to construct what might be called “a theology of separation” - a theological explanation of how the Reformation in general and Methodist-Catholic separation in particular somehow fit into the divinely designed master plan of salvation - the Report emphasizes that “the separate histories of Methodism and the Roman Catholic Church can show how God has worked in both of them for the fulfillment of the divine purpose” [13]. From the perspective of the Catholic Church, this would be interpreted in light of Lumen Gentium n.8 and Unitatis Redintegratio n.3: the first states that the Church of Christ “subsists in” the Catholic Church, while elements of that Church can be found outside its visible confines (a point that is made in n.100 of the Report); the latter articulates the Catholic Church’s understanding that “the separated Churches and communities as such, though we believe they suffer from the defects already mentioned, have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church.” The Report[14] introduces the possibility that our divisions, while they cannot be condoned, have given rise to a situation where the Spirit of God has been at work renewing both Catholic and Methodist churches, developing gifts which can benefit all Christian believers. But the Report also addresses the cost of divisions to the Church’s integrity, and the consequences of our division are taken seriously [42, 43, 62].

The Grace Given You in Christ frankly acknowledges the legacy of alienation that has long characterized the reciprocal attitudes of Methodists [15-17, 20-25] and Roman Catholics [18-19, 26-31]. The centuries of Methodist-Catholic separation have been generally, but regrettably, marked by pervasive suspicion and often plagued by polemics. There were moments of appreciation, even admiration, as was evidenced, for example, in John Wesley’s Letter to a Roman Catholic in 1749 [22]. Yet, for the most part, Methodist-Catholic contacts until quite recently tended to be at a distance, through written exchanges, not personal contact, and so more notionally one-dimensional rather than really dialogical.

In contrast, The Grace Given You in Christ is an example of teología de conjunto[5] - collaborative theology - the product of face-to-face dialogue - a much better process for avoiding stereotypes, for surmounting misconceptions, for achieving mutual understanding, for addressing problems, and for resolving differences. Indeed, the experience of interpersonal dialogue involved in the composition of this Report suggests that readers desiring maximum benefit would do well to discuss the insights of this Report in bilateral or even multilateral conversations[6]. Such interpersonal and interdenominational dialogue seems appropriate - if not absolutely necessary - insofar as the issues raised in this Report about the separation of Methodists and Roman Catholics are not only theological and doctrinal, but also social, economic, and political [32-33].

While such issues might conceivably be separately packaged as academic topics for theological discussion on the one hand and activist initiatives for practical projects on the other, such a division would be unrealistic.[7] Issues that are apparently doctrinal such as ordination quickly become practical, as in the case of the ordination of women [116], while apparently practical issues, such as human rights and religious freedom inevitably have doctrinal implications[8]. In fact, the interplay of such issues often takes on a highly personal dimension, given the increasing number of families with both Protestant and Catholic members: how are they to navigate the complex of differences - doctrinal and ecclesiastical, political and social - that often separate members of the same family? In other words, church-dividing questions are frequently family-dividing issues.

Although such issues might purportedly be resolved simply through reading and reflection, usually such historical reassessment needs a kairos - a grace-filled event - when long-standing problems are seen in a new light. While various factors have contributed to Methodist-Catholic rapprochement during the past four decades, one of the most pivotal was the decision of Pope John XXIII to invite observers from other Christian churches to attend the Second Vatican Council [34-39]. The deliberations and decisions at the Council had a “ripple effect” that not only effected the intramural aggiornamento of Roman Catholicism, but also affected ecumenical relations between Catholics and their Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox brothers and sisters in Christ.

One important human key to this kairos was the contribution of the non-Catholic observers - both at the Council and beyond the Council. Observers, such as the American Methodist theologian and Wesley scholar, Albert C. Outler (1908-1989), contributed to the ecumenical movement not only by their active participation at the Council - for example by channeling their observations through the then Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity - but also by their promotion of the Council in their lectures and writings.[9] These non-Catholic observers need to be credited for their lasting contribution - not only for their favorable assessment of Vatican II, but also for fostering a new ecumenical climate conducive to official conversations about church-dividing issues.

Yet the ecumenical climate immediately after the Council may have been too idyllic - leading some to euphoric expectations of “rapid reunion.” In any case, the post-conciliar years did provide a congenial climate for many previously inconceivable discussions, including the beginning of official ecumenical conversations, such as the International Methodist-Catholic Dialogue in 1967 [39]. Thus, The Grace Given You in Christ can be seen not only as the product of nearly four decades of ecumenical dialogue, but more importantly as a testimonial to a maturing and deepening ecclesial relationship. The fact that a diverse international group could arrive at the consensus expressed in The Grace Given You in Christ should then be considered as both a challenge and an incentive for a deeper ecumenical relationship - not only among Methodists and Catholics, but also among all ecumenically minded Christians.

The next step is for this dialogue-process to be replicated at other levels: among Methodist and Catholic leaders, especially theologians and those responsible for training the ministers of the future [142]. Although the recommendations of the Report “are not expressly addressed to Catholic parishes and local Methodist churches” [142], ultimately the implementation of this Report’s recommendations will probably rest in the hands and hearts of those presently preparing for leadership positions in the two traditions; their ecumenical vision and commitment - or lack thereof - may well determine the viability of this Report’s findings in the lives of Methodists and Roman Catholics in the future.

In effect, The Grace Given You in Christ has opened the door to enhancing and extending not simply ecumenical, but also ecclesial relationships between Methodists and Catholics. Such relationships need to be developed at multiple levels - social and cultural, civic and economic, as well as religious. What this Report effectively does is to provide a foundational theological grounding for a shared vision of the Church. On the one hand, this Report indicates the areas where this ecclesial vision is already shared [45-96]. On the other hand, this Report flags some crucial areas where the two traditions diverge [n.b. 87, 92 and 94, 99-101, 115-120, 128-135]. In effect, this Report has pointed out a new “horizon”[10] - one that to some extent is already shared, especially in regard to “personal and social behavior” where Methodists and Catholics “have developed an important sense of solidarity as they work together for social justice” [43]. Yet in other respects, this horizon is only shared partially and imperfectly: “Methodists and Roman Catholics are kept from full communion by still unresolved doctrinal matters that the churches each believe are vital to the Gospel of Jesus Christ” [44].

To what extent then do Methodists and Catholics share a vision of the Church?[11]

What is the Church?

The central question raised by The Grace Given You in Christ is one of ecclesial identity: What is the Church in God’s plan of salvation? [45].

Various answers are possible and this variety emerges from the different perspectives in which the question can be considered. Many Methodists and Catholics would probably answer the question - “What is the Church?” - on the basis of their personal experience. The most obvious identification is with a specific building - Broadway United Methodist or All Saints - the church which a person attends is a theophanic site in the minds and hearts of church-members, as church officials quickly discover whenever they try to close or consolidate churches. A second answer is equally important: “the church is the congregation of people with whom I worship Sunday after Sunday.” The more involved a person is in her or his parish or congregation, the more likely that person will develop a deep bond of fellowship with other church-members. Somewhat more fluid is denominational identity: while some Methodists might still name a son “Wesley” and while some Catholics might name a child after the patron saint of the day, denominational loyalty in many places has become much more tenuous than it was in the past: many churches now have members who were baptized in other denominations. Still another answer to the question - “What is the Church?” - is discernible when people identify the Church with its teachings or with its leaders. Yet, in all of these different understandings of people in the pews, “There is something very visible and tangible about what ‘church’ means to most people” [45].

Just as various answers are given on the popular level to the question - “What is the Church?” - so too on the theological level. The basis for this variety is found in the New Testament, which uses dozens of different images to describe the Church [53].[12] This scriptural variety is not merely the result of poetic imagination or literary creativity, it is ultimately due to the fact that the Church is a mystery and as such can never be completely encapsulated in human terms. The Catholic Church holds that its doctrinal formulas express fundamental aspects of the mystery of the Church in an authoritative and effective way; nonetheless, its visible-invisible dimension (cf. Lumen Gentium, n.8) remains a mystery which can never be fully exhausted.

To avoid potential misunderstandings, The Grace Given You in Christ constructively proposes that the word “sacrament” might well be used in speaking of the Church as “the creation of the Word of God,” where the “invisible and the visible come together, and the former is made known through the latter” [48]. Nonetheless, a certain ambiguity or tension inevitably remains in speaking of the sacramental nature of the Church.[13] On the one hand, an over-emphasis on the spiritual or invisible element may ignore the real struggles that the Church has experienced through the centuries or may downplay the Church’s mistakes - especially those that may have been well intentioned, though unjustifiable: “there is much of which the Church needs to repent” [50]. On the other hand, an over-emphasis on the visible or institutional element in the Church may lead to considering it an organization similar to many others and so vested with the weaknesses inherent in all human structures. In other words, viewing the Church in sacramental terms requires not only a perceptive theological balancing of the visible and invisible, but also a meditative contemplation of the interrelationship between the human and the divine. The text presents the notion of sacramentality as helpful in addressing the remaining differences between Catholics and Methodists regarding the Church.

Another way of expressing the “mystery of the Church” is found in the word koinonia - a term that has come to the ecumenical forefront in recent years.[14] Indeed, koinonia is a term that “lies at the very heart of the way Catholics and Methodists understand the nature of the Church” [51]. The Grace Given You in Christ emphasizes the Trinitarian dimensions of this term: “koinonia or communion of Christ’s disciples is a visible reflection of the eternal koinonia of the Triune God” [53] and thus, a reflection of Father, Son and Spirit [51-59]. This relationship between the Trinity and the Church is reflected in a number of biblical images: the “People of God” in relation to the Father [54], the “Body of Christ” in relation to the Son [55-57], and the “Living Temple” in relation to the Holy Spirit [58-59].

Many of these images are well known; for example, the New Testament description of God’s own people as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9) to indicate that in Christ, “we become adopted sons and daughters of God the Father”[54]. Similarly, the image of vine and branches (John 15:1-17) is a familiar way of describing the relationship of Christians to Christ, while the image of the Church as Temple is related to “the vivifying, empowering and transforming presence of the Holy Spirit” [58].

To complement its theoretical discussion of the Church as Trinitarian, The Grace Given You in Christ incorporates verses from two hymns of Charles Wesley (1707-1788) that emphasize Christ’s presence in the Church at the Eucharist [56]. Presuming that this Report will be read and discussed at the local level, ecumenical leaders would do well to illustrate this Report’s koinonia-ecclesiology by preparing a list of comparable hymns that are familiar to congregations.[15] In fact, hymns reflect “the resonance between our ecclesial lives that Catholics and Methodists often feel” [98] and for some people may be as ecumenically persuasive as consensus statements - in effect, lex cantandi lex credendi![16]

The Grace Given You in Christ singles out a number of visible signs of this “invisible koinonia” [60-62]. First, the “Church is by nature a ‘connectional society’” [60]. While “connectional” is often used among Methodists to describe the fellowship of their local church with other churches - local and regional, national and international - the term is much less familiar to Roman Catholics, who tend to think of the Church more in terms of communion than connection. Nonetheless, the reality of “connection” is essential to Catholicism; for example, at every mass, there is a prayer for the pope as well as for the local bishop; ecclesiologically speaking, each Catholic church is connected with all other Catholic churches, both those in the diocese where the mass is being celebrated and those throughout the whole world.

This connectional dimension of koinonia has some important practical consequences: “Faith is always personal, but never private” [60]. However, the conviction that “holiness is never a private affair” [60] may inadvertently point to an inconsistency prevalent in spiritual practices; for example, among Roman Catholics, retreats tend to be private affairs, in which each retreatant individually makes resolutions about his or her own personal path to holiness.

A comparable individualism exists in those Protestant communities which have an “altar call” inviting those present to come forward and make “a personal decision for Christ.” Without minimizing the necessity of personal Christian conversion and commitment, one can sometimes detect a deep-rooted individualism that seems unmindful of the fact that Christians are called to holiness and salvation in community as members of the People of God.

If the call to holiness is communal, what are the implications of koinonia for ecumenism? Granted that the “dynamic of connection and communion belongs not only to local disciples gathered together in community, but also to the worldwide community of those local communities united together as one Church, the Body of Christ” [61], shouldn’t one recognize an ecumenical imperative stemming from koinonia? Christians in virtue of their Baptism are members of the Body of Christ and thus one might speak of a koinonia that is struggling to surface, trying to become a visible manifestation of an already existing, albeit still invisible, sharing. In other words, granted that Methodists and Roman Catholics “are committed to pursuing together the path towards full visible unity in faith, mission and sacramental life” [62], how might this “growing in communion” [63] be theologically conceptualized and then actually implemented?

Communion and Mission

One process of reflection that is often used in retreats relies on the method: “see-judge-act.”[17] Seeing - the first step - sounds remarkably simple, but sometimes is extremely difficult, insofar as it requires looking beyond the blindness of the past. In ecumenical dialogue, “seeing” really represents a fundamental recognition that, as Pope John XXIII once remarked, “what unites us is much greater than what divides us” [63]. Such a recognition of underlying unity is included in the Nicene Creed - professed by many Protestants as well as by Catholics and Orthodox - which confesses that the Church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. Yet, if these notes or characteristics of the Church are “marks of God’s continuing and faithful presence,” one must also admit that “those marks are both gifts and goals, already present but not yet fully realized” [66]. As will be evident later, the third chapter of The Grace Given You in Christ is specifically about seeing: looking each other in the eye and trying to identify where we see genuine elements of the Church in each other.

In the past, Methodist-Catholic dialogue reports have never been overly eager to stretch the boundaries of what the dialogue partners hold in common; nor have they been hesitant to name areas of ongoing difference which need to be candidly addressed. The clear-sightedness to “judge” is one of the strengths of The Grace Given You in Christ. Among the differences which it identifies as needing to be addressed are the sacramental nature of ordination, the magisterial role of the episcopate in apostolic succession, the authoritative character of certain acts of teaching, the place and role of the Petrine Ministry, the precise meaning of the Eucharist as the sacramental memorial of Christ’s saving death and resurrection, the way in which Christ is present in Holy Communion, the link between eucharistic communion and ecclesial communion, and the place of laity in decision-making processes of the Church. The clear naming of those differences, which in a sense articulates the future agenda of the dialogue, makes more credible the extensive sections of the text which speak of those gifts of God which Methodists and Catholics have both received, that which they hold in common regarding the nature and mission of the Church.

After recognizing God’s gifts to the Church and to the churches, how can Methodists and Catholics join together to bring about a greater awareness and a visible manifestation of these gifts? This third step - “acting” - is apparent in The Grace Given You in Christ: “The Church in Christ’s name and by the power of his Spirit serves the kingdom of God by working to heal and transform the world here and now” [68]. Certainly there is no lack of opportunities for Methodists and Catholics “to serve the poor and oppressed of our time” [69] or “to sharing the sorrow of God’s people and suffering with them in communion with the Suffering Servant” [70]. Nonetheless, any judgment about a specific collaborative project is usually vested with practical limitations. For example, there may be a temptation in some quarters to turn the Church into a social service agency, thereby neglecting other ecclesial dimensions; accordingly, some Christians may become so involved in diakonia (service) that they ignore the need for liturgia (worship). But there is still a further and much more subtle temptation:

The Apostles after the crucifixion were understandably afraid and shut themselves away in the upper room. The Church may be tempted to do the same in the face of societies and cultures whose attitudes can range from apathy towards the teaching and values of the Gospel to active persecution [72].

In fact, Methodists and Catholics have cooperated on a variety of projects at the local level - ranging from summer bible schools to aiding disaster victims, from inter-church sponsorship of soup kitchens to ecumenical marches for civil rights, etc. Such endeavors are often undertaken through the initiative of the local pastors and members of neighboring churches. The Grace Given You in Christ certainly provides encouragement to make such activities both more intentional and more widespread. Moreover such cooperative projects often lead Catholics and Methodists to join in prayer together and vice versa, joint prayer often leads to cooperative projects.

Through working and praying together, Methodists and Catholics might better perceive the interaction between spiritual growth and commitment to mission. If, axiomatically, “[f]aith flows into mission” [73], then mission should also be a means for deepening faith. As St. Paul reminded the Corinthians, Christians are called to be “God’s co-workers” (1 Corinthians 3:9), human partners in the divine plan of salvation: “God fully chooses to work through the service of human communities and individuals, empowered by his grace” [76]. One thinks, for example, of Blessed Mother Teresa, who compared her mission of serving the poor to “a small pencil in the hands of the divine writer.”[18] Small acts of charity and concern are a way of fostering the health of the whole Christian community.

Such small acts of service go to the heart of a sacramental view of the Church, which “takes its shape from the Incarnation, from which it originated and the Eucharistic action by which its life is constantly renewed” [77]. Methodists and Catholics can find common ground and common inspiration for cooperation in the mission of the Church through prayerfully reading Scripture together - an activity grounded in their mutual recognition of each other’s Baptism - as the basis for participating in the mission of the Church [78]. On a practical level, Methodists and Catholics generally agree that commitment to mission is never “an optional extra for Christians and their communities” [81]. On a theoretical level, Catholics and Methodists also agree that “[c]ommunion with the person of Christ commits us to communion with the mission of Christ” [80]. Yet, after acknowledging such theological commonality and practical commitment, Methodists and Catholics are obviously pained by the fact that fundamental differences still prevent them from sharing that most fundamental expression of communion: the Eucharist.

Mission and Apostolicity

Examining the past in order to move towards the future, Methodists and Catholics should recognize that there is a “dynamic communion, connection and continuity of the pilgrim Church today with the Church of the past and of the future” [82]. This essential link with the Apostolic Church is not satisfied simply by rote recitation of early Christian creeds nor by the routine repetition of Apostolic practices. Rather the Church must “hand on the apostolic faith afresh to the world of today and of the future” [83]. Nonetheless, handing on the faith is easier said than done: “Preserving the Apostolic Tradition has been at times a struggle for the Church” [84].

This struggle is particularly urgent in an age of secularization and de-christianization, when the transmission of the Christian heritage of faith can no longer be taken for granted: evangelization is one of the urgent tasks facing the Church today. Unfortunately, evangelization is often frustrated by the division among Christians, which, as the Second Vatican Council emphasized, “openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature.”[19] Catholics and Methodists would do well then to cooperate in the apostolic mission of evangelization to the furthest extent possible.[20]

In addition, although Methodists and Catholics generally agree that “[a]ll true renewal and reformation in the church is the work of the Holy Spirit” [85], they seem to rely on different “models” of the Church.[21] Methodists have tended to envision the Church as a herald of the Gospel, as a servant of the needy, and as a prophetic voice against injustice. In contrast, Roman Catholics have been more inclined to consider the Church as the sacred place where the sacraments are administered, as an institution for salvation, and as the earthly actualization of the communion of saints. Catholics and Methodists need then to recognize that these different models, though certainly contrasting, are complementary.

A similar contrast exists between Catholics and Methodists in regard to their respective spiritualities. While both traditions agree that “there must be growth in holiness” [85], there are noteworthy differences in the ways that Methodists and Catholics put their spiritualities in practice. In general, Methodist spirituality seems more biblically based, while Catholic spirituality seems more sacramental. While acknowledging that “[m]any different gifts have been developed in our traditions, even in separation” [86], these very differences may make it hard in practice to find a spiritual commonality on which to base collaborative projects and cooperative efforts of evangelization. Nonetheless, one can notice a convergence occurring over the past four decades, as Catholics have become more biblically oriented in their practice of prayer and meditation, while Methodists in many places have become more liturgical in practice, especially through more frequent celebrations of the Eucharist.

On a more ecclesiological level, The Grace Given You in Christ recognizes the presence of episkopé in both traditions as well as differences in the ways such episcopal “oversight” is exercised in the two traditions. One might perhaps note that the practice of translating episkopé as “oversight” - with its other meaning of “inadvertent negligence” - may create unnecessary confusion; it might be better to speak of episkopé in terms of the “supervision of ministries” or the “discernment of charisms.” In any case, the structures of episcopal supervision in Methodism and Roman Catholicism are notably different. For Roman Catholics, a hierarchical ordering - “episcopate in apostolic succession, and the Petrine ministry of the Bishop of Rome” [87] - is essential. In contrast, for Methodists, episkopé is embodied in the structure of conferences in which both laity and clergy participate. Although conferences are headed by bishops in some countries, usually Methodist bishops are considered witnesses to the apostolic faith, rather than standing in apostolic succession.[22]

In addition, even if Catholics and Methodists recognize “the same Spirit at work among all the baptized,” they also confess thatat times they “do not respond as they ought to the Spirit’s guidance” [88]. Such failures, however, should not be allowed to cloud the fact that ministry is “a gift from God to the Church, a graced service of the Church’s living communion with Christ throughout the world and through the ages” [89]. Accordingly, Methodists and Catholics understand ordained ministry as “one of the ‘essential elements’” within the Church [91]. In addition, Catholics and Methodists agree that “All forms of ministry are communal and collegial” [91].

Such basic agreement notwithstanding, there are “areas of serious divergence” both about the nature of ordained ministry and about the ministry of the laity within the Church [92], as well as about the nature of the Eucharist. These major issues need to be resolved before Catholics and Methodists can fully recognize each other’s celebration of the Eucharist. The resolution of such church-separating issues can hardly be achieved by polemics, which tend to exaggerate areas of disagreement and so effectively “obscure what is held in common” [97]. The resolution of such issues requires Methodists and Catholics to engage in a spiritual practice common to retreats: an examination of conscience.

Shared Examination of Conscience

Partners in ecumenical dialogue would do well to examine the potential obstacles that stand in the way of their achieving their “ultimate goal” of “full communion in faith, mission and sacramental life” [98]. They need to recognize that differences in denominational ethos - “different ways of maintaining the same things” [105] - may strain inter-church relationships.

Such tension is particularly evident in differences regarding “the relationship between word and sacrament” that characterize Catholic and Methodist patterns of worship. Methodists traditionally have emphasized the Word - in scripture, in preaching and in hymns - while celebrating the Eucharist only monthly or on special occasions. In contrast, Catholic worship has traditionally centered on a liturgy of the Word - often without music and with only a short sermon, if that - followed by the liturgy of the Eucharist. In recent years, both these patterns have been changing; there has been a convergence of the two traditions through the use of a common lectionary by Catholics and by many Methodists; there has also been greater emphasis on preaching in Catholic parishes and a more frequent celebration of the Eucharist in many Methodist churches. Nonetheless, even if there have been notable developments in the forms of worship within both traditions during the past four decades, in order to achieve the goal of full communion, there needs to be an increased “willingness to consider changing some of the ways in which we do things and express ourselves” [106].

What changes are necessary? Before proposing specific changes, one should note that Catholics and Methodists view the Church from different perspectives based on “an important difference of starting point” [99]. On the one hand, “Catholic ecclesiology goes from the community to the individual.” On the other hand, “Methodist ecclesiology goes from the individual to the community” [99]. While Catholics emphasize that the “blessings and salvation enjoyed by each individual Christian are a participation in the blessings and salvation that Christ won for the Church,” Methodists are more inclined to emphasize personal faith and individual assurance of salvation “regarding how to live and spread the Gospel” [99]. Accordingly, these two different ecclesiological perspectives may simply exist alongside each other without really interfacing with each other, much less reciprocally influencing each other.

A second and related point of tension stems from the fact that “Methodists and Catholics have tended to adopt different approaches in defining the Church” [100]. On the one hand, Catholics tend to think of the Church in sacramental and structural terms, while Methodists tend to think of the Church in more personal and functional terms: “Concern with essential visible structures has been a strong feature of Catholic teaching on the Church, whereas Methodism has placed more emphasis on spiritual features, especially holiness, than on permanent structures” [101]. While respecting the merits of their different ecclesiological ethos, is there any way to bring these two divergent traditions closer together? In other words, both Methodists and Catholics have spiritual gifts to share: how can those gifts be shared? This is the question directly addressed by the third chapter of The Grace Given You in Christ.

Sharing Gifts

At the outset, Christian communions seeking to draw closer to each other might consider the following factors. First of all, ecumenical partners need to recognize that ecumenical gift sharing will require sacrifice by both parties; thus, ecumenical partners need to come together not only in the love of Christ, but also in genuine love for each other and for each other’s gifts. “The Holy Spirit is the true giver of the gifts we are seeking to exchange” [97], as dialogue partners seek to share with each other and draw from each other the gifts which allow each to live to the fullest the gifts which Christ wills for the Church. In a fruitful ecumenical relationship, it can rightly be hoped that the strengths of one partner will balance the weaknesses of the other, and vice versa. Accordingly, there need not be - in fact, there can not be - strict parity in the exchange of gifts; however, there must be genuine generosity in gift-giving complemented by genuine graciousness in gift-receiving.

Yet, who has not received some gifts that seem unneeded, perhaps even unwanted? Thus, in proposing an “ecumenical gift exchange”[23] [107-135], The Grace Given You in Christ suggests that the process should not be envisioned as a “calculated exchange” - quid pro quo - but as a mutual enhancement motivated by a love which is willing to make whatever reciprocal sacrifices are necessary in order to share - to give and receive - each other’s gifts. For example, the value of a particular gift may not be immediately appreciated; it may take time for the usefulness, the need, even the beauty of a particular gift to be seen.

As a result of ecumenical dialogue, Catholics have come to recognize many areas of basic agreement with their Methodist neighbors: a Trinitarian faith [122], the need for personal conversion and a life of holiness [123], and a commitment to evangelization, not only abroad but at home [124]. In parallel fashion, Methodists have come to “recognize the Roman Catholic Church as a true church” [107] and to acknowledge “Roman Catholic priests as presbyters in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” [108]. “Moreover, Methodists find in Roman Catholic teaching on the Eucharist a resonance with their own teaching as expressed in the Eucharistic hymns of the Wesleys” [109].

In many places, such mutual acceptance - sometimes more implicit than explicit - has already resulted in collaborative efforts incharitable outreach, social initiatives, civic concerns, and humanitarian projects. In some places, Catholics and Methodists have cooperated in sponsoring vacation bible schools, interfaith dialogues and Christian educational projects. On the local level, Methodists and Roman Catholics have come together to dialogue about their areas of shared agreement.[24] And on civic holidays such as Thanksgiving and on ecumenical occasions, such as the “Week Of Prayer For Christian Unity,”[25] Catholics and Methodists, along with members of other Christian denominations, may be found worshipping together.

If one can already recognize many major areas of mutual acceptance and ecumenical reciprocity between Methodists and Catholics in sharing gifts, one must candidly acknowledge that gift giving is an art that requires considerable discretion in knowing how to offer the right gift at the right time. Since presenting the right gift at the wrong time or in the wrong way can easily be counter-productive, ecumenical leaders need to make sure that any proposed exchange of gifts is really a case of the appropriate gift at the appropriate time. After 40 years of dialogue, where convergences have been noted and the dialogue partners have grown in mutual affection and understanding, the International Methodist-Catholic Dialogue Commission is proposing that the time has come when a more serious exchange of gifts is not only possible but called for.

In gift exchanging, one also needs to take cognizance of the needs and priorities of the other. For instance, although Methodists and Catholics recognize the need for “reading and responding to the signs of the times,”[26] they do so in different ways. On the one hand, Methodists seem likely to prefer practical gifts that are readily utilizable for such immediate purposes as Christian witness, mission and evangelization. On the other hand, Catholics may prefer more permanent gifts that can be adapted to a wide variety of circumstances - not only present but also future.

Such preferences seem to relate to both the history and ethos of the two traditions; however, one should recognize that the Methodist preference for flexibility [117] may on occasion collide with the Catholic emphasis on stability. For example, “theological reflection has led Methodists to conclude that the Church’s mission is properly carried out by the whole people of God, lay and ordained together”; even though Catholics would agree with this premise, they would part company over the ordination of women [116].[27] Similarly, while “Methodists around the world responded positively to Pope John Paul II’s invitation to engage in dialogue about the exercise of the Petrine ministry of the Bishop of Rome” [113],[28] it remains to be seen how the papal office could be transformed in a way that would be acceptable to both Methodists and Catholics - especially in regard to “the disputed issue of ‘infallibility’” [135].

These examples highlight the fact that ecumenical gift exchanging is neither abstract nor theoretical. Both history and literature provide countless instances where a gift giver’s best laid plans went awry; similarly, “good intentions alone are insufficient to advance the cause of Christian unity” [139]. The Grace Given You in Christ offers some gift suggestions that ecumenical leaders could well adapt to their own specific situations.

Gift Giving in Practice

One might envision ecumenical gift giving as part of a process of “unity by stages” [140] - what better way could there be to building unity than through a carefully planned series of gifts? Each gift is carefully chosen as a joint symbol of ecumenical unity and Christian love. In ecumenical relationships, gifts exchanged between two partners should be “compatible with other ecumenical possibilities for both partners” [144]. Thus, any ecumenical gift sharing between Catholics and Methodists should not only allow but also invite further ecumenical gift sharing with their dialogue partners in other Christian traditions. A recent and significant example of such gift sharing is the World Methodist Council’s “tripartite signing” (July, 2006) of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, originally signed by the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999.[29]

On the one hand, ecumenical gift sharing implies a basic commonality - especially agreement in basic matters of faith, mutual reconciliation and recognition, and a fundamental commitment to Christ. On the other hand, gifts can hardly be exchanged in a mutually satisfying manner unless both partners distinguish between what is essential and what might be changed [151]. In fact, ecumenical gift exchanging often involves a bit of both: sometimes it is easier to exchange gifts that are more practical and immediately useful than those that are more occasional and durable. Moreover, sometimes a gift which one partner considers essential can only be given and received in the context of a more integral and comprehensive exchange of what the other partner might consider optional or discretionary.

Key to any gift exchange are the gift givers. In this regard, Methodist and Catholic clergy will probably be the pivotal persons in the success - or lack - of ecumenical gift sharing. As The Grace Given You in Christ suggests, there are several different levels where such an exchange of gifts can presently take place - under the existing discipline of each tradition. Perhaps the most readily available area for such sharing is the area of diakonia - the whole range of activities where “full communion is not a prerequisite for shared mission” [158]. Such collaboration has already taken a variety of forms: most commonly, Catholics and Methodists share in charitable and humanitarian projects; in some places, they cooperate in sponsoring various forms of Christian outreach and evangelization [159]. In a few places, Methodists and Catholics share facilities for worship and religious education [160] and occasionally they share expertise in such areas as financial management, computer technology, and political advocacy.

In addressing pastoral situations which arise because of our divisions, the Report offers suggestions which could be implemented in the present context. It notes, for instance, that “when a Baptism, wedding, funeral or similar kind of service in a Catholic church directly involves Methodists, for example through an interchurch family, it is appropriate that a Methodist minister be invited to take an agreed part in the service itself and any preparation, subject to both the norms of the Ecumenical Directory as interpreted by the relevant Catholic bishops’ conference and the constitutional practice and discipline of the relevant Methodist Conference” [155, n.4]; likewise the text invites Catholic participation when a similar celebration takes place in a Methodist Church, again assuming the observance of any Catholic and Methodist norms and discipline which might apply. Such a pastoral presence is usually a much appreciated testimonial to the basic agreement that exists between the two traditions as well as an intermediate stage en route to full communion. Nonetheless, it must be honestly acknowledged that such cooperation is an interim and provisional step: Catholics and Methodists are still in pilgrimage towards unity, not yet there. Consequently, while there will inevitably be a “yearning to be one,”[30] Methodists and Catholics must recognize that visible unity has not yet been achieved and so must respect the respective provisions of each church about such matters as Eucharistic sharing [155]. Like gift giving, ecumenical sharing must always be appropriate and respectful.

Nonetheless, each step - however insignificant or small that it might appear to be - should be seen as part of “a comprehensive set of common gestures” [163], whose cumulative effect has the potential for benefiting “a wider ecumenical audience” [165]. In other words, the implementation of the recommendations proposed by The Grace Given You in Christ can serve as both a signpost and a stimulus not only for the deepening of Methodist and Catholic relationships, but also for other ecumenical conversations as well. In this regard, it is extremely important to publicize ecumenical endeavors of all types. Unfortunately, ecumenism has been one of the best kept secrets of the churches - even those that are officially engaged in ecumenical dialogue. Regrettably many of the ecumenical agreements achieved by national and international bodies have not yet filtered down to the level of the local parish or congregation. It would be an ecumenical tragedy if such were to be the fate of The Grace Given You in Christ.

How then can the message of The Grace Given You in Christ be effectively communicated? Reflecting on the implications of the Report in a prayerful way seems a necessary first step in appreciating and accepting its findings. This is a report which invites an honest assessment of the flaws and failings of the churches in the past as well as an opportunity for serious reflection about ecumenical options for the future, concluding with a set of concrete resolutions for implementing the new awareness of Christian unity provided by the Report. The principles and proposals in the final chapter of the Report are consistent with the Ecumenical Directory and with Catholic teaching as a whole; likewise, they are also consistent with Methodist teaching, thus offer suggestions which are appropriate to the current context, though not all of the suggestions will necessarily be practicable or appropriate in each place. Key to the constructive implementation of the practical proposals made in the Report will be careful discernment not to overreach what is appropriate; for instance, the Report calls for joint prayer and spiritual retreats [154], but these are possible and beneficial only to the degree that faith is held in common (cf. Ecumenical Directory, n. 91). With this in mind, among the possible courses of actions for Methodist and Catholic ecumenical leaders would be to encourage and facilitate joint retreats or workshops as a venue for preparing appropriate and constructive “templates” for prayer services, ecumenically sponsored projects, and local dialogues.[31] In other words, the Report has provided both a compelling ecclesiological rationale for future steps towards Methodist-Catholic unity as well as many helpful recommendations for working towards the realization of that unity. The obvious, yet challenging, next step is for both Methodist and Catholic leaders to put ecumenical theology into ecumenical practice at the local level by discerning what steps are appropriate at this time in their particular context.

Envoi

The concluding section of The Grace Given You in Christ complements the Report’s introduction with a meditation on St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians (5:17-6:1). In this passage, Paul encouraged the fractious Corinthian community to recognize that God has “reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (5:18). Because Christians have been entrusted with this message of reconciliation, they are “ambassadors for Christ” (5:20). This designation as “ambassadors” seems particularly appropriate for all Christians involved in the quest for Christian unity.

One must also note that the concluding section of The Grace Given You in Christ is entitled “Envoi” - a word that has multiple meanings in French. First, envoi can mean “a parcel or package sent” to someone; a package sent is a gift to be received. The envoi notes that just as Paul called the early Christian community to be transformed and take on a new identity in Christ Jesus, in Methodist-Catholic dialogue, the “hope for reconciliation and the creation of a new identity between us has been central to our work” [166]. Here the Report speaks of what can be received by dialogue, but its language is not as precise as one would wish it to be. Ecumenical dialogue can and does involve a transformation, a conversion of each dialogue partner. However, what is being sought in ecumenical dialogue is not a new ecclesial identity, but a restoration of unity grounded in a shared understanding of the apostolic faith transmitted through the Church for all generations. For the Catholic Church, which understands itself to hold all of the essential elements of the Church willed by Jesus Christ, this can entail both an ongoing conversion to the Gospel (cf. Ut Unum Sint [UUS], n.15) and a growth in catholicity as it joyfully acknowledges and esteems “the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among our separated brothers and sisters” (UUS §47; cf. Unitatis Redintegratio [UR] §4) and which can contribute to the edification of Catholics themselves (UUS §48; cf. UR §4, as cited in the Report, n.100).

Another meaning of envoi is “goods to be forwarded.” Certainly this meaning resonates with the Report’s “call to engage in an exchange of gifts” [167]. Gifts are not simply to be acquired, much less accumulated, but to be mutually shared.

Still another meaning of envoi is “a letter of advice” and this meaning is clearly evident in the Report’s recommendations about how Catholics and Methodists might grow closer together [146-162]. Yet advice that is given is ineffective, unless it is appreciated, accepted and actualized.

A less common meaning for envoi is a nautical use: “an order for steering a ship.” The Church is often depicted as the ship of Christ sailing with determination against the ill winds of evil - such an image has been utilized as a logo by the World Council of Churches. The Report can also be seen as an ecumenical mandate directing not only Catholics and Methodists, but also all Christians, in their voyage towards unity - a voyage that must steer through many obstacles, but a voyage under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, perhaps the most familiar meaning of envoi is that of “envoy” - an agent commissioned to communicate an important message. Such was the commission given to the Apostles by Christ. Such is the responsibility proposed by The Grace Given You in Christ for ecumenically minded Christians.

We are ambassadors for Christ. Our two churches’ commitment to mission calls us forward. The Apostle has no message of his own, he acts on Christ’s behalf [171].


[1] References to the paragraphs of this “Report of the International Methodist-Catholic Dialogue” are given in brackets within the text.

[2] Although the term, fratres sejuncti, is often translated “separated brethren,” it seems better to translate it as “brothers and sisters separated from each another.”

[3] For a useful overview of “reception,” see William G. Rusch, Reception: An Ecumenical Opportunity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987); for a set of case studies related to “reception,” see Twelve Tales Untold: A Study Guide for Ecumenical Reception, edited by John T. Ford and Darlis J. Swan (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1993).

[4] See John Henry Newman’s description of notional and real assent in Chapter Four of his An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870), available at: http://www.newmanreader.org/works/grammar/index.html.

[5] Much of Hispanic/Latino theology is done collaboratively; see, for example, From the Heart of Our People: Latino/a Explorations in Catholic Systematic Theology, edited by Orlando Espín and Miguel Díaz (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999).

[6] A bilateral Methodist-Catholic conversation should help clarify in a personal way any dimensions that are unclear in the other tradition; a multilateral conversation would include “outsiders” who might enhance the conversation through perspectives different than those customary among Methodists and Catholics.

[7] In retrospect, such a neat division of tasks seems to have been implicit in the respective efforts of “Faith and Order,” which sought to resolve doctrinal differences and reconcile ecclesiastical structures, in contrast to “Life and Work,” which sought to foster ecumenical cooperation in social projects; see, for example, W. A. Visser ‘t Hooft, The Genesis and Formation of the World Council of Churches (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1982).

[8] See, for example, Vatican II, Dignitatis Humanae, available at:
http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651207_dignitatis-humanae_en.html

[9] See, for example, Albert C. Outler, Methodist Observer at Vatican II (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1967).

[10] See John T. Ford, “Bilateral Conversations and Denominational Horizons,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 23/3 (Summer, 1986): 518‑528.

[11] This is a primary ecclesiological question considered in the second chapter of The Grace Given You in Christ [45-96].

[12] See Paul S. Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004).

[13] One should note that The Grace Given You in Christ states: “though some have hesitated to refer to the Church itself as a sacrament, various phases of our dialogue have focused on affirmation of the Church as a ‘means of grace’ as a point of agreement between Methodists and Catholics” [77]; in addition, “We have yet to reach full agreement on the sacramental nature of those means of grace, but we have already found significant convergence...” [78].

[14] See John T. Ford, “Koinonia and Roman Catholic Ecclesiology,” Ecumenical Trends 26/3 (March, 1997): 10‑12.

[15] For example, the thematic index of the hymnal, Flor y Canto (Portland, OR: OCP Publications, 2001), 749-750, lists a number of appropriate hymns.

[16] Lex cantandi lex credendi, literally, “the law of singing [is] the law of believing”, is a variation of the familiar adage, lex orandi lex credendi (literally, “the law of praying [is] the law of believing,” which is translated by this Report [98]: “as we pray, so we believe”).

[17] See, for example, the commentary on the “Camino de Emaús” (Luke 24:13-35), which proposes the expanded formula “ser-ver-juzgar-actuar-celebrar-evaluar” in La Biblia Católica para Jóvenes (Stockton, CA: Instituto Fe y Vida; Estella, España: Verbo Divino, 2005), 1334.

[18] See Franca Zambonini, Un Lápiz en las Manos de Dios: Vida de la Madre Teresa (Buenos Aires: Paulinas, 2000).

[19] Unitatis Redintegratio (Decree on Ecumenism), § 1; available at:
http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19641121_unitatis-redintegratio_en.html.

[20] See, for example, the challenging question posed by the Third World Conference on Faith and Order at Lund, Sweden, in 1952: “Should not our churches ask themselves whether they are showing sufficient eagerness to enter into conversation with other churches, and whether they should not act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately?” (Available at:
http://www.ecumenism.net/educ/resources/encounter3.htm)

[21] See Avery Dulles, Models of the Church (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974; New York: Doubleday, expanded edition, 2002).

[22] In regard to Methodist views of episcopacy, compare Gerald Moede, The Office of Bishop in Methodism: Its History and Development (New York: Abingdon Press, 1965) and James K. Mathews, Set Apart to Serve: The Meaning and Role of Episcopacy in the Wesleyan Tradition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985).

[23] See Margaret O’Gara, The Ecumenical Gift Exchange (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998).

[24] See, for example, Greg A. Foraker, “Yearning to Be One, Y’all: Reflections on a Roman Catholic/United Methodist Dialogue in Knoxville, Tennessee, Summer 2001,” Ecumenical Trends, 31:1 (January 2002): 10-11.

[25] For information about “The Week Of Prayer For Christian Unity,” see:
http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/sub-index/index_weeks-prayer.htm

[26] On this important phrase, see Paul McPartlan, “The Deacon and Gaudium et Spes,” in The Deacon Reader, edited by James Keating (New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2006), 56-77.

[27] See Ordinatio sacerdotalis (22 May 1994), the Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II, which is available at:
http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_letters/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_22051994_ordinatio-sacerdotalis_en.htm.

[28] See Pope John Paul II’s encyclical (25 May 1995), Ut Unum Sint, § 96, available at:
http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25051995_ut-unum-sint_en.html.

[29] The Methodist statement is available at:
http://64.233.161.104/search?q=cache:vgrVGrlJpCoJ:www.lutheranworld.org/What_We_Do/OEA/Methodist-Statement-2006-EN.pdf+World+Methodist+Council+Justification&hl=en&gl=us&ct=clnk&cd=3.

[30] “Yearning to Be One” (2001), a statement of the Roman Catholic-United Methodist Dialogue in the United States, is available at:
http://www.usccb.org/seia/methcath.shtml.

[31] After the Second Vatican Council, there was a wealth of publications designed for ecumenically interested lay people; e.g., see Living Room Dialogues, edited by William B. Greenspun (Paramus, NJ: Paulist Press, 1965).

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