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Catholic-Methodist relations
Working for a "joint living out of the Gospel"

The year 2006 saw the completion of two important texts which will hopefully serve to strengthen relations between Catholics and Methodists.

In May of 2006, the International Methodist-Catholic Dialogue Commission completed its most recent report, entitled The Grace Given You in Christ: Catholics and Methodists Reflect Further on the Church, and submitted the text to Methodist and Catholic authorities.

Two months later, in Seoul, South Korea, the Member Churches of the World Methodist Council (WMC) voted to approve and sign a "Methodist Statement of Association" with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), the agreement which was reached and officially accepted in 1999 by the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation.

Official representatives of the Catholic Church and Lutheran World Federation joined Methodist officials in signing a common affirmation which welcomed the Methodist association with the JDDJ, and committed the dialogue partners to "strive together for the deepening of their common understanding of justification in theological study, teaching and preaching".

As will be set forth below, these two documents have a different status. The Grace Given You in Christ remains the work of a dialogue commission and not an official statement of the Catholic Church or the WMC, while the Methodist Statement of Association with the JDDJ has been officially received by the dialogue partners.

In complementary ways, however, both texts bring to fruition years of patient and persevering dialogue; and both mark a starting point for subsequent reflection, helping to set the agenda for further steps and initiatives in Methodist-Catholic relations.

Methodist association with JDDC

Even before the actual signing of the JDDJ in October of 1999, an executive committee of the World Methodist Council resolved to explore the possibility of its Member Churches becoming associated with the doctrinal agreement which had been reached by the Catholic Church and Lutheran World Federation (LWF).

In 2001, a process of consultation was initiated, which eventually led to the drafting of a text outlining Methodist association with the JDDJ. It was determined that such a text would need four components: a Methodist affirmation of the central tenets of the Joint Declaration; Methodist acceptance of the specifically Catholic and Lutheran emphases articulated in the JDDJ; an outlining of particular Methodist emphases, consonant with the JDDJ, regarding justification; and a joint statement, to be signed by Methodist, Lutheran and Catholic representatives, acknowledging the Methodist association with the JDDJ and possibly drawing out implications of that agreement.

In consultation with representatives of the Catholic Church and the LWF, the draft text was refined, and came to meet with the acceptance of Catholic and Lutheran partners. It was subsequently circulated on two separate occasions to the Member Churches of the WMC, where it was warmly welcomed.

This set the stage for the Seoul meeting of the WMC in July 2006, where the Methodist Statement of Association was unanimously endorsed.

The WMC meeting was immediately followed by a World Methodist Conference - a gathering which takes place every five years, bringing together representatives of the 76 Member Churches of the WMC for a major assembly constituted of worship and prayer, workshops, presentations and meetings. Centred on the theme "God in Christ Reconciling" (II Cor 5: 19), the conference offered a sustained reflection on diverse ways in which the work of reconciliation is carried out, among them the pursuit of unity among Christians.

It was within this context that a signing ceremony was held, with the WMC's President, Bishop Sunday Mbang, and General Secretary, Dr George Freeman, officially signing the Methodist Statement of Association with the JDDJ.

The Methodist signatories were joined by Cardinal Walter Kasper and Cardinal Soo-hwan Kim, who signed the accompanying joint common affirmation on behalf of the Catholic Church, and by the LWF's General Secretary, Dr Ishmael Noko, and his Assistant for Ecumenical Affairs, Rev. Sven Oppegaard, who signed on behalf of the LWF.

The signing was greeted by a standing ovation and the spontaneous singing of the doxology: "Praise God from whom all blessings flow".

In his address at the signing ceremony, Cardinal Kasper reflected on the Methodist association with the JDDJ within the larger context of Methodist-Catholic relations. He noted that through 40 years of dialogue, "we have come increasingly to articulate those elements of faith which we hold in common. Without compromising the beliefs of our faith communities, we have come to recognize many authentic elements of the Church in each other, and have gained a clearer grasp of remaining differences which we can continue to address in future conversations".

Identifying the JDDJ as "one of the major achievements of ecumenical dialogue to this point in time for Churches and Ecclesial Communities of the West", Cardinal Kasper rejoiced that the foundation laid seven years earlier by the Catholic Church and LWF had now been enlarged to include the Methodist family of churches. "This is a historic day. This is a gift of God. We can be grateful for it," the Cardinal said.

He welcomed the new Methodist emphases contained in the Methodist Statement of Association, especially Methodist attentiveness to holiness of life.

Finally, he reminded those present that during the course of the visit of WMC leaders to the Vatican in December of 2005, Pope Benedict XVI had specifically encouraged this initiative, stating: "Should the World Methodist Council express its intent to associate itself with the Joint Declaration, 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".

"The Grace Given You in Christ'

In discussions among those responsible for coordinating Methodist-Catholic relations, there has been a growing sense that while significant progress has been made through four decades of dialogue, the reports of our International Dialogue Commission are largely unknown, and little has been done to foster their reception or implementation.

When WMC leaders met with officials from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity just over a year ago, it was agreed that it would be useful to prepare a synthesis of what has been achieved by the dialogue to this point in time, and in turn, to identify more clearly what practical steps and initiatives could appropriately be encouraged in light of a growing theological convergence.

The Grace Given You in Christ addresses both of these concerns in an initial way, drawing on Pope John Paul II's notion that ecumenical dialogue involves both an "exchange of ideas" and an "exchange of gifts" (cf. Ut Unum Sint, n. 28).

The Methodist-Catholic Dialogue works in five-year cycles, with each round of dialogue culminating in a report which is submitted to the Methodist family of churches (in the context of a World Methodist Conference) and to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The Grace Given You in Christ is the eighth such report, and is the second report to address the nature and mission of the Church, following upon the 1986 report Towards a Statement on the Church.

The text is divided into four chapters. The opening chapter serves as an introduction to the report, offering a historical overview of how Catholics and Methodists have understood each other in the past, tracing the transition from a largely negative judgment of each other to a recognition of each other's baptisms, and the desire, following the Second Vatican Council, to enter into theological dialogue. The report then proceeds in three stages.

Firstly (chapter two), the text offers a synthesis of previous reports of the dialogue in so far as they have addressed the nature and mission of the Church. The longest section of the document, it sets forth the considerable agreement or convergence between Methodists and Catholics regarding the doctrine of the Church, drawing extensively on authoritative sources from each tradition.

As with previous reports, the text also candidly points to significant remaining areas of divergence, which provide possible agenda items for future rounds of dialogue: the sacramental nature of ordination; the episcopate in apostolic succession; the "assurance" of certain authoritative acts of teaching (that is, infallibility); the place and role of the Petrine Ministry; and the role of the laity in authoritative teaching.

Having clearly identified ecclesiological areas of convergence as well as remaining differences, the third chapter begins by asking 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.

In turn, Methodist and Catholic commission members identify various ecclesial elements and endowments that might form part of a fruitful exchange of gifts.

Catholics can see in Methodists a vigorous Trinitarian faith, which gives great emphasis to the ministry of the Word, is strongly committed to mission and to social responsibility, has a great zeal for the salvation of all, and upholds the importance of lay ministry and the place of lay people in the governance of the Church.

For their part, Methodists are increasingly recognizing that the 15 centuries prior to the Reformation constitute a shared history with Catholics, and are gaining new appreciation for neglected aspects of the Catholic tradition.

They can see value in a sacramental approach to the Church, appreciate the benefits of a more developed ecclesiology and theology of the Eucharist, and see the richness of diverse forms of spirituality and ecclesial life in the Catholic Church which foster a growth in holiness.

The assumption underlying the report's reflections on exchange of gifts is that when we recognize authentic gifts of the Holy Spirit in each other and receive them into our ecclesial lives, we grow closer not only to each other - making more visible our real but imperfect communion -, we also grow closer to Christ.

The final chapter of The Grace Given You in Christ seeks to draw out some of the implications of the second and third chapters by offering a number of specific proposals which arise from convergence on the doctrine of the Church and from the recognition of gifts of God present in the other. The Commission has sought to be attentive to both the constitutional practice and discipline of Methodist Churches and the norms of the Catholic Ecumenical Directory.

As mentioned above, The Grace Given You in Christ is not an authoritative declaration of the Catholic Church or the WMC, but it has been made public so that it can be widely discussed and studied.

Many of the proposals set forward in the report - concerning common prayer and study, joint work at the service of humanity and aspects of common mission - are not new, but serve as constructive examples of appropriate initiatives for fostering closer relations between Methodists and Catholics. Other proposals would benefit from a careful consideration and scrutiny by the sponsoring bodies.

As Methodist-Catholic relations differ from place to place, the text also stresses that recommendations that are appropriate in one context may be unhelpful in another.

A Catholic commentary will soon be published along with the report, to assist Catholic readers in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the document.

In turn, a new round of Methodist-Catholic dialogue will begin in the Autumn of 2007 and will aim to address a cluster of issues concerning sacramentality which have emerged over previous rounds of dialogue, including the sacramentality of ordination and the priestly nature of ordained ministry.

The Methodist-Catholic dialogue is an encouraging example of how stable and committed ecumenical dialogue, sustained over time, can yield good fruits. The results of the past year give us courage to renew our trust that the Holy Spirit who has inspired this dialogue will continue to lead us towards the unity Christ desires for his disciples.

Meanwhile, each ecumenical achievement and gain is also a new starting point, not only for further doctrinal work to be undertaken, but also for giving tangible ecclesial expression to that which, by the grace of God, has been achieved ecumenically.

Given the fundamental doctrinal agreement now reached regarding justification, and given the positive results of Methodist-Catholic dialogue, how can we strengthen our common witness to the Gospel, so that the world may believe?

Cardinal Kasper alluded to this central challenge when he concluded his address at the World Methodist Conference in Seoul by saying: "I... join you in praying that we may build on this important step. May the agreement being celebrated in this signing ceremony be translated fruitfully into a joint commitment to deepen our common prayer; may it encourage us to continue our theological dialogue, and building on our common foundations, may it lead to an increase in joint witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; finally, wherever possible, may it call forth a joint living out of the Gospel message".