Methodist-Catholic Relations in 2001

Author: Rev. Donald Bolen


Rev. Donald Bolen
Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity


While Methodist-Catholic relations receive much less publicity than many bilateral dialogues, relations between the World Methodist Council and the Catholic Church have grown steadily stronger over the past thirty-five years. In many places Methodists and Catholics see themselves as ecumenical partners who feel an obligation to take their relationship further and to offer common witness. Relations are shaped by the fact that there is no history of formal separation between Catholics and Methodists, who grew out of the Anglican tradition.

Three significant events in Methodist-Catholic relations from the past year give an indicator of the present state of relations: the publication of a new joint report, the Catholic participation at last Summer's World Methodist Conference, and a recent multi-lateral consultation on the doctrine of justification.

1. Speaking the Truth in Love

The Pauline phrase "speaking the truth in love" (Eph 4,15) was the motto of Cardinal Bea, the first President of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. It was also a favourite text of Methodist theologian Rev. Albert Outler, an observer at the Second Vatican Council, who with Cardinal Bea played an important role in setting up the Methodist-Catholic dialogue in 1967. It is therefore fitting that Speaking the Truth in Love: Teaching Authority among Catholics and Methodists is the title of the most recent Report of the Joint Catholic/Methodist Commission.

Since its inception the Joint Commission has published a report every five years, and Speaking the Truth in Love (2001) is the fourth report to explore fundamental theology and foundational ecclesiological issues. Addressing the subject of the exercise of teaching authority within and by the Church, it stands in direct continuity with previous Reports on The Apostolic Tradition (1991) and on Divine Revelation (The Word of Life, 1996).

The new Commission Report addresses the teaching ministry in the Church as a means whereby "the faith which comes from the apostles is transmitted from generation to generation in such a way that all the faithful continue to adhere to the revelation that has come in Christ Jesus" (Preface). Speaking the Truth in Love is divided into two parts. Part One states in systematic form what the Commission believes it possible for Catholics and Methodists to agree on in the matter of authoritative teaching, noting also theological differences along the way. For instance, it affirms the "growing convergence between Methodists and Catholics" on the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, then proceeds to differentiate between Catholic and Methodist means of dealing with "divergent traditions and conflicting interpretations of the Gospel".

As with previous Reports of this Commission, Speaking the Truth in Lovehas a strong focus on the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit which maintains the Church in truth. While the entire Church, ordained and lay, is involved in discerning the truth and the divine will, Methodists and Catholics both appeal to "various organs of the continuing Church" as the means by which the Spirit preserves the Church in Christ. Differences remain both in terms of the defining of those organs and the extent to which they are gifted by God to accomplish this.

Part Two of the Report maps out first Methodist then Catholic understanding and practice regarding teaching authority. This more concrete account of the exercising of teaching authority is especially helpful in that it prevents the possibility of theological discussion becoming disconnected from actual practices. Coupled with the incorporation into the Report of questions which Catholics and Methodists would wish to pose to each other on key issues of the faith, this practice of linking theoretical and practical accounts of the exercise of teaching authority serves to clarify the precise areas of convergence and difference, and to bring forward key concerns for the next phase of the dialogue.

The Preface of the recent Report notes: "'Speaking the truth in love' (Eph 4,15) is the title of the Commission's report: it captures both the spirit in which the dialogue has proceeded and the result that is hoped for from it.... Because Christ incarnates the love and truth of God, love is integral to truth, and truth to love". The joint "continuing pursuit of both in tandem" is the well-articulated method of ongoing Methodist-Catholic relations.

As with previous Reports in this dialogue, the text's careful theological plodding has produced results beyond expectations. While the initial aim of the dialogue was greater mutual understanding and the fostering of better local relationships, since the Report of 1986 on the Church, the goal, while remaining a long way off, is now explicitly full communion in faith, mission and sacramental life. The Reports have not to this point been presented for any formal evaluation by either the World Methodist Council or the Catholic Church.

2. The World Methodist Conference, July 2001

Seventy-four Ecclesial Communities with roots in the Methodist tradition together make up the World Methodist Council. The Council usually meets every two or three years, and has advisory and administrative authority for its "member Churches". The highest level of binding authority in Methodism, however, is the annual Conference of each Church. The Council convenes a WorldMethodist Conference every five years, which draws together Council members, lay and ordained delegates from the member churches, and other visitors. The Conference is "educational, inspirational and fraternal in nature", and is composed of a mixture of inspirational addresses, bible studies, seminars, and information about the work of the World Methodist Council and its committees during the previous five years. The gatherings of both the Council and the Conference are a principal means by which the various churches of the Methodist family are held together.

The 18th World Methodist Conference met in Brighton, England, from 26-31 July 2001 and was attended by approximately 4,000 people. Its overall theme, developed in talks and worship through the week, was "Jesus: God's Way of Salvation". A meeting of the World Methodist Council preceded the Conference. Among the significant events of the Council was a change in the General Secretary of the World Methodist Council. After 25 years, Dr Joe Hale has concluded his service in this post; his successor will be the Reverend George Freeman.

The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity was invited to send a representative to both Council and Conference and Monsignor Timothy Galligan, who over the past eight years has been the Catholic co-secretary of the international dialogue, attended throughout. Cardinal Cassidy, Emeritus President of the PCPCU, was invited to give a keynote address at the Conference's ecumenical seminar. In his address on 'Ecumenism and Evangelism', he drew on the affirmations in Dominus Iesus about the uniqueness of salvation in Jesus Christ as a foundation for what Christians should say and do together. Cardinal Cassidy also preached at the special Ecumenical Service held for the whole Conference. The presence of official representation from the Catholic Church for the whole of the World Methodist Conference and the associated World Methodist Council meeting was widely appreciated.

The Conference passed, almost unanimously, a resolution calling for the continuation of the official dialogue with the Catholic Church for another five years.

3. The Columbus consultation on Justification

In 1999, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the Catholic Church signed the JointDeclaration onthe Doctrine of Justification. Such an agreement was bound to have repercussions for all the dialogue partners of the Catholic Church and the LWF. At the time of the signing of the Joint Declaration, the World Methodist Council's Executive Committee had adopted a short statement of congratulations and appreciation, which was sent to the signing partners.

The World Methodist Council then took the initiative to propose a meeting with representatives of the Catholic Church and the LWF in order to discuss how the recent Joint Declaration could have favorable consequences for others. The idea developed into a consultation, hosted by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the LWF, which included representatives from the World Methodist Council and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. The hope was that this multilateral consultation could build upon the considerable measure of agreement on the doctrine of justification that had already been demonstrated in earlier bilateral dialogues involving the participating partners.

The Consultation was held in Columbus, Ohio, USA, from November 27-30, 2001, and focused on theological and procedural issues involved in the possible association of the Methodist and Reformed families of churches with the Joint Declaration. The Methodist representatives at the Columbus meeting, including Dr Geoffrey Wainwright, their co-chair of the Methodist-Catholic dialogue, identified the signing of the Joint Declaration as a highly significant moment in Church history, and indicated their desire to be a part of any movement forward based on what it has achieved. All agreed to propose that the consultative process be continued.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
8 May 2002, page 9

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069