Report on Current Status of Methodist-Catholic Relations

Author: Fr. Donald Bolen

Report on Current Status of Methodist-Catholic Relations

Fr Donald Bolen
Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

New initiatives foster deeper understanding

2003 was an eventful year in relations between the Catholic Church and the World Methodist Council, characterized both by an ongoing perseverance in our long-standing theological dialogue and by new initiatives which have been made possible by advances in that dialogue and by the friendship and understanding which have emerged over the past decades.

In June 2003, Methodists worldwide celebrated the 300th anniversary of the birth of John Wesley, and in small but significant ways, invited the Catholic Church to join in these celebrations. It was also a year in which a promising initiative took important steps forward — towards a Methodist affirmation of the agreement reached by Lutherans and Catholics in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.

Following both of these initiatives closely, the International Methodist-Catholic Dialogue Commission continued its work on ecclesiology towards a clearer understanding of convergences and differences in our understanding of the nature and mission of the Church. We will look briefly at each of these in turn.

1. 300th anniversary of the birth of John Wesley

Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, preached at the Methodist Church in Rome on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the birth of John Wesley. Later in the year, he sent a message to a celebration marking both the anniversary of Wesley's birth and that of the chapel Wesley opened in London 225 years ago.

Cardinal Kasper made use of the opportunity provided by these occasions to contribute to a Catholic reassessment of John Wesley, particularly attentive to "his wholehearted commitment to spreading the good news of salvation, his fostering of Scriptural holiness and his structuring of communities of Christians for witness and mission".

Cardinal Kasper noted that while the Catholic Church does not agree with all of Wesley's theological stances and inevitably needs to grapple with his ambivalent understanding of the Catholic Church, our assessment of Wesley cannot stop there. "We must also seek a wider view, to see what dynamized Wesley's ministry, to see the evangelical passion which gave direction to his life and the movement he started", the Cardinal said. He stressed that this reassessment of Wesley, which was "rich with possibilities", was possible because Catholics could now look to Wesley through eyes educated by our international dialogue and by the emergence of friendship and shared mission in various local contexts throughout the world, wherein "we have come to recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ".

Addressing the congregation of Methodists but also our Methodist dialogue partners worldwide, Cardinal Kasper noted that just as Methodists "continue to turn to the ministry of John Wesley for inspiration and guidance, we can look to see and find in him the evangelical zeal, the pursuit of holiness, the concern for the poor, the virtues and goodness which we have come to know and respect in you". Cardinal Kasper's homily and message were warmly received and much appreciated.

2. Methodism and the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification

Following an exploratory meeting in November 2001 between Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and Reformed representatives, the World Methodist Council (WMC) has actively pursued the possibility of having its member churches affirm the agreement reached in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), endorsed in 1999 by the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation.

During the past year, at the request of the WMC, Methodist theologians Professor Geoffrey Wainwright (co-chair of the Methodist-Catholic Dialogue Commission) and Bishop Walter Klaiber prepared a draft of a text wherein the Methodist understanding of justification and its relationship to the agreements reached in the JDDJ were theologically explained and substantiated.

Their draft statement was sent to Catholic and Lutheran authorities to determine whether it would be acceptable to them, and was clarified in light of those conversations. The statement indicates Methodist acceptance of the basic consensus statements of the JDDJ and of the specifically Lutheran and Catholic explanations in the text (noting that these diverse emphases should not be communion-dividing), and sets forth the distinctive Methodist emphases on the doctrine of justification and related doctrines.

The Methodist statement has now been sent to the 76 member churches of the World Methodist Council for study and debate. It is to be hoped that this process will culminate in an endorsement of the text by the WMC's member churches at their international Conference in 2006, coupled with an acceptance and welcome of the text by the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation.

In its final form such a statement would allow the WMC and its member churches officially to become associated with the JDDJ in such a way as to enter the new relationship that had been established between the original partners.

The process has significant implications not only for Methodist-Catholic relations, but also as an exploration of the means by which a third partner could join in an agreement established by two others. It signals a new genre of ecumenical text and a new means of advancing in the search for Christian unity.

3. The International Methodist-Catholic Dialogue Commission

The member churches of the World Methodist Council, all with roots in the Wesleyan tradition, understand themselves as being bound together more by a common pursuit of holiness and a common mission than by a consistent and well-articulated ecclesiology. Having emerged as a movement within Anglicanism fostering individual holiness and the revitalization of parish communities, Methodism has often been compared (by Methodists and Catholics alike) to religious movements and orders within the Catholic Church.

Methodist involvement in the ecumenical movement, however, has given rise to an increasing attentiveness to the ecclesiological foundations of Methodism. The Methodist-Catholic theological dialogue, which began in 1967, has correspondingly been increasingly focused on foundational ecclesiological issues. The last three reports of our International Methodist-Catholic Dialogue Commission have treated in sequence the Apostolic Tradition, divine revelation and the teaching authority of the Church.

The Commission is presently studying the relationship between Catholic and Methodist definitions of what essentially constitutes the Church, and is in the process of preparing a report which would be presented to authorities in the Catholic Church and the World Methodist Council in two years' time. The intent is for the report to look to past ecclesiological interpretations of each other, to give an account of our common ecclesiological foundations, to offer an assessment of each other's ecclesiology and to propose possible steps in our relationship that would reflect the extent to which we share a common understanding of the Church and its mission in the world.

While we both recognize that there are still significant ecclesiological issues separating us, the Methodist-Catholic dialogue has proceeded effectively in continually seeking to bridge the gap between us, and the present round of dialogue is proceeding very well. Professor Wainwright noted that "we are in this for the long haul, because clearly there are many matters to be resolved at the level of doctrine between the two communions; but we are making steady and sure, if slow, progress".

The declared aim of the dialogue is to help bring Catholics and Methodists into "full visible unity in faith, mission and sacramental life".

This year's meeting of the International Dialogue Commission took place in York, England, making it possible for the Commission members to make a joint pilgrimage to Epworth, the birthplace of John and Charles Wesley, visiting the home where they grew up and the church in which they were baptized. Meeting in England also made it possible for Commission members to attend the signing of a covenant between British Methodists and the Church of England, to participate in festivities marking the 225th anniversary of Wesley's Chapel (referred to above), and to hold a meeting with members of the British Methodist-Roman Catholic Committee. The latter body has been in existence for well over 30 years, engaging in a wide range of projects, from the study of international dialogue reports to the fostering of common witness and shared mission on a local level.

The meeting signalled the possibility of closer collaboration between the international commission and some of the regional or national Methodist-Catholic dialogues presently taking place.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
18 February 2004, page 9

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