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Catholic-Methodist Dialogue Issues Report on Church as Communion

 

The news story below concerns the report that was finalized at the April 29 to May 1, 2005, meeting of the United Methodist-Catholic dialogue. It took place at Saint Paul's College in Washington, DC. This concluded the sixth round of the dialogue; a seventh round is due to begin in the fall of 2006.

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service
May 19, 2005

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Despite differences, there are many parallels in the way Catholics and Methodists foster and express communion with God and one another through their respective church structures, says a report released May 13 by the U.S. Catholic-United Methodist dialogue.

The 20,000-word report, titled "Through Divine Love: The Church in Each Place and All Places," is the result of nine dialogue sessions over the past five years.

Through the biblical concept of koinonia -- communion or fellowship -- it clarifies the theology of the church as developed in the Catholic and Methodist traditions, with their different understandings of local and universal church.

It explores the church as a means of grace and differences and commonalities in Catholic and Methodist views of mission, baptism and Eucharist.

In its conclusion the report cites "the imperative of common mission for all." It encourages Catholics and Methodists to continue current collaboration and develop new ways of "deepening common witness."

Co-chairing the latest round of dialogue were Catholic Bishop Frederick F. Campbell of Columbus, Ohio, and recently retired United Methodist Bishop Walter Klaiber of Frankfurt, Germany. His presence reflects the fact that, in addition to its 50 episcopal areas in the United States, the United Methodist Church has 18 episcopal areas abroad.

The report says looking at the church through the lens of koinonia enabled the dialogue to discuss a "shared vision of the church as a partnership of divine love" that is articulated through "sharing of a common faith, a common sacramental life, bonds of love and communion, and a common witness, proclaiming the Gospel to the world."

"In this dialogue," the report says, "we address this common vision through four pressing tasks. First we recognize the unity that we now share. Second, we acknowledge the need for ongoing renewal and reform in each tradition. Third, we seek greater unity in order to be faithful to the will of Christ and the needs of the world today. Fourth, we identify the call to continue the dialogue as we persist in seeking full, visible communion."

Addressing Catholic understandings of the church as communion, the report says, "It is of especial importance to Catholics that communion ecclesiology values church structures at the same time that it puts them in the service of relationships of human beings with God and with each other through Christ and the Spirit. ... For Catholics the communal and collegial dimensions of communion find expression in the personal ministry of bishops, among whom the bishop of Rome carries a particular role in ensuring this communion."

Turning to Methodist understandings, it says, "The idea of connection, which reflects the biblical concept of koinonia, is a central feature of Methodist identity and practice. ... It is at the heart of United Methodist identity and is experienced in the systems of Christian conferencing, episcopacy, itinerant ministry, property and shared mission. ... In the United Methodist tradition ecclesial structures are not ends in themselves, but serve to form Christians in a life of love."

Methodism began in the 18th century as a revival movement within the Church of England led by an Anglican priest, John Wesley. Because of the strict regularity of life his early followers practiced to reach inner holiness, they were derided as "methodists," a term that eventually became a proper name without the negative connotation.

As Wesley began commissioning traveling lay preachers to spread "scriptural holiness" across the country, they "were in 'connection' with Mr. Wesley and also 'conferenced' with him," the report says. "This connection provided both accountability as well as identity to the 'people called Methodist.' ... This Christian conferencing initially included the fellowship of believers and rightly ordered conversations, both of which were means through which grace was communicated. This practice was evident in all levels of organization."

In the United Methodist Church today, conferences refer to meetings of the leadership of an area and to the geographic area itself.

The local church or churches assigned to a single minister is called a pastoral charge. A charge conference is a meeting of a district superintendent with that minister and the local lay leadership.

An annual conference is a geographic region and the yearly business meeting of the bishop with all the ministers of the region and an equal number of laity, one from each pastoral charge. The church has 59 annual conferences in the United States and 63 abroad. An episcopal area may include more than one annual conference.

The General Conference, the church's highest legislative body, meets every four years and is composed of equal numbers of clergy and laity elected by the annual conferences.

As in the Catholic Church, in the United Methodist Church bishops are called to oversee spiritual and temporal affairs of the church and "are charged both to guard the faith and to 'be a sign of unity,'" the report says. However, United Methodists see episcopal governance simply as the best form in practice, while Catholics believe it is by divine institution.

For Methodists, the local church is the congregation, but the basic church body is the annual conference, the report says. It notes that in official Catholic documents "the 'local' church denotes the diocese in the context of the universal church. Nevertheless it sees Catholic/Methodist parallels in parish/congregation and diocese/annual conference.

United Methodists use "global church" to refer to their own entire organization and "universal church" to refer to all Christians who form the one body of Christ. Catholics use "universal church" for "all Catholics led by the college of bishops with the pope as their head" and regard other churches and ecclesial communities as sharing "imperfect communion" with the Catholic Church, the report says.

It says Methodists regard baptism as "the sacrament of incorporation into the body of Christ" without regard to divisions among churches.

They practice "open table," inviting to Communion all "who seek to live in relationship with the triune God and with one another," it adds. "All who respond in faith to the invitation are to be welcomed. Unbaptized persons who respond by grace to the invitation are urged to be instructed in and receive baptism as soon as possible, as a sign of the conversion that has occurred in the reception of the Eucharist."

Catholics regard baptism as initiation "into the universal church thought of simultaneously and barely distinguishably as both the Catholic Church and the body of Christ," it says.

Apart from certain limited pastoral exceptions, the Catholic Church admits to the Eucharist only those who are baptized and in "full communion in the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments and ecclesial governance," it says.



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