Speaking The Truth In Love:
Teaching Authority Among Catholics And Methodists

Report of The Joint Commission Between The Roman Catholic Church
and The World Methodist Council
1997 – 2001

Seventh Series



During the past five years the Joint Commission between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Methodist Council has studied the exercise of teaching authority within and by the Church. In doing so, it has taken further the understanding recorded in previous statements of the Joint Commission, The Word of Life (1996) and, before that, The Apostolic Tradition (1991). The themes of the Holy Spirit and the Church, studied in previous phases of this dialogue, have now led to the more precise question of how 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. The teaching ministry in the Church is a particular means for this transmission and for ensuring faithfulness not only in believing but also in what is believed. This latest statement contributes one more piece to a mosaic which has been slowly developed, illustrating the various interlocking elements which, through the power of the Holy Spirit, contribute to the life of the Church as a faithful bearer of the revelation of Jesus Christ to succeeding generations.

 A word may be helpful about the general structure of the present report, which deviates a little from the pattern customary in bilateral dialogues. The introduction indicates the biblical dynamic which energised the work of the Commission during this quinquennium. Then the bulk of the document consists of two parts that differ from each other in nature. The first part states in systematic form what the Commission believes it possible for Catholics and Methodists to agree on in the matter of authoritative teaching, noting along the way such divergences as remain and some questions which each side would wish to put to the other. The second part describes the current understandings and practices internal to Methodism and Catholicism respectively, though in a style intended to be more readily intelligible by the partner and by others. Ideally, the reader approaching the report with little knowledge of one or both partners will read this second, descriptive part of the report first and will then return to it in order to see what achievements and challenges the first, systematic part of the report represents. The general conclusion of the report, in fact, synthesises the recognisable commonalities between Catholicism and Methodism and formulates the outstanding differences in terms of work still to be done.

Experiencing both continuity and changes in membership from previous rounds, the Joint Commission has enjoyed excellent working relationships and once more developed the mutual trust that comes from devotion to a common Lord and to a common goal, namely, the attainment between our churches of “full communion in faith, mission, and sacramental life.” We have thought together, written together, prayed together, and reverently attended each other’s eucharistic gatherings.

The present document is the work of a Joint Commission whose members are officially appointed by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and by the World Methodist Council. We respectfully offer this report to our sponsors and ask for their evaluation of it.


+ Michael Putney
Bishop of Townsville
Catholic Co-chairman

Geoffrey Wainwright
Professor of Christian Theology, Duke University
Methodist Co-chairman


16 November 2000


The Status of this Document

The Report published here is the work of the Joint Commission for Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Methodist Council. It is a statement from the Commission. The authorities who appointed the Commission have allowed the report to be published so that it may be widely discussed. It is not an authoritative declaration by the Roman Catholic Church or by the World Methodist Council, who will evaluate the document in order to take a position on it in due time.


Ephesians 4:1-16

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord,
beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,
with all humility and gentleness, with patience,
bearing with one another in love,
making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
There is one body and one Spirit,
just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,
one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.
Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,”
what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?
He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens,
so that he might fill all things.)

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets,
some evangelists, some pastors, and teachers,
to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,
until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God,
to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine,
by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.
But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head,
into Christ, from whom the whole body,
joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped,
as each part is working properly,
promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.

New Revised Standard Version  



1The Letter to the Ephesians celebrates the working out of the gracious divine purpose finally to bring all things together under the sovereignty of Jesus Christ, to the praise and glory of God the Father. The word of truth, which is the gospel of salvation, is now being preached, and those who receive it in faith are included in Christ and already made to sit with him in the heavenly places. As long as the consummation is awaited, however, the Apostle finds it necessary to exhort the believers to hold fast to what has been given them by the Holy Spirit in anticipation of the End. What was apostolically recommended to the Ephesian Christians under the threat of disunity may be pertinent to later generations seeking to remedy the divisions which have in fact regrettably occurred. Expectantly, the Joint Commission turned in particular to the fourth chapter of the Letter to the Ephesians for scriptural guidance in its effort to resolve differences between Methodists and Catholics over the matter of teaching authority in the Church.

2According to Ephesians 4:4-6, the unity of the Christian community is founded on the sevenfold unity that is recognised within the Church and upon which it depends for its existence. The Church as the body of Christ is a unity in diversity that is enlivened by one Spirit, responding to the one hope and submitting to the one Lord and head, Jesus Christ, through the faith that is celebrated in the one rite of baptism to the glory of the One God and Father of all. Thus the major topics of Christian doctrine appear as features of a living organism of beliefs. Correspondingly, the opening chapter of the Commission’s report articulates the basic Trinitarian and Christological faith shared by Catholics and Methodists, that is grounded in the Scriptures, confessed together in the ecumenical creeds, embodied in the respective liturgies of the churches, and proclaimed to the world as the Gospel of its salvation.

3In the second chapter of its present report, the Commission attends especially to the Holy Spirit as the agent of unity (Eph 4:3) and thereby highlights the pneumatological dimension that has marked its work from the 1981 report onwards. Now the Church is viewed as God’s prophetic community, anointed with the Spirit of Truth. Sealed by the Holy Spirit, the Church is preserved in one and the same truth in such a way that all Christians can actively respond to the vocation of bearing witness to the Gospel which brings to humankind the hope of salvation.

4The common vocation of Christians by no means excludes a diversity of compatible gifts and functions in the Church. Ephesians 4:7-11 in fact details a variety of charisms bestowed on the Church by the exalted Christ for the establishment of particular ministries to build up the Body and equip all God’s people for mission in the world. The Epistle’s list comprises chiefly offices having to do with the proclamation and teaching of the Word. Correspondingly, the Commission’s report next includes a chapter in which Methodists and Catholics try to develop a common understanding on the historically controversial questions concerning the manners and modes by which, in ever changing circumstances, accurate discernment of the truth of the Gospel is attained and its authoritative proclamation accomplished.

5Ephesians 4:12-14 states that the purpose of the teaching offices is to promote that “unity in faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God” which indicates maturity in the life of believers. Such maturity is revealed by certainty and stability with respect to matters of belief, and by the ability to distinguish between right and wrong teachings. Agreement in the truth of the Gospel is a fundamental component in the stated aim of the dialogue between Catholics and Methodists: “full communion in faith, mission and sacramental life.”[1]

6“Speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 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. The Apostle urges believers to rid themselves of all bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander, and malice (4:31) and to cultivate rather the virtues of humility, gentleness, and patience (4:2). Because Christ incarnates the love and truth of God, love is integral to truth, and truth to love. The continuing pursuit of both in tandem should strengthen the credibility of common Christian witness to the loving purpose of God, who in the Word and the Spirit gave and still gives himself to humankind. This is the truth of the Gospel.



Part One

I. The Church As Communion In Love And Truth


Object and Source of Teaching

7“Because God so loved the world, he sent his Son and the Holy Spirit to draw us into communion with himself. This sharing in God’s life, which resulted from the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit, found expression in a visible koinonia [communion, community] of Christ’s disciples, the Church.”[2] This description indicates both the central content or object of the Church’s teaching and the ultimate source of the authority to teach. Since the central object of teaching is God revealed in Jesus Christ, who is also the ultimate source of authority, Christian doctrine is inseparably Christological and Trinitarian. Catholics and Methodists are able to make the following statements jointly, subject to the qualifications indicated along the way.


8Given the way in which, according to the Scriptures, God has entered human history, the Church’s doctrine is centred on Christ. It flows from the identification of Jesus of Nazareth as the Saviour expected by Israel, the people of God whose story is told in the Bible. The life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the ensuing proclamation of the lordship of the Risen Christ were the central topic of teaching for the first generations of Christian believers, as is shown in the New Testament. They must remain so for all subsequent generations in the Church. Whenever we speak about Jesus Christ in our teaching, we follow the patristic councils in identifying him as the Second Person of the Trinity who has taken flesh.


9In a perspective that aims at the ultimate reality which stands beyond and within all that is visible, the core of Christian doctrine is that the Godhead is three Persons who are distinct from one another, yet in such a way that the divine being is perfectly present in each. The one and only God who was proclaimed and manifested in the Old Testament is revealed in the New as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus is known as the Father’s eternal Son, his creative Word who has now been made flesh; and their eternal Spirit is manifest as the one who spoke through the prophets, inspired the Scriptures, and is experienced as the divine presence acting in human life and throughout the universe.

The Works of God

10While seeing all God’s acts as engaging all three Persons of the Trinity, Christian reflection guided by the Scriptures has connected the works of God with specific divine Persons. Thus the creating act is appropriated to the Father, the redemption of Adam’s race to Christ the New Adam, the guidance of the Church and the sanctification of believers to the Holy Spirit. The faithful are taught to read, not only the ‘book of Scripture’ as the inspired record of divine revelation, but also in its light the ‘book of nature’, which shows traces of the creative power and presents images and analogies of the divine Persons, and the ‘book of the soul’, the highest creaturely image of God on earth (imago Dei), that has been damaged by sin but restored in Christ. In this way Christians are led to contemplate the Godhead as the ultimate agent and the loving and compassionate providence that supports all things in being, and they look for God’s direction in their life.

The Creeds

11The Christian Church professes the Apostles’ and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creeds, which are Christological and Trinitarian. They name the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and they place the life, death and resurrection of the Word incarnate at the centre of the articles of faith. The creeds embody the biblical teaching about God and Christ. Their confession is incorporated in the Church’s liturgies, notably the Apostles’ Creed in the baptismal rite of Christian initiation and the Nicene Creed in the worship of the assembly. The creeds also function as a rule of faith (regula fidei), normative for conciliar and other official teaching.

Marks of the Church

12The Creed of Nicaea-Constantinople calls the Church one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. The Church which Jesus founded is the gathered communion (koinonia) of all believers in Christ. It knows itself to be the redeemed people of God, the renewed Israel. It is by the same token one and holy. As the universal communion of the faithful ‘from the righteous Abel to the last of the elect’, the Church is catholic, destined to embrace all of redeemed humanity. Because it was chiefly through the apostles of Jesus – the Twelve and St. Paul and other missionaries – that the Gentiles were grafted into the stem of Israel (cf. Rom 11) by the preaching of the Word, the Church is apostolic.

The Church as Communion

13The Church is designated in Holy Scripture by many images and metaphors which throw light on the Church as a communion.[3] The biblical image of the Church as Body of Christ has been favoured for several reasons. It was emphasised by St. Paul (cf. 1 Cor 10:14-17; 12:12-30; Rom 12:4-6), and it is closely related to the eucharistic body of Christ and to the image of the Church as bride of God. Set at the heart of the Christian liturgy and piety, the Eucharist as communion with Christ substantiates the doctrine of the Church as communion. The image of the Church as bride of God renews the perspective of Israel as divine bride and anticipates the Church’s eschatological fulfilment.

14That the Church is a communion is indisputably rooted in the design of God, the Trinity, in whom unity and the plurality of three inseparably imply each other. This character of the Church is grounded in the creation itself, since humankind is, by the Creator’s will, at the same time one and diverse. As communion, the Church relates all believers to God and to one another, on the model and by the grace of the three Persons who are One Eternal Being. The communion of the faithful in time and in space exists in the Word of God and is united by the bond of the Spirit. It is a communion in the holy things that are the sacraments of grace, and primarily in baptism and in the Eucharist.

15The biblical images of the Church converge on one point: the Church issues from the self-communication of God, who in the incarnation comes to participate in the life of humankind and gives them a share in his own triune life. It thereby understands itself to be the domain of the Spirit, in keeping with the formula of the early baptismal creeds: “I believe... in the Holy Spirit in the Holy Church... .” While the internal presence and the testimony of the Spirit in the hearts of Christians remain invisible, the whole life of the community lies publicly under the Word of God for guidance and for judgement; and it is destined to give glory to God the Father.

Primacy of the Word

16The Word has primacy in the Church. The Eternal Logos, through the incarnation, brought God’s final revelation to humankind and became the redeemer of the world and the Lord of the Church. The Eternal Word made flesh is the ultimate norm of all the Church’s life and doctrine, orienting all that is done and taught in the Church toward the praise and worship of God the Father, by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. At the last day those who live in Christ will be raised into his Kingdom, which “will have no end”.


17The Word is present in the proclamation of the Gospel and in the initiation, education, and formation of believers. In proclamation and instruction the written Word in the Scriptures has primacy over all later formulations of divine revelation. It provides a permanent standard of belief, which is all the more necessary as missionary preaching of the Gospel in new nations and times requires that the message be communicated in fresh ways to the various cultures of the world. It is the point of reference for the normative decisions that have to be taken when debates and diverging interpretations of doctrine threaten the right formulation and the correct transmission of the Gospel.


18The Word is present in Tradition as the communication of the Gospel to new generations of believers. Tradition is “the history of that continuing environment of grace in and by which all Christians live”, it finds its “focal expression” in Scripture,[4] and it will always be faithful to the biblical message. Since they preserve the proclamation of the news of salvation by the prophets and apostles, the Scriptures are at the same time the model and the heart of the Tradition. In this Tradition, by which the Word is transmitted from age to age, the Word is read, proclaimed, explained and celebrated. The Tradition acquires normative value as its fidelity to the biblical norm and to the Eternal Word is recognised. “Scripture was written within Tradition, yet Scripture is normative for Tradition. The one is only intelligible in terms of the other.”[5] That there is a harmony between Scripture, Tradition, and the Christian life of faith and worship is part of the self‑understanding of the Church and integral to the manner in which the Church, in the Holy Spirit, transmits itself from generation to generation. There is a growing convergence between Methodists and Catholics on what Pope John Paul II has called “the relationship between Sacred Scripture, as the highest authority in matters of faith, and Sacred Tradition, as indispensable to the interpretation of the Word of God.”[6]

Mantained in the Truth

19In the history of the Church it became urgent to decide between divergent traditions and conflicting interpretations of the Gospel. A ministry serving such decision‑making was present in apostolic times (cf. Acts 15) and given a particular shape in the early centuries, when at the local level pastoral care was entrusted to a college of presbyters under the presidency of a bishop, with the bishops themselves forming a college at the universal level, in which the Roman See presided “in charity” (en agapé).[7] Bishops in the Catholic Church continue to fulfil this ministry as they preside over a particular church (diocese), which they administer, and lead in faith, worship, and witness. When gathered together in council, and when in their local churches they are seen to teach the same doctrines, they exercise a magisterial responsibility on behalf of the universal Church. In their own historical circumstances, John Wesley and the Methodists were aware of a similar responsibility when they developed a pattern whereby the supervision of teaching is exercised by the Conference and by the superintendent ministers acting in its name.

20The truth of the Gospel and the doctrines that express it cannot be faithfully preserved without the assistance of the Spirit. Catholics and Methodists have been eager to invoke the Spirit and they trust in his unfailing grace. In the Catholic Church this concern for truth and fidelity has found a focus in a “charism of unfailing truth and faith” that is given to the bishops for the sake of the universal Church.[8] This gift takes various forms, as when the ordinary teaching of all bishops is seen to be unanimous, or when, as occasionally though rarely happens, a doctrine is proclaimed “infallibly” by a council or by the Bishop of Rome in the conditions that were determined by the First Vatican Council for definitions ex cathedra. By virtue of this “charism of unfailing truth and faith” the Gospel is proclaimed indefectibly in spite of the sins and shortcomings of the Church’s members and leaders. A living witness to this faith has been given over the centuries by saints and scholars as well as ordinary believers, some of whom are honoured as ‘doctors of the Church’.

21In their own concern for the truth of the Gospel, Methodists have found assurance in the guidance of the Spirit that has been manifest in godly individuals like John Wesley himself, in such providential events as the Reformation, and in gatherings like the early Councils and the Methodist Conferences. As they exercise their teaching office, these Conferences formulate doctrinal statements as needed, but do not ascribe to them guaranteed freedom from error. Methodists understand themselves to be under an obligation to accept as authoritative what can clearly be shown to be in agreement with the Scriptures.

Teaching the Truth

22Both Methodists and Catholics accept the Scriptures, the Creeds and the doctrinal decrees of the early ecumenical Councils. In the Catholic Church further development of doctrine has occurred through other conciliar decrees and constitutions, and through pronouncements made by synods of bishops and by the Bishop of Rome and the offices that assist him in his care of all the churches. In Methodism the Holy Scriptures are believed to contain all things necessary to salvation. At the same time, Methodists’ reading of the Scriptures is guided by the early Creeds and Councils and certain standard texts, such as the Sermons of John Wesley, his Notes on the New Testament, and the Articles of Religion. The Methodist Conferences have the task of interpreting doctrine. Both Methodists and Catholics hold that all doctrine must remain under the Word of God, against which the value of its content should be tested.

23“Since the heart of the Gospel and the core of the faith is the love of God revealed in redemption, then all our creedal statements must derive from faith in Christ who is our salvation and the foundation of our faith.”[9] For Catholics and Methodists there is an order among the doctrines of the faith based upon their relationship to this core. The Decree on Ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council speaks of a “hierarchy of truths”[10], and John Wesley of an “analogy of faith” or a “grand scheme of doctrine”[11]. Methodists and Catholics also distinguish between doctrines and theological opinions, though they sometimes differ on which teachings belong to each category.

24An essential moment in the process of Tradition is the reception of doctrine by the people of God. As this Joint Commission has said, “one criterion by which new developments in Christian teaching or living may be judged consonant with the Gospel is their long-term reception by the wider Church.”[12] In Catholic teaching, the agreement of the faithful is not a condition of truth, but the Church’s assent cannot fail to be given,[13] not only to the Gospel daily preached and explained, but also to doctrinal definitions destined to ensure its integrity. There develops a mutual trust and a common recognition that the Holy Spirit is at work at all levels of the community. Nonetheless perfection of language is not guaranteed by the “charism of unfailing truth and faith.” In Methodist practice, Conferences hold the final authority in the interpretation of doctrine within the framework of their doctrinal standards. Methodists expect that Conference teaching firmly rooted in the normative sources of doctrine will be accepted. Refinement and reformation of teaching is part of an ongoing process through Conferences. When the teaching of a particular meeting of Conference is seen by the church to need better formulation, the next session of Conference is expected to carry out that task. We both agree that the Church stands in need of constant renewal in its teaching as in its life.


25Assent to the Gospel is entirely due to divine grace, and the ensuing faith engages the entirety of the persons who believe. It then becomes the starting point of reflection about the Gospel, as it is appropriated in diverse cultures. As the reception of doctrine takes place within the cultures of those who believe, it gives rise to a variety of orientations which eventually build up different theological systems. The ministry of theologians is to seek proper answers to the implicit or explicit questions asked about the Christian faith, to relate faith and culture in intellectually coherent ways, to explore the depths of doctrine, to organise the insights of the saints in satisfying syntheses, to educate the members of the Church in the contemplation of the divine mysteries, and to assist church leaders, both locally and when gathered in conciliar assembly, to formulate and preach the Gospel in fidelity to the Word of God written and transmitted. Thus theologians and church leaders are together called both to serve the unity of Christian faith and to promote the legitimate diversity in theology, liturgy, and law that illustrates the life and ethos of specific communities and enriches the Church’s catholicity.

The Rule of Prayer

26The faith of the Christian koinonia is expressed in its worship. As the Wesleyan hymn puts it, the Lord’s Supper is a privileged occasion for the Church to be realised as the Body of Christ:

Jesus, we thus obey
Thy last and kindest word;
Here, in thine own appointed way,
We come to meet thee, Lord[14].

There the correlation between the sacramental body and the ecclesial body appears both necessary and indissoluble. In the liturgical assembly, the Gospel is preached, the sacraments are celebrated, the faithful are one in prayer, blessings are shared, spiritual gifts exchanged, insights communicated, pains and sufferings softened by compassion, hopes placed in common. As they go from worship into the world, the faithful are one not only in faith and belief, but also in love; the ‘rule of prayer’, the faith that they have sung, remains with them as their rule of belief and their rule of life; and privileged connections grow from this, through mutual encouragement and emulation, in distinctive spiritualities and ways of discipleship, in religious societies following a common rule and devoted to a common purpose of prayer and good works, and in many forms of witness (apostolate, evangelism) that are needed in contemporary society.

The Church as Mission

27As at the moment of the Ascension, the Church is still sent today by the Saviour to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). Through the Word made flesh the apostles and other disciples received this mission from God, for which they were empowered by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. From the apostles the mission has been handed on to the entire body of the Church; and the Spirit, who acts as ‘the soul of the Church’, has been received by the faithful, confirming their baptism, making Christ present to them, leading them home to the Father. As they hear the Gospel preached, Christians realise that mission is not the exclusive calling of a few but of the entire community and of its members, lay and ordained, according to their gifts and abilities. All should live by the Gospel everywhere and at all times, in their homes and at their places of work and of leisure, so that the whole Christian Church may truly be seen as sent by God to humankind. Indeed, Jesus promised that if the disciples love one another the world will believe that they are his disciples (cf. Jn 13:35). To bring the Gospel effectively to all creatures the Church depends on divine grace. Moreover it is aware of its own inner contradiction when fulfilment of its mission is hampered by sin, lack of vision, disagreements, discouragement, or fear. God’s grace will be given, for the Holy Spirit is ever at work, enabling the Church and the faithful to pursue their God-given callings.

The Ecumenical Imperative

28The ultimate aim of mission is to serve God’s saving purpose for all of humankind. Just as the Church longs for the oneness of its members in love and prays for it in the liturgy, so it waits in hope for spiritual gifts that will lead it to a higher level of holiness, a more evident fullness of catholicity, and a greater fidelity in apostolicity. This striving after perfection in the God-given marks of the Church implies an ecumenical imperative. All Christian churches should pray and work toward an eventual restoration of organic unity. Visionary Methodists from John R. Mott onwards have been among the pioneers of the modern ecumenical movement, and Methodist Churches have wholeheartedly committed themselves to the recovery of the full visible unity of Christians. Likewise the Second Vatican Council committed the Catholic Church irrevocably to the same goal, a commitment which was reiterated with passion by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical letter Ut unum sint (1995). Catholics and Methodists have thus begun to enjoy a “union in affection” on their way to that “entire external union”[15] for which Wesley in his time hardly dared to hope.


II. God’s Prophetic Community, Anointed With The Spirit Of Truth

29Methodists and Roman Catholics are united in the hope that the Holy Spirit will lead all believers to the truth, gathering them together into communion with Christ who is in person “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (Jn 14:6). The Second Vatican Council re-emphasised Catholic teaching on the place of the Holy Spirit at the heart of the life, worship and mission of Christ’s Church: “The Spirit dwells in the Church and in the hearts of the faithful as in a temple (cf. 1 Cor 3:16; 6:19), and he prays in them and bears witness to their adoption as children (cf. Gal 4:6; Rom 8:15-16, 26). He leads the Church into all truth (cf. Jn 16:13), and he makes it one in fellowship and ministry, instructing and directing it through a diversity of gifts both hierarchical and charismatic, and he adorns it with his fruits (cf. Eph 4:11-12; 1 Cor 12:4; Gal 5:22). Through the power of the Gospel he rejuvenates the Church, continually renewing it and leading it to perfect union with its spouse.”[16] The Wesleys affirmed the same truth:

Head of thy church, whose Spirit fills
And flows through every faithful soul,
Unites in mystic love, and seals
Them one, and sanctifies the whole: …
Pour out the promised gift on all,
Answer the universal ‘Come’![17]

This link between Spirit and Church has always been essential to the life of the Church; in the third century, for instance, those being baptised in Rome were asked: “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit in the Holy Church?”[18] This has particular implications for the discernment of truth among the followers of Jesus. It is the whole Church which is endowed with the Spirit of Truth, and it is the whole Church, in different ways and through different gifts, that the Spirit leads into all truth. Discerning the truth and discerning the will of God belong to the whole people of God, lay and ordained together, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

Anointed in the Truth

30In the Old Testament, God spoke through individual prophets, each inspired by his Spirit. Through the prophet Joel, God promised the Day of the Lord when he would pour out his Spirit on all humanity:

Then afterward
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit. (Joel 2:28-29)

31Peter understands the extraordinary events of the day of Pentecost as the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy (cf. Acts 2:14-21). The new community of believers in the Risen Christ, his Church, is anointed with the outpouring of the Spirit of Truth promised by Jesus (cf. Jn 14:16f; 15:26; 16:13). While there are still particular individuals within that Church who have special gifts of prophecy (cf. Acts 11:27, 15:32, and 21:10-11), the whole community is prophetic, just as the whole community is royal and priestly (cf. I Pet 2:9f). This is because the Church is the Body of Christ, so intimately united with him by the Spirit that believers can speak of themselves as being ‘in Christ’. Jesus is the master who teaches the people with authority (cf. Mk 1:22, 27; Lk 10:25). He is the anointed one, recognised as the long-expected prophet, sent by God the Father after a long line of prophets (cf. Mt 21:11; Lk 7:16; Jn 6:14, 7:40). By our incorporation into Christ through water and the Holy Spirit, we are united to Christ, the ‘great prophet’ and share in his prophetic role.

32This Commission has already affirmed this understanding in previous documents: “The Spirit guides the development of the Church. In every age, as the Paraclete, he reminds us of all that Jesus said, leads us into all truth, and enables us to bear witness to salvation in Christ.”[19] Maintaining God’s people in the truth is “the loving work of the Spirit in the Church.”[20] The Spirit is seen as “the invisible thread running through the work of the Church in the world, enabling our minds to hear and receive the Word, enlightening them to understand the Word, and giving us tongues to speak the Word.”[21] It is because the faithful are “in Christ and with Christ” that “they receive the Spirit and are in the Spirit.”[22] This Spirit provides in the Church “abundant gifts of perception and understanding.”[23] Under the leading power of God’s love, “the discernment of God’s will is the task of the whole people of God.”[24] Because of this powerful presence of the Spirit of Truth, “the proclaiming community itself becomes a living gospel for all to hear.”[25]

33Further aspects of this mutual understanding have been expressed in our respective dialogues with the Anglican Communion. The Holy Spirit keeps the Church under the lordship of Christ, who never abandons his people, despite the all-too-obvious human weaknesses of its members. The Church’s mission to proclaim and safeguard the Gospel involves the whole people of God, lay people as well as ordained ministers: “The people of God as a whole is the bearer of the living Tradition. In changing situations producing fresh challenges to the Gospel, the discernment, actualisation and communication of the Word of God is the responsibility of the whole people of God. The Holy Spirit works through all members of the community, using the gifts he gives to each for the good of all.”[26] Some, however, “may rediscover or perceive more clearly than others certain aspects of saving truth.”[27] We need, therefore, to “create the necessary conditions to foster a prepared and committed laity and clergy, both being necessary for the life and mission of a faithful Church.”[28]

34The role of the lay faithful as essential witnesses to the Gospel is affirmed in each of our Churches. “All Christians are called to minister wherever Christ would have them serve and witness in deeds and words that heal and free.”[29] Christ continues to carry out his prophetic task not only through ordained ministers “but also through the laity whom he constitutes his witnesses and equips with an understanding of the faith and a grace of speech (cf. Acts 2:17-18; Rev 19:10), precisely so that the power of the Gospel may shine forth in the daily life of family and society.”[30]

35Several key points emerge. It is the Holy Spirit who empowers the whole people of God in the work of witness and mission. The whole body of believers, lay and ordained together, is called to the task of proclamation of the Gospel. It is the whole Church which remains rooted in a communion of faith and life with the apostles themselves, faithful to their teaching and mission.

Abiding in the Truth

36Because Christ’s faithful are incorporated into him through baptism, they share in Christ’s priestly, prophetic and royal office, together as a community of faith and individually each in their own way. “All the faithful share in understanding and handing on revealed truth. They have received the anointing of the Holy Spirit, who instructs them and guides them into all truth.”[31] The “theological task is both individual and communal” and “requires the participation of all.... because the mission of the church is to be carried out by everyone who is called to discipleship.”[32]

37The Church’s ‘abiding in the truth’ is the fruit of the powerful and manifold presence of the Holy Spirit in and among those who believe in Jesus Christ. A God-given sense or instinct is aroused and sustained in each believer by the Spirit of Truth. This gift is an aspect of the gift of faith. It makes it possible for believers to recognise and respond to the Word of God, to discern truth from falsehood in matters of faith and morals, to gain deeper insights into what they believe and to apply that belief to daily life. The Spirit, however, does not guarantee each person’s exercise of this ‘insight into the faith’ (sensus fidei). Individuals and groups can fall away from the truth and from holiness of life; the pilgrim Church today is, as it always has been, a community of saints and sinners. Each person’s “I believe” should participate fully in the communal “we believe” of Christ’s Church: “Faith is always personal but never private, for faith incorporates the believing individual into the community of faith.”[33] It is the corporate belief of the whole people of God that is protected from error by the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. The ‘faithful’ are those who, ideally, are full of God’s gift of faith, a faith which is the faith of Christ’s Church, his body anointed with the Spirit of Truth.

38In its 1978 statement on Authority, the then English Roman Catholic/Methodist Committee affirmed that Methodists and Catholics “agree that Jesus promised to the Church his presence and protection until the end of the age; to it he promised the Spirit of truth always; against it the powers of hell will never prevail.”[34] Catholics and Methodists teach that absolute authority belongs properly only to God who has revealed himself supremely in the Word incarnate, Jesus Christ. We affirm together that this revelation is communicated to us by witnesses who, by God’s call and gift, share in the divine authority. Their witness is found above all in the apostolic preaching, Scripture and various organs of the continuing Church.[35]

Preserved in the Truth

39Methodists and Catholics believe that the Spirit preserves in Christ’s Church the revelation given for our salvation, although we are not yet completely agreed on what doctrines are essential. Both acknowledge the Scriptures as their primary and permanent norm, to be interpreted authoritatively by the living voice of Tradition. Together we also affirm both the human frailty and the God-given indefectibility of Christ’s Church. The treasure of the mystery of Christ is held in the earthen vessel of the daily life of the pilgrim Church, a community always in need of purification and reform.

40Methodists emphasise that because human beings as creatures and sinners are fallible, “human witnesses may never in principle be exempt from the possibility of error, and the authority of the witness is to that extent always open to question.” Methodists trust, however, that “God always keeps witnesses sufficiently faithful to himself for saving knowledge of himself to be available. As they seek the truth of God, and his will for them in particular situations, Methodists believe that they are led by the Holy Spirit.”[36]

41Catholics emphasise that in order to preserve his Church in the purity of the apostolic faith, Christ shares his own gift of infallibility with his community, so that it adheres unfailingly to this faith and hands on from generation to generation what has been “handed down from the apostles.”[37] It is the whole community of believers, united with Christ by the Spirit, which is the recipient of the charism of infallibility (protection from error). When the community is united in belief “from the bishops to the last of the faithful”, its faith cannot be in error.[38] Both the First and Second Vatican Councils taught that when the bishops together with the Pope at their head, or the Pope as successor of St Peter and head of the college of bishops, authoritatively define a doctrine of faith, it is the Church’s own charism of infallibility which is at work in them in a special way.[39] All such protection from error is totally the gift of God to his Church, the Spirit of Truth being strong amid the weakness of believers. Its purpose is to ensure the Church’s faithful service of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ to all the world.

42Catholics and Methodists believe that God alone is the absolute Truth. All members of the Church on earth are fallible creatures and sinners in need of the mercy of God. The Church is totally dependent on the active presence of the Holy Spirit in every aspect of its life and teaching.

Co-Workgroups in the Truth

43The whole community of faith has been sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit. It is the same Spirit who both awakens each believer’s ‘insight into the faith’ and who guides and guards the official teachers of the Church. Taking account of the communal sense of all the faithful is integral to the process of authoritative discernment of the truth: this participation is something much richer than a mere opinion poll or referendum on matters of faith. All believers together are “co-workers with the truth” (3 Jn 8), with a co-responsibility for discerning and proclaiming the truth of the Gospel, always under the leading power of the Spirit of Truth. Authoritative discernment and proclamation can never be understood properly in isolation from the anointing by the Spirit of all the baptised, individually and together.

44‘Abiding in the truth’ is a dynamic process led by the Spirit. Every believer has a part to play, listening to and reflecting on the Word of God spoken afresh to each generation. The graced insights of individuals and groups of Christians can enrich the pilgrim Church in its deeper penetration into the truth of the Gospel: “This tradition which comes from the apostles progresses in the Church under the assistance of the Holy Spirit. There is growth in understanding of what is passed on, both the words and the realities they signify. This comes about through contemplation and study by believers, who ‘ponder these things in their hearts’ (cf. Lk 2:19,51); through the intimate understanding of spiritual things which they experience; and through the preaching of those who, succeeding in the office of bishop, receive the sure charism of truth.”[40] Put more poetically,

Come, Holy Ghost, our hearts inspire,
Let us thine influence prove;
Source of the old prophetic fire,
Fountain of life and love.
God through himself we then shall know,
If thou within us shine;
And sound, with all thy saints below,
The depths of love divine.[41]

45Because of the anointing of the whole community of faith with the Spirit of Truth, every Christian shares in Christ’s role as prophet and teacher, totally dependent upon him and needing to listen to his word of life. There should be no conflict within the prophetic people of God between the role of the laity and that of ordained ministers, for “in the Church there is diversity in ministry, but unity in mission.”[42] The diverse gifts bestowed by the Spirit serve the building up of the Body of Christ “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13). The Roman Catholic and Methodist perspectives on this are presented in this Commission’s last document, The Word of Life: “Wesley knew that, in the mind and the heart of the deeply convinced Christian believer, the Holy Spirit is ever at work, bonding the exercise of particular spiritual gifts into unity with the exercise of complementary gifts in all the other members of the body of Christ, the Church” (§57); “In the perspective of Vatican II, this action of the Spirit brings about an interdependence in communion between the spiritual instinct of the whole body of the faithful and those who are empowered to make normative acts of discernment of what is, or is not, faithful to the Christian tradition” (§58).

Called by the Truth

46The interaction between the Spirit-led community and the Spirit-filled individual begins at baptism, when the gathered community, making present the Body of Christ, invokes the Holy Spirit on the one to be baptised:

Pour out your Holy Spirit
that the one to be baptised in this water
may die to sin,
be raised with Christ,
and be born to new life in the family of your Church.[43]

Similarly when Catholics are confirmed and Methodists received into full membership, the prayer of the community is that the candidate may be confirmed by the Holy Spirit and may continue as God’s servant for ever. Thus all the faithful have received the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and are constantly renewed by that Spirit in partaking together in the Eucharist, as “the body of Christ and the community of the Holy Spirit.”[44] The Holy Spirit is also invoked in a particular way on those who are discerned to have been called for the task of ordained ministry.

47All the faithful are called and anointed by the Spirit to proclaim the Gospel. This proclamation will always require a clear and unequivocal proclamation of our faith that “Jesus is Lord”. The Church’s faith, its ‘abiding in the truth’, is expressed in wordsbut also proclaimed by witness in deeds (cf. 1 Pet 2:12). Through wordless witness, Christians can “stir up irresistible questions in the hearts of those who see how they live.”[45] This radiant witness is a silent, powerful and effective proclamation of the Good News, inspired and made possible by the Spirit of Truth. ‘Abiding in the truth’ includes not only “speaking the truth in love” but also “doing the truth in love” (Eph 4:15).


III.  Means Of Grace, Servants Of Christ And His Church

48Methodists and Roman Catholics affirm that the whole community of believers is called together by God our Father, placed under the lordship of the Risen Christ, united with Christ as his Body, and has the Holy Spirit as the source of its unity of life, worship and witness. In the Father’s purpose for the Church, each and every believer is to participate in the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit, bringing God’s outgoing, all‑embracing and transforming love to all humanity. The Church is “a community both of worship and of mission.”[46] It is a community of faith called to preach and proclaim to the world the Gospel of Jesus Christ, “good news of a great joy which will come to all the people” (Lk 2:10). Catholics and Methodists are firmly united in the passionate conviction that the Gospel is offered to all.[47] The work of spreading the Gospel is impaired if believers are not truly one in the Gospel of Christ, united in love and in truth. Our connection and communion with one another serve our growth towards holiness and our sharing in God’s mission. Growth in unity is the work of the Holy Spirit, who leads believers into all love and all truth. As this Joint Commission affirmed in 1981, “To maintain God’s people in the truth is the loving work of the Spirit in the Church.”[48] Methodists and Catholics agree that Jesus promised his presence and protection to the Church until the end of time. He continues to endow his Church with the Spirit of truth and holiness. God’s faithfulness means that the powers of evil will never prevail against the Church, as it engages in its mission for the salvation of the world (cf. Mt 16:18).

Servants and Agents of God

49Christ’s Church is totally dependent on the free gift of God’s grace for every aspect of its life and work. Apart from Christ we can do nothing (cf. Jn 15:5). Methodists and Catholics agree, however, that God works through people as servants, signs and instruments of his presence and action. Although God is not limited to such ways of working, we joyfully affirm together that God freely chooses to work through the service of human communities and individuals, empowered by his grace. The whole Church is called to be a channel of God’s grace to the world; within the Church individuals and institutions become agents of the Lord and thus servants of their brothers and sisters. Such ministries are a gift of God to his Church.

Unity in Diversity

50There has always been a wide variety of service in the Church, carried out by lay people and ordained ministers in partnership. The diverse gifts in the Body of Christ are complementary, and serve together the Church’s communion and connection in love and in truth. Ephesians 4:11 bears witness to the ministry of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Romans 12:7‑8 refers to ministry, teaching, exhorting and leading, all as gifts. 1 Corinthians 12 makes clear that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are integrated and to be exercised in harmony. The New Testament repeatedly emphasises that their purpose is to serve the whole Body of Christ, enabling the community of believers to fulfil the mission in and for the world given to it by Christ.

51The ministry of oversight (episcope) is of key importance among these forms of service. Pastoral oversight has always included authoritative teaching and preaching, for unity in love and unity in truth belong together. Methodists and Catholics affirm together the place within the community of believers of authoritative servants of communion and connection in love and in truth, authorised agents of discerning and proclaiming the truth of the Gospel. In the early Church, the ministry of pastoral and doctrinal oversight was primarily exercised by bishops. In the Catholic communion, the college of bishops united with the Pope exercises supreme oversight. Among Methodists, it is Conference which exercises oversight, with full authority within the church for the formulation and interpretation of doctrine. Within or alongside such structures of servant leadership, there have always been charismatic individuals whose personal ministry has been vital for the life of Christ’s Church. John Wesley himself stands out as such a person. Catholics and Methodists affirm together that God chooses to use such individuals as well as visible structures to touch the lives of his people.

Means of Grace

52“The Word was made flesh, and lived among us” (Jn 1:14). God’s Son entered human history as one of us, taking upon himself human life and suffering. After the pattern of the Incarnation, God continues to make visible the Invisible, and calls men and women to be signs and channels of the divine presence. A key point of agreement between Methodists and Roman Catholics is the need for graced, free and active participation in God’s saving work. “In the calling of disciples and the giving of the Holy Spirit, God committed Himself to working with his people (2 Cor 1:5-7, 6:1). The first Christians knew that they were called to participate in God’s mission and to proclaim God’s reign as Jesus had done (Lk 10:9, 11; Jn 20:20-3). The Church’s calling remains the same.”[49] This is true not only of God’s working through the Church for the salvation of all humanity, but also within the community of the Church. God chooses to work with, through and in various ministers and their ministries. Believers become God’s co-workers (cf. 1 Cor 3:9), they working with God and God working in them (cf. 2 Cor 6:1). In all of this they rely on the primacy of God’s grace over all human limitations and weaknesses, and on the invisible, active and powerful presence of the Holy Spirit who blows where he wills.

53Methodists and Roman Catholics agree that God uses means of grace which are trustworthy channels. In this context, the Joint Commission has recognised the need to explore together more deeply the meaning of ‘sacrament’. Its earlier report, Towards a Statement on the Church, began to do so, specifically with reference to baptism and Eucharist. Sacraments are “outward signs of inward grace consisting of actions and words by which God encounters his people.”[50]

Those actions of the Church which we call sacraments are effective signs of grace because they are not merely human acts. By the power of the Holy Spirit they bring into our lives the life-giving action and even the self-giving of Christ himself. It is Christ’s action that is embodied and made manifest in the Church’s actions which, responded to in faith, amount to a real encounter with the risen Jesus.[51]

Also, at the end of The Apostolic Tradition, reflecting on ordained ministry, the Commission pointed to the need for “deeper common reflection on the nature of sacrament.”[52]

54In The Word of Life the discussion of the sacramental life begins with Christ himself as the ‘primary sacrament’, “both the sign of our salvation and the instrument by which it is achieved”. As incorporated into Christ, “the Church may analogously be thought of in a sacramental way.”[53] Towards a Statement on the Church already described the Church as “enabled to serve as sign, sacrament and harbinger of the Kingdom of God in the time between the times” and also affirmed that “Christ works through his Church.”[54]

The Mystery of the Word made flesh and the sacramental mystery of the Eucharist point towards a view of the Church based upon the sacramental idea, i.e. the Church takes its shape from the Incarnation from which it originated and the eucharistic action by which its life is constantly being renewed.[55]

The Church’s mission is “none other than a sharing in the continuing mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit expressing the Father’s love for all humankind”; “such participation in the mission of Christ is possible only because of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.”[56]

55The sacraments are seen as particular instances of the revelation of the divine mystery. They “flow from the sacramental nature of God's self‑communication to us in Christ. They are specific ways in which, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Risen Jesus makes his saving presence and action effective in our midst.”[57] Christ addressed himself in signs, in actions and in words to those who came to him in faith: “After Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, the Saviour continues his words and actions among us by means of sacramental signs.”[58] Roman Catholics understand seven rites, including ordination, as sacraments in the full sense of the word, although they consider baptism and the Eucharist as foundational. Methodists affirm the full sacramental nature only of baptism and Eucharist (as directly instituted by Christ), but they consider other practices also as ‘means of grace’.[59]

56Catholics too distinguish ‘sacraments’ from other means of grace. A sacrament is a guaranteed means of grace, rooted in God’s covenant to be with his people. Christ freely commits himself to be powerfully present through these signs, although we grow in holiness only as we respond with faith active in love. Christ covenants himself to work in these particular ways so that all may benefit from his faithful love. Catholics understand this commitment by the Risen Lord to be present in the sacraments as a practical outworking of his promise to be with his Church until the end of time (cf. Mt 28:20). Confidence in Christ’s presence and action in the sacraments is grounded in God’s faithfulness to the people he has chosen. Catholics believe that God also uses other rites and forms of ministry as means of grace even if they do not regard them as sacraments.

57In this context Catholics distinguish sacraments from ‘sacramentals’. In the strict sense, sacramentals are signs, instituted by the Church and rooted in the baptismal priesthood of all believers. They always include a prayer, often accompanied by a gesture such as the laying-on of hands, the sign of the cross or sprinkling with holy water. Sacramentals do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the same way as sacraments, but by the Church’s prayer they are intended to help prepare believers to receive and cooperate with God’s free gift of grace. Sacramentals include blessings of people and things. Certain blessings consecrate people to God in a special way, or reserve objects and places for sacred use. “Every baptised person is called to be ‘a blessing’, and to bless.”[60]

58While Methodists affirm only baptism and the Lord’s Supper as sacraments directly instituted by Christ, they affirm other practices of the Christian life as ‘instituted means of grace.’ John Wesley described such means as “ordinary channels”[61] through which God conveys grace. He then used passages from Scripture to show that Christ commanded that all Christians use these means and thereby promised grace to be given through them. Such ‘instituted’ means include prayer, studying the Scriptures, fasting and works of mercy. By ‘works of mercy’ is meant doing good to our neighbour in both body and soul through such actions as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting prisoners, instructing and exhorting those seeking God. Thus, along with baptism and the Lord’s Supper, all of these are instituted means of grace.

59Methodists also recognise that other practices can be effectual channels of God’s grace if they are faithful to Scripture and a meeting with Christ is experienced. John Wesley taught that we can trust that God’s grace is regularly found in such places. They are thus ‘prudential means of grace’. Celebrating the faith in hymnody and Christian conference are two such practices that have characterised Methodist ecclesial life since its beginning. By ‘Christian conference’, Methodists understand not only the Conferences in which clergy and laity discern the will of God and make decisions about doctrine and discipline, but also other occasions when they gather for personal discernment and to watch over one another in love. Thus, class meetings, Sunday schools, and youth fellowship groups are all examples of prudential means of grace, which are not binding on all Christians everywhere at all times. A faithful community may or may not find them to be effective channels at particular times and places. Further, new means of grace may be discovered for new contexts as the church lives in faithful obedience to the Spirit.

60In effect, Methodists treat ordination, prayer for healing, declaring the forgiveness of sins, marriage and confirmation as prudential means of grace that have a special status within this larger category. They are not sacraments like baptism and the Lord’s Supper, yet they have a sacramental quality. They are distinct from other prudential means in that they are grounded in the practices of the apostolic Church as attested in Scripture. Thus they are properly given liturgical expression in the life of the gathered community of faith. There may be value in exploring further any similarity between the Catholic categories of sacraments and sacramentals, and Wesley’s categories of instituted and prudential means of grace.

61Methodists and Catholics find significant convergence of understanding about the means of grace. We agree that God has promised to be with his Church until the end of the age (cf. Mt 28:20), and that all of the means of grace, whether sacraments or sacramentals, instituted means or prudential means, are channels of God’s faithfulness to his promise. Methodists and Catholics affirm that baptism, confirmation and ordination are unrepeatable acts whereby God’s grace is conveyed to the recipient in special ways. However, some of our remaining differences centre on whether and how a means of grace may be ‘guaranteed’ or ‘trustworthy’. Catholics ask Methodists how and by what criteria they verify that a particular means is a trustworthy channel of God’s grace. Methodists ask Catholics whether the idea of the guaranteed quality of a sacrament takes full account of the weakness, limitations and sinfulness of the human beings called to be agents of God’s grace. We need to explore further together our understanding of the guarantee or trustworthiness of God’s working through the means of grace in his Church. This has an important bearing on our understanding of how God works through ordained ministers in their authoritative discernment and proclamation of the truth of the Gospel.

The Call to Serve

62All Christians, together and individually, are called to serve Christ in the world to the glory of God. This is the setting for understanding the particular roles of bodies such as the Methodist Conference or the College of Catholic Bishops. Each is understood as a means of grace within a community of faith which is itself the agent of Christ’s saving work in the world. All who minister, ordained and lay, serve a community whose members are called to recognise and serve Christ in others. Ministers of Christ meet their Lord in those they serve.

Ordained Ministry

63Methodists and Roman Catholics agree that by ordination a person is irrevocably called and set apart by God for special service in the community of believers, but this does not involve being separated from that community. It is a special calling within the general calling given to all. This dialogue has often returned to the question of what ordination does. There is much that can be affirmed together. By ordination a person becomes a minister of word and sacrament in the Church of Christ. At the heart of all pastoral service by the ordained lies a ministry of oversight for the sake of the connection and communion of the Church (cf. 1 Pet 5:2,4).

64The Joint Commission’s first report outlined key areas of agreement on ordained ministry. After declaring that “the minister participates in Christ’s ministry, acts in Christ’s name”, the document goes on to speak of the importance of the Holy Spirit in “calling people into the ministry”, the “connectional” character of the ministry, the paramount authority of Christ himself in the Church. Another significant area of agreement for the continuing dialogue was “the understanding of the ministry as, in some mysterious way, an extension of the incarnational and sacramental principle when human beings (as ministers), through their souls and bodies, become, by the power of the Holy Spirit, agents of Christ for bringing God into the lives and conditions of men” and women.[62] The Commission’s next report again understood ordained ministry as “the ministry of Christ himself, whose representative the minister is.”[63] Increasingly, both Catholics and Methodists understand the ordained minister to represent both Christ and the Christian community. According to that report, Roman Catholics and Methodists also agree that “by ordination a new and permanent relationship with Christ and his church is established”[64]: this is the foundation of our common belief that ordination is irrevocable and unrepeatable. In The Apostolic Tradition the Commission stated that within the community of God’s people, an authentic minister “communicates Christ to persons”[65]: “as an instrument in God’s hands, the ordained minister imparts the Word of God to God’s people, both by speech and by the sacraments of the Church.”[66] The report went on, however, to admit that there are remaining differences over the sacramental nature of ordination.[67]

65Catholics understand ordination as a sacrament singling out men within the Church to be living signs and instruments of the continuing pastoral oversight and leadership of Christ himself. It occurs through episcopal laying-on of hands and prayer. Both bishop and presbyter are regarded as “a sacramental representation”[68] of Christ as head to his Body, of Christ as shepherd to his flock, of Christ as high priest to his priestly people, of Christ the only teacher to his community of faith. Through the ministry of bishops and presbyters in particular, the living presence of Christ as head of his Body and pastor of his people is made visible in the midst of the Church. This understanding is the sacramental foundation for Catholic doctrine on the teaching authority of the college of bishops. The first task of bishops, especially when together as the college of bishops, is to proclaim the Gospel in its integrity to all. For Catholics, this ministry of authoritative preaching is intimately linked with the ministry of governance and the central liturgical ministry of presiding at the Eucharist. All true ministry is pastoral at heart, serving to draw all people deeper into the mystery of Christ the Shepherd, who gave his life in sacrificial love.

66Methodists understand ordination as a gift from God to the Church. In it men and women who are called by God to this form of ministry are accepted by the Conference after examination. “They are then ordained by prayer and the imposition of hands by the Bishop, or the President of the Conference, and given the tasks of declaring the Gospel, celebrating the sacraments and caring pastorally for Christ’s flock.”[69] While Methodists do not understand ordination as a sacrament, it is a liturgical action involving the community’s prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit appropriate to the particular form of ministry. Because this is a life-long and sacred commission, ordination is never repeated. It is understood as entry into a covenant relationship with all other ministers in the service of Christ. Thus, while ordination is a liturgical action, it is normally accompanied closely by the reception of the ordinand into connection with the Conference. Those Methodist Churches which set apart or consecrate some ministers as bishops do not consider this a further ordination.

67Catholics and Methodists hold several aspects of their understandings of ordination in common. Both Churches set apart ministers for the Church of Jesus Christ. Both Churches understand this rite as a means of God’s grace whereby the minister is introduced into a covenant relationship of permanent service in Christ’s Church. This specific form of leadership is always a service both to God and to God’s people. It involves administering the sacraments, preaching and teaching the Word, and sharing in the ordering of the Church’s life.

68We joyfully affirm together that the ministries and institutions of our two communions are means of grace by which the Risen Christ in person leads, guides, teaches and sanctifies his Church on its pilgrim path. Such an affirmation can be made only within a community of faith, relying on God’s promise and grace: “All ministry continues to depend entirely upon God’s grace for its exercise. The God who calls crowns his call with gifts for ministry.”[70] Catholics ask Methodists whether they might not use sacramental language, such as has been used of the Church itself, of ordained ministry in the Church, and of its authoritative discernment of the truth of the Gospel. Methodists ask Catholics why, given human weakness and fallibility, they understand ordained ministry not only as a sign but also as a guarantee of the active presence of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, especially in particular acts of authoritative discernment and proclamation. These questions lie at the heart of ecumenical dialogue between our two communions.

The Ministry of Preaching and Teaching

69Jesus was recognised as the Rabbi or Master, who stood out from other teachers because he spoke with authority (cf. Mk 1:22, 27; Lk 5:5, 8:24). At the centre of Christ’s ministry was the proclamation and teaching of the Gospel. Soon after his baptism, Jesus began to proclaim the good news of the reign of God (cf. Mk 1:14). He taught crowds by the seashore, seeking to convey to them the nature of God’s reign. In his acts of healing and other deeds of compassion, there was often a message for both recipient and audience. He constantly invited people to believe in him and to recognise that the reign of God was at hand.

70Led by the Holy Spirit, the whole Church, lay people and ordained ministers together, shares Christ’s ministry of witnessing to the truth of God’s good news. Christ told his followers: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Preaching and teaching in this broad sense belong to the mission of all Christians as members of the Church called by Christ to make disciples of all nations (cf. Mt 28:19). Christ’s Church is a community of interpreters and proclaimers. Both lay people and ordained ministers have complementary gifts of discerning the truth of the Gospel and of interpreting how it should best be expressed in a particular cultural setting. Both have the gift and responsibility of witnessing by word and deed to all human beings, that they might be saved and given power to become children of God (cf. Jn 1:12, 3:16).

Apostolic Oversight

71Methodists and Catholics agree that the ministry of the apostles was essential to the proclamation and spread of the good news during the first century. It is clear from the New Testament that different functions and offices were also recognised early in the Church as gifts from God, “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4:12). Scholars find the historical record diverse, noting that episcopacy as an office developed gradually in a variety of places. Roman Catholic teaching emphasises that there is nevertheless a collegial succession from the apostles to the bishops. There is agreement between Catholics and Methodists that the ministry of episcope (oversight) was always exercised in the Church: “From apostolic times, certain ordained persons have been entrusted with the particular tasks of superintendency”[71]; “During the second and third centuries, a threefold pattern of bishop, presbyter and deacon became established as the pattern of ordained ministry throughout the Church”.[72] Both Roman Catholics and Methodists have retained something of that three‑fold pattern, with (1) bishops or superintendents, (2) elders, presbyters or priests, and (3) deacons.

72In the early Church, bishops became the normal celebrants and preachers for their local churches. Pastoral need, however, led to the development of the pattern of presbyters becoming the leaders of smaller communities, always in communion of faith with their bishop. Preaching and teaching were integral to the ministry of oversight in the early Church, as they are today: “Central to the exercise of episcope is the task of maintaining unity in the Truth.”[73]

73There was no clear delineation between preaching and teaching in the early Church. Preaching often involved the interaction of preacher and congregation, and was integrally related to the rest of the liturgy, particularly the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist. It was also a form of basic Christian education. The practice of the early Church challenges the harmful separation often practised today with regard to preaching and the eucharistic liturgy on a Sunday. The ministry of the word and the celebration of the sacrament belong together as two means in which the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is given to God’s people.

Primary Means of Teaching and Discernment

74The ministry of oversight (episcope) has been exercised among Methodists in two main ways. Firstly, fundamental to Methodism is the Conference, understood as the exercise of corporate episcope for the service of the church. In all Methodist Churches, it is the Conference that authoritatively discerns the truth of the Gospel for the church. Even where Methodism has adopted either life-long or term episcopacy, the Conference remains the instrument through which all matters of faith are discerned and then proclaimed in official teaching: “Conference is the final authority within the Church with regard to its doctrines and all questions concerning the interpretation of its doctrines.”[74] Conference exercises authority over preachers, and handles matters of discipline. Secondly, for all Methodist Churches, a special ministry of oversight or superintendency is exercised by individuals set apart for either a specific term or a lifetime of service to God in that office; some of these Churches have ‘superintendents’, others have ‘bishops’. The Methodist Church in Great Britain has expressed its willingness to receive the historic episcopate into its life and ministry as and when it is required for the unity of Christians.

75Roman Catholics readily concur with the description of the teaching role of bishops given in the United Methodist Book of Discipline: “To guard, transmit, teach and proclaim, corporately and individually, the apostolic faith as it is expressed in Scripture and tradition, and, as they are led and endowed by the Holy Spirit, to interpret that faith evangelically and prophetically.”[75] For Catholics, authoritative discernment of truth and faithful teaching are entrusted to the college of bishops united with the Pope, which is understood to be endowed by the Holy Spirit with the gift of discernment. The catholicity of the Church in both space and time means that the substance of the Church’s teaching must be the same in all places and all times. Hence, in their role as guardians of the Church’s unity the bishops seek to ensure that the same faith is being proclaimed now as was discerned by the Church in earlier centuries and that the same faith is being taught in all parts of the world today. Nevertheless, important differences in expression and emphasis occur as the Gospel is lived and proclaimed in various cultures at various times. Authoritative discernment by bishops does not take place in isolation. They must listen not only to Scripture and Tradition, but also to the whole Church community. Catholics understand the gift of apostolicity, including the discernment of divine truth, as belonging to the whole Church: this is served and guaranteed by the apostolic ministry of the bishops.

76Both Methodists and Roman Catholics have a strong sense of the corporate nature of the ministry of oversight. This reflects their common emphasis on the connection or communion of local communities of faith with one another in their Christian life, worship and mission. For each Methodist Church, Conference exercises a form of corporate episcope. For Catholics, it is the college of bishops united with the Bishop of Rome that exercises such a corporate episcope. The unity of local Catholic communities with one another is constituted and served by their communion with their bishop in a diocese, and the unity of their bishops by communion with the Bishop of Rome. Methodists and Catholics affirm together that true Christian faith and discipleship always involve unity with one another in truth and in love. This understanding of the Gospel is reflected in our ecclesial structures, which seek to serve the unity of the whole Church. Although growth into perfect holiness and love under God’s grace is always something deeply personal, it is never private. Both our Churches make room for individual ministers who play special roles of leadership and inspiration within the community, but these are always bound together in collegial responsibility for the faith and mission of believers.

Participation of the Laity in Authoritative Teaching

77Catholics and Methodists both understand that the whole Church must be involved in discernment and teaching. Lay people and ordained ministers share this responsibility, but in different ways. Methodists affirm with Catholics that ordination establishes the minister in a new and permanent relationship with the Risen Christ. Hence, both Churches understand that while the gift of discernment belongs to the whole Church, ordained ministers in the due exercise of their office play a special role. Within local congregations and geographic areas (dioceses, districts, annual conferences) ordained ministers take a leading role in the functions of worship, preaching and teaching. However, there are many lay people, such as local preachers, trained theologians, catechists, bible study leaders and Sunday school teachers, who also have a calling to teach in the church. Moreover, a vital part is played by people of holy life who teach by their example though they may hold no formal office.

78There remain differences between Methodists and Roman Catholics concerning what part lay people have in the process of authoritative discernment and proclamation of the Gospel. Catholics locate the authoritative determination of teaching in the college of bishops with the Bishop of Rome at its head. Methodists locate that same authority in Conference, where lay people sit in significant numbers, with full rights of participation and decision-making.

79Methodists understand that teaching authority is a gift to the whole Church, and suggest that excluding presbyters and lay people from the place of final decision-making denies them the exercise of that gift, thereby weakening the Church’s ability to discern the faithful interpretation of God’s Word for a particular time and place. By having representatives of the whole Church present in the decision-making body they can hope to hear the variety of perspectives and understandings needed to ensure the catholicity of the Church. Lay people do actively participate and contribute in different ways in many areas of the structures of the Roman Catholic Church, for example in pastoral councils, diocesan synods, and meetings of the Synod of Bishops in Rome. However, Methodists ask Catholics why lay people could not be more formally involved in decision-making bodies, even when authoritative discernment and teaching is concerned, sharing responsibility in some way with the bishops who nevertheless retain their special ministry of authoritative teaching.

80Catholics understand that the episcopal teaching function is exercised as a service to the whole Church. Bishops lead communities of faith which are themselves bearers of the truth of the Gospel. They authoritatively discern and proclaim the faith given to the whole people of God. The task of authoritatively ensuring catholicity and apostolicity is entrusted to the college of bishops. Methodists do have an ordained ministry, and a superintendency that has teaching functions. However, Catholics ask Methodists why, in their understanding and practice of the Conference, they do not more formally distinguish the role of ordained ministers, especially bishops and superintendents, particularly where authoritative discernment and teaching are concerned.

Already Agreed

81Both Roman Catholics and Methodists affirm that in calling people to be agents in discerning what is truly the Gospel, God is using them as means of grace, trustworthy channels. All forms of ministry are communal and collegial. They seek to preserve and strengthen the whole community of faith in truth and in love, in worship and in mission. In both Churches, oversight is exercised in a way which includes pastoral care and authoritative preaching and teaching. Methodists and Catholics can rejoice that the Holy Spirit uses the ministries and structures of both Churches as means of grace to lead people into the truth of the Gospel of Christ. The authority which Jesus bestows is “the authority for mission”, and “the exercise of ministerial authority within the Church, not least by those entrusted with the ministry of episcope, has a radically missionary dimension. …This authority enables the whole Church to embody the Gospel and to become the missionary and prophetic servant of the Lord.”[76]

For further Exploration

82Christ has promised his presence and his Spirit to the Church, but the implications of this for a fuller understanding of ordained ministry and of authoritative teaching need further exploration together. A significant point of divergence is the idea of a guaranteed or ‘covenanted’ means of grace, and the grounding this gives to the Roman Catholic understanding of the teaching authority of the college of bishops united with the Pope. Methodists wonder whether a doctrine of a guaranteed indefectibility of teaching takes full account of human frailty and sinfulness, although Catholics and Methodists agree that God uses mere earthen vessels as his agents, working through human weaknesses and imperfections to proclaim his word. Catholics wonder how, without such a ‘covenanted’ understanding, Methodists can be sure that their preaching and teaching is truly that of Christ and his Church. Methodists consider that they can indeed be sure with regard to essentials, but Catholics and Methodists do not yet agree what all those essentials are. Nor is there complete agreement about the participation of lay people in the Church’s decision-making, especially with regard to authoritative discernment and proclamation of the Gospel. Methodists and Catholics are fully agreed, however, that the teaching of the Church must always be tested against Scripture and Tradition.

Teaching Authority: God's Gift to the Church

83Methodists and Catholics agree that teaching authority rightly exercised is a gift of God to his Church, through which Christ exercises the headship of his body by the power of the Holy Spirit.[77] The Gospel challenges Christians to reconsider what is meant by ‘authority’, and to exercise it always in the likeness of Christ who came “not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45). “The heart of Christian ministry is Christ’s ministry of outreaching love.”[78] This is especially true of any ministry of authoritative leadership among Christians. John Wesley’s use of the phrase “watching over one another in love”[79] challenges all individual ministers and collegial bodies, especially those exercising the ministry of oversight. The ministry of authority should always seek the growth of those over whom it is exercised. Sadly, it has not always been exercised in this way, and all ministers will always be in need of reformation and renewal. “It is clear that only by the grace of God does the exercise of authority in the communion of the Church bear the marks of Christ’s own authority. This authority is exercised by fragile Christians for the sake of other fragile Christians.”[80]

84Methodists and Catholics are committed to holiness in living, to faithfulness in teaching, and to participation in God’s mission to the world. Our ministries, both individual and collegial, are means of grace which the Spirit of Christ uses as he wills to keep the Church one, holy, catholic and apostolic in its life, faith and mission. In our human frailty, we trust together in Christ’s promise to keep the Church faithful to himself. As Charles Wesley’s hymn reminds us, “Fortified by power divine, the Church can never fail.”[81]


Part Two

85Part One of this report has explored both common understandings and distinct interpretations of the ‘means of grace’ in Christ’s Church, especially regarding authoritative discernment and proclamation of the truth of the Gospel. In this second part, Methodists and Catholics present in more detail how they respectively do this and why. These accounts are offered primarily to enable each tradition better to understand the other. Although these practices are distinctive there are many points of convergence between them.


I.  Methodist Understanding And Practice

Historical Perspectives

86For Methodists, their agents of discernment are shaped by the historical origins of the movement in eighteenth century England. They inherited the basic doctrines and structures of the Christian Church as mediated through the English Reformation of the sixteenth century. They believe that John Wesley and the people called Methodist were raised up by God in a particular situation for a particular task, that is, “to reform the nation, particularly the Church, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.”[82] Doctrinally, the early Methodists held to the teaching of the Church of England. Wesley emphasised the Anglican doctrinal formularies specifically the thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Homilies, and especially the Book of Common Prayer. For the Anglicans of his day, it was the Book of Common Prayer that was the continuing vehicle of Reformation faith in the weekly and daily life of the parishes. Wesley remained true to this expression of the faith throughout his ministry. In addition, Wesley brought to bear his reading of the early Church Fathers.

87From the point of view of organisation, Methodists believe the Holy Spirit was actively guiding the development of the Methodist movement. Most features of Methodist practice were not planned in advance but discovered as a providential means for accomplishing the mission. “‘Methodism came down from heaven, as it was wanted, piece by piece', cried one of the Preachers in 1836 with exuberant but pardonable exaggeration.”[83] Charles Wesley saw clear parallels with the Exodus story:

Captain of Israel’s host, and guide
of all who seek the land above...
By thine unerring Spirit led,
we shall not in the desert stray;
we shall not full direction need,
nor miss our providential way;
as far from danger as from fear,
while love, almighty love, is near.[84]

88The early Methodists understood their movement as a revival of genuine Christianity. They sought to bring the truth of the Gospel once again to the minds of the people, and share the life-changing love of God with those who did not know it in their hearts. For them, the truth of the Gospel was the message of God’s love for all and God’s demand that people love God and neighbour in return. Theirs was a prophetic ministry, proclaiming salvation, both individual and social, to their contemporaries.

89Given the situation in eighteenth-century England, certain themes needed to be highlighted. In particular, Wesley focused most of his preaching and teaching on the doctrines dealing most directly with salvation: original sin, justification and sanctification. He saw here the ‘general tenor of Scripture’ which he understood to be the ‘analogy of faith’, that is, the sense of the whole message of Scripture which serves as the key for interpreting individual passages. In view of the relatively low level of spiritual life in England at his time and the difficulties that the church had in reaching new areas of population, this focus on soteriology was the best way in which to accomplish the mission which had been set before him. However, Wesley saw his societies as existing within the Church of England. His Anglican inheritance, including his acceptance of the ancient creeds and his study of patristic sources, joined him to the Church catholic. Several times he indicated that Methodism was nothing new; rather it was “the old religion, the religion of the Bible, the religion of the primitive church, the religion of the Church of England.”[85] In his publications he sought to teach his preachers and indeed all of the Methodist people what the whole of the Christian faith had to offer. The fifty volumes of his Christian Library include authors from the Early Church, later Catholicism, the Reformation, Puritan Dissenters and the Anglican Divines. The hymns of his brother, Charles Wesley, were a powerful vehicle for teaching the Christian faith to the common people.

90The goal was to spread scriptural holiness, and this mission led to the recruitment of lay and ordained preachers. Often in the face of official opposition and popular scorn, they travelled widely, preaching the Gospel to the disinherited, gathering people into societies and exercising pastoral oversight of them. The preachers met in Conference for the first time in 1744 for the purpose of guiding the revival. There were precedents in the Church of England. For example, other privately organised societies were developing which governed their work through meetings of their leaders, and at the most official level, the constitution of the Church of England allowed for Convocations. Thus, a conciliar approach to discern the will of God for their movement appeared to them as the most appropriate way to proceed.

91For early Methodists, the Conference exemplified the social character of Christianity. It had several functions. First, it determined the practical doctrine of the Methodist preachers (“what to teach”). Second, it was a place of education and encouragement (“how to teach”). Third, it supervised the mission of the church and the deployment of ministers (“what to do”).[86] Fourth, it was an occasion for holding the preachers accountable for what they preached and how they lived. While it is true that Wesley had final control of the decisions of Conference, he was influenced by the conferring. For both Britain and Ireland, a decision was made in 1784 that the Conference would exist after Wesley’s death. A legal deed was executed providing for the corporate continuation of Methodism. In effect, the Conference was regarded as ‘the living Wesley’. Thus, the functions of determining doctrine, exercising discipline, and stationing the preachers for the sake of mission were all lodged in the Conference.

92The American situation was somewhat different. In light of the political independence and the great need for pastoral care, Wesley took steps to provide for American Methodism a liturgy, an ordained ministry and a general superintendency. The last was received by the Americans on condition that the Conference of preachers would elect superintendents, soon called bishops, in the Methodist Episcopal Church. While the Conference exercised the authority for doctrinal decisions, the bishops were its leaders and had sole authority in stationing the preachers.

93From 1816, the bishops had responsibility for supervising the course of study, an educational programme for the preachers. The bishops themselves were itinerant, as they said in their notes to the 1798 Book of Discipline: “Our grand plan, in all its parts, leads to an itinerant ministry. Our bishops are travelling bishops. All the different orders which compose our conferences are employed in the travelling line. Every thing is kept moving as far as possible.”[87] In many ways, they exercised informal teaching authority. Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke functioned as teachers of the church through their preaching and their editing of the Doctrines and Discipline. Nevertheless, the final authority in doctrinal matters rested with what became the General Conference. In 1830 a group of Methodist laity and clergy formed the Methodist Protestant Church, and for the first time added an equal number of lay persons to the membership of the Conference. Other branches added a significant lay representation at later dates, and the practice is now universal.


94Wesley reckoned ‘Christian conference’ among the prudential means of grace, found to be trustworthy channels used by God to help shape the lives of God’s people. The Methodist Conference is a gathering of lay and ministerial leaders for worship, discernment of God’s will, and deciding how best to follow faithfully the Spirit’s leading. Bringing together the diversities of the people of God – whether of race, gender, nationality, theological opinion, or moral judgement – they seek to “speak the truth in love” to each other as they discern the truth of the Gospel for their age and place. As the Spirit directs, they seek to proclaim that truth apostolically and prophetically to the whole world in the name of God.

95Historically, the inclusion of lay persons in Conference was part of a wider cultural trend which held that ultimate authority under God was given to the entire community. In the political sphere, this trend gave the right to vote to the adult population of many countries. Theologically, Methodists regard all Christians as a ministerial and priestly people. Various gifts of authority – whether in doctrinal, financial, disciplinary or organisational matters – are given to both ordained and lay. This is the theological foundation for including both in Conference.

96Today, a Methodist Conference is the organising centre of ecclesial life and has at least six functions:

  • It is the gathering point and chief instrument of connection. There is a family feeling of reunion when Conference meets.
  • It exercises corporate episcope and oversees the whole life of the church, including doctrine and discipline for the sake of mission.
  • It has final authority over doctrine. Methodist Conferences have always accepted the Scriptures as the supreme rule of faith and practice, and have been guided in their reading of them by Wesley’s Sermons and Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament. In understanding these authorities, the Conference is the final interpreter.
  • It exercises its authority also by approving service books and hymn books to communicate doctrinal matters to the people. Through these the faith is taught and maintained by the local congregations.
  • It provides for the orderly transmission of ministry by authorising ordination. Even where there are bishops, the decision to ordain is the prerogative of the Conference. Ordination takes place during the Conference by prayer and the laying on of hands, invoking the Holy Spirit.
  • It elects its bishops and presidents. For most Methodist Churches they serve for a limited term. Some Churches elect their bishops (who serve as Presidents of their Annual Conferences) for life.

Developments within Contemporary Methodism

97In some parts of Methodism that historically have not had bishops, those exercising oversight, such as district chairpersons, are sometimes being given the title ‘bishop’. Some Methodist Churches have formally stated that their bishops should exercise a teaching office, with responsibility “to guard, transmit, teach and proclaim, corporately and individually, the apostolic faith as it is expressed in Scripture and tradition, and as they are led and endowed by the Spirit, to interpret that faith evangelically and prophetically.”[88]

98Originating in the Oecumenical Methodist Conference of 1881, the World Methodist Council has been developing closer ties and a stronger teaching function for the world-wide family of Methodist Churches. It is developing structures for consultation, teaching, and common action for mission. Its recent publication of Wesleyan Essentials of Christian Faith (1996) and its role in ecumenical dialogues have strengthened its function in these areas. Also, wherever Conference is held for an entire Church, official representatives from other Methodist Churches are invited. In addition, official letters are exchanged and other relationships between Conferences are developing. Regional associations of bishops from different Methodist Churches have been formed to further common witness. During the nineteenth century the Methodists split into many different denominations. The twentieth century has seen a trend toward unity both through different Churches merging and through closer ties of cooperation between existing Churches. As a rule where Methodists have entered into United Churches, such Churches have become members of the World Methodist Council and by their commitment to Christian unity have made a significant contribution to World Methodism. Given the growth of Methodism in Asia, Africa and Latin America, its Churches are becoming increasingly diverse and yet simultaneously more unified.


II. Catholic Understanding And Practice

99The Catholic Church is a communion of Eastern and Latin Churches, in each of which the Church of Christ is truly present.[89] Invisible communion with Christ is experienced in the Church’s visible communion in love and truth. The Church is united in a way that is enriched by and transcends geographical and cultural diversity. It stands in living communion with the Church of the past while at the same time looking to the Church of the future. Its communion through time extends back to the apostles themselves (cf. Rev 21:14), who remain the foundations of the Church in its life and mission, and who continue now to guide it. Christ himself leads the Church through Peter and the other apostles, and through those who share and continue their ministry today, the Pope and the rest of the college of bishops.

100Catholic unity involves holding in common all the doctrines of the Church. There is room in this Catholic unity for diversity of theological insight and expression, plurality of liturgical rites and canonical discipline. It allows for debate and discussion, but not for disunity in matters of faith. There have been times in the history of the Catholic Church when the tension between unity in truth and diversity of perspectives has not always been healthy and harmonious.


101Among various ministries and charisms exercised in the Church from earliest times, the primary service from the beginning is that of the bishop. Catholics understand the college of bishops as continuing the care of the apostles for all the churches. Bishops, assisted by presbyters and deacons, are called to lead into holiness, serving the Church’s unity with Christ by Word and Sacrament. The Second Vatican Council taught that the fullness of the sacrament of orders is given by ordination to the episcopate. At the heart of the bishop’s ministry is pastoral service of the unity of the Church in love and in truth. To be effective instruments in this service, bishops must have the authority necessary to ensure the unity so essential to the Church’s life and mission.

102As unity in love and unity in truth belong together, so do pastoral leadership and teaching authority, both focused above all in the celebration of the Eucharist. Apostolic communities need people to proclaim the Gospel with authority, themselves under the authority of Christ himself. There is “an interdependence in communion between the spiritual instinct of the whole body of the faithful and those who are empowered to make normative acts of discernment of what is, or is not, faithful to the Christian tradition.”[90] This is the specific teaching role of the bishops in the Church: “The task of authentic interpretation of God’s Word in Scripture and Tradition has been entrusted only to the Church’s living teaching office, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.”[91]

103The Church’s teaching office (magisterium) is not above God’s Word, but serves the Word. It teaches only what has been received. As teachers, bishops should first listen to the Word, then ponder it in their hearts, with awe before the mystery of divine revelation, and then put it forward in purity.[92]

104Bishops are members of the faithful entrusted with a special service in the name of Christ. The Church is a community under the authority of the Risen Lord. It is Christ who is the overseer of the Church, exercising an invisible episcope over its faith and life, its worship and mission (cf. 1 Pet 2:25).

105Catholics understand the invisible leadership of Christ as pastor and teacher to be exercised in many ways, especially through the college of bishops. Bishops are signs and instruments of Christ as head and shepherd of his Church, and so share in the authority by which Christ himself builds up, teaches and sanctifies his Body. This understanding of the ministry of bishops is essential to a Catholic presentation of their teaching authority, exercised in Christ’s name but always as a service to the communion of the churches in love and in truth.

106Preminent among the duties of a bishop is the proclamation of the Gospel.[93] Bishops serve as heralds of the faith and teachers who share in Christ’s gift of authority. Christ himself wills to work through them to preserve the Church unfailingly in the truth. There are many ways in which a bishop may teach with authority: in pastoral letters to his diocese; at diocesan gatherings; through involvement in national and international commissions and assemblies; through homilies in his cathedral or parishes; in celebrating the Eucharist which is the source of the ‘holy communion’ of the churches in Christ. The bishop is the teacher of the local church and, with his brother bishops, of the universal Church. He proclaims with authority a faith already lived in the church he serves. With love he both listens to and speaks to the Church which is led by the Spirit of Truth. The teaching of any individual bishop in itself is not guaranteed to be preserved from error by the Holy Spirit, and there have been and can be bishops whose teaching and way of life are contrary to the Gospel entrusted to them. A bishop’s teaching is always more fruitful when he speaks the truth in love, bearing witness to that truth not only by his words but also by a life of holiness.

107The authority of a bishop as chief pastor and teacher of a diocese is both territorial and personal. As territorial it extends to all the baptised in the diocese. As personal it implies particular care for priests and deacons, especially those of his diocesan clergy, and for the religious communities located in the diocese. In both instances the exercise of episcopal responsibility requires frequent consultation with priests and people. Each diocese is mandated to develop consultative structures. On the one hand, priests and deacons authorised by a bishop share in the liturgical, teaching, and pastoral ministry, and priests must be consulted by means of a presbyteral council. On the other hand lay people also collaborate with bishops and priests in liturgical, teaching and pastoral ministry and they are consulted in many ways, especially through parish councils, pastoral councils, and diocesan synods. Lay people have specific responsibilities in catechetics, education and communication, in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, and in the missionary outreach of the Church. In these and many other ways, they contribute to the teaching ministry of the Church.

108By its very nature as a service to the communion of the Church, the ministry of the bishop is properly exercised in communion with his fellow bishops. The bishop can only teach and lead in an authoritative way if he is united in communion of mind and heart with the bishops across the world and through the ages. The catholic unity of bishops with the faith of the Church from the apostles is expressed through ordination in apostolic succession: the college of bishops today, in continuity with the college of apostles, receives new members through prayer and the laying-on of hands. One way in which this is signified is the requirement that under ordinary circumstances at least three bishops must be involved in the ordination of another bishop. The catholic unity of bishops with the universal Church today is expressed in and served by their living communion with the Bishop of Rome. United with him, the bishops together are the supreme authority in the Church. Their service of teaching with authority is exercised above all at an ecumenical council. They can also teach in other gatherings (e.g., the Synod of Bishops, Episcopal Conferences and Synods of Eastern Catholic Churches) and each teaches in his own diocese.

109When bishops exercise their supreme teaching authority, the Holy Spirit guides and protects their discerning and proclaiming of the truth of the Gospel. Those who are successors of the apostles have received from the Lord the spiritual gift of authoritatively proclaiming the true faith. This is a gift (charism) from the Lord, and like all charismata (cf. 1 Corinthians 12-13) must be exercised in love. The sure charism of truth is given to all the bishops in apostolic succession, not so as to reveal new doctrines but to ensure the faithfulness of the Church to the Word of God.

110At an ecumenical council, the bishops, in communion with the Bishop of Rome, may solemnly proclaim by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. Catholics believe that when they do so, the bishops are preserved from error by the Holy Spirit, so that “the whole flock of Christ is preserved and progresses in unity of faith.”[94] This preservation from error is what is meant by the “infallibility” of their proclamation of doctrine. In definitions of doctrine the truth of faith is unfailing, but that does not imply that the manner in which they are formulated, promulgated, or presented could not be improved. In a living tradition, there is always room for further theological reflection and exploration of doctrine. This is part of the process of reception of the teaching and its appropriation in the faith-life of the community. A doctrine can only be defined if it coheres with other doctrines. Such statements do not add to the truth of the Gospel, but serve to clarify the Church’s developing understanding of it, and help to discern what is and is not in conformity with the Apostolic Tradition. Definitions of doctrine are intended to light the pilgrim path of faith and make it secure. Bishops also teach the truth of the Gospel infallibly whenever, even though dispersed throughout the world, they are in agreement in authoritatively teaching a matter of faith to be definitively held, while maintaining their communion among themselves and with the Bishop of Rome.

The Bishop of Rome

111As each local church (diocese) has a focus for its unity in love and in truth, so also do the local churches of the world in the communion of the universal Church.[95] The local church of Rome has a primacy in love among the churches, and its bishop is the visible head of the college of bishops.

112Catholics find a biblical basis for this service of primacy exercised by the Bishop of Rome in Jesus’ words to Simon Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Mt 16:19), read in the light of the last instructions to Peter, “Feed my lambs... feed my sheep... follow me” (Jn 21:15, 17, 22). The prolongation of the Petrine primacy in the Roman primacy is supported by the commissioning of Peter to strengthen his brothers (cf. Lk 22:32). Catholics recognise that the special position and role of the local church of Rome, and the distinctive ministry of its bishop, developed gradually in the early Church, and the manner of its exercise continues to evolve. The Joint Commission has explored this in some depth in its report Towards a Statement on the Church.[96]

113The Pope’s ministry to all his brother bishops and their churches is a pastoral service of the universal Church’s unity in love and truth. He is “the first servant of unity.”[97] In order that this ministry may be effective, the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome is “universal”, “ordinary” and “immediate”. His primatial authority is “universal” because it is at the service of the communion of all the churches. It is “ordinary” in that it belongs to him in virtue of his office, rather than as delegated by others. It is “immediate” in order to enable him, when necessary for the good of the universal Church, and in faithfulness to the Gospel, to act anywhere in order to preserve the Church’s unity in truth and in love. This authority is truly episcopal. As a fellow bishop, with a ministry of headship among them and for them, the Pope serves the unity of the bishops that they in turn may serve the unity of their churches. The Pope serves from within the college of bishops, as servant of the servants of God. As confirmed by the First Vatican Council and by Pope Pius IX, the primacy of the Roman pontiff is there not to undermine the bishops but to support and sustain them in their ministry as vicars of Christ.[98]

114This universal primacy of the Pope is a primacy of love, and his teaching authority is a central dimension of that primacy. The universal Church can remain united in love only if it is united in faith. In service of the catholicity and apostolicity of the Church’s faith, and of the bishops’ collegial responsibility for authentic discernment and proclamation of that faith, the Pope is understood to be given, when needed, the charism of infallibly proclaiming true doctrine. When he makes a definition in this way, he is pronouncing judgement not as a private person but as the head of the college of bishops and chief pastor and teacher of the Church, in whom the charism of the infallibility of the Church itself is individually present.[99]

115Catholics believe that St. Peter’s role of serving the unity of the community of faith “must continue in the Church so that under her sole Head, who is Jesus Christ, she may be visibly present in the world as the communion of all his disciples.”[100] Because of his special ministry within the Catholic Church, the Bishop of Rome also has a particular duty to foster the unity in faith and love of all Christians.

116To say that the bishops in union with the Pope teach and shepherd in the name of Christ is not to claim divine authority for all they say and do. Like Peter and the other apostles, the Bishop of Rome and his fellow bishops are aware of their human weakness and their special need for continuing transformation of heart and life. The faithful exercise of their ministry in the Church derives from grace and depends totally upon grace, just as the whole Church is “founded upon the infinite power of grace.”[101]



117Both Methodists and Catholics trust the unfailing presence and grace of the Holy Spirit to preserve them in faithfulness and to protect the truth of the Gospel they preach and teach. The Catholic Church recognises this presence of the Spirit especially in the charism of unfailing truth and faith which is given to bishops in the Church. The exercise of the ministry of teaching by bishops takes many forms and includes the special ministry of the Bishop of Rome in proclaiming the faith of all the bishops and of the whole Church. Methodists recognise the guidance of the Holy Spirit in Methodist Conferences though they do not ascribe to them a guaranteed freedom from error. At the same time, they accept their teaching as authoritative when it is clearly shown to be in agreement with the Scriptures. Conference is the final authority for the interpretation of doctrine.

118Both Catholics and Methodists recognise that it is the whole Church which abides in the truth because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the community of believers. Both recognise that all believers have a gift for recognising, discerning and responding to the truth of the Gospel, and so play a part in the formulation and interpretation of the Church’s faith. Most fundamentally, both Methodists and Catholics believe that it is the Spirit who preserves within the Church the truth of the Gospel proclaimed by Christ and the apostles, though there is not complete agreement on what constitute the essential components of that Gospel.

119The corporate belief of Christ’s faithful must be taken into consideration by those who teach authoritatively within the Church. Their ministry can never be exercised in isolation from the faith of the whole Church. Methodists and Catholics, however, differ in the ways in which this collaboration occurs. Both recognise the role of the laity in the development of the faith through living it, preaching and teaching it, and meditating upon it. In Methodism lay people participate as members of Conference in the authoritative determination of the precise content of the Church’s faith. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, maintains that the authoritative determination of the precise content of the Church’s faith is properly the ministry of bishops. The reasons why Methodists and Catholics interpret differently the roles of the laity and of ordained ministers, particularly in regard to authoritative teaching, is a matter warranting further exploration.[102]

120One reason for this variation in practice is a different interpretation of the effect of the rite of ordination, which is linked to the Catholic understanding of the sacramentality of that rite. Moreover, there is a further fundamental difference in the understanding of the degree to which one can attribute a guaranteed reliability to any human instrumentality exercising a ministry of teaching within the Church, even given the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit. The relationship between ordination, authoritative teaching and the sure guidance of the Holy Spirit remains a topic for further discussion between Methodists and Catholics.[103]

121At the same time, while this report acknowledges obvious differences in ministerial structure for authoritative teaching and in theological interpretation of the reliability of these ministerial structures, there remains a common fundamental belief in the presence of the Holy Spirit and the use by the Holy Spirit of recognised bodies for teaching authoritatively to ensure the truth of the Gospel which is believed by both Methodists and Catholics. Moreover, the differing language used to describe the experience of authoritative teaching does not negate the fact that both, in practice, depend upon the sure guidance of the Holy Spirit for this ministry of authoritative teaching. The experience of ordinary Methodists and Catholics and their confidence in their respective understandings of the apostolic faith indicate that these perspectives may be much closer than the differing language might sometimes indicate.

122As Methodists and Catholics seek to move together towards full unity in love and in truth, they are committed here and now to “speak the truth in love” to each other and to all the people of the world.




Participants in the Dialogue


Right Reverend Michael Putney, Bishop of Townsville, Australia (Co-Chairman)

Reverend Monsignor Timothy Galligan, Vatican City (Co-Secretary)

Most Reverend Alexander Brunett, Archbishop of Seattle, WA, USA

Sister Mary Charles-Murray, Oxford, England

Reverend Canon Michael Evans, Tunbridge Wells, England

Reverend Professor Francis Frost, Ars, France

Reverend Professor George Tavard, Boston, MA, USA

Most Reverend Peter Turkson, Archbishop of Cape Coast, Ghana



Reverend Professor Geoffrey Wainwright, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA (Co-Chairman)

Reverend Dr Joe Hale, World Methodist Council, Lake Junaluska, NC, USA (Co-Secretary)

Bishop Daniel C. Arichea Jr., Baguio City, Philippines

Bishop Mvume Dandala, Braamfontein, South Africa

Dr Scott J. Jones, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX, USA

Mrs Gillian Kingston, Dublin, Ireland

Bishop Richard C. Looney, Macon, GA, USA

Reverend Dr John Newton, Bristol, England




[1]Joint Commission for Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Methodist Council, Towards a Statement on the Church (1986), 20.

[2] Towards a Statement on the Church, § 1.

[3]The Church is described in the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen gentium, § 6 as the sheepfold, the cultivated field, house, and family of God, the temple of the Spirit, the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, and the bride of God. In Lumen gentium, § 7 it is especially emphasized that the Church is the Body of Christ. In Trinitarian vein, the British Methodist Conference Statement Called to Love and Praise (1999) speaks of the Church as “the new people of God, the body of Christ, a communion in the Holy Spirit, a sacrament or sign of Christ’s continuing presence in the world” (2.1.1). Many Christians, reflecting on the Church as the bride of God which nurtures the faithful, see it as their mother. As John Wesley said, “In some sense [the Church] is the mother of us all, who have been brought up therein” (‘Reasons Against Separation from the Church of England,’ The Works of John Wesley, Jackson edition, 13:230).

[4]The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, United Methodist Publishing House, Nashville (1996), 77.

[5]Joint Commission, The Apostolic Tradition (1991), § 21.

[6]Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter on Commitment to Ecumenism (1995), Ut unum sint, § 79.

[7]Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans, Introduction, no. 10.

[8]Cf. First Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ, Pastor aeternus, Chapter IV (DS 3071); Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, § 8.

[9]Joint Commission, The Apostolic Tradition, § 36.

[10]Second Vatican Council, Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis redintegratio, § 11.

[11]J. Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, Romans 12:6.

[12]The Word of Life(1996), § 59.

[13]Cf. Lumen gentium, § 25.

[14]Hymns and Psalms, no. 614.

[15]J. Wesley, ‘Catholic Spirit’, § 4 (The Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial Edition, 2:82).

[16]Lumen gentium, § 4.

[17]Hymns and Psalms, no. 316.

[18]Cf. Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition, 21.

[19]Towards an Agreed Statement on the Holy Spirit(1981), § 21.

[20]Towards an Agreed Statement on the Holy Spirit, § 34.

[21]The Apostolic Tradition(1991), § 52; cf. § 31.

[22]The Apostolic Tradition, § 27.

[23]The Apostolic Tradition, § 37.

[24]The Word of Life(1996), § 63.

[25]The Word of Life, § 75.

[26]Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), The Gift of Authority (1998), § 28.

[27]ARCIC, Authority in the Church I (1976), § 18.

[28]Anglican-Methodist International Commission, Sharing in the Apostolic Communion (1996), § 59.

[29]The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church(1996), § 105.

[30]Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, § 35.

[31]Catechism of the Catholic Church, § 91.

[32]The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church(1996), § 63.

[33]The Word of Life, § 113; cf. ARCIC, The Gift of Authority, §§ 11-13, 23, 29.

[34]AuthorityStatement of the English Roman Catholic/Methodist Committee (1978), § 4.

[35]Cf. Authority Statement, § 28.

[36]AuthorityStatement of the English Roman Catholic/Methodist Committee (1978), § 28.

[37]The Roman Missal, Roman Canon.

[38]Lumen gentium, § 12 quoting St. Augustine.

[39]Cf. Lumen gentium, § 25.

[40]Second Vatican Council, Dei verbum, § 8.

[41]Hymns and Psalms, no. 469.

[42]Second Vatican Council, Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, Apostolicam actuositatem, § 2.

[43]Methodist Church of Great Britain, The Methodist Worship Book, 79.

[44]The Word of Life(1996), § 96.

[45]Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation on Evangelisation in the Modern World, Evangelii nuntiandi (1975), § 21.

[46]British Methodist Conference Statement, Called to Love and Praise (1999), 1.4.1.

[47]Cf. Called to Love and Praise, 4.2.1.

[48]Report of the Joint Commission(1981), § 34.

[49]British Methodist Conference Statement, Called to Love and Praise (1999), 2.1.7.

[50]Towards a Statement on the Church(1986), § 13.

[51]Towards a Statement on the Church, § 16.

[52]The Apostolic Tradition(1991), § 89.

[53]The Word of Life(1996), §§ 95-96.

[54]Towards a Statement on the Church, §§ 8, 9.

[55]Towards a Statement on the Church, § 10.

[56]The Word of Life, §§ 73, 75.

[57]The Word of Life, § 98.

[58]The Word of Life, § 98.

[59]Cf. The Word of Life, §§ 100-107.

[60]Catechism of the Catholic Church, § 1669.

[61]‘The Means of Grace,’ § II.1 (The Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial Edition, 1:381).

[62]Report of the Joint Commission(1971), §§ 89, 90, 94, 108, 92.

[63]Growth in Understanding(1976), § 79.

[64]Growth in Understanding, § 98.

[65]The Apostolic Tradition, (1991), § 83.

[66]The Apostolic Tradition, § 84.

[67]Cf. The Apostolic Tradition, §§ 88-91, 94.

[68]Pope John Paul II, Post-Synodal Exhortation on Priestly Formation, Pastores dabo vobis (1992), § 15; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, §§ 1548, 1549.

[69]The Apostolic Tradition, § 82.

[70]The Apostolic Tradition, § 84.

[71]The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church(1996), § 401.

[72]World Council of Churches, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1982), Ministry, § 19.

[73]Joint Commission, The Apostolic Tradition (1991), § 93.

[74]South African Methodists’ Book of Discipline, § 1.18 (cf. §§5.1, 5.4.3) 10th Edition, 2000.

[75]The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church(1996), § 414.3.

[76]ARCIC, The Gift of Authority (1998), § 32.

[77]Cf. The Gift of Authority, § 5.

[78]The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church(1996), § 104.

[79]‘The Nature, Design and General Rules of the United Society’ (The Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial Edition, 9:69).

[80]The Gift of Authority(1998), § 48.

[81]Hymns and Psalms, no. 438.

[82]‘Large Minutes’ (The Works of John Wesley, Jackson Edition, 8:299).

[83]Gordon Rupp, Thomas Jackson: Methodist Patriarch (1954), 41.

[84]Hymns and Psalms, no. 62.

[85]‘On Laying the Foundation of the New Chapel’, §11.1 (The Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial Edition, 3:585).

[86]Cf. ‘Minutes, 1744’ (The Works of John Wesley, Jackson Edition, 8:275).

[87]Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, notes in The Doctrines and Disciplines of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 10th Edition, Philadelphia (1798), 42.

[88]The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church(1996), § 414.3.

[89]Cf. Second Vatican Council, Lumen gentium, § 26.

[90]Joint Commission, The Word of Life (1996), § 58; cf. 86.

[91]SecondVaticanCouncil, Dei verbum, § 10.

[92]Cf. Dei verbum, § 10.

[93]Cf. Second Vatican Council, Lumen gentium, § 25.

[94]Lumen gentium, § 25.

[95]Lumen gentium, § 18.

[96]Towards a Statement on the Church(1986), §§39-73.

[97]Pope John Paul II, Ut unum sint, § 94; cf. § 88.

[98]Cf. First Vatican Council, Pastor aeternus; Second Vatican Council, Lumen gentium, § 27.

[99]Cf. Lumen gentium, § 25.

[100]Pope John Paul II, Ut unum sint, § 97.

[101]Ut unum sint, § 91.

[102]See above, paragraphs 78-79.

[103]See above, paragraph 68.