The Report of the Joint Commission between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Methodist Council
1997-2001 Seventh Series


Ralph Del Colle, Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin USA


This is now the fourth report of the international Catholic/Methodist dialogue that has explored fundamental theology and foundational ecclesiological issues. Three previous phases produced the following Reports: Towards a Statement on the Church (1982-1986), The Apostolic Tradition (1986-1991), and The Word of Life (1992-1996) in the fourth, fifth and sixth five-year series respectively. The just concluded seventh phase on teaching authority in the church follows in logical sequence, thus taking up one of the thornier issues of ecumenical dialogue. The expectation of “full communion in faith, mission and sacramental life” (15) remains the goal of these rather substantial theological exchanges. 

Many of the issues which have surfaced more systematically since 1982 were initially broached in the first two phases of the dialogue in the Denver Report of 1971 (87-118) and the Dublin Report of 1976 (75-107). The Honolulu Report of 1981, which included a section entitled, “Toward an Agreed Statement on the Holy Spirit,” set the tone for the future phases and has lent a strong pneumatological cast to the entire dialogue. This was not to be unexpected as the very first meeting of the joint Commission found common ground between Catholics and Methodists in the areas of spirituality and sanctification (Denver Report 51-68). It also recognized a “singular advantage” of this particular bilateral conversation. Namely, there was no history of formal separation between the two Churches along with the attendant historical and emotional problems that inevitably follow (Denver Report 6). One senses the continued fruit of this discovery in the present Report as well. Also, there remains the delicate theological plodding (in the best sense!) that is so characteristic of this dialogue. 

Speaking the Truth in Loveis divided into two parts. Part One explores the theological convergences (and differences) between the two traditions in a rather systematic manner. The Second Part is more descriptive, intending to map how understanding and practice internal to each tradition may be understood by the other. A summary conclusion of “recognisable commonalities” and “outstanding differences” then leaves the two communions with a prospectus for further work to carry the dialogue forward. It is an interesting method and works to overcome any complacency if both communions are to be faithful to their ecumenical calling. It also grounds the theological issues that have arisen in the actual ecclesial life of both communions. This by far is the most prudent method by which to engage each tradition with the other in the search for Christian unity. 


I. Commentary on Part One

The title of the Report, Speaking the Truth in Love, comes from the Deutero-Pauline passage in Ephesians 4:1-16 that exhorts to unity in the one faith and one body and envisions the ministry gifts given by the ascended Christ as instruments to build up the body of Christ. The integration of truth and love so characteristic of the incarnation (6) is likewise the expectation of that ecclesial process which offices in the Church, viz., apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher (Eph 4:11), are expected to serve. It is also indicative that this process is intended to mature “to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13). Consistent with the pericope the Report affirms “a diversity of compatible gifts and functions in the Church” (4) although with no allusion to its instantiation in Methodist and Catholic ecclesial contexts as if the two would be complementary to each other. However, it does affirm that “the purpose of teaching offices is to ‘promote unity in the faith…’” with the consequence that “matters of belief” and “the ability to distinguish between right and wrong teachings” attain “certainty and stability” (5). If anything, the document starts off with a strong interest in the relevance of teaching authority or magisterium (used only once in the Report in a distinctly Roman Catholic context!) for the life of the Church and “the truth of the Gospel” (6).

Part One of the Report is divided into three sections. Their titles are indicative of the method employed: I. The Church as Communion in Love and Truth; II. God’s Prophetic Community, Anointed with the Spirit of Truth; III. The means of Grace, Servants of Christ and His Church. One is reminded of Lumen gentium where the mystery of the Church is first identified before proceeding to various ecclesial realities such as hierarchy and laity. In the present case elucidation of the ecclesial structures responsible for maintaining the Church in truth is preceded by the Church’s call to bear witness to the truth as this flows from the communion of the Church in truth. The same applies to the measure of truth at the basis of ecclesial existence. 

Methodists and Catholics are able to affirm together “the core of Christian doctrine” (9) that revolves around the revelation of God’s saving love in Christ and which finds “expression in the visible koinonia [communion, community] of Christ’s disciples, the Church” (7). Important for this dialogue is the recognition that the theological registers for these co-affirmations in faith are the dogmas of “the patristic councils” (8). Not only do the Apostles’ and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creeds “function as a rule of faith (regula fidei) [that] are normative for conciliar and other official teaching” (11), but the implicit theological hermeneutic at work yields fairly high (and orthodox!) Christological and Trinitarian statements, e.g., “Jesus Christ…as the Second Person of the Trinity who has taken flesh” (8); and “the Godhead is three Persons who are distinct from one another” (9). Considering the variety of theological positions – low and not so “classically” orthodox – sometimes advanced in the academy this is a welcome development in this particular dialogue. Later in the document the Report attends more fully to the doctrinal norms which inform both traditions. I shall return to this point later in the critical section of this commentary. 

After attention to the doctrine of revelation (10) and the marks of the Church (12) the Report arrives at what is now the dominant ecclesiological model at work in ecumenical circles, namely “communion ecclesiology” (13-15).[1]       With its source in the Trinitarian life of God the Church exists in the missions of the Son and the Spirit and enacts that communion in its sacramental life, especially baptism and the Eucharist (14). These same ecumenical norms inform its account of the mediation of revelation via Scripture and Tradition, with both attesting to the primacy of the Word identified as the incarnate Lord himself (16).[2] The Report follows the earlier Joint Commission Reports in affirming the “harmony between Scripture, Tradition, and the Christian life of faith and worship” as representative of the growing convergence between Methodists and Catholics (18).[3] Once acknowledged, the key issue which emerges is how the Church decides “between divergent traditions and conflicting interpretations of the Gospel” (19).[4]

For the first time in the Report examples of teaching authority are proffered for each tradition and are referenced for the remainder of the document. Bishops locally (with their college of presbyters) and together in college and council under the presidency of the Bishop of Rome fulfill this ministry on the Catholic side. Methodists identify the Conference – a regular gathering of clergy and laity (e.g., called the General Conference in the United Methodist Church in the USA which meets every four years) – with its superintendent ministers (or bishops in some cases) acting in its name as this instrument (19). Both expect the assistance of the Holy Spirit although the structures and the nature of the charisms are different. Methodists would not assert the “charism of unfailing truth and faith” given to bishops or attribute the charism of infallibility potentially exercised by the pope or the pope in union with the bishops that Catholics do (20). Methodist Conferences may formulate doctrine with a degree of authority (not necessarily guaranteed from error) that obligates its members if it is in agreement with Scripture (21). 

Many similar distinctions between the two traditions inform their doctrinal standards as well. As mentioned earlier both accept “the Scriptures, the Creeds and the doctrinal decrees of the early Ecumenical Councils” (22). Both order their doctrine according to their relationship to the core of the faith: Catholic “hierarchy of truths;” Wesleyan “analogy of faith” or “grand scheme of doctrine” (23). Both acknowledge development of doctrine (24) and the ministry of theologians (25). The rule of prayer as in lex orandi lex credendi (26), the orientation to mission (27) and the imperative toward “entire external union” (28) all factor into the proper exercise of teaching authority. 

Doctrinal standards are mentioned but the equivalence between the two traditions is not balanced in the same way. The accumulation of decrees and pronouncements by episcopal synods, the Pope and the Roman Curia weigh more heavily in the Catholic Church than do the doctrinal reading of Scripture by Methodist Conferences according to the standard texts of “the Sermons of John Wesley, his Notes on the New Testament, and the Articles of Religion” (22). What remains unclear from the Report is the normativity of these standard texts for Methodism. 

Section II of Part One, God’s Prophetic Community, Anointed with the Spirit of Truth, continues the strong pneumatological tone of the Report. The language of Lumen gentium and Wesleyan hymnody underscore this (29). Appeals to Old Testament prophecy (30-31), the outpouring of the Spirit in the New Testament (32), and reference to their mutual dialogues with the Anglican Communion (33), all serve to emphasize that it is the entire Church, ordained and lay, that is involved in discerning the truth and the divine will under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. 

An important area of convergence is the agreement that “various organs of the continuing Church” (38) are the means by which the Spirit preserves the Church in Christ without denying that the community is “always in need of purification and reform” (39). The divergence that remains is a matter of the degree to which these organs are gifted by God to accomplish this with, of course, the claim made by Catholics exceeding that of Methodists. Even so, in both traditions the entire community is the subject of this giftedness (40-41). This co-responsibility of the entire people of God (43) does not necessitate conflict between the roles of different segments of the Body of Christ (45). Due to the primacy of baptism the universal anointing of the Holy Spirit insures comprehensive response to God’s word by the entire people of God (46). 

A very insightful theme that emerges in this section with its inclusive emphasis on the entire people of God revolves around the nuances that attend its affirmation of the importance of the sensus fidei for the Church’s abiding in the truth. Itself an aspect of the gift of faith the sensus fidei enables each believer by the Spirit of Truth “to recognize 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.” This rather comprehensive notion of the sensus fidei (note that it embraces the daily life of discipleship!) may not, however, be presumed upon. Individuals and groups may fall away from it – truth is not separated from holiness – and the individual act of faith (“I believe”) must always participate in the communal act of the Church (“we believe”) (37). Believers are indeed co-workers with the truth and for that reason their participation in the process of authoritative discernment is as dependent on the gift of the Holy Spirit as are those entrusted with office in the Church. Contemplation and study are necessary so as not to reduce the sensus fidelium to an “opinion poll or referendum on matters of faith” (43). Certainly this is a fair warning in our postmodern age with its rapidly accessible media and consumerist mentality.  

A richer theology of the sensus fidelium may be supplied by ARCIC II’s recent Report entitled The Gift of Authority. In fact, the present Report refers only to the sensus fidei, not the sensus fidelium. This could be to avoid the misconceptions just mentioned and it is in keeping with the language of Lumen gentium. In ARCIC II the sensus fidei is presented as a subjective “active capacity for spiritual discernment.” It “contributes to the formation of the sensus fidelium through which the Church as a whole remains faithful to Christ.”[5] The objective attribute of the sensus fidelium (as in bishops need to be alert to it GA 30) and its active agency (as in the working of it GA 36) helps to expand the modality in which the lay faithful are essential witnesses to the Gospel (34). Speaking the Truth in Love strongly affirms “the anointing by the Spirit of all the baptised, individually and together” (43). By utilizing ARCIC II's notion of the sensus fidelium it may have been better able to identify what is at stake, namely, the faith of the church in which the office of episcope participates, rather than any sociological assessment of opinion. ARCIC II provides the theological terminology; Speaking the Truth in Love weighs the gravity of the faith which the faithful exercise in truth and love. 

Section III of Part One, means of Grace, Servants of Christ and His Church, more explicitly takes up the nature of teaching office in each tradition. Not surprisingly it links together both office and the means of grace – the latter a much more accessible area for convergence. Consistent with its emphasis on the entire people of God and the dependence of the Church on Christ’s agency the Report seeks to integrate this truth with the acknowledgment of particular ministries as “agents of the Lord and thus servants of their brothers and sisters” (49). In this context convergence is first sought regarding the means of grace, a convergence which the Report believes indeed exists (61). 

The means of grace is a term embraced by both traditions and which covers Catholic notions of sacraments and sacramentals (57). Previous reports of the Commission already operate with a sacramental understanding of the Church beginning with Christ as the primary sacrament (54). In this Report the two traditions continue to register their traditional differences over sacraments, e.g., two versus seven. Methodists, however, admit that the other five are prudential means of grace and possess a “sacramental quality” (60). Differences are not denied and questions are still directed to the other’s tradition in the hope of further exploration (61). At this point of the dialogue beyond these typical Protestant/Catholic differences (essentially over the guaranteed quality of a sacrament), there is the more interesting convergence over other means of grace.

As already mentioned the rich fruits of this particular bilateral dialogue are the commonalities shared in the realm of spirituality, piety and the call to universal holiness. While both sides continue to explore ways of convergence on sacraments it is important to press ahead in these other related areas as well. John Paul II has spoken of how “joint witness of holiness…has an ecumenical potential extraordinarily rich in grace” (Ut unum sint 48). When Catholics share their practice and experience of sacramentals (even if still foreign to Methodists) and spiritual practices such as various forms of prayer (not mentioned in this Report); and Methodists describe “instituted means of grace” that include prayer, fasting, studying the Scriptures, works of mercy, and Christian Conference (58-59), then sharing life together in Christ is greatly enhanced. By mutually acknowledging the pursuit of holiness via the means of grace the differences in the understanding of ordained ministry may be more fruitfully broached. 

These differences are clearly stated and not surmounted in this Report. They revolve around the implications of full sacramental attribution to ordained ministry. Convergence on the means of grace in the more general sense, namely that they “are channels of God’s faithfulness to his promise” (61) does not necessarily entail agreement in this disputed area. It is precisely because so much is held in common by the two traditions that the persistence of the remaining disagreement stands out all the more.  

The Catholic understanding of sacramental orders, specifically the “guaranteed quality of a sacrament” (61) which insures “the active presence of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit” (68) is balked at by Methodists because of human weakness, limitations, sinfulness and fallibility, especially as this applies to authoritative discernment and proclamation. Catholics, on the other hand, query Methodists concerning the “criteria they [use to] verify that a particular means is a trustworthy channel of God’s grace” (61). This is not to deny for Methodists that ordained ministry is a means of grace and an agent of Christ’s saving work (62). Nor does ministry of word and sacrament exclude “a ministry of oversight for the sake of the connection and communion of the Church” (63) in which “a new and permanent relationship with Christ and the Church is established (64).[6] Additionally, ordination is “irrevocable and unrepeatable,”[7] and in some mysterious way an extension of incarnational and sacramental principles, indeed initiated by “liturgical action involving the community’s prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit appropriate to the particular form of ministry” (66). Many of these affirmations were made in previous reports of the Commission so one wonders whether Speaking the Truth in Love has only progressed rather incrementally in the dialogue. 

Clearly at one level, namely the sacramentality of orders, outstanding differences remain. However, the overall tone of this section of the Report seeks to underscore the necessity and efficacy of the means of grace. “We agree…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” (61). While total agreement is not in the offing, the parameters in which convergence may be explored are the proper ones. By implication the people of God in availing themselves of the means of grace enact an ecclesial form of life recognizable to each of the two communions. 

This is borne out in subsequent sections where the Report specifies in more detail the nature of teaching authority in the Church. Christ’s ministry of witnessing in preaching and teaching is a task of the entire Church. both lay people and ordained ministers each have complementary gifts of discerning and interpreting the Gospel (70). As with the rest of the document there is a strong pneumatological investment in the reality of this claim.  

Apostolic oversight requires the ministry of episcope and is recognized in both traditions even to the extent of the three-fold pattern of “(1) bishops or superintendents, (2) elders, presbyters or priests, and (3) deacons” (71). Again the Report negotiates between commonalities and differences. Catholics can agree that bishops “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). This quote from the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church seems to affirm the essentials of episcopal office in the life of the Church.[8] The configuration of such corporate authority does not require the Bishop of Rome as its head nor does the extent of authority embrace infallibility at the service of the Church’s indefectibility. One suspects, however, that Methodists could agree with Catholics that the apostolic ministry of bishops serves and guarantees the gift of apostolicity belonging to the whole Church (75). The laity share this responsibility in their own way and cannot be excluded from their proper reception of the gift of discernment (77). 

Differences remain on two major issues: the nature of corporate episcope, and the extent to which the laity are included in the exercise of this ministry. Catholic exercise of corporate episcope is realized at two levels. First, the communion of bishops world wide in union with the Pope is resident in the College of Bishops (76). Although not explicitly mentioned the gathering of bishops in synods, ecumenical councils, ad limina visits of bishops to Rome, regional and national conferences as well as the Pope’s own pilgrimages to other countries all help realize the corporate episcopate. Second, at the level of the diocese as local church, pastoral councils and diocesan synods are also manifestations of corporate episcope to the extent that they assist the bishop in his ministry of oversight and teaching (79). However, Methodists clearly have a broader interpretation of corporate episcope than Catholics. 

The Methodist Conference is so central to that tradition that it is included in this concept. It is unclear whether Methodist bishops or superintendents exercise the ministry of oversight apart from the Conference. One paragraph states that even where either life-long or term episcopacy has been adopted, nevertheless, the Conference “remains the instrument through which all matters of faith are discerned and then proclaimed as official teaching.” It goes so far as to quote the South African Methodist Book of Discipline to state that the Conference is the final authority in such matters (74). Another paragraph identifies it as exercising “a form of corporate episcope,” this latter in the context that both traditions “have a strong sense of the corporate nature of the ministry of oversight” (76). I shall take up whether these positions are truly compatible in the third section of this commentary. 

Regarding the role of the laity it is also clear that both communions affirm their participation in authoritative teaching. I have already alluded to the sensus fidelium as a helpful concept to adjudicate this matter. The Report takes this up in light of the significance of the Methodist Conference “where lay people sit in significant numbers, with full rights of participation and decision-making” (78). The authoritative determination of teaching which this body exercises is something Catholics locate only in “the college of bishops with the Bishop of Rome at its head” (78). This is not to deny that Catholics do include lay people at various levels of church life, but it is not enough to offset the question put to them by Methodists as to why they cannot be more “formally involved in decision-making bodies, even when authoritative discernment and teaching is involved” (79). Likewise, Catholics query Methodists on why a more formal distinction cannot be given to ordained ministry and bishops in the same matter (80). 

All of the areas of divergence are recommended for further exploration especially those focused around “guaranteed or ‘covenanted’ means of grace” (82). Amid their mutual affirmation that “[a]ll forms of ministry are communal and collegial” and intend a missionary and prophetic ministry (81) there still remains lack of agreement on the degree of certainty that preaching and teaching are “truly that of Christ and his Church” (82). The phrase is a Catholic one and when Methodists respond that they can be sure about essentials, both sides acknowledge agreement here as well. They disagree, however, about what those essentials are (82). Their agreement that oversight is a matter of love and a means of grace to support “holiness in living, … faithfulness in teaching, and … participation in God’s mission to the world” (84) demonstrates the strong convergence that the Report aims for and should not be underplayed. However, Speaking the Truth in Love should also be commended for registering the difficulties that remain. 


II. Commentary on Part Two

The second part of the document is divided into two sections entitled: I. Methodist understanding and practice, II. catholic understanding and practice. It does not introduce any new themes but is an informative section nevertheless. By providing a context, both historically and in the present, the respective theologies of the two communions become more readily understandable. Not much commentary is required except to note the relevance of history and practice with the areas of theological convergence and difference in the rest of the Report. A few examples will suffice. 

On the Methodist side the relationship between John Wesley and Anglican doctrinal formularies is noted (86, 89, 90) along with the early emergence of the Conference (90, 91, 94-96) and Wesley’s provision of American Methodism with liturgy, ordained ministry and general superintendency (92). The latter could actually be expanded to provide further insight as to whether Methodists consider this an emergency situation for the church in the new Republic analogous to the Lutheran situation in the sixteenth century, or whether it is normative for subsequent Methodist practice.  

On the Catholic side “the diversity of theological insight and expression [and the] plurality of liturgical rites and canonical discipline” is affirmed as consistent with catholic unity (100). The Catholic Church itself is described as “a communion of Eastern and Latin Churches, in each of which the Church of Christ is truly present” (99). The episcopate in light of the Second vatican Council is understood to contain “the fullness of the sacrament of orders (101) and extensive explanation is offered about the office in terms of charism, authority and church governance (105-110). The same attention is given to explaining the ministry of the Bishop of Rome (111-116). 

All of the above may be drawn on to help elucidate the systematic ecclesiological issues discussed in the first part of the Report. The Conclusion of this section and the Report provide a brief summary of the key differences which require further exploration. The similarities are especially interesting. The “special ministry of the Bishop of Rome in proclaiming the faith of all the bishops and of the whole Church” is presented alongside of the Methodist Conference as “the final authority of the interpretation of doctrine” with the qualification that the latter is not “guaranteed freedom from error” (117). Other differences include the lack of complete agreement on “the essential components of the Gospel” (118), the role of the laity as compared with ordained ministry (119), and the relationship between ordination (and its sacramentality), authoritative teaching and the sure guidance of the Holy Spirit (120). All of these assume a strong mutual affirmation of the pneumatological dimension of the exercise of teaching authority through various organs in the Church and perhaps even the similarity between the two traditions in their respective understanding despite their “differing language” (121). 


III. Critical Reflections

Speaking the Truth in Loveis clearly a step forward in the ecumenical relations between Catholics and Methodists and one that intends “full communion in faith, mission and sacramental life” (15). My critical comments will focus on six areas which recommend further reflection. 

They are: 1) the relationship between doctrine and life, 2) the status of doctrinal standards, 3) pneumatology, 4) mutual interrogation, 5) the sacramentality of office, 6) the limits of equivalency.


1) Relationship between Doctrine and Life

The Report reflects the strong theological investment in ecumenical dialogue. While Life and Work issues continue to inform ecumenical relations (as they should), Faith and Order concerns cannot be ignored. The careful theological work in this and previous reports (especially The Word of Life in 1996 and The Apostolic Tradition in 1991) are to be heartily commended. The arrangement of the Report into two parts, one theological and one historical and practical, helps to underscore the relevancy of doctrine. The two traditions are indeed different precisely because their histories entailed distinct receptions of the apostolic tradition. It seems that more could be made of this. The emergence of the Methodist Conference was a response to the tasks of the apostolates of mission and formation. Their inclusion of lay people, their final authority in doctrinal matters, and their pastoral guidance for the church represent the area most in conflict with Catholic notions of teaching authority. The relationship between historical response and theological formulation within the two traditions could enhance the possibilities of more extensive communion with each other. 

One alternative reading of Methodism as an ecclesial reality may be helpful. Methodism has already been compared to religious orders in the Catholic Church.[9] Similarities may be noted by comparison with general chapters or congregations which discern the apostolic work and formulate the re-reception of their founding charism.[10] Perhaps the same is true for the Methodist Conference in its continued reception of John Wesley’s own charism and mission. 

With this mind it is interesting how frequently the Report references Wesley himself. He and the early Methodists were aware of their teaching responsibility on behalf of the universal Church when supervision of teaching was commended to the Conference and the superintendent ministers acting in its name (20). Methodists have also affirmed the guidance and gifts of the Spirit in raising up Wesley and the Methodist movement (21, 51).[11] How do these differ from taking Wesley’s own doctrinal standards (86) and theological inclinations (89) as normative for Methodists especially since one of the early designations of a Conference offered by the Report was to describe it as “the living Wesley” (91)? Is there a possibility for Methodists to distinguish between their reception of Wesley’s charism and their reception of his doctrine relative to that of the universal church? 

By this I mean not so much Wesley’s own doctrinal orthodoxy, which in my judgment is an asset to contemporary Methodism if they continue to appropriate it. Rather I intend the status of the Conference in distinguishing between its role as arbiter of pastoral and missional initiatives and its role as the final authority with respect to doctrine (24, 74, 79, 93, 96, 117).[12] The former would be analogous to the apostolic direction and the reception of charism in the areas of formation, spirituality and Christian life exercised by the various assemblies of religious orders in the Catholic Church, and the doctrine of the Church which they would continue to uphold. This, of course, distinguishes Methodism as a “church” from institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life in the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, it offers a model for future consideration. 

Methodists in the past have not allowed doctrinal distinctives from preventing their entrance into church unions such as the United Church of Canada and the Uniting Church in Australia. One may indeed query what is left of their Wesleyan heritage in those united churches. Perhaps then attention to the above distinction may help further this dialogue beyond this impasse in Catholic and Methodist perspectives. Since both traditions attest loyalty to the apostolic faith and adjudication of formal core doctrinal issues (Catholic “hierarchy of truths; Methodist “analogy of faith” or “grand scheme of doctrine”) are relatively rare, concentration on the more pastoral aspects of teaching exercised by Conference or Bishops would be fruitful for both traditions. At the same time it would not sever but attempt to strengthen the link between doctrine and life. 


2) The status of doctrinal standards 

The importance of doctrine inevitably raises the question of doctrinal standards. As the Report attests both traditions acknowledge the standard of the Apostles’ and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creeds (11). This has also been stated in previous reports (The Apostolic Tradition 38, The Word of Life 112). Reference is also made to Wesley’s Sermons, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament and the Articles of Religion (22, 96) as standard texts by which (with the creeds) to read and interpret Scripture. Also, Wesley’s notion of “analogy of faith” and “grand scheme of doctrine”[13] are introduced as compatible with the Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on the “hierarchy of truths.”[14] In a document on teaching authority a more detailed account of how these operate is needed. One gathers that these standards function more on the lines of similar standards in the Anglican Communion than the confessional documents of the Lutheran and Reformed traditions. Nevertheless, more questions do arise. 

When the Report states that “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” these standards along with the statement that the Conference has “final authority over doctrine” (96), the reader still wonders how this operates. Can the Conference exceed the Standards or not? What is the force of being “guided” by them? These are simply questions of clarification that would help illuminate the actual exercise of teaching authority. 

Additionally, no reference is made in the Report to the Wesleyan quadrilateral – Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason – so often employed by Methodist bodies in order to identify the sources and criteria for Christian theology. “Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.”[15] How would this be a factor in the interpretation of teaching authority in the Church? By what measure do experience and reason function as criteria? One assumes that this rests with the Conference as well. Again, a fruitful conversation with Catholic notions of the sensus fidei and the role of theological reflection may be very profitable for this dialogue.


3) Pneumatology

As already noted the Report is to be commended for its strong pneumatological emphases, a characteristic that has informed this dialogue from the beginning. In its presentation of the two traditions the Report sounds a pneumatological refrain throughout. Two areas in particular are noteworthy. The Holy Spirit utilizes the means of grace and the Spirit maintains the Church in truth. Both affirmations entail points of convergence and lack of agreement. It is for this reason that the pneumatological focus is especially beneficial for future work by the Commission. 

By framing both convergence and disagreement within a pneumatological register the Report enables each communion to recognize the work of the Spirit in the other even where they have not yet arrived at full agreement. For example, although Catholics and Methodists do not yet agree on the sacramentality of orders, nevertheless, Catholics can recognize the presence of the Spirit in the discernment of ordinands and petition for the Holy Spirit in the liturgical ordination of Methodist ministers. Likewise, Methodists may still disagree that the inclusion of the laity is limited in the Catholic exercise of episcope. Nevertheless, they may recognize and affirm the Catholic sensibility for the relationship between the sensus fidei of the people of God and the charism associated with the teaching authority of bishops in their local churches and their universal communion with each other and the Bishop of Rome. This sense of discerning how the Spirit is operative in the other communion and affirming it is not incidental to ecumenical dialogue[16] for only in the one Spirit can progress be made towards full communion.[17]


4) Mutual Interrogation 

Speaking the Truth in Lovedoes not shrink back from posing to the partner in dialogue questions which focus the key issues of the faith. This is to be commended as well. Certainly one function is to highlight the areas that require further dialogue as well as to clarify the precise areas of convergence and difference. This report accentuates in a positive manner this fairly standard dialogical technique by its division into two parts with the second part allowing each tradition to illustrate its own exercise of teaching authority. In doing so it prevents the issues discussed from being divorced from the actual practice of the churches. 

Another benefit of this mutual query of the other tradition is that it brings the interlocutors back to the central issues of difference. In this Report it becomes quite clear that the guaranteed or sacramental dimension of office is the real sticking point between the two communions. On several occasions – hence, by virtue of sheer repetition – this issue is raised (61, 68, 80, 120). It also enables one tradition to search within its understanding and practice for what the other tradition values as a sign of the Spirit’s presence and work. This is a necessary requirement for conversion and for fidelity to the truth. The two are not opposed. Each may remain faithful to its understanding of the issues while simultaneously deepening that fidelity by conversion. Examples in this case could be Methodist conversion on the matter of the fidelity of Christ to ministry in the Church while Catholics would enhance the participation of the laity in receiving and maintaining the truth.


5) The sacramentality of office 

As just discussed the sacramentality of office is indeed the major area of difference between the two communions relative to teaching authority in the Church (120). It is an issue which simply cannot be ignored. The Report does indeed associate the level of teaching authority invested in bishops with the respective understandings of ordination. Whether by virtue of ordination ministry is not only a sign but a “guarantee of the active presence of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, especially in particular acts of authoritative discernment and proclamation” (68) is what divides Catholics and Methodists. At this point it seems that each communion can only continue to press the other with their respective queries on the matter. However, even by virtue of the Report’s conclusion, more investigation is warranted.

The promising area of possible convergence seems to lie in the liturgical and collegial dimensions of ordination. Already there is a degree of convergence in both of these areas. Liturgically, Methodists petition for the gift of the Holy Spirit “appropriate to the particular form of ministry” for the ordinand. This also involves a “life-long and sacred commission” (66). Additionally both traditions agree that the ordained minister represents both Christ and the Christian community and enters into a permanent relationship with both (64). With these fundamental fruits of sacramental ordination already intact (from a Catholic perspective), one should then attend to the nature of the charism received with ordination and its relevance as an instrument by which Christ keeps the Church faithful in the truth of the Gospel. Certainly from a Methodist point of view it must play some role here as well. 

From a Catholic perspective two other factors would also be involved. First, the liturgical enactment of the ministry in word and sacrament cannot be ignored. the presence of the minister as liturgical presider at eucharist is essential for the pastoral charge with respect to teaching authority. One cannot divorce one from the other. The priestly presence of Christ in the assembly in the person of the minister is intimately connected to his presence as shepherd and prophet. Secondly, the distinctive ministry of bishop also requires recognition. At present Methodist do not ordain ministers to the episcopate (those who have bishops). Yet the Report indicates that bishops or superintendents have a teaching function (80), carry on the task of ordination (at the Conference’s behest) (96), and speak in the Conference’s name (19). The willingness of at least one Methodist body – the Methodist Church in Great Britain – to accept the historic episcopate for the sake of Christian unity (presumably with the Church of England) is also encouraging (74). More exploration might surface greater areas of convergence when all of these elements are taken together. 

The other promising area of existing convergence is the collegial understanding of ordained ministry (81). In Methodist terms this is defined as the “connectional” character of ministry (64). No understanding of sacramentality of orders would exclude this. In fact, it is quite essential.[18] If both communions agree that the Church itself is sacramental in nature (26) then by extension (at least to some degree!) this must affect the connectional aspect of ordained ministry (64).[19] The understanding within the United Methodist Church in the U.S. that clergy are not members of local churches (congregations) but of annual (regional) conferences under a bishop would seem to bear this out. What sacramental aspects of a connectional system of ordained ministry would Methodists be able to acknowledge? 


6) The limits of equivalency 

Speaking the Truth in Loveraises an important issue for Catholic ecumenical dialogue, one that will surface in all bilateral dialogues once they broach the question of ministry, oversight and orders. It is the question of whether there is an equivalency between corporate practices of episcope and Catholic understanding and practice. This, of course, is also especially relevant for dialogue with ecclesial communities of the Reformed tradition. 

This Report does not state that there is an equivalency since it largely is simply describing the theology and practice of the two communions and searching for areas of convergence and remaining difference. However, the results of this dialogue and the questions that are recommended for future dialogue inevitably raise the question. The question also has been on the ecumenical agenda in a much more explicit manner since the publication of Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry in 1982. That document distinguished among the personal, collegial and communal dimensions of ordained ministry (§26) even as it acknowledged the threefold pattern of ordained ministry – bishops, presbyters, deacons (§ 19-25). I have already mentioned the collegial or connectional (in Methodist terms) nature of ordained ministry. The question of concern is the relationship between the personal and communal or corporate nature of ordained ministry, especially in regard to the ministry of episcope

Interestingly the discovery of this Report (at least to this reader) is that this question is not necessarily resolved even where a threefold pattern of ministry exists – as it does in the Catholic Church and many Methodist bodies. The reference above to corporate episcope leaves many issues unresolved between Catholics and Methodists, not the least of which is what BEM describes under the rubric of “communal” as the “community’s effective participation in the discovery of God’s will and the guidance of the Spirit” (§26). These issues are also raised in the more recent WCC Faith and Order Paper. There the focus is more on personal and collegial forms of episcope (91) referring mainly to the episcope of synodical (and presbyteral) or episcopal forms of church governance.  

For Catholics the question remains. Is the corporate exercise of episcope – as in a Methodist Conference – or the collegial exercise of episcope – as in a Reformed presbytery or classis – equivalent to the personal exercise of episcope by a bishop in the Catholic Church? The differences are indeed pressed by each side in the Report and this apart from relevant questions of sacramental orders, historic episcopate and apostolic succession. Whether they can be resolved remains to be seen. Catholic expectations would continue to focus on the bishops as vicars and ambassadors of Christ who govern the particular churches entrusted to them.[20] Can corporate and collegial exercises of episcope manifest (the essence of sacramentality!) the personal (in the Christological and Trinitarian sense of the term) attributes of oversight which also requires a liturgical expression and enactment? 

For these and many more questions we should be thankful to the Commission for Speaking the Truth in Love. One’s hope is that the Commission will continue its excellent work in the next phase and like the present Report we can be confident that it too will contribute to our unity in Christ. 



[1]Perhaps the most prominent recent example of this in addition to many statements by individual Churches and ecclesial communions is the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order paper No. 181 entitled The Nature and Purpose of the Church: A stage on the way to a common statement (Geneva: WCC/Faith and Order, 1998). 

[2]The influence of the Fourth World Conference on faith and Order of the WCC in 1963 in Montreal is well known. Its distinction between Tradition and traditions is practically normative. It serves as the basis for the other recent Faith and Order paper no. 182: A treasure in Earthen Vessels: An instrument for an ecumenical reflection on hermeneutics (Geneva: WCC/Faith and Order, 1998). 

[3]In this same paragraph it quotes The Apostolic Tradition (21): “Scripture was written within Tradition, yet Scripture is normative for Tradition.” It also quotes John Paul II’s Encyclical Letter Ut unum sint about the requirements for a full consensus in faith regarding “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” (79). 

[4]The same question arises in A Treasure in Earthen Vessels as an unresolved issue left open from Montreal. See § 18. 

[5]The Gift of Authority 29. Published in N. 100 (1999/1) of the Information Service 17-29, entitled The Gift of Authority: Authority in the Church III Report of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC II) 1999. 

[6]Indeed from the Methodist perspective this entails an “entry into a covenant relationship with all other ministers in the service of Christ” (66). 

[7]However, for those Methodist Churches which have an episcopate the episcopal appointment does not require a further ordination (66). 

[8]It should also be noted that the Methodist Church in Great Britain (presently without bishops) is willing to receive the historic episcopate for the sake of Christian unity (74). 

[9]By no less than the Methodist co-chair of the Commission, Geoffrey wainwright. See his essay “Ecclesial Location and Ecumenical Vocation” in The Ecumenical Moment: Crisis and Opportunity for the Church (Grand rapids: Eerdmans, 1983) 189-221. 

[10]The notion of re-reception is utilized in ARCIC II’s The Gift of Authority: Authority in the Church III. There it is defined as rediscovery of elements neglected, a fresh remembrance of the promises of God, or a “sifting of what has been received because some of the formulations of the Tradition are seen to be inadequate or even misleading in a new context (25). 

[11]One of its earliest and often quoted affirmations was expressed by Wesley himself. The Methodists were raised up to “reform the nation, particularly the Church, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land” (86). 

[12]The 1996 Report, The Word of Life, devotes a section to discernment. It distinguishes among various levels of discernment, e.g., prophetic and pastoral discernment, and makes reference to the role of teaching office in both traditions. My concern is the distinction between such discernment and the establishment and interpretation of doctrine. 

[13]The Word of Life Report is more explicit on such matters. A paragraph (115) is devoted to the Wesleyan distinction between “opinions” and the essential doctrines of the Gospel defined earlier in the report as “analogy in the faith” (65). They are listed as “the three-one God; the divine creation of the world and the vocation of humankind to holiness and happiness; the incarnation and atoning work of God the Son; the work of the Spirit as source of all truth, renewal, and communion; the need of fallen humankind to repent and believe the Gospel; the divine provision of grace through word and sacrament and the institution and gathering of the church; the summons to love of God and neighbor; and the promise of the final judgment and victory, where all the redeemed will share in glorifying and enjoying God forever.” The present report does not list these and states only that agreement on what constitute “the essential components of the Gospel” is “not complete” (118). Clearly the joint Commission will have to eventually take these up as the conclusion indicates. 

[14]Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis redintegratio, § 11. 

[15]The full context for the quote is given below from the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2000 in the USA § 104: 

Theological Guidelines: Sources and Criteria 

   As United Methodists, we have an obligation to bear a faithful Christian witness to Jesus Christ, the living reality at the center of the Church’s life and witness. To fulfill this obligation, we reflect critically on our biblical and theological inheritance, striving to express faithfully the witness we make in our own time. 

   Two considerations are central to this endeavor: the sources from which we derive our theological affirmations and the criteria by which we assess the adequacy of our understanding and witness. 

   Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason. 

   Scripture is primary, revealing the Word of God “so far as it is necessary for our salvation.” Therefore, our theological task, in both its critical and constructive aspects, focuses on disciplined study of the Bible. 

   To aid his study of the Bible and deepen his understanding of faith, Wesley drew on Christian tradition, in particular the Patristic writings, the ecumenical creeds, the teachings of the Reformers, and the literature of contemporary spirituality. 

   Thus, tradition provides both a source and a measure of authentic Christian witness, though its authority derives from its faithfulness to the biblical message. 

   The Christian witness, even when grounded in Scripture and mediated by tradition, is ineffectual unless understood and appropriated by the individual. To become our witness, it must make sense in terms of our own reason and experience. 

   For Wesley, a cogent account of the Christian faith required the use of reason, both to understand Scripture and to relate the biblical message to wider fields of knowledge. He looked for confirmations of the biblical witness in human experience, especially the experiences of regeneration and sanctification, but also in the “common sense” knowledge of everyday experience. 

   The interaction of these sources and criteria in Wesley’s own theology furnishes a guide for our continuing theological task as United Methodists. In that task Scripture, as the constitutive witness to the wellsprings of our faith, occupies a place of primary authority among these theological sources. 

   In practice, theological reflection may also find its point of departure in tradition, experience, or rational analysis. What matters most is that all four guidelines be brought to bear in faithful, serious, theological consideration. Insights arising from serious study of the Scriptures and tradition enrich contemporary experience. Imaginative and critical thought enables us to understand better the Bible and our common Christian history.


[16]See the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis redintegratio 4: “Nor should we forget that whatever is wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brothers and sisters can contribute to our own edification. Whatever is truly Christian never conflicts with the genuine interests of the faith; indeed it can only result in a more ample realization of the very mystery of Christ and the Church.” 

[17]See Ut unum sint 82: “one of the first steps in ecumenical dialogue is the effort to draw the Christian Communities into this completely interior space in which Christ, by the power of the Spirit, leads them all, without exception, to examine themselves before the Father and to ask themselves whether they have been faithful to his plan for the Church.” Obviously such attention to the Spirit demands conversion as well! 

[18]Just one example from the Catholic side is sufficient to illustrate this pervasive understanding. Lumen gentium 28: “Priests, prudent cooperators with the episcopal order, its aid and instrument, called to serve the people of God, constitute one priesthood with their bishop although bound by a diversity of duties.” 

[19]The following phrase in §64 is actually a quote from the 1971 report of the Joint Commission: “…the understanding of the ministry as, in some mysterious way, an extension of the incarnational and sacramental principle…”. 

[20]Lumen gentium 26. The full quote is: “Bishops, as vicars and ambassadors of Christ, govern the particular churches entrusted to them by their counsel, exhortations, example, and even by their authority and sacred power, which indeed they use only for edification of their flock in truth and holiness, remembering that he who is greater should become as the lesser and he who is the chief become as the servant.”