In search of the catholic spirit

The existence of the Roman Catholic Church as one of the largest and most influential Christian communions is a given fact that Methodists cannot ignore. Whatever the polemics of the past, the mood today is one of mutual recognition of Christians in other denominations and of these denominations themselves as Christian churches with the admission of sins and shortcomings in the lives of each of us. We cannot treat one another as if we did not exist, and our common loyalty to Christ requires us to develop relationships with all our brothers and sisters. Christians should surely live in unity and love with other Christians.

In practice this involves issues at three levels. First, there is the relationship of the individual Christian to other denominations and their members. Here it is worth observation that a small but significant number of evangelicals from other churches have transferred to Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches in recent years, believing that they were missing out on some essential aspects of the faith, generally to do with the content of religious services, maintenance of traditional elements, and a sense of the importance of ‘the church’; at the same time elements of charismatic worship and experience have become a part of the life of traditional believers and congregations. That is a side issue, not treated in this book.

Second, there is the growth of relationships between individual local congregations of Methodists and Roman Catholics, briefly summarised in this book (246-50).

Third, there is the development of official dialogues between Methodists and Roman Catholics, both at world and at national levels, the latter especially in England but also in North America, Australia and New Zealand. These are the main theme of this book.

What we have in fact is a survey and description of such dialogue, placed in the historical context of the controversies and statements made by both parties since the time of Wesley himself. John Wesley was a powerful critic of the errors of Roman Catholicism (although he also displayed a more positive attitude particularly to individuals), and he attempted some rapprochement in his ‘Letter to a Roman Catholic’ (32-33; regrettably the text is not included). The nineteenth-century church maintained a negative attitude, and some Catholics responded very similarly: even in his Anglican days J. H. Newman described Methodism as a heresy (81).

The earlier part of the twentieth century saw contributions by various theologians and the Methodist statement of the nature of the church in the Deed of Union which claims our place in the Holy Catholic Church and our loyalty to the fundamental doctrines of the Protestant Reformation. Somewhat surprisingly Chapman thinks that this statement sets out ‘Methodism’s Catholic and Protestant heritage’ (96). The ‘Catholic’ doctrines are apparently the ‘apostolic faith’ and ‘the historic creeds’, but there is nothing specifically ‘Roman Catholic’ about those; they are shared with all Protestants, and to talk of a ‘Catholic heritage’ is a misunderstanding. Consequently to ask how this dual heritage might be integrated ‘into a coherent description of the nature and identity of the Christian Church’ is to raise a non-question. Again, when Chapman claims that C. Wesley’s ‘Love divine’ combines ‘Luther’s doctrine of justification with a Catholic emphasis on personal sanctification’ (111), he appears to have been misled by L. Bouyer (110) and R. N. Flew (98-100). To try to find something Catholic in the Methodist passion for holiness is baseless; Calvin may have expressed his doctrine of the Christian life in other language, but there is no fundamental difference between Calvinism and Methodism as regards the practicalities of Christian living (Wesley’s doctrine of holiness as an instantaneous second blessing does not seem to be seriously held any longer in mainstream Methodism).

A crucial advance was the publication of the Catholic scholar M. Piette’s sympathetic study of Wesleyanism. Possibilities for dialogue had to wait for the great changes in the Roman Catholic Church focussed in the Second Vatican Council, when the Church at last began to recognise officially that there might be traces of the presence of the Church outside the Roman Catholic Communion, although stating that other churches ‘derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church’ (124 – how condescending can you get?).

From then on there have been quinquennial international meetings between Methodists and Roman Catholics. The goal is variously described as ‘full communion’ and ‘unity’, and Chapman explicitly states that the discussions are ‘nowhere near becoming unity talks’ and that there are considerable obstacles to full communion (129). The summaries of the talks bring out the problems of both sides: the lesser concern for precision on doctrinal issues in Methodism and perhaps an over-stress on experience rather than tradition (cf. H. Bett, 87); and on the Catholic side the emphasis on the primacy of the Pope, the real presence of Christ in the eucharistic elements and the continuing emphasis on the sacrificial nature of the eucharist, the non-negotiability of apostolic succession in the episcopal ministry ‘through the historic succession within the apostolic college’ (137), the different kind of priesthood of the ministerial hierarchy (138), and the intercession of Mary (216). In these areas, where Methodism takes a different line, the Roman Catholics recognise serious obstacles to full communion. ‘It is not possible to share in eucharistic communion because Methodists and Roman Catholics identify differently the ministers appointed as witnesses to the truth of the Gospel and the kind of teaching authority committed to them’ (158; cited from the report The Word of Life). For their part Methodists ask why lay people cannot be involved in the discernment of God’s truth in the Roman Catholic Church. And to one, like myself, who has participated many times in communion services conducted by people regarded as ‘lay’ and can find no grounds in scripture or anywhere else for stating that they were invalid or somehow lacking, it is essential that we maintain our belief and practice that the usual celebration of the Lord’s Supper by ordained ministers in Methodism is purely a matter of order and not of doctrine; and if we are going to move in any direction on this issue it should be to recognise more fully and practically the practice of lay administration.

Alongside these international dialogues there are also the local ones in England (and elsewhere). These have identified such contentious issues as merit, purgatory and indulgences (‘Whether Methodism will learn to tolerate these Roman Catholic doctrines remains to be seen’, writes Chapman, 177). There are the practical questions regarding inter-church marriages.

More recent Roman Catholic Documents are Ut Unum Sint (1995) where the Pope himself recognises that his ministry is a stumbling block for most other Christians. Yet one Methodist theologian finds it ‘conceivable that, despite historical sensitivities, Methodists will eventually come to accept the Petrine function as belonging historically and theologically to the bishop of Rome’ (G. Wainwright, 218). The Conference of 1998 was prepared to consider dialogue on this issue and the otherwise generally helpful Methodist document Called to Love and Praise (1999) suggests that ‘Methodists [which ones?] could not accept all aspects of papal ministry as it is currently exercised, but would be more open to a universal primacy understood as a ministry of service and unity rather than primarily [how much does that give away?] as a seat of authority’ (229). A second Roman Catholic declaration, Dominus Jesus, is by contrast very discouraging, since it states explicitly that other churches (including ours) are ‘not Churches in the proper sense’ (222), and however nuanced an understanding of sensu proprio Ecclesiae and other phrases may be possible, it suggests that some powerful elements in Roman Catholicism have not really advanced all that far. Chapman is right to speak of a mix of generosity and bleakness in the Documents.

Some progress ‘Towards Catholicity’ is noted. The influence of the Liturgical Movement has led to the variety of non-Methodist practices now included in the Methodist Worship Book.

The author occupies a leading role in the Methodist-Roman Catholic discussions and writes his clear and readable, and immensely informative survey in a commendably objective and yet critical manner, while not disguising his commitment to ongoing dialogue to deal with the very real obstacles that still confront us, despite the changes that have been made. The situation, as I see it, is that Roman Catholicism remains quite intransigent on many of these obstacles and the danger is that Methodism may be tempted to alter its doctrines and ethos in the interests of full communion. Readers of Miroslav Volf’s technical but powerful and convincing work on Baptist ecclesiology, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), will discover just how different the current Roman Catholic understanding of the church is from ours and how strong a case can be developed for an alternative ecclesiology. We cannot abandon our efforts to seek better understanding with the Roman Catholic Church, to try to make them aware of their doctrinal errors, while not forgetting that we ourselves have our faults and errors, but until there is a sea-change in Catholicism in which it recognises the full validity of other denominations as they are, there is not the remotest chance of inter-communion, and we have an inescapable duty to hold fast to our Protestant position against all enticements to the contrary. We can and must recognise the working of the Spirit in the Roman Catholic Church and rejoice in the changes that we have seen in recent years, and we must encourage all the friendly relationships and co-working that are possible; our hope is that, as Methodists and Roman Catholics come together at the local level, the common elements in our Christian faith and practice will be more and more recognised and appreciated, and we may get on with the work of the Kingdom regardless of the ‘system’.

I am grateful to the Editor for allowing this excessively lengthy review; the importance of the issue and the need for us all to be fully informed of it and to be prayerfully and practically involved in relationships with our fellow-Christians demand it.