Index > Interconfessional Dialogues > M-RC > Brighton Rep. 2001 | CONT. > Part One - III

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III - Means of Grace, Servants of Christ ...
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Part One

III. Means of Grace, Servants of Christ
and His Church

48   Methodists 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

49   Christ'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

50   There 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 emphasizes 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.

51   The 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.

53   Methodists and Roman Catholics agree that God uses means of grace which are trustworthy channels. In this context, the Joint Commission has recognized 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.

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."

54   In 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.

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."

55   The 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 Savior 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

56   Catholics 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.

57   In 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 baptized person is called to be ‘a blessing', and to bless."60

58   While 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 neighbor 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.

59   Methodists also recognize 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 characterized 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.

60   In 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.

61   Methodists 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 center 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

62   All 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 recognize and serve Christ in others. Ministers of Christ meet their Lord in those they serve.

   Ordained Ministry

63   Methodists 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).

64   The 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

65   Catholics 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.

66   Methodists 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.

67   Catholics 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.

68   We 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

69   Jesus was recognized 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 center 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 recognize that the reign of God was at hand.

70   Led 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

71   Methodists 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 recognized 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 emphasizes 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 threefold pattern, with (1) bishops or superintendents, (2) elders, presbyters or priests, and (3) deacons.

72   In 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

73   There 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 practiced 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

74   The 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.

75   Roman 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.

76   Both 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

77   Catholics 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.

78   There 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.

79   Methodists 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.

80   Catholics 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

81   Both 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

82   Christ 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

83   Methodists 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

84   Methodists 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


  1. British Methodist Conference Statement, Called to Love and Praise (1999), 1.4.1.

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  2. Cf. Called to Love and Praise, 4.2.1.

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  3. Report of the Joint Commission (1981), § 34.

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  4. British Methodist Conference Statement, Called to Love and Praise (1999), 2.1.7.

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  5. Towards a Statement on the Church (1986), § 13.

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  6. Towards a Statement on the Church, § 16.

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  7. The Apostolic Tradition (1991), § 89.

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  8. The Word of Life (1996), §§ 95-96.

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  9. Towards a Statement on the Church, §§ 8, 9.

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  10. Towards a Statement on the Church, § 10.

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  11. The Word of Life, §§ 73, 75.

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  12. The Word of Life, § 98.

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  13. The Word of Life, § 98.

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  14. Cf. The Word of Life, §§ 100-107.

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  15. Catechism of the Catholic Church, § 1669.

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  16. ‘The Means of Grace,' § II.1 (The Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial Edition, 1:381).

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

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  18. Growth in Understanding (1976), § 79.

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  19. Growth in Understanding, § 98.

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  20. The Apostolic Tradition, (1991), § 83.

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  21. The Apostolic Tradition, § 84.

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  22. Cf. The Apostolic Tradition, §§ 88-91, 94.

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

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  24. The Apostolic Tradition, § 82.

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  25. The Apostolic Tradition, § 82.

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  26. The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church (1996), § 401.

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  27. World Council of Churches, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1982), Ministry, § 19.

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  28. Joint Commission, The Apostolic Tradition (1991), § 93.

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  29. South African Methodists' Book of Discipline, § 1.18 (cf. §§5.1, 5.4.3) 10th Edition, 2000.

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  30. The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church (1996), § 414.3.

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  31. ARCIC, The Gift of Authority (1998), § 32.

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  32. Cf. The Gift of Authority, § 5.

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  33. The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church (1996), § 104.

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  34. ‘The Nature, Design and General Rules of the United Society' (The Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial Edition, 9:69).

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  35. The Gift of Authority (1998), § 48.

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  36. Hymns and Psalms, no. 438.

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