One of this report has explored both common understandings and distinct
interpretations of the means of grace' in Christ's Church,
especially regarding authoritative discernment and proclamation
of the truth of the Gospel. In this second part, Methodists and
Catholics present in more detail how they respectively do this and
why. These accounts are offered primarily to enable each tradition
better to understand the other. Although these practices are distinctive
there are many points of convergence between them.
Understanding and Practice
86 For Methodists, their agents of discernment
are shaped by the historical origins of the movement in eighteenth
century England. They inherited the basic doctrines and structures
of the Christian Church as mediated through the English Reformation
of the sixteenth century. They believe that John Wesley and the
people called Methodist were raised up by God in a particular situation
for a particular task, that is, "to reform the nation, particularly
the Church, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land."82
Doctrinally, the early Methodists held to the teaching of the Church
of England. Wesley emphasized the Anglican doctrinal formularies
specifically the thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Homilies,
and especially the Book of Common Prayer. For the Anglicans of his
day, it was the Book of Common Prayer that was the continuing vehicle
of Reformation faith in the weekly and daily life of the parishes.
Wesley remained true to this expression of the faith throughout
his ministry. In addition, Wesley brought to bear his reading of
the early Church Fathers.
the point of view of organization, Methodists believe the Holy Spirit
was actively guiding the development of the Methodist movement.
Most features of Methodist practice were not planned in advance
but discovered as a providential means for accomplishing the mission.
"Methodism came down from heaven, as it was wanted, piece
by piece', cried one of the Preachers in 1836 with exuberant but
Charles Wesley saw clear parallels with the Exodus story:
Captain of Israel's host, and guide
of all who seek the land above...
By thine unerring Spirit led,
we shall not in the desert stray;
we shall not full direction need,
nor miss our providential way;
as far from danger as from fear,
while love, almighty love, is near.
early Methodists understood their movement as a revival of genuine
Christianity. They sought to bring the truth of the Gospel once
again to the minds of the people, and share the life-changing love
of God with those who did not know it in their hearts. For them,
the truth of the Gospel was the message of God's love for all and
God's demand that people love God and neighbor in return. Theirs
was a prophetic ministry, proclaiming salvation, both individual
and social, to their contemporaries.
the situation in eighteenth-century England, certain themes needed
to be highlighted. In particular, Wesley focused most of his preaching
and teaching on the doctrines dealing most directly with salvation:
original sin, justification and sanctification. He saw here the
general tenor of Scripture' which he understood to be the
analogy of faith', that is, the sense of the whole message
of Scripture which serves as the key for interpreting individual
passages. In view of the relatively low level of spiritual life
in England at his time and the difficulties that the church had
in reaching new areas of population, this focus on soteriology was
the best way in which to accomplish the mission which had been set
before him. However, Wesley saw his societies as existing within
the Church of England. His Anglican inheritance, including his acceptance
of the ancient creeds and his study of patristic sources, joined
him to the Church catholic. Several times he indicated that Methodism
was nothing new; rather it was "the old religion, the religion
of the Bible, the religion of the primitive church, the religion
of the Church of England."85
In his publications he sought to teach his preachers and indeed
all of the Methodist people what the whole of the Christian faith
had to offer. The fifty volumes of his Christian Library include
authors from the Early Church, later Catholicism, the Reformation,
Puritan Dissenters and the Anglican Divines. The hymns of his brother,
Charles Wesley, were a powerful vehicle for teaching the Christian
faith to the common people.
goal was to spread scriptural holiness, and this mission led to
the recruitment of lay and ordained preachers. Often in the face
of official opposition and popular scorn, they traveled widely,
preaching the Gospel to the disinherited, gathering people into
societies and exercising pastoral oversight of them. The preachers
met in Conference for the first time in 1744 for the purpose of
guiding the revival. There were precedents in the Church of England.
For example, other privately organized societies were developing
which governed their work through meetings of their leaders, and
at the most official level, the constitution of the Church of England
allowed for Convocations. Thus, a conciliar approach to discern
the will of God for their movement appeared to them as the most
appropriate way to proceed.
early Methodists, the Conference exemplified the social character
of Christianity. It had several functions. First, it determined
the practical doctrine of the Methodist preachers ("what to
teach"). Second, it was a place of education and encouragement
("how to teach"). Third, it supervised the mission of
the church and the deployment of ministers ("what to do").86
Fourth, it was an occasion for holding the preachers accountable
for what they preached and how they lived. While it is true that
Wesley had final control of the decisions of Conference, he was
influenced by the conferring. For both Britain and Ireland, a decision
was made in 1784 that the Conference would exist after Wesley's
death. A legal deed was executed providing for the corporate continuation
of Methodism. In effect, the Conference was regarded as the
living Wesley'. Thus, the functions of determining doctrine, exercising
discipline, and stationing the preachers for the sake of mission
were all lodged in the Conference.
American situation was somewhat different. In light of the political
independence and the great need for pastoral care, Wesley took steps
to provide for American Methodism a liturgy, an ordained ministry
and a general superintendency. The last was received by the Americans
on condition that the Conference of preachers would elect superintendents,
soon called bishops, in the Methodist Episcopal Church. While the
Conference exercised the authority for doctrinal decisions, the
bishops were its leaders and had sole authority in stationing the
1816, the bishops had responsibility for supervising the course
of study, an educational program for the preachers. The bishops
themselves were itinerant, as they said in their notes to the 1798
Book of Discipline: "Our grand plan, in all its parts, leads
to an itinerant ministry. Our bishops are traveling bishops. All
the different orders which compose our conferences are employed
in the traveling line. Every thing is kept moving as far as possible."87
In many ways, they exercised informal teaching authority. Francis
Asbury and Thomas Coke functioned as teachers of the church through
their preaching and their editing of the Doctrines and Discipline.
Nevertheless, the final authority in doctrinal matters rested with
what became the General Conference. In 1830 a group of Methodist
laity and clergy formed the Methodist Protestant Church, and for
the first time added an equal number of lay persons to the membership
of the Conference. Other branches added a significant lay representation
at later dates, and the practice is now universal.
reckoned Christian conference' among the prudential means
of grace, found to be trustworthy channels used by God to help shape
the lives of God's people. The Methodist Conference is a gathering
of lay and ministerial leaders for worship, discernment of God's
will, and deciding how best to follow faithfully the Spirit's leading.
Bringing together the diversities of the people of God whether
of race, gender, nationality, theological opinion, or moral judgement
they seek to "speak the truth in love" to each
other as they discern the truth of the Gospel for their age and
place. As the Spirit directs, they seek to proclaim that truth apostolically
and prophetically to the whole world in the name of God.
the inclusion of lay persons in Conference was part of a wider cultural
trend which held that ultimate authority under God was given to
the entire community. In the political sphere, this trend gave the
right to vote to the adult population of many countries. Theologically,
Methodists regard all Christians as a ministerial and priestly people.
Various gifts of authority whether in doctrinal, financial,
disciplinary or organizational matters are given to both
ordained and lay. This is the theological foundation for including
both in Conference.
a Methodist Conference is the organizing center of ecclesial life
and has at least six functions:
It is the gathering point and chief instrument of connection.
There is a family feeling of reunion when Conference meets.
It exercises corporate episcope and oversees the whole life
of the church, including doctrine and discipline for the sake
It has final authority over doctrine. Methodist Conferences
have always accepted the Scriptures as the supreme rule of faith
and practice, and have been guided in their reading of them
by Wesley's Sermons and Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament.
In understanding these authorities, the Conference is the final
It exercises its authority also by approving service books and
hymn books to communicate doctrinal matters to the people. Through
these the faith is taught and maintained by the local congregations.
It provides for the orderly transmission of ministry by authorizing
ordination. Even where there are bishops, the decision to ordain
is the prerogative of the Conference. Ordination takes place
during the Conference by prayer and the laying on of hands,
invoking the Holy Spirit.
It elects its bishops and presidents. For most Methodist Churches
they serve for a limited term. Some Churches elect their bishops
(who serve as Presidents of their Annual Conferences) for life.
within Contemporary Methodism
some parts of Methodism that historically have not had bishops,
those exercising oversight, such as district chairpersons, are sometimes
being given the title bishop'. Some Methodist Churches have
formally stated that their bishops should exercise a teaching office,
with responsibility "to guard, transmit, teach and proclaim,
corporately and individually, the apostolic faith as it is expressed
in Scripture and tradition, and as they are led and endowed by the
Spirit, to interpret that faith evangelically and prophetically."88
in the Oecumenical Methodist Conference of 1881, the World Methodist
Council has been developing closer ties and a stronger teaching
function for the world-wide family of Methodist Churches. It is
developing structures for consultation, teaching, and common action
for mission. Its recent publication of Wesleyan Essentials of Christian
Faith (1996) and its role in ecumenical dialogues have strengthened
its function in these areas. Also, wherever Conference is held for
an entire Church, official representatives from other Methodist
Churches are invited. In addition, official letters are exchanged
and other relationships between Conferences are developing. Regional
associations of bishops from different Methodist Churches have been
formed to further common witness. During the nineteenth century
the Methodists split into many different denominations. The twentieth
century has seen a trend toward unity both through different Churches
merging and through closer ties of cooperation between existing
Churches. As a rule where Methodists have entered into United Churches,
such Churches have become members of the World Methodist Council
and by their commitment to Christian unity have made a significant
contribution to World Methodism. Given the growth of Methodism in
Asia, Africa and Latin America, its Churches are becoming increasingly
diverse and yet simultaneously more unified.
Minutes' (The Works of John Wesley, Jackson Edition,
Rupp, Thomas Jackson: Methodist Patriarch (1954), 41.
and Psalms, no. 62.
Laying the Foundation of the New Chapel', §11.1 (The
Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial Edition, 3:585).
Minutes, 1744' (The Works of John Wesley, Jackson
Asbury and Thomas Coke, notes in The Doctrines and Disciplines
of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 10th Edition, Philadelphia
Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church (1996),