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

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Part Two

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

I. Methodist Understanding and Practice

   Historical Perspectives

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.

87   From 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 pardonable exaggeration."83 Charles Wesley saw clear parallels with the Exodus story:

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

88   The 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.

89   Given 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.

90   The 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.

91   For 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.

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

93   From 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.


94   Wesley 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.

95   Historically, 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.

96   Today, 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 of mission.
  • It has final authority over doctrine. Methodist Conferences have always accepted the Scriptures as the supreme rule of faith and practice, and have been guided in their reading of them by Wesley's Sermons and Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament. In understanding these authorities, the Conference is the final interpreter.
  • It exercises its authority also by approving service books and hymn books to communicate doctrinal matters to the people. Through these the faith is taught and maintained by the local congregations.
  • It provides for the orderly transmission of ministry by 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.

   Developments within Contemporary Methodism

97   In 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

98   Originating 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.


  1. ‘Large Minutes' (The Works of John Wesley, Jackson Edition, 8:299).

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  2. Gordon Rupp, Thomas Jackson: Methodist Patriarch (1954), 41.

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  3. Hymns and Psalms, no. 62.

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  4. ‘On Laying the Foundation of the New Chapel', §11.1 (The Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial Edition, 3:585).

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  5. Cf. ‘Minutes, 1744' (The Works of John Wesley, Jackson Edition, 8:275).

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

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

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