Index > Interconfessional Dialogues > M-RC > Nairobi Rep. 1986 | CONT. > Sez. 6
  (PREFACE) - select
  section 1 (THE NATURE OF THE CHURCH) - select
  section 2 (CHURCH AND SACRAMENTS) - select
  section 3 (CALLED TO UNITY) - select
  section 4 (WAYS OF BEING ONE CHURCH) - select
  section 5 (STRUCTURES OF MINISTRY) - select
The Petrine Office - Sec. 6


   39. We begin with the New Testament, in which the Twelve, and also Paul and other apostles, fulfilled important functions. But in the light of the questions which subsequently arose, we naturally concentrate on Peter even though we do not wish to isolate him from the other apostles, seeking to give a factual account of the relevant New Testament material.

   40. With this background in mind, we shall then turn to consider subsequent history by starting from the nature of leadership and primacy in the Church. Discernment of the various factors in Scripture and history might contribute to an agreed perception of what functions the see of Rome might properly exercise in a ministry of universal unity, by what authority, and on what conditions.

a) Peter in the New Testament

   41. Simon Peter had a special position among the twelve: he is named first in the lists and is called "first" (Mt 10:2); he is described as among the first called; he is among the three or four associated with Jesus on special occasions; at times he is portrayed as spokesman for the others, either answering or asking questions; he is named as the first of the apostolic witnesses to the risen Jesus; he is remembered as having confessed Jesus during the ministry (even if the Gospels differ in their presentation of that confession); he is renamed by Jesus. However, his misunderstanding of Jesus, his failure to heed warnings, and his denials are also narrated.

   42. Special sayings in the Gospels point to a distinctive church-oriented role for Peter (Mt 1.6:18-19; Lk 22:31-32; Jn 21:15-17). In Acts, chapters 1-15, after the resurrection, Peter exercises a certain leadership in the affairs of the early church. In the scene of Acts 10 it is revealed to him that the church must be open to the Gentiles, a position he had to defend in Jerusalem (Acts 11:2ff.). Paul's letter to the Galatians shows Peter as an important figure at Jerusalem, as having an apostolate to the circumcised, and as agreeing with Paul that Gentile converts need not be compelled to conform to Jewish circumcision. However, it also shows Peter as yielding to the "men who came from James" on the issue of not eating with the Gentiles-a concession that Paul describes as not being straightforward about the truth of the Gospel (2:14).

   43. Acts 15 shows Peter, Barnabas, Paul and James as all speaking to the issue of the admission of Gentile converts without circumcision, but indicates that James insisted on their observance of specific purity laws. Gal 2 and Acts 15 have led many to suspect that Peter's position in relation to Judaism stood in between that of James on the one side and of Paul on the other. Some would regard the failure to mention Peter in the second half of the book of Acts as a sign that his authority had declined; others would regard the fact that Luke concentrates on Peter first and then on Paul as reflecting the author's purpose to show how Christianity gradually moved from Jerusalem and the mission to the Jews, towards Rome and the Gentile mission.

   44. I Corinthians shows a party loyal to Peter (Cephas) in a Greek city in the 50s (1 Cor 1:12; 3:22); it also raises the possibility that Peter's activities had brought him to Corinth (9:5). After mentioning the appearances of the risen Jesus to Peter and to others (1 Cor 15:5-8), Paul says, "Whether then it was I or they so we preach and so you believed". This is seen as an indication of basic elements shared by Peter's and Paul's preaching, in spite of the disagreement described in Gal 2:14.

   45. I Peter portrays Peter as an apostle writing from Babylon (by which is meant Rome) instructing Christians in Asia Minor, and as a presbyter exhorting fellow presbyters to be good shepherds (5:1-3). II Pt 3:15-16 portrays Peter as advising people how to interpret the letters of "our beloved brother Paul".

   46. Many scholars think the Petrine letters were written after Peter's lifetime; some or all of the special Gospel sayings about Peter referred to in no. 42 may also have been committed to writing after Peter's death. Therefore an evaluation of the New Testament evidence concerning Peter must take into account not only Peter's relationship to Jesus before the resurrection, and Peter's career in the early church but also how Peter was regarded after his death.

   47. The New Testament depicts Peter in a plurality of images and roles: missionary fisherman (Lk 5, Jn 21); pastoral shepherd ( Jn 21, Lk 22:32; 1 Pt 5); witness and martyr (1 Cor 15:5; cf. Jn 21:15-17; 1Pt 5:1); recipient of special revelation (Mt 16:17; Acts 10: 9-11; 2 Pt 1:16-17) the "rock" named by Jesus (Mt 16:18; Jn 1:42; Mk 1:42); recipient of the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Mt 16:18); confessor and preacher of the true faith (Mt 16:16; Acts 2); guardian against false teaching (2 Pt 1:20-21, 3:15-16; Acts 8: 20-23); and weak human being and repentant sinner, rebuked by Christ and withstood by Paul (Mk 8:33; Mt 16:23; Mk 14:31, 66-72; Jn 21:15-17; Gal 2:5). Most of these images persist through two or more strands of the New Testament tradition and several recur in subsequent Church history.

b) Primacy and the Petrine Ministry

   48. In looking at the question of universal primacy one may begin with the desirability of unity focused around leadership.

   49. All local churches need a ministry of leadership. In early church development such leadership came to be exercised by the bishop who was a focus of unity. Eventually churches were grouped in provinces, regions and patriarchates, in which archbishops, primates and patriarchs exercised a similar unifying role in service to the koinonia.

   50. Analogously the question arises whether the whole Church needs a leader to exercise a similar unifying role in service to the worldwide koinonia.

   51. Given this context, one then has to face the claim that the Roman see already exercises such a ministry of universal unity. As the Roman claim was essentially complete by the fifth century, it may be helpful to examine the lines of development which led in that direction. The special position and role of the Roman see in the early Church depended on the convergence of several factors. Some of these factors had to do with the particular city in which the church was located, some with the development of the episcopate (cf. no. 29) and others with the relation of the Bishop of Rome to Peter and Paul. For Roman Catholics the decisive factor for the special position and role of the Roman See is the relation of the Bishop of Rome to Peter.

   52. As the capital city of the Empire, Rome's strategic importance for the worldwide mission of Christianity was recognized already in New Testament times (cf. Acts). Paul looked for the support of the Roman church in his preaching of the Gospel, and Peter, as we have seen, is portrayed as writing from Rome to Christians in Asia Minor. In the second century Rome was already recognized as an apostolic church. Both I Clement, written from Rome, and Ignatius, writing to Rome, mention Peter and Paul. Irenaeus of Lyons acknowledged the outstanding force of Rome's testimony to the apostolic tradition on account of its dual foundation (fundata et constituta) upon Peter and Paul (cf. Adv. Haereses III, iii). That both of them suffered martyrdom there no doubt gave Rome an advantage over Antioch or Corinth, churches which also rejoiced in the same twofold apostolic connection. By the latter half of the second century, the lists of the bishops of Rome mention Peter first, although from I Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas it is not clear precisely when a sole bishop was recognized as a figure distinct from the other presbyters.

   53. By the middle of the third century (cf. Cyprian, De catholicae ecclesiae unitate, no. 4), "Petrine" texts from the gospels had begun to be applied, mutatis mutandis, to the bishop of Rome. The fact that Peter's ministry in the life of the Church is emphasized even in New Testament passages written after his death indicates that images of Peter had continued importance for the Church. The application of the Petrine texts in the third century could be seen as reflecting this ongoing importance. Luke 22 has Jesus, with his own death in view, charging Peter to strengthen the brethren. In John 21, the risen Lord commands Peter to tend and feed the flock. In Matthew 16, Peter, who confessed his faith in Jesus as "the Christ, the Son of the living God", is named the rock on which Christ will build his Church, and he is given the power to bind and loose, and the very keys of the kingdom. In Acts. Peter at Pentecost correspondingly takes the lead in proclaiming the Lordship of the crucified and risen Jesus. Peter's mediating position in New Testament controversies between the positions of Paul and James (cf. no. 43) made him a figure for fostering unity in the essentials of the faith. The Petrine role of enunciating the faith, sometimes at points of conflict, was illustrated at the Council of Chalcedon when the bishops approved the doctrine of Leo I of Rome: "This is the faith of the fathers; this is the faith of the apostles; this is the faith of us all; Peter has spoken through Leo"3.

   54. In the early centuries many had been willing, more or less spontaneously, to accord to the Roman church a respect of the kind reflected in the phrase of Ignatius of Antioch, "presiding in love" (Ad Rom, Introd.). In the second century Rome's repudiation of Marcion and Valentinus helped to establish orthodoxy for the whole Church. On the other hand, Roman involvement in controversies was not always appreciated nor the Roman solution accepted (e.g. the response of the Asian Churches to Victor over the date of Easter). In the fourth and fifth centuries, with Christianity established as the religion of the Empire, the popes began to make more frequent use of the language of Roman law in their interventions, supported by the bishops in closest geographical proximity (i.e. within the Western patriarchate). This more juridical turn sharpened the issue of authority. On the one hand the authority of the Roman Church promoted missionary activity, monastic life and doctrinal and liturgical cohesiveness, and after the collapse of the Western Empire helped to preserve and shape European civilization. On the other hand increasingly developed formulation and application of the Roman claims and more vigorous resistance to them, alike contributed to the origin and continuation of divisions in Christianity, first in the East and eventually in the West.

   55. From this survey it will be seen that the primacy of the bishop of Rome is not established from the Scriptures in isolation from the living tradition. When an institution cannot be established from scripture alone, Methodists, in common with other churches which stem from the Reformation, consider it on its intrinsic merits, as indeed do Roman Catholics; but Methodists give less doctrinal weight than Roman Catholics to long and widespread tradition.

   56. The Roman Catholic members are agreed that being in communion with the see of Rome has served as the touchstone of belonging to the Church in its fullest sense. This Commission is agreed that not being in communion with the Bishop of Rome does not necessarily disqualify a Christian community from belonging to the Church of God (cf. "The Roman Catholic Church has continued to recognize the Orthodox Churches as Churches in spite of divisions concerning the primacy", Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, Authority II, no. 12). Likewise, Methodist members are agreed that Catholic acceptance of the Roman primacy is not an impediment to churchly character.

   57. The positions stated in the previous paragraph, however, do not justify acquiescence in our present division. For Roman Catholics reconciliation with the see of Rome is a necessary step towards the restoration of -Christian unity. Others see the claim of the Bishop of Rome as an obstacle to Christian unity. It is now necessary to reexamine these claims in the hope of furthering unity. In a period when Christians of all communions frequently meet and co-operate and are often highly critical of divisions in the Church, such an examination has fresh urgency.

   58. Methodists accept that whatever is properly required for the unity of the whole of Christ's Church must by that very fact be God's will for his Church. A universal primacy might well serve as focus of and ministry for the unity of the whole Church.

   59. From history it can be shown that some of the current functions carried out by the bishop of Rome pertain to his diocesan see or to his office as Patriarch of the Latin Church and do not pertain to the essence of his universal ministry of unity. A clearer recognition of this today would make it easier for Methodists to reconsider whether the bishop of Rome might yet exercise this ministry for other Christians as well as for those who already accept it.

   60. In considering the possible exercise of the ministry of the Bishop of Rome among Christians who do not at present accept it, questions about jurisdiction and infallibility are both understood by Roman Catholics as aspects of the primacy which the Bishop of Rome has among other bishops in virtue of his special relation to Peter and the special position of the Church in Rome deriving from the witness of Peter and Paul.

c) Jurisdiction4

   61. It is within an understanding of the episcopal office, as outlined above (nno. 31-38), that Roman Catholics see the special role of the Bishop of Rome. Just as each bishop is a focus of unity in his own diocese, so the bishop of Rome is such a focus in the communion of dioceses of the whole Church. In regard to the diocese of Rome, the Pope has the authority or jurisdiction that the bishops have in their dioceses. Roman Catholics believe that he also has ordinary jurisdiction throughout the Church in the sense that he acts by virtue of his office and not by delegation. This is an immediate episcopal jurisdiction in all dioceses, in the exercise of which he is required to respect each local church and the authority of each bishop. Catholics recognize that theological exploration of the relation between the authority of the Pope and that of the local bishop remains unfinished. The authority of the Pope should not in any case, they say, be described exclusively or primarily in jurisdictional terms. Just as many images are used of Peter in the New Testament (see no. 47), so a variety of images may be used of the Pope. It may be said that he is called to be an effective symbol of the unity of the Church in faith and life. He is a reminder of the Apostles witnessing to the resurrection, of Paul preaching to the Gentiles and of Peter professing faith in Christ and being sent to feed the sheep. In a particular way the Pope is a sign of Peter. "Vicar of Peter" is an ancient title that indicates that Peter, a saint in heaven, is present in the Church on earth and is as it were made visible in the Pope. As the Papal legate said at the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431), "Peter ... lives, presides and judges ... in his successors"5.

   62. It would not be inconceivable that at some future date in a restored unity, Roman Catholic and Methodist bishops might be linked in one episcopal college and that the whole body would recognize some kind of effective leadership and primacy in the bishop of Rome. In that case Methodists might justify such an acceptance on different grounds from those that now prevail in the Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, as said above, some of the current functions carried out by the bishop of Rome pertain to his diocesan see or to his office as Patriarch of the Latin Church rather than to his universal ministry of unity. Further joint study would need to be done on the nature of episcopacy and on the precise nature and extent of the authority which properly belongs to the Pope's universal ministry.

d) Authoritative Teaching

   63. Because God wills the salvation of all men and women, he enables the Church, by the Holy Spirit, so to declare the truth of the divine Revelation in Jesus Christ that his people may know the way of salvation.

   64. The Scriptures bear permanent witness to the divine revelation in Christ and are normative for all subsequent tradition.

   65.At different moments of history it is sometimes necessary to clarify the contents of Christian Faith, and even to define the limits of orthodoxy. For this reason the Christian Church convenes in councils, whose purpose it is to bring into sharper focus various aspects of Christian belief. Properly understood the decisions of the ecumenical councils which met in the first centuries command assent throughout the whole Church, and there is no reason to think that at the end of the patristic era God stopped enabling his Church to speak in such a way. Other occasions have called, and may still call for such authoritative guidance.

   66. According to Catholic belief, the authority of such councils derives from the charisms of teaching and discernment which the Spirit gives for the building up of the body. The episcopal college exercises this teaching ministry through discerning the faith of Christians, present and past, and always with reference to the supreme norm of the Scriptures. To the extent that the Church in any era teaches the truths of salvation that were originally taught in the Scriptures, that teaching is binding. To definitions of a council "the assent of the Church can never be wanting, on account of the action of the Holy Spirit, by which the universal flock of Christ is kept and makes progress in the oneness of faith" (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 25).

   67. It is acknowledged that a general council would take on new and greater significance if convened in a situation in which all Christians were united and represented. It is also acknowledged that many councils of the early Church were not recognized as genuine councils and their teaching did not have the guarantee of truth (e.g. Robber Synod of Ephesus in 449).

   68. Roman Catholics believe that the bishops of the Church enjoy the special assistance of the Holy Spirit, when, by a collegial act with the Bishop of Rome in an ecumenical council, they define doctrine to be held irrevocably.

   69. As understood by Roman Catholics, papal infallibility is another embodiment of the infallibility with which the Church has been endowed. Christ's promise of sure guidance and the gift of the Spirit were to the whole Church, and result in the Church's capacity to formulate the faith in a manner that is beyond doubt. In carefully defined and limited circumstances, the Pope exercises this capacity in and for the whole Church.

   70. Catholics understand that he does this when, as teacher and pastor of all the faithful, he is to be understood as teaching that some particular matter of faith or morals is part of divine Revelation requiring the assent of believers. In this case reception of the doctrine by the assent of the faithful cannot be lacking.

   71. When the Pope teaches infallibly, infallibility is, properly speaking, not attributed to the Pope, nor to the teaching, but rather to this particular act of teaching. It means that he has been prevented by God from teaching error on matters relating to salvation. It does not mean that a particular teaching has been presented in the best possible way, nor does it mean that every time he teaches he does so infallibly.

   72. Methodists have problems with this Roman Catholic understanding of infallibility, especially as it seems to imply a discernment of truth which exceeds the capacity of sinful human beings. Methodists are accustomed to see the guidance of the Holy Spirit in more general ways: through reformers, prophetic figures, Church leaders and Methodist Conferences for example, as well as through general Councils. Methodist Conferences, exercising their teaching office, formulate doctrinal statements as they are needed, but do not ascribe to them guaranteed freedom from error. Nevertheless Methodists always accept what can clearly be shown to be in agreement with the Scriptures. The final judge of this agreement must be the assent of the whole People of God, and therefore Methodists, in considering the claims made for Councils and for the Pope, welcome the attention which Roman Catholic theologians are giving to the understanding of the reception of doctrine.

   73. Methodists have further difficulty with the idea that the Bishop of Rome can act in this process on behalf of the whole Church. We have not yet discussed together the content of the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary but from the Methodist point of view, whether they are true or not, they are not regarded as essential to the faith. It therefore seems to Methodists that these dogmas lack assent and reception by all Christian people. In any case, it can be expected that further study on the reception of doctrine will throw more light on the subject of infallibility.

   74. An approach towards convergence in thinking about infallibility may perhaps be reached by considering the Methodist doctrine of assurance. It is the typical Methodist teaching that believers can receive from the Holy Spirit an assurance of their redemption through the atoning death of Christ and can be guided by the Spirit who enables them to cry "Abba, Father" in the way of holiness to future glory.

   75. Starting from Wesley's claim that the evidence for what God has done and is doing for our salvation, as described above, can be "heightened to exclude all doubt", Methodists might ask whether the Church, like individuals, might by the working of the Holy Spirit receive as a gift from God in its living, teaching, preaching and mission, an assurance concerning its grasp of the fundamental doctrines of the faith such as to exclude all doubt, and whether the teaching ministry of the Church has a special and divinely guided part to play in this. In any case Catholics and Methodists are agreed on the need for an authoritative way of being sure, beyond doubt, concerning God's action insofar as it is crucial for our salvation.



  1. See E. SCHWARTZ (ed.), Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum, II/I, ii, 81 [277]; cf. Leo, Epistle 98 (Migne PL 54, 951).

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  2. For an explanation of this term. cf. Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, Authority II, no. 16.

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  3. See E. SCHWARTZ (ed.), Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum, I/I, iii, 60.

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  4. See E. SCHWARTZ (ed.), Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum, II/I, ii, 81 [277]; cf. Leo, Epistle 98 (Migne PL 54, 951).

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