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NZ Methodists and Catholics hunt for common ground

As it approaches a quarter of a century, the dialogue between the New Zealand Methodist and Roman Catholic churches looks set to reach a milestone: a joint mutual declaration on baptism.

Rev Terry Wall is the Methodist co-convenor of the Methodist-Catholic dialogue. He says it began in 1981 and is based on the recognition that the two churches share a partial though incomplete communion.

“Methodists and Catholics have many things in common, including a theology of grace that sees God reaching out in love to the human community. The central understandings of our faith are the same, we read the same scriptures, and we pray together. But we don’t have a common understanding on everything.

“While we recognise the two churches will not integrate anytime in the near future, we believe there is no going back from the search for the visible unity of the Church. The dialogue between us is a process of growing together in understanding and appreciation.”

The Methodist-Catholic dialogue is an on-going conversation that focuses on four areas 1) sacraments and ministry, 2) mission and evangelism, 3) spirituality and prayer, and 4) social justice issues.

Terry says there is a lack of hostility between Catholics and Methodists because there is no history of a direct split between the two churches. Catholics see the Methodists as an order of renewal, much like the Dominicans or Franciscans within their own tradition.

For Methodists, John Wesley’s famous Letter to a Catholic is inspiration for the dialogue between the two churches. John Wesley wrote the letter in a peaceful spirit and stressed that Methodists and Catholics should focus on the central things they have in common rather than the things that distinguish them.

“Pope John Paul II played a key role in fostering ecumenism and encouraged the Catholic Church’s commitment to better understand and appreciate other churches. His 1995 encyclical entitled Ut Unum Sint (or They May All Be One), is the strongest commitment the Catholic Church has made to date to engage with other churches.

“In it he writes that ministry of the Bishop of Rome, that is the papacy, can be a source of division rather than unity and he asked other churches to become involved in discussions over how the papacy can serve the unity of the wider church,” Terry says.

The Methodist-Catholic dialogue consists of six people from each church meeting twice a year, once in Auckland and once in Hamilton, for a day and a half. The dialogue produces few joint statements, and is rather an on-going conversation aimed at mutual understanding.

The most significant initiative to emerge from the dialogue in recent years is the joint mutual declaration on baptism. At present Catholics and Methodists accept each other’s baptisms but the mutual declaration goes beyond this to an understanding that both churches are doing the same thing when they conduct a sacrament of initiation.

At conference 2004 the Methodist Church approved the mutual declaration. Currently the Catholic bishops are considering it, and if they approve it a new level of appreciation between the two churches will have been reached.