Catholics and United Methodists Together: Reflecting on Dialogue, Spiritual Communion, and Walking Together in Love

March 31st, 2021

The following post is a reflection on the most recent round of United Methodist-Catholic dialogue which published a two-part resource entitled Catholics and United Methodists Together in February of this year. You can find it online here.

Over the last four and a half years, I have had the privilege of serving as one of the Ecumenical Staff Officers for the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church. When I started in this role, one of my first responsibilities was organizing a meeting of the official dialogue between The UMC and the Catholic Church (in the United States). When I took on the responsibilities associated with this position, I knew I would be staffing the UMC's official dialogues, including our Catholic dialogue. What I did not fully understand at the time was the depth and richness of the personal growth, theological insight, and spiritual communion I would experience over the ensuing years as I have journeyed alongside this dialogue committee.

I share this not simply as a retrospective word of appreciation to my friends and colleagues on the dialogue committee. I share this because I found in this ecumenical exchange the treasures of Christian community and mutual witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ opened to me in new and profound ways. I want everyone in our churches to know the possibilities for growth and spiritual connection available to us when we step outside our denominational bubbles and risk the sometimes awkward, sometimes challenging sharing of life and faith with Christians from other traditions.

Indeed, this sincere desire to share the fruits of ecumenical exchange with our churches animated the whole spirit of this eighth round of dialogue between United Methodists and Catholics. The committee members were committed to shaping our dialogue meetings around "spiritual ecumenism," spending time sharing one another's prayer, contemplation, and worship traditions. The committee was also committed to creating something that celebrated the more than 50 years of dialogue between our churches while encouraging clergy and laity in our churches to receive the gifts we have gleaned over these many years of exchange.

Yet, how does one take the gifts of flesh and blood, face to face, heart to heart relationships shared among a handful of committee members over the years and translate them into a report, or resource, or text that might adequately express the mystery of spiritual communion we have experienced? This parallels the familiar challenge faced by any theological undertaking. How does one bear adequate witness in written and spoken word to an encounter with the Word made flesh?

This challenge requires the humble recognition that no text in itself can ever adequately substitute for direct encounter. Yet, it also inspires the hope that our words and work might somehow foster new opportunities for direct, personal encounter and faith sharing among our fellow Christians. In this hope, the dialogue committee crafted and published a two-part work entitled Catholics and United Methodists Together.

The first document, Catholics and United Methodists Together: We Believe, We Pray, We Act, is a pastoral teaching document celebrating the ways United Methodists and Catholics have learned to claim together a shared core of Christian teaching. It should be noted, and noted well, that this seemingly simple statement is somewhat remarkable in historical terms. For centuries protestant and Catholic relations were characterized by polemics and suspicion. In turning toward one another through 50 years of formal dialogue, Catholics and United Methodists can now say together, "Bound together by our baptismal unity in Christ, there is more that unites us than divides us" (We Believe, We Pray, We Act, §9).

Taking our mutual recognition of one another's baptisms as the essential bond of unity between United Methodists and Catholics, the dialogue committee developed this teaching document around elements of the Christian faith historically associated with preparation for baptism, namely the Apostles' Creed (We Believe) and The Lord's Prayer (We Pray). A third text historically utilized in baptismal preparation, the Ten Commandments, receives a kind of parallel treatment in this text in its consideration of the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor (We Act). Drawing upon a wide range of mutual affirmations from previous rounds of national and international dialogue, as well as unique Methodist and Catholic sources that share a deep resonance, this document makes plain the substantial core of Christian teaching that United Methodists and Catholics can claim together with one voice.

The second document, Catholics and United Methodists Together: Shared Prayers and Resources, challenges Catholics and United Methodists to dare to be together in prayer, worship, and dialogue. It describes this round of discussion's practical goals and notes the pressing need to provide resources for blended families that include United Methodists and Catholics. The document's main feature is outlining the many traditions, prayer practices, and celebrations that United Methodists and Catholics already share in common, as well as others that we could share with openness and authenticity. The text also provides model templates of prayer services and worship occasions that can be shared in ecumenical settings.

By placing together in a direct and relatively comprehensive way many of the basic and concrete elements of Christian prayer and practice that Methodists and Catholics can share, the document has the striking effect of rendering plain the ongoing scandal of division that still plagues our churches. This is precisely the point. While obvious institutional and theological challenges continue to stand in the way of complete visible unity between our churches, this text clarifies that there are ample resources for our people and communities to resist the historical inertia of remaining separated from one another.

There is more than just a superficial degree of unity being expressed here. What the members of our dialogue committee hoped to show in this last round of dialogue was the substantial core of Christian faith and practice that we do share. Within our two traditions, we have shared resources of prayer, belief, teaching, and practice that allow us to genuinely recognize one another as brothers and sisters in the faith. We are together joint partakers in the mystery of Christ's body. The pain of our separation from one another at Christ's communion table reminds us all too well that the communion we share is still incomplete. And yet, the well of authentic spiritual communion for United Methodists and Catholics is real, full, and deep, if only we would come to the waters and drink.

About the Author

Kyle R. Tau

Kyle Tau is the Ecumenical Staff Officer for Faith and Order and Theological Development of the Council of Bishops. He read more…
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