The word that caught my attention was “wound.” It was June 29, and I was listening to a radio report of Pope Benedict XVI’s statement from the Vatican to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church.”
There is no new teaching in this statement. However, the edict generated great interest because of its reiteration of the Catholic doctrine that there is only one true church, and it’s not United Methodism.
According to the document, “Christ ‘established here on earth’ only one Church and instituted it as a ‘visible and spiritual community,’ that from its beginning and throughout the centuries has always existed and will always exist, and in which alone are found all the elements that Christ himself instituted. ‘This one Church of Christ, which we confess in the Creed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic […]. This Church, constituted and organised in this world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him’”.
The document does acknowledge that there are “churches” and “communities” other than the Catholic Church. Even though Eastern Orthodox churches are separated from the Catholic Church because they do not recognize the primacy of the pope, they are still considered “churches” because they have apostolic succession. Protestant churches, however, are only called “communities” because they do not recognize the pope, nor do they have apostolic succession.
At the same time, the edict says, “It follows that these separated churches and Communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation. In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church.”
The Catholic Church recognizes that there are “elements of sanctification and truth” in other churches and communities despite their defects. It was the word “defect” that was translated as “wound” in the radio report I heard. In a formal response to the Pope’s edict, our United Methodist Council of Bishops wrote this, “In their view, we are not ‘churches’ in the full sense, because we lack from their viewpoint the mark of oneness and sacramental priesthood and the fullness of the Eucharist. We understand ourselves, by God’s grace, to share in the fullness of the Church through faithful ministry and mission, and the Table of the Lord. That is a difference we can continue to explore. Someday we pray that this difference will be overcome.”
I, for one, am grateful. The cat is now out of the bag. The United Methodist Church has defects. But they are different than Pope Benedict XVI’s idea of defects.
- Defect #1 We claim to believe John Wesley’s words, “If your heart is right as my heart is right with God, then give me your hand.” However, we act as if we cannot be united as a denomination if we disagree. We even imply that some of our United Methodist brothers and sisters are not “instruments of salvation” because they don’t vote the way we vote. Sometimes we believe ours is the only acceptable position within the church. But salvation is based on solely on grace and faith in Jesus. If the Roman Catholic Church believes that we are instruments of salvation, then shouldn’t we as well?
- Defect #2 We believe that we can easily define the one true church, just as the Pope has. The result is that we waste valuable time debating who is and is not eligible to be a member of the United Methodist Church. Most Roman Catholics and Protestants go about the business of loving each other and working with each other to make disciples for the transformation of the world while their leaders stand around and debate theological positions. So why can’t United Methodists engage in the same business of loving each other?
- Defect #3 We say we are a connectional church, but we act like independent churches much of the time. Ministry shares are often seen as a nuisance and to be paid only after all the other bills are taken care of. We’d rather cooperate with other Protestant churches and even with the Catholic Church than with our sister United Methodist Churches, whom we often view as competitors. We are not always there for each other as churches and as pastors.
- Defect #4 We neglect the mystery of our faith and don’t give the Holy Spirit the freedom to blow where it wills. The work of the Holy Spirit is to knit us into the body of Christ and build spiritual community instead of divide us. Will you defer to the living, powerful, sustaining, welcoming and inclusive Spirit of God?
Yes, we have defects, but God is still using the United Methodist Church as well as the Roman Catholic Church to proclaim the grace of Jesus Christ and transform people, structures and systems in our world. Pope Benedict XVI remains committed to ecumenical dialogue, and for that I am grateful. I only hope that as United Methodists, we are also committed to dialogue, especially among ourselves.
P.S. I am on vacation for the next 2 weeks, so the next Leading from the Heart will be sent out on August 20.
P.P.S. If you are interested, I have attached a copy of Pope Benedict XVI’s “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church” as well as the official response of the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church.