During the last 4 years it has been my privilege to co-chair the 7th round of the dialogue between the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the United Methodist Church. Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Washington was the Catholic co-chair. Up to ten scholars from both churches were selected by the co-chairs to conduct this dialogue. We met twice a year at St. Paul's College (home of the Paulists) at Catholic University of America in Washington, D. C.
The dialogue between Catholics and Methodists has been going on since 1965. There is an international dialogue between the World Methodist Council and the Vatican. There is also a national dialogue between the Catholic Church in the U.S. and the United Methodist Church. Generally, the international dialogue has focused on the major ecclesial differences between Methodists and Catholics. The national dialogues have focused on a variety of issues.
This time we chose to focus on a common concern from a shared theological perspective. Our focus was on the Eucharist and ecological responsibility.
Many churches throughout the world are addressing the need to develop a Christian perspective on stewardship of the natural world. Patriarch Bartholomew of the Greek Orthodox Church, known as the "green Patriarch," has been a leader in articulating an Eastern Christian perspective. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have been strong spokesmen for a new Christian practice of ecological stewardship. Many Protestant churches and evangelicals have made their contributions. As the chair of the Council of Bishops taskforce on God's Renewed Creation, I have had a special interest in this concern.
We believe that our dialogue has made a unique contribution to ecclesial statements on ecological stewardship because we have addressed how eucharistic worship shapes our understanding of our relationship to God's creation. There is much creative scholarly work being conducted by biblical scholars and theologians. We have come to realize that we have often misunderstood Scripture because we have read it through the lens of modern assumptions about humanity's relationship to the natural world. The new scholarship enables us to better recover the original biblical perspective that demonstrates our human responsibility to care for the earth and not exploit it. In our dialogue, we shared a conviction that our vision of the world is shaped most fundamentally by our worship of God. We need to do biblical and theological study, but they are a supplement to our primary experience of the worship of the living God. The distinctive form of Christian worship is the Eucharist or Holy Communion.
This dialogue proved to be challenging since sacramental theology and practices in our two churches differ. Yet we were able to find sufficient common ground in our traditions and official liturgies to develop a shared eucharistic perspective vis-a-vis its implications for humanity's relationship to God's creation.
We have published a paper, Heaven and Earth are Fuil of Your Glory: The Eucharist and Ecology. It is accessible at http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/dialogue-with-others/ecumenical/methodist/ and http://www.gccuic-umc.org/.
It is our hope that it will be used in seminaries and local church study groups. The paper demonstrates how the Eucharist is a cosmic liturgy in which the universe has a sacramental meaning, and how the main actions of the Eucharist enable us to experience the creation redeemed by Christ as God's gift to us which requires our faithful response of reverence, justice and stewardship.
Heaven and Earth are Full of Your Glory states, "When we celebrate the Eucharist we join with the rest of creation in acknowledging our dependence on the Father. Confessing our faith in God, singing praises to the maker of heaven and earth, elicits and requires a humble and reverential bow toward all that exists--including humans--as gifts from God. 'Our' Creation is not only humanity's but the whole world's. Our Creator is the triune God, who out of the superabundance of divine love in the communion of Father, Son, and Holy spirit, freely bestows being on that which is not God."
I encourage your to read Heaven and Earth are Full of Your Glory: The Eucharist and Ecology. Use it in a local church study group and as a basis of common study with members of your local Catholic parish.
We Methodists have a relationship with Catholics that is different from that of other Protestants. We never broke with the Catholic Church like others since we were an evangelical movement within the Anglican Church. Moreover, we share a similiar perspective on the doctrine of sanctification. We pray that Catholics and Methodists may grow in communion with each other and continue to move toward that unity for which our Lord prayed in the 17th chapter of the Gospel of John.