A global gathering of Methodist churches is set to sign up to a groundbreaking agreement between Lutherans and Roman Catholics on the doctrine of justification, a key doctrinal question at the time of the 16th century Protestant Reformation.
"This was one of the issues that created the split that formed the Protestant church," said the Rev. George H. Freeman, general secretary of the World Methodist Council. He was speaking in advance of the World Methodist Conference that is to meet from 20-24 July in Seoul, where the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Rev. Samuel Kobia, a Methodist from Kenya, will be the guest speaker.
If approved by the Seoul meeting, the Methodist grouping will sign the declaration at a special service in the South Korean capital.
The Rev. Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Geneva-based Lutheran World Federation and Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, will attend the service, the Vatican announced on 17 July.
"Methodists have been in dialogue with the Roman Catholics for 40 years," said Freeman according to a report by the United Methodist News Service. Freeman was part of a WMC delegation that recently met Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. "We were first in line after Vatican II, where Catholics said they were more open to ecumenical activities."
Still, the Methodist Church in Brazil voted at its 10-16 July general council to withdraw from any organization in which the Catholic Church is represented, against the advice of its head, Bishop Adriel de Souza Maia, the ALC news service reported on 17 July.
The joint declaration on the doctrine of justification was signed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church in 1999. In the declaration, they stated that mutual condemnations pronounced at the time of the Reformation do not apply to the present-day teaching of the two communions.
Pope Benedict has called the agreement a "significant milestone" on the path to full unity.
"Methodists are certainly in agreement with the idea of justification by faith, and we ought to add our names to this declaration," said Freeman.
Methodism developed from the preaching of John Wesley (1703-1791), who was ordained an Anglican priest in 1728. Ten years later, he experienced a religious conversion while listening to a reading of Martin Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. This experience of salvation through faith in Christ alone was the burden of his message for the rest of his life.
A Vatican church unity official, the Rev. Donald Bolen, said recently a Methodist link would mean that any initiative moving forward as a result of the joint declaration could now also include the Methodists. He noted that the president of the World Methodist Council, Bishop Sunday Mbang, said during the council’s visit to the Vatican that he hoped a Methodist association with the joint declaration would help to heal the 16th century rupture in the Church.
Pope Benedict had said he was encouraged by this initiative, adding that "it would assist in contributing to the healing and reconciliation we ardently desire, and would be a significant step towards the stated goal of full visible unity in faith".
The World Methodist Conference represents 76 denominations with roots in the Methodist movement meets every five years. The last gathering was held in Brighton, England, in July 2001.
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