I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.
As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
-- John 17:20-21, NRSV
Ecumenical / Interfaith Headlines
Heaven and Earth Are Full of Your Glory
A United Methodist and Roman Catholic Statement on the Eucharist and Ecology
On May 9, 2008, Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker of the United Methodist Church and Bishop William S. Skylstad of the United States Conference of Bishops agreed on a mandate for the seventh round of the dialogue between their churches. They would assemble an equal number of scholars and theologians from both churches to discuss the precise topic, “The Eucharist and Stewardship of God’s Creation.” The stated goal was to produce a consensus document, the exact scope of which was left for the participants to determine. At subsequent meetings, the members decided to aim at a document that would raise up for our respective church memberships issues about the Eucharist and the environment for reflection, prayer and action. It also became clear in the course of the meetings that the sources of Catholic teaching about the Eucharist were not matched by similar sources for the United Methodist partners, and vice versa. For example, unlike Catholics, United Methodists give great theological weight to hymn texts sung at the Eucharist. All of our respective theological, magisterial and liturgical sources were mined and discussed in the course of the dialogue with great respect, profound learning and mutual enrichment on both sides.
As we present this agreed statement, we realize only too well its limitations. We aimed to frame the statement according to the historic liturgy of both churches. In doing so we respected the ancient axiom, lex orandi, lex credendi (“what the church prays is what the church believes”). At the same time we also fully realize that this statement does not reflect the breadth of what either church holds to be the total content of its Eucharistic belief or practice. Catholics and United Methodists will not find in this text all of their Churches’ pivotal theological understandings of what the Eucharist is and does. But in the end we judged that our mandate was more focused and precise. This agreed statement is modest, focused, grounded in what we can say together and what we could say to each other. Our task was to put these two rich traditions in dialogue and to discuss them in words and to pray about them together in the Liturgy of the Hours and the Eucharist (experiencing painfully the lack of full communion which prohibits intercommunion). No document can say everything, especially an ecumenical document of this sort. All such ecumenical documents are a work in progress about the topic(s) at hand and about the movement to grow together in faith and practice with the eventual goal that “all may be one.” We submit this text to the faithful of both our churches for their consideration in the hope that it will elicit prayerful and critical discussion not only about out differences but also about how much we share as Christians.
1. “Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” With this acclamation, Methodists and Catholics join the whole company of heaven in praising the God of all creation. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we offer thanks to the Father for the goodness of all the things that he has made, visible and invisible, we participate in the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (the Paschal Mystery), and we anticipate in the Holy Spirit the time when God renews heaven and earth (cf. Rev 21:1).
2. United Methodists and Roman Catholics in the United States have been engaged in formal ecumenical dialogue for almost forty years. Often these dialogues have focused on questions of dogmatic theology. The intra-ecclesial dialogue has been crucial in defining and extending the common ground between both communions. However, in this current round the topic is not a disputed doctrine as such but a common concern. “Our two communions are at an important crossroads. In the wake of the World Methodist Council’s adoption of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), we are being asked to consider how agreement on the doctrine of justification positions our dialogues to advance, with renewed vigor, along the path to full communion in the unity of Christ’s body, the Church. One way in which we can deepen our bonds of communion is to demonstrate how our churches can speak with a common voice about one of the great moral challenges of our age. The world is impatient with our disunity, and our remaining doctrinal divergences should not prevent us from speaking together and working together on behalf of God’s creation.” In this way, “we seek to move from justification to justice, from the solid ground of our common baptismal faith to a prophetic witness that shows our obedience to the divine Creator and our gratitude for the divine handiwork that finds apt expression in the celebration of the Eucharist.”
3. We believe that we can and should offer a joint prophetic witness on a significant challenge facing both our communions regarding the relation of humanity to the rest of the natural world. In Scripture, Jesus rejects the Pharisees’ appeal for signs from heaven. Jesus chastises the Pharisees for being able to interpret the appearance of the skies while being unable to interpret the signs of the times (cf. Mt 16:3). In our time, the appearance of the skies has become a sign of the times. The threat of climate destabilization, the destruction of the ozone layer, and the loss of bio-diversity point to a disordered relation between humankind, other living beings and the rest of earth. United Methodists and Roman Catholics have interpreted the signs of these times of ecological crisis as a summons to an ecumenical response.
The Eucharist as the Unity of Creation and Redemption
4. In the Eucharist we experience the unity of the mystery of divine salvation which encompasses creation, redemption, and consummation. The Eucharist has been variously interpreted and celebrated throughout the history of our communions. We have held different and sometimes opposing views of the sacrament. Nevertheless, we judge that this is a moment when we together ought to look at the relationship between the Eucharist and creation with the hope of discerning how to live on an imperiled planet in a manner consistent with our celebration of the Eucharist.
5. Framing our relationship with creation in light of our Eucharistic practice is a challenging but important task. While the Bible does not link ecology and Eucharist in an explicit manner, the connection is found in our shared historical tradition. Moreover, the theology that underlies our celebration of the Eucharist is integrally related to our ecological stewardship of God’s earth. The Eucharist does not take us out of the world. Rather, our celebration of the Eucharist touches the heart of what it means to live on this earth—as we yearn for a new heaven and a new earth, sharing in that future glory even now. The very way in which we celebrate the Eucharist—by using words, gestures, signs, and symbols, all taken from this good earth and from the way humans communicate—offers a fruitful avenue for exploring the theology of creation and redemption, as well as the way in which this sacrament shapes how we live the Christian life.
6. In spite of the ecumenical challenges, the integral relation between Eucharist and creation is not contrived, and may be discerned and developed from the body of existing ecclesial documents which treat each of these topics. Both traditions regard the Eucharist as “the fullest presentation of God's love in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Both traditions have made strong statements of commitment to environmental care and stewardship. The Catholic Church has developed a rich theological perspective on our responsibility for the environment, which is conveyed in the corpus of mid- to late-twentieth century papal and episcopal documents. Among these we point to John Paul II’s historic 1990 World Day of Peace Message and the U.S. Catholic bishops’ 1991 statement Renewing the Earth. The United Methodist Church has issued a number of statements on the importance of caring for the environment. The most authoritative of these is the statement on the natural world found in the Social Principles of the Book of Discipline. The most recent is the United Methodist Council of Bishops’ 2009 pastoral letter God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action. The common theme in both Methodist and Catholic statements on the environment is their call to what John Paul II termed an “ecological conversion.” We are called to listen to creation’s groaning (cf. Rom 8:22) and to respond in hope because of the promise of God’s reconciliation of all things in Christ (cf. 2 Cor 5:19).
7. Both traditions have internal resources to support the conjunction of Eucharist and stewardship of creation. The teaching of the church fathers brought these two themes together in rich ways which we do well to recover in our ecclesial communities. For instance, Ambrose of Milan links creation and Eucharist in his mystagogic teachings by making a connection between Christ's activity both in the creation of the cosmos and in the transformation of the bread and wine into his body and blood. Benedict XVI has called for a renewal in our understanding of the “indissoluble bond” between the doctrines of creation and redemption. On the Methodist side, there is a natural connection to be drawn from John Wesley’s theology of Eucharist and creation. The Eucharist is “the grand channel” of God’s grace to humankind. And humankind is called to be “channels of conveyance” of God’s blessings to the created world. A theology of Eucharist and creation in a Wesleyan spirit would be one that connects these channels of blessings.
Creation as the Mystery of Our Origin Encountered
8. For the Eucharist to inform our approach to the human relation to the rest of nature, we need a theological recovery of the doctrine of creation. In our encounter with the natural world, we encounter as well the mystery of our origin, the fundamental relation of all creation to a Creator-God. The term “Eucharist” comes from the Greek word that means “to give thanks.” When we celebrate the Eucharist we give thanks for the very gift of existence. Creation is God’s first gift. Creation is the first sign of God’s glory and God’s love. For humans, the world is not simply a stage for human action; our relation to the world, to creation, is constitutive of our very identity as persons. In the Eucharist, we encounter the fullness of Christian revelation, the reality of existence as gift, for the gift of redemption includes the prior gift of creaturely existence. In the Paschal Mystery we remember the relation of all creation to its Creator, the origins of all life in the God Who is Love. The gift of existence precedes even our need for the gift of forgiveness and new life granted through Christ’s sacrifice, the event most clearly remembered and represented in the Eucharist.
9. Our encounter with the mystery of our origins, of the origin of all creation in God, invites us to a recognition and continued awareness of the sacramentality of the world. “The principle of sacramentality means that things matter and that matter is not just a thing. Things in the world reveal God with us.” “This means that that the world, humans, and all creatures great and small, are signs of God among us.” A vision of the sacramentality of the world engenders the contemplation of God’s glory in God’s creation. The world becomes the theatre of God’s glory, where “all the trees of the forest sing for joy” at the coming of the Lord (Ps 96:12).
10. In conversations between Roman Catholics and Methodists, the principle of sacramentality has begun to emerge as an important area for exploration and discussion. As the Seoul Report states: “Methodists believe, as Catholics do, that we truly cooperate with God’s grace and participate in God’s life. God works through the visible community of the Church and through individuals in it, both pastors and laypeople. There are foundations here for a serious shared exploration of the idea of sacramentality.” Christ’s presence in the church is the foundation for a sacramental vision of the church. Likewise, Christ’s presence in creation is the foundation for a sacramental vision of the cosmos. It is Christ who shows us fully what it means to live in the constant awareness of the gift of existence, to realize that we have received all that we are from the Father.
11. Gratitude toward God for the gift of creation opens the way for a renewed understanding and appropriation of the work of redemption, and of the unity of God’s work of creation and redemption. We believe in one God, who both creates and redeems. The affirmation of this unity is indispensable for a right understanding of the Eucharist and for human care of the environment. Many dimensions of the environmental crisis can be traced to forgetfulness of this basic fact, articulated by the psalmist so many centuries ago: “Know that the LORD is God! It is he that made us and we are his” (Ps 100:3). When creation is taken for granted, its original relation to God the Creator forgotten, such forgetfulness easily leads to a distorted understanding of the vocation to subdue the earth in the creation account in Genesis. For as John Paul II and Benedict XVI remind us, human dominion “is not an absolute power,” but rather, “a summons to responsibility” which must be ordered by a humble awareness of our dependence on God’s generosity and mercy.
12. At stake in this fundamental posture of gratitude is the fullness of the Christian reception of Christ’s redemption. When Christian formation in the doctrine of creation is inadequate, when creation as “the first and universal witness to God’s all-powerful love” is taken for granted or forgotten by the faithful, this leads to a “diminished” sense of the salvific work of Christ. Also diminished is our awareness of the fullness of our identity as persons, for the truth of the human can only be comprehended within the creaturely relations which constitute the wholeness of all creation.
13. Furthermore, a theology—and a sacramental practice—in which this stance of gratitude and wonder before the gift of creation has been lost lacks credibility. There is a transcendental depth in creation which people have sensed throughout the course of human history, and which so often finds preeminent expression through poets, artists, philosophers, and the manifold richness of the world’s religions. The integrity of the universal experience of awe and wonder before the mystery of existence is too often overlooked by Christians who themselves have lost this aspect of their own existential and theological heritage. The Christian experience of creation as gift, conveyed and encountered anew in the Eucharist, should yield a still deeper Christian witness to wonder, for nature itself is seen anew as a sacramental encounter with the triune God. Nature is, to Christian eyes, a mystagogy, an instruction in holy mysteries, a leading into the beauty of the Creator.
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