The Second Vatican Council: The Legacy Viewed through Methodist Eyes

By Wainwright, Geoffrey | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

The Second Vatican Council: The Legacy Viewed through Methodist Eyes


Wainwright, Geoffrey, Journal of Ecumenical Studies


From a Methodist viewpoint the most precise legacy from the Second Vatican Council resides in the bilateral dialogue to which the then-Secretariat for Christian Unity invited the World Methodist Council. The Roman invitation came in 1966, and the dialogue began in 1967. It is not my purpose here to offer a chronological account of the nine rounds of the dialogue and the regular reports coming from the Joint Commission for Dialogue between the World Methodist Council and the Roman Catholic Church. Rather, the main and formal part of my presentation will start from the ninth and most recent report, whose title and internal structure offer a way of approach to some of the chief themes and documents of Vatican II and the related developments that have occurred in the intervening years, both on the Catholic side and on the Methodist side, and sometimes together. The ninth report of the joint commission--informally known as "Durban 2011" (a nickname that I will explain later)--is titled Encountering Christ the Saviour: Church and Sacraments. (1)

I will, however, begin informally, even anecdotally, in order to recall memories from almost a half-century ago. In the academic year 1966-67, I was still a graduate student, and I was awarded a European Fellowship that allowed me--as a Briton-to continue my work at any place of my choice on "the Continent." Intrigued as a mere Protestant by what I had picked up, both formally and informally, about Vatican If, I chose Rome as the place to go, where there was still excitement about the council that had recently concluded. My place of registration--necessary in order to gain admission cards to libraries--was the Facolta Valdese di Teologia, the Waldensian Faculty of Theology. From there, warning signals went up early, since the Waldensians derived from Pietro Valdese, a "reformer" from the twelfth century; their small community had endured a long and bitter history with the Catholic Church, from which they had separated. I attended the lecture course of Professor Vittorio Subilia, in many ways a respected dogmatician, who nevertheless refused to be "fooled" by Vatican II. He wrote a book under the ironic title La nuova cattolicitd del cattolicesimo (The New Catholicity of Catholicism), which attempted to show that Rome was, in fact, simply up to its old tricks.

I spent most of my research time in the great libraries of the Biblicum and the Gregorianum; my main personal contacts came with Catholic students of around my own age whom I met there or in informal contexts. Those from mainly Catholic countries were interested to meet with a studious Protestant who was accompanied by his wife and infant daughter. I was squeezed into a group of Catholic students in order to attend a formal audience with Pope Paul VI; as we walked up toward him one by one, I bowed before the pontiff, although I did not kiss his ring. Several of the students invited me to their ordinations, and I was fortunate to attend a couple of them in the magnificent Sistine Chapel of the Vatican. This kind of informal, friendly relationship had been anticipated in 1963-64, while I was a graduate student at the University of Geneva; the initiative for contacts had been taken by some English Benedictines from the abbeys of Ampleforth in Yorkshire and Downside in the county of Somerset.

When I finally began my teaching career, I worked for six years at the recently founded Faculte de theologie protestante at Yaounde in Cameroon, which was intended to serve several Protestant churches along the French-speaking West coast of Africa. There we enjoyed cordial relations with the priory established by Benedictine monks from Engelberg, Switzerland.

Several of these friendships, begun in various places, persisted well after my return to Britain in 1973 and even into my time in the United States from 1979 onward. They all helped to mediate to me the event and the early achievements of Vatican II. Such friendly encounters extended as far as the one-on-one conversations graciously accorded me by Joseph Ratzinger while he was Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and we could talk--in theological German--about Methodism and its Catholic dialogue, as well as other matters. …

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