Written by Joe Waters
Sherry asked me to comment on her post "Whatever is truly Christian”
in light of my own experiences studying in a Protestant, though thoroughly ecumenical (at least five faculty members are Catholic), Divinity School. I think it would be easiest simply to offer my insights into what I have learned from Protestants at Duke
that I probably would not have learned or been exposed to in a Catholic setting.
As I was reflecting on what those lessons were, I was reminded that none of them are alien to the Catholic tradition or stand in opposition to it. In fact, they are all very “Catholic” and deserve our recognition and affirmation as such. Of course, Protestantism is a protest and my time at Duke has also reminded me of why I am Catholic and strengthened my Catholic identity. From its nativity, Protestantism has rejected the authority of the bishop of Rome to govern and guide the Universal Church and in so doing has lost a great deal of what is essential to Christian faith and the life of grace. But, with that caveat in mind, let me tell you a bit more about what I think is worth learning from our Protestant brothers and sisters.
My experience at Duke Divinity School, which was founded as and continues to be a Methodist institution, has been primarily with Methodists, conservative Episcopalians (mostly of the conservative Anglo-Catholic variety), and assorted others including AME, AME Zion, Nazarene, Lutherans, and Baptists (mostly Cooperative Baptists).
Methodists at Duke have a strong sense of their own distinctive heritage as spiritual children of John and Charles Wesley. And, believe it or not, John and Charles Wesley have much to teach all Christians, including Catholics and Orthodox, about what it means to live life in the Holy Spirit. These were two men who really knew Jesus and knew him well. Their “Holy Clubs” and group meetings provide a tremendous pattern for the formation of disciples committed to personal sanctification.
The Methodists I have encountered at Duke truly have a living, personal knowledge of Jesus that, unlike some other Protestants, spills over into a radical commitment to the care of the poor and marginalized (understood as an implication of Eucharistic communion) and to evangelization and discipleship formation. They talk openly about their relationship with Jesus and the relationship of their communities with Christ. The result of this is a lived, experiential understanding of the Church’s communio that is often lacking in the lived experience of most of American Catholics.
The Methodists that I know also have a praiseworthy commitment to racial reconciliation and are always willing to stretch out the hand of friendship and include those who are often marginalized in the mainline Protestant churches. Especially laudable is their ongoing deep commitment to rural communities and congregations.
Methodist commitment to discipleship formation is evidenced by their press (Abingdon, and its retail arm, Cokesbury), which provides some tremendous resources for parishes, including the wildly popular and effective Disciple bible study.
Methodists are often delightfully humorous people who don’t take themselves seriously or their denomination too seriously and are always open to good-natured, ecumenical ribbing. They live comfortably and cheerfully with one another even through significant theological disagreements (which admittedly, as a Catholic, I sometimes find a frustrating trait) and have an ironic sense of humor about Methodist culture, polity, politics, and idiosyncrasies.
On a final note, many Catholics may be surprised to find out that many of the best hymns that we sing at Mass are from the Methodist hymn tradition, many written by Charles Wesley himself. This demonstrates the great Methodist commitment to the formation of disciples by reaching the heart through stirring music and theologically rich texts. Some of the more famous ones are: “Come, thou long expected Jesus,” “Christ the Lord is risen today,” “Love Divine, all love’s excelling,” “Rejoice, the Lord is King,” “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” and, my personal favorite, “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” which is always the first hymn in every Methodist hymnal.
Perhaps, in a future post I will consider some of the other Protestant groups I know well and what lessons they bring for Catholics.