Methodists/Leaving the Catholic Church

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Question
Hi Rev. Neal,

I greatly enjoy reading your excellent responses on All Experts and I am hoping you can help me with an issue I am currently dealing with. Please note that I am planning on asking more than one other expert about this issue as well, but I would like to get a cross-denominational view of this.

I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, but I was never very involved in the Church and only recently (about three years ago) actually became a true Christian.

After an exhaustive study of Christianity, I have found that the denominations that are closest to what the apostles and Christ taught are Lutherans, the United Methodists, and the Catholic Church/Orthodox Christians. Among this group, I have found that Lutherans and Methodists are closer than the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Church.

However, to be quite frank, I am deathly afraid of leaving the Catholic Church because, although I believe strongly in the conclusions I have reached (which oppose papal authority, papal infallibility, and other issues as well), I know that there is ALWAYS a chance I am wrong. If I am wrong, the Catholic Church has made it clear that I am going to hell, or at least that I will be at a very great risk of going to hell.

Because of this, I feel incredibly uncomfortable following my heart and conscience and leaving the Church.

As a person who obviously does NOT fear this, is there any advice you can give me about this issue? Aren't you worried that there may be a small chance you are wrong and the Roman Catholic Church is right? I don't want to put my soul, and the souls of my family members, at great risk by following my own fallible conscience But, at the same time, I feel very unhappy in the Catholic Church (as well as feeling spiritually deprived) and know that my beliefs make me, technically, a heretic there.

Any advice you may have for me about this would be greatly appreciated.

Have a wonderful Holy Week and Easter!

Most Sincerely,
Justin

Answer
Dear Justin,

I read your question with great interest but set it aside during Holy Week and the aftermath of Easter Sunday in order to give it the consideration which it is due.  Allow me to respond in a couple of ways, if I may, and I hope what I have to say will be helpful.

Firstly, I'm not sure I view the "church" the same way you do.  I don't believe that God judges us based upon our membership within a specific church group.  Salvation is both a communal experience and an individual way of life.  It is communal in that we are called to not forsake the fellowship of the faithful; we are called to partake of the Means of Grace and be nourished by the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist; we are called to join together to show forth the love of God for a broken and hurting world.  We are called to do all of these things, and more, in community.  However, my understanding of ecclesiology is that any community of the faith which encourages the above and which holds to the authority of the scriptures and the Apostolic Creeds (the Apostles' and Nicene creeds, specifically) is sufficient.  I don't believe that God has only only church, or a small group of churches, that He accepts.  I believe that any community that expresses the apostolic faith and enables its members to live their lives in faith, depending upon God's grace, is part of the Body of Christ.

Hence, being a member of the RCC, the EOC, any of the Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, or Methodist communions provides sufficient grounding for one's life of faith.  I don't fear that I've made a wrong choice because choosing any of them would be "right."  I view all the major historic denominations -- Roman, Easter, or Protestant Catholic -- as being exemplars of the Body of Christ.  I could easily be part of the Roman Catholic Church; my issues with Rome are more along the line of social matters than doctrinal issues.  Yes, Papal Infallibility would be problematic for me, but the basic idea of the authority of the Bishop-Patriarch of Rome isn't really a problem.  Transubstantiation isn't so much of an issue for me because I understand it as the Roman Catholic way of speaking about Real Presence; I accept Real Presence, but as a United Methodist I simply affirm that His real presence is a Holy Mystery.

In the end, Justin, my suspicion is that you might be more at home in the Anglican Communion -- the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of America, or one of the other Anglican churches.  They tend to preserve the Catholic ethos without the issues of Papal infallibility.

If you would like me to amplify on any of the above, or address another issue, please feel free to write again.

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Rev. Gregory S. Neal

Expertise

I can answer questions dealing with all issues of United Methodist Doctrine and Wesleyan-Arminian Theology. In particular I can answer questions dealing with the Sacraments and other liturgical and worship-oriented questions. I can also answer questions dealing with the form, structure, and organization of the United Methodist Church and our relationship with other denominations.

Experience

I am an ordained United Methodist Elder with more than 20 years of ministerial service experience in the local Church.

Organizations
I am a Clergy Member in Full Connection and have been a member of the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church since 1991. I am a member of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion. I am also a member of the Emmaus Community, and am currently serving as Senior Spiritual Director for the Dallas Emmaus Community. I am a member of the Order of Saint Luke in the United Methodist Church.

Publications
I have my own website: www.RevNeal.org.   I have written two books, "Grace Upon Grace" and "Seeking the Shepherd's Arms," both available at Amazon.com and in bookstores.

Education/Credentials
I have a BA in Religious Studies, History and Russian. I have an M.Div in Systematic Theology and Biblical Studies and a Ph.D in Sacramental Theology and New Testament.

Awards and Honors
Ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church
Fellow of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist

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