Michael E. Putney, Bishop of Townsville in Australia, who has died of cancer aged 67, was an outstanding ecumenical friend of the World Methodist Council, and between 1997 and 2013 Catholic co-chair of the dialogue between the Council and the Roman Catholic Church.
Michael Putney was born on 20 June 1946 in Gladstone, on the north-eastern coast of Queensland, and entered Pius XII Seminary at the age of 16, where he acquired a lasting spiritual commitment to ecumenism, influenced by the exciting progress of the Second Vatican Council. As a young seminary student, he won first prize in an oratory competition, having chosen to speak about the life and work of Paul Couturier, an early pioneer of the modern ecumenical movement. He was ordained priest on 28 June 1969.
Interspersed with doctoral studies in Rome, Louvain and Geneva, Michael Putney served for many years as a seminary teacher, before being appointed first Auxiliary Bishop in Brisbane in 1995, then Bishop of Townsville in 2001. His commitment to ecumenism meant he was always ready to work and pray with Christians of all traditions – from Pentecostal pastors to Eastern Orthodox Archimandrites – in Australia and beyond. For four years, he served as President of the National Council of Churches in Australia, and was for many years a leading figure in the Vatican’s ecumenical agency, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, which in 1997 appointed him to serve as co-chair of the joint commission for dialogue with the World Methodist Council.
Bishop Michael had a particular love for the people called Methodist and their Wesleyan heritage, including the hymns of Charles Wesley (‘Love divine, all loves excelling’ was sung at his funeral). When the international dialogue commission met in Krakow, Poland, in 2004, he was delighted to learn from the local Methodist community that Pope John Paul II, when Bishop of Krakow, had been friendly with the Methodist pastor in the city and had very publically visited him in hospital.
As co-chair of the international Methodist-Roman Catholic dialogue commission for 16 years, Bishop Michael presided with grace, charm and pastoral sensitivity, forging a particularly close and effective working relationship with his Methodist co-chair throughout this period, Prof. Geoffrey Wainwright. Bishop Michael brought to the dialogue an acute theological mind, shrewd analytical skills that were rigorously applied to ensure the commission’s reports were clear and accurate, and a personal devotion to John and Charles Wesley, whom he counted among the great saints of the Church. The dialogue meeting in York in 2003 included a visit to the Old Rectory at Epworth, in the three hundredth anniversary year of the birth of John Wesley. For Bishop Michael, this pilgrimage to the birthplace of the Wesley brothers was a highlight of his long ecumenical journey.
In December 2012, Bishop Michael was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Experiencing the peace and serenity of his deep Christian faith, he placed himself entirely in God’s hands, resolved to serve God by witnessing to the power of the Resurrection for however long he had still to live. In the event, he was to enjoy what he called a ‘miracle year’, in which he was able to draw together many of the threads of a varied and distinguished ministry. Manifestly filled with the grace and joy that made him such a beautiful person to know and a father in God to many of his ecumenical colleagues, as well as to the people of his diocese, he exemplified the Christian faith so neatly expressed in the final stanza of the Wesley’s birthday hymn, ‘Away with our fears!’:
My remnant of days
I spend in his praise,
Who died the whole world to redeem:
Be they many or few,
My days are his due,
And they all are devoted to him.
Characteristically, he continued faithfully to exercise his episcopal and priestly ministry until his death, though he was obliged to withdraw from ecumenism internationally and nationally, being unable to travel the distances involved. It is a measure of his personal stature and significant contribution to religious and civic life that in 2013 he was awarded the Order of Australia, the highest honour that Australians can bestow upon a fellow citizen. Bishop Michael Putney died on 28 March 2014, a week after the launch of his book, My Ecumenical Journey, which contains a fascinating collection of his essays on theological topics.
The universal Church on earth has lost a tireless worker for visible Christian unity, a fine theologian, ecumenical colleague and pastor; but having joined ‘those to glory gone’ he is now among ‘our friends above’ (Charles Wesley). Some words of St Paul to Timothy can appropriately be said of Bishop Michael Putney: ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith’ (2 Timothy 4.7). May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercies of Christ, rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.