The PushmepullyouEvangelicals and Catholics Together?

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the relationship between Catholics and Protestants. The Pope has recently announced a new provision for Anglicans who want to join the Roman church, and in addition to that there has been some tension between other Protestants who appear to be moving in a Rome-ward direction and those who don’t think that’s a good idea.

For more details on the new papal provision, check out http://www.thinkinganglicans.org.uk/archives/004054.html, but the Pope’s provision really does not affect the average Episcopalian. It’s aimed at clergy who may be ready to convert to Catholicism, and especially bishops. For some years now it has been possible for Anglican clergy to convert to Rome and serve as priests, even if they are married; there are said to be over a hundred such clergy in the Roman Catholic Church in the US. What’s different about the new provision is what it offers bishops who convert. In the past they have had to serve simply as priests, as did the former Bishop of London, Graham Leonard, but the new provision allows them to be something a bit closer to a bishop—not a bishop, but an ‘ordinary’, someone who exercises a kind of episcopal authority over other priests and who participates in their ordination. So far, I’ve heard of no Anglican bishop who has expressed a desire to do this, but it may happen at some point, and it has certainly caused some excitement on Anglican blogs.

The other Protestants who have been moving closer to Rome are in the higher levels of the college ministry, Inter-Varsity Fellowship, according to some Washington DC members who have broken away to form a rival group. The story is in the latest edition of Christianity Today, online at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/november/10.19.html. The chapter of Inter-Varsity at GWU had apparently encouraged students to go to mass in a Catholic Church while on a mission trip, and national leaders had reworded some of the organisation’s doctrinal statements so as to move them closer to Roman doctrine. Christianity Today has published on its web-site Inter-Varsity’s response to the story, however (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/octoberweb-only/143-41.0.html), so all the facts may not be in yet.

Whatever the truth in that case, an interest in the possibility of some convergence between Catholics and Protestants has been seen in many quarters in recent years. I suspect that this interest is the result of developments in many Protestant churches, like TEC, which have led to the acceptance of abortion or active homosexuals in ministry or allowing clergy to ‘bless’ homosexual relationships. Some of those who have failed to prevent their denomination adopting such policies have apparently been tempted to move closer towards the Roman church because it appears to have no inclination towards such policies.

Many Evangelicals in PECUSA that I’ve spoken to are attracted by this movement, and I would think that anyone would agree that if you believe what the Roman Catholic Church teaches, you should be a member of it. Christ’s prayer for the visible unity of His church in John 17 should compel us to do that if we possibly can. The Roman Church is the dominant church in most places, and we need to have a good reason for not being a member of it. Growing up Episcopalian is not a good reason. If you believe what the Roman Catholic Church teaches, you should be a member of it.

My problem is that I see no reason to believe the things any church teaches that aren’t found in Scripture, and there’s even more of those in the RC Church than there are in TEC. Things like the infallibility of the Pope, or the immaculate conception and bodily assumption of the Virgin Mary. Unless the Romans are thinking of abandoning those doctrines, there would be no point in me moving closer to them, because once they found out I couldn’t accept those things they wouldn’t accept me as a member.

If Protestants find themselves in agreement with Roman doctrine, then of course they should join with them, but if they are just looking for a powerful ally, and are ignoring the real differences between Protestants and Catholics, they are wasting their time—no matter how much we may agree with the Romans on sexual morality, if we can’t accept their other doctrines, we can never be united with them. They simply won’t accept us.

I must confess I find something not quite edifying in the sight of Protestants suddenly deciding that the Catholics are not so bad after all, just because we agree with them on a few contemporary issues. It smacks of worldly wisdom, of political strategy, instead of the ‘honest statement of the truth’ that Scripture calls all Christians to make. If Protestants are serious about re-union of the separated churches, let’s start by re-uniting with each other. After all, the biggest differences between Protestants were never about serious doctrinal or moral matters, but about church government. There would surely be better chances of success in ironing out those differences than differences with Catholics about the Pope or Mary. After practising on these issues for a while, perhaps we will be ready to tackle the really big differences between Catholics and Protestants, which have not gone away.

Philip Wainwright

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