Tuesday, February 18, 2014

How I (fail to) understand Protestantism

I must confess that I have come to Continuing Anglicanism rather late. Having spent my life prior in the Church of England, one of the big problems that worried me about the Continuing Anglican Churches was its fragmentation. To my mind (especially during my more Ultramontane season) fragmentation is very much the hallmark of Protestantism which I have always been seeking to avoid. I have always sought the unity of the Church which produced the phrase “I believe one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” within its Creed. The phrase “we are the One True Church” is clearly designed to strike fear into anyone who is not part of that “One True Church”.

I suppose I must ask myself, “what is this Protestantism that I seek to avoid?” After all, there are so many definitions and nuances that are associated with the word that clarification is somewhat necessary if I am to make any head or tail of things and thus communicate with other Christians. If I say, “I am not a Protestant” then I do want to be able to mean what I say.

As I say, the hallmark of Protestantism seems to be fragmentation. My basis for this observation is first and foremost the Reformation where the word became more prevalent following the protests against the Diet of Speyer. The first Protestant movements were clearly Calvinism, Lutheranism, Anabaptism (among others) as each group tried to work out its faith away from the authority of Rome.

Yet we have fragmentation in the 11th Century as the Roman Church separates from the Eastern Church which is why the Eastern Church regards the Roman Church and her fragments as being just as “Protestant”, so we have to be very careful in what we mean. The Eastern Church herself seems to consist of groups that revel in autocephaly than perhaps is good. Fragmentation is clearly not the sole province of the Protestant, nor is it often carefully considered. It is not really true to say that “Protestant” means “not Roman Catholic” since the Eastern Church regards both Roman and “former Roman” (for want of a better phrase) equally Protestant. Does “Protestant” mean “outside the One True Church”? Given that the Eastern and Roman Churches both claim the title, one is rather bound to think so. Yet this does not seem to tally with the idea that “whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans x.13). The trouble is that we cannot know absolutely the salvation of others, nor do we know absolutely our own salvation. One has to have faith in the mercy of God for that to work. If “Protestant” means “outside the One True Church” then it must also mean “heretic,” “apostate” or “non-Christian”. That is manifestly against what all the Protestant Reformers were trying to do.

So why do I object to being called “Protestant”. First of all, when the word is levelled at me it’s usually meant pejoratively, in the sense of “not being a proper Christian” or “not being a proper catholic”. Being Catholic is important to me because it is one of the marks of the Church and I desperately want to belong to the Church. However, “Protestant” has overtones of not being “proper”. I also really do not want people to see me like another Ian Paisley whose views I simply cannot accept as being charitable. Clearly “Protestant” is a big brush with which to paint someone.

I hope that it’s fair to say that the marks of the Protestant seem to be rather more a via negativa. I base this on the observation that the Protestant, in genuinely seeking to strip away from the faith all kinds of medieval accretions which have built up since East and West split, has also stripped away that which has been affirmed from the first Seven Councils – this often includes the notion of Conciliar authority as well. I do agree wholeheartedly with the rejection of many medieval ideas, namely Limbo, the selling of indulgences, purgatory as a place of punishment, a hierarchy with more political power and monarchy than the gentle love of souls for starters.

However, I do accept the Seven Oecumenical Councils and the Vincentian Canon as the defining principle of what it means to be Catholic. However, that is my principle and a principle that comes from accepting the authority of the “Undivided Church” but that doesn’t mean that I’m necessarily very good at following it! I am after all responsible for my study and I am kept in line by my brother priests and my Bishop of course, but also my brothers and sisters in the laity who always raise good but searching questions. The Lord says that it is my duty to serve them all, so serve them I must.

One may say then that I am using my private judgement to pick and choose my faith as so many do these days. The fact of the matter is that we are all making a private judgement in our Christian profession. We, each of us, work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. It means that we accept a principle of authority and we stick to it. For Roman Catholics, the principle is the Magisterium of the Church which includes accepting the Pope as Infallible. For some Protestants, the principle is sola scriptura and thus further fragmentation follows here when one application of sola sciptura diverts from another. For me and for my Church, the principles of authority are found in Scripture, the Creeds, the Church Fathers and the Oecumenical Councils, which puts us more in line with the Orthodox Church.

Further, the rejection of the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Mass is again something that marks out a Protestant. The Church Fathers and the Councils do teach it definitively, but the Roman Catholics rely too heavily on a particular philosophy (namely that of Transubstantiation), likewise the Lutherans (Consubstantiation), and others deny it outright. I, myself, accept transubstantiation as it makes sense to me (in the loosest possible sense of the word “sense”), but I don’t insist upon it primarily because while I hold to a largely scholastic philosophy, Our Lord’s Holy Presence with us goes beyond any form of philosophy or philosophical enquiry. However, I manifestly do not reject the Real Presence at all and find the whole argument of “Our Lord’s body is in Heaven so He can’t be present in the Sacrament” a bit of a category mistake to say the least. This attitude, of course, contradicts the famous black rubric putting me firmly outside the Eucharistic theology of the 1552 Book of Common Prayer and its subsequent editions.

So what do I make of Protestants if I don’t count myself as one of them? Are they heretical? Should I shun them? The trouble with a personal faith is that it is indeed personal. As I’ve said above, there is no absolute knowledge save that absolute knowledge exists. Like Elizabeth I, I do not have windows into men’s souls, nor do I wish it. We are all on pilgrimage and we all walk to the destination which we believe most strongly is the true Way. However, in the darkness of our existence some of us walk in groups, some of us walk alone, others change groups and all seem to be calling the others that they’ve found the Way.

  I believe strongly that I have found the right way, but then I believe that the Church is bigger than just the motley crew with which I find myself walking.  If a Protestant denies the sacraments, then the Sacraments I have will do him no good. The Way the Truth and the Life does shine in the enlightened and humble mind, a mind that is filled with faith, hope and love. I simply cannot reject anyone Protestant or non-Protestant if they are seeking the Truth. Protestants or non-Protestants who are not seeking the Truth in their hearts have already ejected themselves from the Church. For these, my prayers go out most earnestly.


Gerhard Venter said...

A Calvinist by birth, I share your sadness about the excessive fragmentation in the Church (and I include all denominations, also Catholicism). The fact that all of us recite the Apostles' Creed is always like a ray of hope. Would you say the Creed brings us all closer together than, say, Shi'ites and Sunnis?

Warwickensis said...

Hello Gerhard! Hope life is treating you a little better since last you posted!

You ask a very interesting question. There will always be Christians who say that one is not a Christian unless... insert particular dogma here... If someone says that they are a Christian then I tend to believe them no matter what they then go on to do, though they may cause me to doubt -sometimes seriously!

The Creeds are always a good place to start. They give us a sense of what we can affirm and where we can start any dialogue. What the Church has to be careful of is making pronouncements of Anathema. Mutual demonisation and excommunication is not the way to express the Love of God. I am not a Calvinist, but I do not doubt the sincerity and desire of any Calvinist for God and seeing that search begin in the Early Church. There is an integrity, one that I cannot share, but one that I can appreciate and hope that, though we walk apart, we walk together.

Absolutes exist, but it is not altogether clear whether the human mind can grasp them. Creeds can start that process as long as they are seen as instruments of unity rather than as passages for division.

Some Christians behave like Sunni and Shi'ite. We can do nothing about that for they will not listen. However, the more listening we do and the more we attempt to love as God has bidden us,then the more we will be unified.