Monday, November 9, 2009

What is Prostestantism, Anyway?

Last week my wife and I shared a meal with a few good friends and colleagues from New College. Our host, a Catholic priest, despite repeated insistence he was unaware the date, had the good ecumenical humour to invite us over on the day known to UK natives as Guy Fawkes Day - commemoration of the failed 1605 attempt of some Catholic conspirators to destroy London's House of Parliament. I figured a candlelight vigil but it didn't quite happen.

Instead we got something better: really good, Gospel-affirming conversation. Counting us our group included three couples: two Protestant and one recently 'received' Catholic (they deliberately refused the word 'conversion'.) We ran the gamut on topics of interest, not least of which the recent declaration from the Vatican on reception of Anglicans. Since all of us gladly accepted the adjective 'evangelical' for our own theological orientations, we had much common ground, indeed, I suspect we had very little central material about which we disagreed. That may of course be attributable to my current doctrinal meanderings within Protestantism, but oh well. What mattered I suppose was that I felt very much 'with' them in senses more profound than (important) social considerations: abortion, family, marriage, etc. In fact, I wonder whether others possess similar relationships (which are certainly something a novelty for me); or indeed if this is yet another instance of us academic theologians proving the conventional rule: that the theologian and pastor differ most profoundly in that the latter has to, and indeed does make decisions (which I grant is a sad and lamentable truism, in many respects.)

Anyway. I've always been attracted to what Stanley Hauerwas once said about Protestantism - that it is a 'protest movement within the church catholic' (hence what the word means), and that 'when it becomes an end in itself, we've given it up' (meaning, I suspect, we might as well talk of two kinds of Christianities, and therefore no Christianity.) I think this is probably right. That's not to say we all are destined to return to Rome some day (in the same breath Hauerwas says 'don't run off to Rome; there's no Rome to run to'!). But it is, I think, to situate Protestantism in the proper historical and indeed theological light. We've a lot of things to sort out still, I don't deny it; things which dig deep and no doubt include more than doctrinal formulations.

Yet I also wonder if, in the near future, we may be finding today's evangelical Protestants and 'evangelical Catholics' (what my Catholic friends call themselves; one of them looked at me and said, wryly, 'is there any other kind?'!) much more in need of each other than in previous centuries. None of my Catholic friends wish to dumb down the theology in order to get there; neither, I daresay, do we 'evangelicals'. Then again, I can't think of anything more important within the 'church catholic' than to hope and pray and root for reconciliation. Recent news about Anglicans and Catholics is an inspiring, if somewhat ambiguous start. The media just do not get it, and that just makes me smile. Maybe the intra-church protest is nearing its end after all? I really do hope.

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