I have always been one of a breed of southern Irish Protestants who are unhappy with the word ‘Protestant’ as a description of our denominational affiliation. To me it was always a negative word which conjured up images of hardened anti-Roman Catholicism. It was I though more descriptive of those who on principle believed the very opposite of what the Roman Catholic Church taught; the kind of Protestants more typical of certain enclaves in Northern Ireland or indeed parts of rural Ireland where the wounds of Ne Temere were yet to heal.
I had always felt that my identity as an Anglican Christian was determined by who and what I believed in rather than that which I stood against. And in any case I didn’t and don’t find myself in conflict with the vast majority of my brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic Church – I didn’t see a need to protest about their faith (and I still don’t) in order to affirm mine. I believe that God is big enough to encompass our differences and diversities. Indeed I think that our very diversity can be a source of mutual enrichment and support. There are elements of Roman Catholicism which I really value, most especially its broader concept of the Sacraments which I think acknowledges very effectively the sacramental nature of the totality of our lives.
So to me this title of ‘Protestant’ or ‘Protester’ sat uncomfortably and lumped me in with people of other traditions and churches whose antagonism towards Roman Catholicism was and is a constant source of embarrassment. I cringed recently when the representatives of the First Minister of Northern Ireland refused to attend the funeral of Cardinal Daly the former head of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland and I feel genuine pain for a great many priests and religious who find 21st Century Ireland so hostile to their vocation that they are uncomfortable wearing their collars or habits in public. As a Protestant this is not something I want to be associated with.
On the contrary, like many in both our traditions I have long believed that ecumenism is not so much an option as an imperative. I believe it to be a scriptural norm and the thing that Jesus prayed for so earnestly.
I ask…that they may all be one. As you Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:21-21)
I don’t believe though that the unity Jesus envisaged was one of uniformity, but rather one that allowed Christians to be different and distinct and yet share unity in their participation in building the Kingdom of God on Earth. Again and again in his earthly ministry Jesus demonstrates an inclusive concept of God’s love and embrace which allowed men and women, Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, prostitutes and tax collectors to call themselves disciples – He could not have surrounded himself with a more diverse and in many cases disreputable body of followers but in him and through him in God they became a community of faith. Their Unity is based on their participation in the Divine unity not earthly rules which are to serve that unity for which Jesus prayed, not define it.
So in the light of the Gospel precedent, the differences between Roman Catholicism and my own Anglican tradition seem relatively minor, and such differences as there are, though at times painful, can be tolerated in an atmosphere of mutual love and respect which is typical of inter-church relationships in Ireland today. However something is happening at the highest levels of the Roman Catholic Church which threatens to set us back generations to a time when fear and suspicion characterised the relationships between our churches. It is something that is making me realise that perhaps there is a value in being a ‘protesting Protestant’.
The publication of Dominus Iesus at the turn of the millennium was the beginning of the Ecumenical winter which is blowing colder by the day. In that document (drafted by Pope Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger) Pope John Paul II declared that the Protestant churches were not churches in the proper sense but rather ‘ecclesial communities’. The then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, denounced it as unacceptable and he spoke for millions of Anglicans throughout the world who were gravely offended at this gratuitous insult. There has been no backtracking from this position however and Pope Benedict reaffirmed it emphatically in 2007 saying that:
"It is nevertheless difficult to see how the title of 'Church' could possibly be attributed to [Protestant communities], given that they do not accept the theological notion of the Church in the Catholic sense and that they lack elements considered essential to the Catholic Church."
Those of us committed to ecumenism in both our traditions are increasingly disheartened by this negative and pejorative language being used to belittle the Protestant churches in particular. It is hard to recognize the generous and inclusive expression of God’s love as modeled in the person of Jesus Christ in what has issued from the Vatican in recent years. But bad and all as the situation is, it just got worse, a whole lot worse.
The publication this week of the Vatican Canon law document, ‘NORMAE DE GRAVIORIBUS DELICTIS’ heaped further gratuitous insult on the Protestant churches when the offence of celebrating the Eucharist with members of ‘ecclesial communities’ (Protestants) was given an equivalence to “the taking or retaining for a sacrilegious purpose or the throwing away of the consecrated species.” In other words celebrating the Eucharist with Protestants is the same as chucking the consecrated host in the bin!
I protest! This cannot be defended as ‘ecumenical honesty’ or ‘speaking the truth in love’ – this is quite simply sectarian and hateful language and has no place in any document which claims Christian provenance.
But there is more – As if that were not enough, sharing equal status with the sacramental crime of celebrating the Eucharist with Protestants is the further sacramental crime of attempting to ordain women to the priesthood and the moral crime of Pedophilia! All of these are described as grave delicts.
I protest! I protest again, but this time not just for Protestants, but for all women who are told that their feelings of vocation are a sacramental crime and that those who would ordain them will like them be excommunicated.
I protest for the children whose horrendous suffering is put on a par with either a Eucharistic irregularity or a misguided sense of vocation.
I protest against the subversion of Love to the Law.
I protest against those who would seek to defend the indefensible.
I protest against those who would dress up prejudice in doctrine.
I protest against those who say that this is the will of God.
I protest against those who think that for God to Love them he must hate others.
I am a Protestant and I protest!
It has been pointed out to me from a number of sources that my hang up with the term 'Protestant' is actually unfounded in that its origins are entirely positive.
It was in 1529 at the Diet of Speyer that the word 'protestatio' was used for the first time and it was used positively and not negatively as signifying a positive witness to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and not in terms of anti- anything. This if anything makes me even more comfortable in my Protestant shoes.
I also had a letter on same subject printed in the IRISH TIMES today 20th July
Check out the following blogs who have refrenced this post: