Friday, 16 July 2010

Becoming Protestant - The story of a reluctant convert

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:
Enlightened Catholic
Nihil Obstat


Martin said...

Joining with you in protest, Stephen...

Martin (Browne)

Stephen Neill said...

Martin - Thank you as always for your generous response - I hope and pray that you and your ilk will prevail. As well as anger I also feel profound sadness as I know do you and your community.

CTD said...

Bravo! A wonderful post.

Oh those pesky protesting protestants, whom at every service I've ever been at, will always invite non-protestants to share the sacrament..

Being a humanist and ex-Catholic (soon to be an official ex-catholic) I watch and un-apologetically gloat as the catholic church implodes..

Stephen Neill said...

CTD - Thanks for your very kind words - I can't share in the gloating bit however - For me the implosion of the majority Christian denomination on this island is not a cause for rejoicing though I am not familiar obviously with your own experiences which are obviously very negative. I still believe that it is possible to reverse this cycle of self-destruction otherwise I wouldn't have posted as I did - I protest against those who distort Roman Catholicism but not Roman Catholicism per se. Again thanks for comment and I wish you well in your own journey

RosieBH said...

You have said everything I felt, even before I realised I actually felt it. I'll be joining you in the protest also (officially ex RC and officially Anglican now.)My heart aches for all those children (including my poor little great Aunt Esther, a victim of the Good Shepherd convent in Cork)I find it hard to believe that any genuine follower of Jesus would protect a person who had harmed a child.

Jakian Thomist said...

Let me join you in your words of protest against those who
"would seek to defend the indefensible.. would dress up prejudice in doctrine... and who think that for God to Love them he must hate others."

But I must also protest against any use of exaggeration or willful distortion which suggests that Roman Catholic teaching implies or justifies any of the above.

Perhaps the manner of our protest determines whether we become saints or schismatics?

Grandmère Mimi said...

When I first began to read your post, Stephen, I thought, "But...but...but there was much to protest!" I protested 14 years ago and made my way out of the RCC. I join you in your protests here and now.

However, I don't wish for the implosion of the Roman Catholic Church, because I know too many good people in the church who go about the business doing the Lord's work, despite the words and actions of certain of their leaders.

The words of the latest Vatican document are injurious and offensive. I protest!

Lord, have mercy.

Stephen Neill said...

Jakian - thank you for your comment - for the record neither do I protest Ronan Catholic teaching - I protest the distortion of it as evidenced in recent Vatican statement

RosieBH - Thank you and Amen

Mimi - thank you as always for wise comment

Stephen Neill said...

A colleague sent me this on the etymology of the word Protestant - Very helpful I reckon:

I still prefer to give the word "Protestant" a positive meaning based on the root "pro-testare" - to witness on behalf of

Póló said...

I don't share your religious beliefs, nor those of the RCC, but I do share your sense of outrage at these despicable encyclicals/bulls/letters.

Sniping within the Christian community has been a cause of scandal for a long time. It is unjustifiable. Little divides the the mainstream communities and what does is largely irrelevant.

I hope you have nailed your final paragraph to the door of the relevant cathedral (Vatican papers please copy).

Who are the heretics now? Discuss!

Rath ar an obair.

Póló said...

Censor Librorum has done a very good post ingeniously linking the latest chapter in Vatican dementia with the longstanding toleration and current fumigation of the Legionaries of Christ.

The juxtaposition of these two items provides a very good starting point for consideration of what all this is about.

Stephen Neill said...

Póló - thanks for the link - great blog - I posted there this afternoon

Póló said...

Just looking at your item "Random books from my library" reminded me of Bishop Robinson's book "Honest to God". While written in a populist style it was a very deep insight. I used to read it during RCC mass, along with "The Shaking of the Foundations" by Paul Tillich. Formative stuff.

John Barry said...

Please do not take offence at the following. It is not meant to be offensive.
(1)The 39 Articles of the Church of England contain the following:
"the sacrifices of masses, in which it was commonly said that the priest offered Christ for the living and dead so as to gain remission of pain or guilt, were blasphemous fables and dangerous deceits".
This is most insulting to Roman Catholics. Why is this not removed?

(2)Also in relation to the Eucharist the Roman Catholic position is that at the Consecration the host is changed into the body and blood of Christ in its entirety (Transubstantiation). After the Consecration the host IS the body and blood of Christ.

Now most Anglicans do not accept this. Is it not true that many of them believe in consubstantiation?
So there are major differences on the Eucharist.
Do you Stephen believe in consubstantiation?

Finally I enjoy reading your blog even if I do not always agree with your opinions.

One of the comments posted by CTD spoke of the implosion of the Catholic Church. With all due respect to the poster this is an exaggeration.
There is increasing lay involvement which is no bad thing.
The Church will recover. The laity is determined to maintain the treasure that is the Catholic faith. I already see evidence of it in many parishes.

To CTD all I can say is that secular humanism is a barren philosophy. It is the philosophy of despair.

Póló said...

@John Barry

I don't think all of this was in Paddy's articles.

As a former RC, I don't see how the questioning of transubstantiation, particularly in modern times, can be seen as insulting to RCs.

Regarding recovery, I would have to distinguish more than you do between the church and the faith.

Have you ever considered secular humanism as a philosophy of realism and hope. Or do you just mean the militant variety (as in militant atheism).

Stephen Neill said...

John - On 39 Articles - fully agreed but as you will see from the link below I have taken stand on same:

Re Consubstantiation I really don't know - I do believe in 'Real Presence' but don't necesssarily include/exclude physical reality - I am content to live with mystery/ambiguity - By very definition God is beyond my full comprehension

I do fear/regret prospect of implosion of RC Church and I agree with you re sterility of secular humanism

Thanks for your kind and challlenging commments


Stephen Neill said...

On reflection I take Póló's point on board re secular humanism v militant secularism - my remarks are more properly addressed towards the latter.

Póló said...

Thanks Paddy. My remarks were meant to be restrained and constructive.

Grandmère Mimi said...

John Barry, although The 39 Articles are present in The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church in the US, I see them as a historical document. No one is asked to assent to The Articles to become a proper Episcopalian. Perhaps, the prayer book would be the better for having The Articles removed.

To believe in the true and holy presence of Christ's Body and Blood in the Eucharist seems sufficient to me. To attempt to tease out whether the presence consists in consubstantiation or transubstantiation seems an unnecessary distraction from the mystery of Christ's Real Presence.

Póló said...


Quite. Though I don't share your faith I do see all this disputation on the nature of he eucharist as a scandal within the Christian fold.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Póló, thank you. I take your words as a high compliment.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that you have fallen into the trap of not reading a legal document in the way that it should be read. The document in question relating to grave crimes was a general document making amendments to many parts of the Canon Law, an "omnibus bill" as it were. It does not mean that the Vatican is necessarily equating the offences contained therein.

In any event, there are many secular laws that appear to have disproportionate punishments when compared side by side with seemingly more serious crimes that might carry a less serious sentence.

Nevertheless, making the pretended ordination of women a grave crime subject to automatic excommunication is proper if you subscribe to the teaching of the Catholic Faith. Any person purporting to do so is putting the souls of any one who may be ministered to by that woman in peril as, the Catholic Church teaches, she would not be in Orders.

Also, it has always been crystal clear that RC priests and laity may not engage with Sacraments celebrated in other Christian communities as they are not in Communion with them and do not regard them as being able to validly celebrate the same. This is no change in teaching whatsoever. Indeed, it would be put them in bad standing with their own Church and would thus prevent them from receiving Communion in the Church of England if the Canon was followed correctly.

Anonymous said...

Some of your protests are I can almost agree with. Though a son of The Church I know it is not perfect, and indeed never will be, or there would be no need of Church.
However, where did you get the idea that childrens suffering is put on a par with various "irregularities"?
This is indeed how the media portayed this document though it was not what it said, if people had taken the trouble to read it.
It was extremely foolish of the Vatican press office to "lump things together" so to speak, but most of the time they are not at the races.
However Rev Neill, please do us the honour of making your protests legitimate ones, and not just soundbites from the media.

Anonymous said...

There are a lot misconceptions about Catholic canonical practice.

An excommunication is not an expulsion. It is not a penalty in the punitive sense. A Catholic who is excommunicated is no less a Catholic than a Catholic in good canonical standing, and is still obliged, like any other Catholic, to assist at Mass on Sunday and Holy Days of Obligation. An excommunication is just a censure that impedes a Catholic from receiving the sacraments (except in danger of death).

Excommunication is an explicitly therapeutic penalty. By depriving the Catholic from the benefits of ecclesiastical society it is intended to encourage him to repent. Its medicinal nature means it is totally inappropriate for dealing with child abusers.