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The failure of Protestantism

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 7 December 2007


Let me propose an outrageous suggestion. The 16th century Reformers of the church had good cause to protest against a church that was drunk on power and greed and which had largely reduced the faith to economics and political manipulation. While they did not mean to create a parallel church called Protestant this was how history panned out for reasons too numerous to mention here. The church in the West has since been fragmented into many denominations which has weakened its voice in the world and which is a falling away from Jesus’ promise “that you may be one”.

After 480 years or so the Protestant experiment has run out of steam and its reason for being has largely evaporated due to the reform of the Roman church. There is now a large consensus among professional theologians both Protestant and Catholic about the centre of the faith and this consensus is growing.

The question is: why do Protestants remain separated after most of the reasons for their separation have disappeared?

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I was stimulated to write this article after reading a sermon by Stanley Hauerwas (yes, him again!) on Reformation Sunday. He admits that he does not like this fixture on the Protestant calendar because it tends to celebrate a dark event in the history of the Church, the schism in which we stand today.

While Protestants celebrate the things gained in the Reformation, often things that the Roman Church has also now caught up with, there is little mention of the things we have lost. The first is obvious, it is the unity promised by the Lord. Hauerwas expands:

I often point out that at least Catholics have the magisterial office of the Bishop of Rome to remind them that disunity is a sin. You should not overlook the significance that in several important documents of late, John Paul II has confessed the Catholic sin for the Reformation. Where are the Protestants capable of doing likewise? We Protestants feel no sin for the disunity of the Reformation. We would not know how to confess our sin for the continuing disunity of the Reformation. We would not know how to do that because we have no experience of unity.

Once the break with Rome had occurred the Protestant church found itself prey to the philosophical movements of modernity initiated by the philosophies of Descartes, Hobbes and Locke that undermined all received authority and produced the man who was his own orthodoxy.

This was the final blow to the unity of the Church because it gave philosophical warrant to the individual who was now expected to “make up his own mind”. While the Roman Church can be seen to hold out against this aspect of modernity, Protestants embraced it. Being Church no longer meant belonging to an alternative community but believing in the right things, as long as they were rational, in private.

John Henry Newman recognised that the problem with Anglicanism was rationalism. That is, faith was tried at the court of a particular kind of rationalism associated with natural science. Theology had always been rational on its own terms otherwise it could not have been any sort of discourse. Rationality has as many different forms as there are human activities, the danger is that one kind of rationality is prioritised over all others, the positivist rationality of empiricism.

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From the point of view of positivist rationality the Roman church looks irrational, superstitious and backward. The fact that the Roman church holds together a vast range of Christians from South American peasants to sophisticated European and American believers, from the Irish to the Italian, from Franciscan to Dominican makes it difficult for us to image what it is like to be a Catholic. The Protestant imagination has an investment in imagining the worst if only to justify being apart.

If we believe that the Reformation, or rather the schism that it produced, was a tragedy for the church that continues in our time, then we must have very good reasons to remain Protestant. We are now far from Elizabethan England in which the Roman Church was a threat to political order and the smell of the burnings initiated by Queen Mary was still in our nostrils.

Both Protestant and Roman Churches have come a long way, particularly after Vatican II for the Roman. Many of the Protestant prejudices against Rome are no longer valid. One of the greatest fears Protestants have of the Roman Church is that it insists on interfering with our private lives, particularly in what happens in our beds. We Protestants have long since decided that what we do in private is our own business and no business of the Church. This is the attitude that left these Churches speechless in the face of the sexual revolution whose bitter fruits we now taste.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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