Sunday, 1 September 2013

A Catholic heart and a "Protestant" mind ...

Note:  This post consciously follows two earlier posts in my blog.

One was posted in April of this year, and is on the topic of how the Protestant Reformation has reached its "use-by date" as an historical movement, and why those of us in churches who have our heritage in the Reformation need to be looking toward developing a "post-Protestant" future for our churches in terms of our theology, worship, and spirituality.

Another post was from March of this year, and concerns the reasons why I normally put the word "Protestant" in quotation marks, particularly when I speak of the classically mainstream "Protestant" churches today.


When I think of the Christian church today when it is at its ecumenical best, I sometimes refer to it as a church with a Catholic heart and a "Protestant" mind. 

For those of you within the Anglican Communion, this idea of a Catholic heart and a "Protestant" mind may not be far from your perception of your own style of Christian faith at present.  However, I see this idea as relevant not only to Anglicans, but to all of us.

Some important dimensions of "a Catholic heart" include these:
  • Sacramental worship: - Worship needs to be more than mere "teaching".  It definitely needs to be more than mere "entertainment".  People who participate in public worship do so because they want to encounter the Sacred, not learn some information about religion.  People who find that they do not encounter the Sacred in worship tend to stop making the effort to attend worship.  Sacramental worship encourages this sense of an encounter between God and the worshipper in a way that is much more than a cerebral exercise in receiving information about religion.
  • A sense of history:  In some churches, "tradition" has become a dirty word, and everything we do in our church life needs to be an exercise in reinventing the wheel.  A big part of a church having "a Catholic heart" is rediscovering its sense of being part of something that historically is bigger than ourselves, so that an increased sense of being part of a great Tradition has the effect of liberating us from the tyranny of the immediate, of the perceived need to perpetually "reinvent the wheel" in our faith and spirituality.
  • Ministry to all, not just the "religious":   The Christian Church is not only in ministry with its active, committed members, with those who show up at worship most weeks, with those who make a generous contribution in the offering plate.  For a church to have "a Catholic heart" means that we affirm that those who only show up to what we're doing just a few times a year (or even just a few times a lifetime) are also valued members of the community of faith.
  • The worshipping congregations is a microcosm of humanity:  For a church to have "a Catholic heart" means that the people who gather together for worship are an inclusive gathering.  Given the local area, it's as much as microcosm of the human race as is possible in the particular area.  It tries hard not to be an exclusive group of just "our sort of people", whether this exclusivity is in terms of ethnicity, class, bank balance, educational levels, or any other sort of divisive factor.
As well, here are some of the important aspects of "a 'Protestant' mind":
  • The absolute primacy of grace:  The first dimension of "a 'Protestant' mind" is a strong affirmation of God's grace.  At its best, the Reformation was about rediscovering God's grace as the most important fact regarding our relationship with God.  It's about God's initiative, not ours ... and it's for everybody.  In this context, I like to speak of "radical grace".  This grace is far more important in our relationship with God than either religious busy-work or getting our theology right.
  • An engagement with the biblical text:  The next key aspect of "a 'Protestant' mind" is an engagement with the scriptures.  It's not about taking the Bible literally; it's about taking the Bible seriously.  While the Scriptures are not the only source for our thought and reflection as Christians, they are a crucial reminder of our beginnings in faith.  It's important that we are aware of their content.
  • A respect for critical scholarship:  Another aspect of "a 'Protestant' mind" is a respect for critical scholarship.  It's no accident that the Reformation began in the universities of Europe, as scholars engaged in robust debate about the nature of Christian faith.  The vocation of the scholar should never be despised by the church.
  • The realisation that Truth is complex:  The search for deeper truth should never be limited to professional academics, however.  The playwright Oscar Wilde made a profound theological statement when he wrote (in The Importance of Being Earnest):  "The truth is never pure and rarely simple."  Sometimes, when we hear a simple answer to an important question, the simple answer is profoundly misleading.  Truth is complex, including theological truth.  The implication here is that diversity in our theological and ethical reflection is a healthy thing as it respects the profound complexity of God's truth.
Regardless of the tradition of Christian faith to which we relate, I believe this combination of a Catholic heart and a "Protestant" mind is something to which all Christians can (and should) aspire, both as worshipping congregations and as individuals.

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