Is Protestantism still a good idea? (Part 1)

My short answer is “yes.”

For a variety of reasons, personal and professional, I have followed with interest what I perceive to be a trend of adult Protestants who are “crossing the Tiber” (as they say) and confirming as Roman Catholics. (I refuse to say “converting” to Catholicism because in my view that implies that Catholicism is a different religion.) Here’s one recent article from the Christian Century on the trend.

Let me hasten to add the obvious: traffic between the two traditions flows in both directions—as the success of Alpharetta Methodist bears witness. We welcome a large number of new members from Catholicism. And we do so with little fuss or fanfare. We Methodists are a pretty laid-back bunch who don’t divide easily over doctrinal differences. Please note: we have plenty of doctrinal differences between and among us, but we don’t easily let them stand in the way of doing the work of Christ, which is far more important than the sign in front of the church building.

There are good reasons for this. From Wesley’s perspective, being merely orthodox—holding the “correct” beliefs or religious opinions—is irrelevant apart from a faith working itself out in love. Faith itself, according to Wesley, is the “great temporary means” that serves the eternal interest of love.

Being doctrinally laid-back—with our open hearts, open minds, and open doors and what-have-you—is, for better or worse, a part of our Methodist DNA. Methodism started about 150 years after the conflicts that gave rise to the Reformation—and a little while after Cromwell’s Puritan revolution was defeated in England. Unlike Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, and Anabaptists, Methodists weren’t defining themselves over against other Christian traditions. Wesley was happily a priest in the Church of England and remained so his entire life. (The Church of England honors him and brother Charles every year with a commemorative feast on Aldersgate Day, May 24.) Our Methodist Articles of Religion are adapted from the Church of England—with mostly the political stuff removed.

The point is that we Methodists didn’t begin our movement because we disagreed with anyone in particular about doctrine; we began because we wanted to live out historic Christian beliefs more faithfully.

With this in view, I was more than slightly irritated by former United Methodist pastor Allen Hunt’s high-profile departure from Methodism for Rome a couple of years ago.

I don’t know nor have I ever met Hunt, but I have heard his WSB radio show. It purports to be not about “left or right, but right and wrong.” (Spare me!) His show makes me want to puke for a couple of reasons. When it comes to talk radio, the medium is the message. There’s no way to escape the temptation, no matter how well-intentioned one might be, to be a shock jock—to be provocative—because that drives ratings and advertising dollars. He may imagine that his difference is that he’s being “pastoral” with his callers, but he mostly comes across like anyone else on the radio as far as I can hear. A kinder, gentler partisan blowhard.

Moreover, while he happily trades on his 25 years of pastoral ministry courtesy of the United Methodist Church—which gives him whatever authority he currently enjoys as “radio pastor”—he participated too eagerly for my taste in conservative Catholic apologists’ celebration at his departure from it—as this and many other triumphalist Catholic news articles  and blog posts attest. (Do a Google search.) If, as a matter of conscience you feel compelled to become Catholic, more power to you. But there’s more than a little “biting the hand that feeds you” going on here. It’s unseemly and ungracious.

Is he not aware that there are conservative forces at work within Catholicism (witness the EWTN television network) who feed on anti-Protestant propaganda? And of course that goes both ways too—but we’re Methodists, or formerly so! It hardly contributes to the ecumenical spirit for which Methodists are famous—and for which we have been in official dialogue with the Catholic Church since Vatican II.

The United Methodist Church, in other words—along with other Methodist bodies—will happily put itself out of business and join Rome if it can do so with Christian integrity. We’re not there yet. In the meantime, we believe we can most effectively love our Catholic brothers and sisters—indeed, all members of the “universal” Church—by remaining a distinct Christian communion.

I’ll say more about this later… Sorry that I barely got started on the topic in the title!

[Click here for Part 2 of this discussion.]

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