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October 18, 2005

Protestants Just Being Protestants
by Jon M. Sweeney

It is the nature of Protestants to protest. In fact, that’s where the word Protestant comes from. We challenge, dissent, and insist on reform and return to a model of faith and doctrine that nonetheless has changed over time.

Three weeks ago today (Sept. 27), five Episcopal priests and members of six Episcopal churches filed a federal lawsuit against their bishop in a Hartford, Connecticut, court. They allege that Bishop Andrew D. Smith and others in the denomination have violated their civil and property rights through an abuse of power. The 67-page suit claims that the bishop overstepped his lawful bounds when he began stripping priests of their jobs in response to their refusing to recognize his authority and the role of others in denominational headquarters who disagree with the priests on certain moral issues.

Now, if this sounds somewhat like the original American colonists rebelling against King George III, it’s no accident. They were Protestants, too. We have always gotten geared up for this sort of thing.

Today’s Episcopalians were proudly calling themselves members of The Church of England 250 years ago. And 250 years before that, they were proudly aligning themselves with the Pope in Rome. Fractures mark the history of Protestantism.

Similar movements of dissent are happening in other traditionally “mainline” denominations. Almost without exception, the protesters look back to a time in their history when belief was more constant and change less common, and they argue that something has gone wrong to make things different today. It is no coincidence that all of these denominations began ordaining women sometime in the last thirty years. That step almost broke the back of Evangelicals (who are found in every Protestant denomination) within their ranks, and now, gays in ministry has become their last straw. The “Connecticut Six,” as the dissenting Episcopal priests have taken to calling themselves, first refused the bishop’s authority after he voted two years ago to confirm the consecration of Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the Church’s first openly gay bishop.

Websites—the new vehicle of dissent

Episcopalians can easily tune into the most vociferous voices of dissent in their ranks by visiting VirtueOnline, which describes itself as “the Anglican Communion's largest Biblically Orthodox Online News Service. Challenging, controversial, never dull, VirtueOnline exists to keep its readers informed about the worldwide Anglican Communion and to preach the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (virtueonline.org)

Similarly, upset United Methodists have the virtual magazine Good News, describing itself as “a voice for repentance, an agent for reform, and a catalyst for renewal within the United Methodist Church.” (www.goodnewsmag.org)

Lutherans (ELCA) have The Evangelical Lutheran Confessing Fellowship site, which believes that “traditional Christian churches have seen an unprecedented erosion of the commonly held beliefs of the one true Faith in Jesus Christ. Increasingly, lines continue to be drawn between those upholding the historic Confession of Faith, and those who would rewrite this Confession.” (elcf.net)

For Presbyterians (PCUSA), The Layman Online has fueled dissent in the pews. The site is owned by the Presbyterian Lay Committee, also publishers of the equally contentious Presbyterian Layman newspaper. (layman.org)

And finally, the United Church of Christ has UCC Truths for those who agree that “over the last few decades, the national offices of the United Church of Christ have shifted away from the needs of the local church and have set on a course of dishonest political activism that few in the local church are aware of and, often unknowingly, contribute to.” (ucctruths.com)

All of these websites are a fascinating, 21st century symptom of the traditional Protestant identity. Those outside of Protestantism might wonder why the disgruntled don’t just simply de-camp and move elsewhere. Certainly, there are plenty of denominational options out there? Disappointed United Methodists could simply become new Presbyterians. Unhappy ELCA Lutherans, new Missouri-Synod Lutherans. And so on. But sometimes it doesn’t happen that way. To go and start a new church is a very Protestant thing to do, but so is staying and fighting.

Before leaving for more comfortable confines, realigning themselves with a church that professes a more ancient “confession” or “orthodoxy,” these Christians must first protest, arguing and fighting for the faith of their fathers and mothers. Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli—the heroes of Protestantism—argued along similar lines five hundred years ago. The precedents for an evolving Protestant landscape are there, and, in perspective, the time necessary for change is short. Even so, the shifts and splits in churches and denominations is a disturbing and unpleasant process for many.

© 2005 Jon M. Sweeney.

—Jon M. Sweeney is a writer and editor living in Vermont. His new book is .

More by Jon Sweeney.

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