Just Being Protestants
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
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
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
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
© 2005 Jon M. Sweeney.
—Jon M. Sweeney
is a writer and editor living in Vermont.
His new book is .
His new book is a memoir, BORN AGAIN AND
AGAIN: SURPRISING GIFTS OF A FUNDAMENTALIST CHILDHOOD.
by Jon Sweeney.