Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Gravity of Denominations

I’ve been inspired to read more Catholic fiction, a desire that began with Chesterton, moved to Graham Greene, and has now moved to Evelyn Waugh. The book that was suggested to me, other than his most famous work “Brideshead Revisited”, is a biography he wrote on St. Edmund Campion, a Jesuit priest martyred in England during some of their most tumultuous years in transitioning from Catholicism to the Anglican Church as the state religion.

I suggest to anyone who is interested in either systematic theology or church history to devote a significant portion of their study on the Reformation with all its interesting elements and nuances that ripple far through the centuries and meet us in the our congregations every Sunday. Personally, I’ve been more interested in the early church period rather than the thousand years later that changed the West permanently, but the more I’m alive and study theology the more I see its value.

After reaching the halfway point in Waugh’s account of Campion’s life, I find myself perplexed at what occurred within Christianity four hundred years ago. The massacre of other world religions during the Crusades seems somewhat understandable, but when I read about Christians killing other Christians something inside me is unsettled. It’s the difference between fighting between families and fighting within families. The latter seems far graver. Religious freedom in our time is usually a conversation about Christianity among other world religions. This is not to say there is tension between denominations, but Islam and the West is undoubtedly a bigger question in the mind of our culture.

Imagine this: the United States makes the necessary changes to the constitution to abolish freedom of religion and institutes, let’s say the Southern Baptist Church, as the national religion in which all citizens are required to attend worship every Sunday under penalty of fines on the first offense, incarceration on the second, and death for the third. All other forms of worship are forbidden by the state. Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Muslims, scientologists, etc. are all forbidden to have their weekly, monthly- whatever they want to do- services.

Take that scenario, which is very similar to what happened in England in the 16th century, particularly toward Catholicism, and combine it with a popular view of Christianity and denominations in the US. What view is that? Ever heard someone say, “Most Christian denominations believe virtually the same thing. We’re all brothers/sisters in Christ”? I heard an ordained elder in the UMC say he could be a minister in any Christian denomination except Catholicism only because they require celibacy for priests (the elder was married). This is the general attitude.

In this scenario, especially if you’re not Southern Baptist, would you “see all denominations as the same”? Of course, you’d have to sign on to a set of beliefs about God, Scripture, etc. to be a part of the national church, which all congregations would confess every Sunday. In this case, the doctrines of once saved always saved, the inerrancy of Scripture, believer’s baptism, and all the other trademark stances the Southern Baptist church takes would be included in the confession.

St. Edmund Campion and Rome saw it as imperative that missionaries be sent to England to reevangelize the country and support those who are loyal to the Catholic Church in England. As a result, Campion and hundreds of others were hanged, drawn, and quartered for their loyalty to Catholicism.

What’s implied- the text between the lines that seem painfully glaring out from the page- is that Campion saw the Catholic Church as the one true church and the Anglican Church as a heretical sect. Why? Why not? When a person says they believe something, why not really mean it?

It’s easy to criticize these people as fanatical, intolerant, radicals compared to our “enlightened” religion of the 21st century, but what value lies beneath this chapter in the church’s history?

Does it seem insane? If there was a persecution to this degree of your denomination would you feel compelled to stand up for it and put your life on the butcher block simply to confess what you believe, or would you take the “all denominations are basically the same” approach and confess beliefs contrary to your own?


Stresspenguin said...

It seems like you're dealing with two issues here:

1. Christians killing other Christians because of differing beliefs.

2. Christians being killed by other Christians because of differing beliefs.

My curiosity lies in why do Christians find it necessary to kill other Christians over differences in beliefs. Say that one kills heretics to protect those of the one true church (whoever that is) from erroneous teaching that would lead to their damnation. At what point does the one true church forfeit its claim to being the one true church by reducing the exposure of its members to heresy (a thus protecting them from sin), by the means of killing those who think differently (which by New Testament standards is pretty indisputably a sin)?

Many folks who have been canonized as Saints have been martyred. How many Saints are canonized who have made martyrs (in the broad sense) of others?

Will Edmonson said...

Ah yes. The one true church. A big issue. I think before the conversation over WHO the one true church is happens, there needs to be an agreement that it's even possible. I'd say the "wheat and tares" talk about who is really the city of God and who are in fact unrepentant heathens that are in church for social mobility or whatever is a different discussion. Personally, I have no qualms with a denomination thinking they have the best grasp on who God is etc.

After finishing the biography on Campion it was clear that their execution was both political and religious. They were charged for treason, which they claimed were completely innocent of, but four hundred years ago in England and elsewhere, there wasn't this clear divide between church and state, even if Campion and the other men executed along with him repeatedly said they were being put on trial for religious reasons. The prosecutors, after torturing Campion and the other priests until they couldn't lift their hand to take an oath, said the pope was working with the priests and Spain to invade England and they were a part of the conspiracy. This wasn't true, but gathering enough false witnesses can go far in many judicial arenas. This close tie between denomination and government has a lot to do with it.

Please understand this book was written by Evelyn Waugh who was Catholic and British, which means he was speaking to the history of his people and the church there. He also is favorable toward the Catholic Church so much so that he puts it in terms of the Anglicans being heretics persecuting the one true church.

You United Methodists are heretics, and we Catholics are heretics according to the United Methodists. At least, until the Articles and Confessions are revised.

The good news about all this is that the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church are, from what I can see, on better terms right now that they ever have been. Benedict's recent open hand to all the Anglicans that want to cross the Tiber to get away from the conflict within the church is massive in light of what happened four hundred years ago.