Pope Francis and the Evangelicals

Pope Francis in fellowship with Evangelical Pastor James Robinson

Pope Francis in fellowship with Evangelical Pastor James Robinson

Sandro Magister reports here on Pope Francis’ outreach to Evangelical Christians.

Francis clearly understands that there are real points of contact with Evangelical Christians and Catholics and what interests me in his ecumenical outreach is how he builds relationships with individuals who are not necessarily “big players” in the Protestant world.

He has diplomatic meetings and the obligatory photocalls with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the leaders of other mainstream Protestant denominations, but he usually looks glum when he is doing so. On the other hand, the pope seems to have very warm and friendly relations with Protestants who are “outside the box”. The late Bishop Tony Palmer is a case in point. While he claimed to be an Anglican bishop Palmer was far from mainstream Anglican. Married to a Catholic woman, Palmer was part of the “convergence church” movement which in practice seeks to hold together the Charismatic, Evangelical and Catholic streams of Christianity.

The good thing about the convergence movement is that it is vital, enthusiastic and energetic. Furthermore, these Christians are engaged in the kind of grassroots, down to earth, bare bones form of Christianity that also motivates and energizes Pope Francis. I think Francis understands that mainstream Protestants with their progressive agenda and modernist theology and terminal decline have little to offer for the future of world Christianity. He sees instead the vital, simple lifestyles of the best of the Evangelicals and thinks the Catholics could learn from them.

Beneath this is the clash between relative and revealed Christianity. To put it simply, for all their faults, misunderstandings about Catholicism, skewed “prosperity gospel” teachings and denial of elements of Catholic teaching, the Evangelicals believe the old, old story about a sinful humanity for whom God sent his only Son to redeem through his sacrificial death and mighty resurrection. They believe in the Virgin Birth, the bodily resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit to save, heal and sanctify. The mainstream Protestants, on the other hand, with whom ecumenical discussions have traditionally taken place, are increasingly overcome by radical modernist, reductionist theology, the feminist/homosexualist agenda and secular relativism.

In many ways a good Catholic has more in common with a charismatic Evangelical than he does with a modernist Catholic. Because of this ecumenism is an exciting adventure. C.S.Lewis put it this way when asked about church re-union, “It seems to me that the ‘extreme’ elements in every Church are nearest one another, and the liberal people in each Body could never be united at all. The world of dogmatic Christianity is a place in which thousands of people of quite different types keep on saying the same thing, and the world of ‘broad minded’ or ‘watered down Christianity is a world where a small number of people (all of the same type) say totally different things and change their minds every few minutes. We shall never get re-union from them.”

Coming from South America, Pope Francis has seen the “success” of Protestant Charismatic religion and is wise enough to see what is good about it while also realizing its limitations and faults. Instead of rejecting it in a condemnatory fashion he wants to engage with them, learn from them and find new ways of bringing not just bureaucratic, financial and moral renewal to the church–but also a genuine spiritual renewal.

The emergent church movement is an interesting development in ecumenism. To put it simply, old denominational boundaries are breaking down. Evangelicals are no longer happy to be Baptist, Methodist, Assembly of God or Church of Christ. As the structures are becoming more porous they are also increasingly interested in the theological teachings of different denominations. As a young Baptist seminarian said to me enthusiastically when I asked who he is reading, “We read everybody man. Bultmann, Ratzinger, Aquinas, Calvin…everybody.” Their open ended pick and choose mentality extends to worship. Not only will they use modern technology and up to date relevant styles, but they are also interested in liturgy, vestments and traditional styles of worship.

While this is not fully Catholic and is often still anti Catholic at a ground level, there is also a new open ness to Catholicism and genuine room for discussion and growth.

Go here for my other, longer post today on the subject of ecumenism.