Can Evangelicals and Catholics be Friends?
by Dwight Longenecker
I was brought up in a strict Evangelical home in America. We went to church twice on a Sunday, endured forty-five minute sermons and had to memorise Bible verses. Our family wasnít anti-Catholic, but we assumed Catholics werenít really Christians because Catholics werenít Ďborn again.í After high school I went to the fundamentalist college which gave Ian Paisely his honorary doctorate. The religion there was all hell fire and brimstone. They told us the Catholic Church was the Ďgreat whore of Babyloní and the Pope was the anti-Christ.
By Godís grace I left that extreme religion and came to England to become an Anglican priest. After serving for ten years as a vicar I and my family became Catholics. I thank God for my Christian family and the solid faith they gave me in the evangelical tradition. I also thank God for fifteen years in the Anglican Church. I explain to my friends that I havenít forsaken those other forms of Christianity. Becoming a Catholic meant accepting more of the Christian faith. All the good things in the other traditions are fulfilled in the Catholic faith.
The evangelical faith is incomplete without the Catholic Church, but we are also incomplete without those Christians who are separated from us. The evangelicals have some good traditions we can learn from. Evangelicals tend to be excellent communicators and preachers. We could do with those skills in the Catholic Church. The Evangelicals love the Bible and study it with passion. Our people could do with a better grasp of Scripture. Evangelical churches are strong on fellowship. They really make people feel they belong to a loving community. Some of our parishes could improve in this area. The evangelicals have a strong tradition of sharing the gospel in creative and attractive ways. Sometimes Catholics forget that we are all called to share the good news of Jesus Christ with others.
Iíve discovered that many Catholics are learning these skills. The Catholic Charismatic Renewal service is excellent at proclaiming the fullness of the faith in the Catholic Church. The Catholic Evangelisation Service proclaims the gospel and trains others to spread the good news. Bible Alive is a publication that enables ordinary Catholics to read a portion of the Bible each day. The Alpha course has been taken up by many Catholic parishes. It is an attractive tool for Catholics to learn more about their faith and share it with others. The Cursillo Movement, along with the other new movements in the Church are driven by a passion for the gospel. They encourage people to read the Bible, have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and serve the church with zeal and joy.
Itís not a one way street. Evangelicals are also learning more about the Catholic faith. The new generation of Evangelicals are more tolerant and open-minded towards Catholicism. They are less frightened of other forms of worship and are happy to experiment and be open to beliefs and worship practices which would have horrified their parents and grandparents. So in this country the trendy evangelical Christianity magazine has articles encouraging evangelicals to learn about Benedictine retreats, Ignatian spirituality and Catholic social teaching. The same magazine has sponsored a series explaining points of misunderstanding between Catholic and Evangelicals. The evangelical Premier radio station has commissioned a series of programmes which explain the Catholic faith according to the Bible, and Evangelicals are discovering some of the riches of Catholic worship. Iíve heard of Baptist churches where they have started using candles, celebrate communion every week instead of four times a year and observe the liturgical year. A Methodist minister I know wears vestments for his celebration of Holy Communion, goes to monasteries on retreat and uses the Divine Office for his daily devotions.
In the United States there is an increasing amount of dialogue between Evangelicals and Catholics. Richard Neuhaus, a former Lutheran minister who is now a Roman Catholic priest, has initiated discussions with leading evangelical Charles Colson. They have gathered Catholic and Evangelical theologians and issued a statement which calls for Catholics and Evangelicals to work together in areas of mission, moral concern and peace and justice issues. The Vatican hasnít been sitting idle either. There have been formal discussions with Evangelical leaders in South America as well as with the huge Southern Baptist Church in America. In Germany a historic document was signed in which Catholics and Lutherans agreed on the basics of the doctrine of justificationóor how we are saved.
These promising signs have been brought about because Evangelicals and Catholics are finally realising that there is more that unites them than divides. At the heart of the matter both Evangelicals and Catholics believe in a revealed religion, not a relative religion. In other words, we both believe that God has spoken and that settles it. The core of the faith has been given by God. It was not made up by people. It was not simply the result of social conditions and the quirks of human history. This fundamental attitude about the faith means we have a gospel to proclaim and a faith to live, and this is in contrast to the wishy washy grey Christians who water down the faith to a beautiful hobby or a system of good manners.
There is plenty of scope for Evangelicals and Catholics to work and worship together. But we have to remember there are also big differences between us. Evangelicals do tend to minimize the faith. They want to cut out lots of things we Catholics believe are essential. We have a big problem about proper authority in the Church. There is still a large amount of distrust and misunderstanding between Evangelicals and Catholics. In our efforts to work together we mustnít neglect the real points of division and disagreement which still exist. Progress has been made, but we still have a long way to go.
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Copyright © Dwight Longenecker. All rights reserved. Dwight Longenecker is a Catholic writer and broadcaster working and living in England. Check his website
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