Do Protestants have reason to fear Catholicism's resurgence?

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Troubled by the direction church is taking, some favour a reunion with Rome, as it becomes top religious group in UK, writes JOHN HALDANE.

IN THE past few weeks, co- incident with the reception of Tony Blair into the Catholic Church, there have been media reports that Roman Catholicism is already, or is soon to become, the largest practising religious grouping in the UK, overtaking Anglicanism.

It has also been reported in recent times that, with their own church seeming to go into schism, some leading Anglican bishops have proposed that members of their communion seek readmission into the Church of Rome under the headship of the Pope.

Those raised on the Westminster Confession of Faith will recall its declarations that the Pope is the antichrist predicted and warned against in scripture, and the Roman Catholic mass an idolatry, substituting human ritual for the unique sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Although such language is now generally out of favour in Protestant circles, members of the reformed churches must blanch at the rise of Romanism.

Half a millennium on from the Reformation, there appears the prospect of the restoration of the supremacy of Roman Christianity in these islands and beyond.

How must this look from the London Fleet Street offices of the Protestant Truth Society? Established in 1889 "to take a stance against the growing influence of Romanism in church and nation", the society (whose current secretary, George Rae, is a Scot) continues to describe itself as "in conflict with the teaching of Roman Catholicism, which it refutes".

How difficult, then, for these and other Protestants to contemplate the Romanisation of the Anglican Communion, and the ascent of Rome to Christian leadership in Britain. However, I think I can offer reassurance that at least Anglican-Roman Catholic reunion is not likely to happen any time soon. To understand why, allow me a brief introduction to Christian "ecclesiology": the theory of the Church.

Four centuries after the birth of Christianity out of the womb of Judaism, there came the first Christian split, giving rise to the Assyrian and Oriental Orthodox churches. Six centuries later came the "Great Schism" (formalised in 1054), which divided Christendom between Eastern (Greek) Orthodox Catholicism, and western (Latin) Roman Catholicism. During the next five centuries, some of the eastern group of churches reunited with Rome, and there are currently 21 denominations (the Uniates) that are in full communion with Rome.

The 16th century, however, saw the most serious fracturing of Christianity, with the establishment of the Church of England under Henry VIII, and with the Lutheran and Calvinist reformations in continental Europe then spreading back to Britain.

There have been other splits, mostly within reformed biblical Christianity, as followers divide over interpretations of scripture. But in the past few decades, interesting things have been happening which offer prospects of some reintegration of Christianity.

First, Roman Catholics and Lutherans have achieved remarkable agreement on a couple of the main issues that occasioned the initial Reformation.

The core of these is the doctrine of "justification", which concerns the way in which believing in Jesus Christ is related to one's salvation. Second, Roman Catholics and Orthodox are now in discussion about fundamental theology and about how to address the de-Christianisation of Europe. With 350 million European members between them, the expanding discussions between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches is something to be mindful of.

Surely, then, if Rome is closing the gap with Lutheranism and with the Orthodox, Anglican Roman Catholic reunion must be a shoo-in? Not so. Forty years ago, the then archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, made a historic visit to the Pope, which began a healing of the wounds of division first opened in 1534.

Two decades later, Archbishop Runcie visited the Vatican and he and John Paul II issued a joint declaration defining the goal of Catholics and Anglicans as being the restoration of "unity and full communion". That was an ambitious aim that would have to vault several hurdles, one being the 1896 papal declaration that the Anglican ministry is "absolutely null and utterly void".

What moved things from there to the optimism of the Runcie/JP II declaration was the work of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), established after the Ramsey visit with the tasks of addressing points of division. Extraordinary progress was made, though at the level of joint recommendations rather than accepted declarations.

By 2006, however, things had changed. Cardinal Kasper of Vienna journeyed to England to tell the bishops of the Church of England that the desired goal of full communion was in peril.

There were three issues: the ordination of women bishops; the blessing of same-sex relationships; and the internal unity of the worldwide Anglican communion. Unsurprisingly, all three are obstacles to Anglican/Orthodox union, but interestingly they are also points of contention for evangelical, biblical Anglicans who are appalled at the direction taken by some British and North American bishops.

Understandably, those party to Anglican/Roman Catholic discussions, particularly on the Anglican side, who see the turmoil in their midst, would now very much like to seek the security of membership of what, in their hearts, many regard as the authentic (western) Catholic Church.

But Rome notes that many who would like union also favour the liberal causes, and draws the obvious conclusion. Thank you for your interest, but we have enough troubles of our own to put right without importing a whole new set.

Although the general media do not have much interest in the detail of religious affairs, there is still a place for religious news. With a report published on the growth of the Catholic Church in Britain through immigration, another in draft on international Anglican-Roman discussions, and prominent figures embroiled in debates about the changing character of Britain's religious identity, the future of Christianity in Britain has been back in the news.

Who knows, however, whether incoming Catholics will remain, or whether, like so many already here, they will lapse from their faith. What you can be sure of, however, is that the Vatican is less inclined to embrace Canterbury than to watch it carefully from a distance – something it shares with the office of the Protestant Truth Society.

&#149 John Haldane is Prof of Philosophy and director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at the University of St Andrews. He is also a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Culture.