I was recently asked to prepare a paper for a local Christian unity event to be held at an African American Baptist church. I presented the contours of my paper, “Give Us Unity or Give Us Death,” before responses by an influential pastor of a local black megachurch, and the Houston area judicatory heads of the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of American, the Presbyterian Church USA, and the Cardinal archbishop of the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese.
My paper started with the lone recorded prayer of Jesus for future believers. Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20 and following is clear: that all believers might be one. He prays for this unity so it will be the testimony to the world that Jesus is real, and that God loves all creation.
I then jumped ahead 2000 years to look at the church in the U.S, where for the past 150 years or so we have organized our local congregations by race. These divisions are hurting the church, which is now in decline not just in the mainline, but as a whole.
Something kept nagging at me while writing the paper, something I didn’t mention. But I will get to that in a moment.
Each member of the panel praised the paper and said we must work toward more racial unity in our churches. Each, that is, until the Cardinal took his turn to speak.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo first said we must realize there really is evil bent on keeping us separate. Second, throughout Christian history, in the name of Christian theological purity, people and groups were essentially put out of the churches.
Then it got really interesting. The Cardinal discussed the very point that nagged me while writing the paper. If we want to talk about Christian unity, then perhaps the Protest-ants should cease their protest and come back to the church. The Roman Catholic Church, that is.
Now I want to be clear. The Cardinal did not make this point directly. But he made it just the same, and gently and deftly so. I talked to several Catholics and Protestants in attendance in the days afterward, and they told me this indeed was his point.
So I simply want to ask, why aren’t we all Catholic? Why are any of us Protestant?
I know why the Protestant church was formed. But 500 plus years later, what is now being protested? With now well over 1000 denominations, it is mind-boggling to determine what the issues are any more. And whatever is still being protested, does it justify the divisions, the seemingly anti-answer to Jesus’ prayer?
I have a friend who has been Protestant all his life. But he and his family are now strongly considering converting to Catholicism. He shared this story with me:
Once there was a large and handsome mansion on a hill that was beautifully kept and full of activity and life. Over time, divisions among the people in the mansion began to build, though always worked out. The head of the mansion, however, became corrupt. Some of the others in the mansion wanted to stop the corruption. Eventually they concluded they were not able to, and so made the unprecedented decision to leave the mansion. At first they built a much smaller, but still nice home of their own just at the outskirts of the mansion’s land. Those in the new home then had issues with one another, and over time, smaller groups left to build their own homes.
Now, all around the outskirts of the mansion’s estate are thousands of small homes. With some work, those in the smaller homes have been able to convince a few of those still living in the mansion to move out, to one of the homes on the outskirts. And many of the homes on the outskirts have people moving back and forth between themselves, trying to find the best home.
Meanwhile all the people on the outskirts of the estate look up the hill occasionally. The mansion has become more rundown. Shutters lay astray, much of it is in need of paint. Rumor is that inside much is rundown too: piping in need of repair, floors cracked. They say, “We are glad we left that mansion. Look how rundown it is. We would not want to live in such a place.”
Of course, the irony is that the mansion became rundown as these people left. Now they simply stand afar and criticize it, not doing anything to help improve the mansion, not thinking that they have skills and talents that could bring it new life.
You get the point I am sure. Protestants, in their many, many much smaller denominations, stand from afar and criticize the Catholic Church and its problems, never thinking that at least some of those problems may be because the talents and gifts they possess are not being shared within the larger Church.
I end this post by asking a question: in light of Jesus prayer for the unity of believers, why are Protestants still Protestants? I am looking forward to your responses, for, as a Protestant currently, I truly want to know.
Michael O. Emerson is the Cline Professor of Sociology and the Director of the Center on Race, Religion, and Urban Life at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He is the co-author of “Divided by Faith” and “United by Faith.”