Saturday, January 03, 2009

Catholic or Protestant?

A few weeks ago Ali challenged me to give a child-friendly answer to the question of the difference between catholics and protestants. I have been musing, which semantically-charged friends will observe, is the opposite of amusing.

Resisting the temptation to go for the obvious Anglican gag - Catholics are wrong - I will try and take a longer view. If you do that it becomes a matter of which split in the church is most important.

After Jesus' ministry there was a group of followers. Soon they split into those who remained Jews and part of Judaism and those who didn't. Christianity survived in the group of those who didn't. Three centuries later this one worldwide (therefore catholic with a small c from a Greek word meaning universal) church had a dispute over a couple of small but important words of Creed and the eastern Orthodox Church was formed.

A thousand years or so passed until King Henry Eighth of England required an annulment of his first marriage. When the Pope refused, Henry appointed himself Supreme Head of the English Church in 1534. This act is often seen as the key moment in a long process by which the church in England became reformed, but of course the Reformation (rediscovery of biblical truth and god's grace) had begun in Europe and continued after Henry's reign, Luther, Calvin and the like doing their best work in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

A person who accepts the system of faith and practice of the reformed church (now including various branches of the Anglican Communion and many other denominations such as Baptists, Methodists etc) is a Protestant from the Latin protestari which means 'to witness before'.

The complexity continues in that there are many reforming processes going on in Roman Catholicism too which means it is not so easy as to say that Protestants are right. Mustard Seed Shavings applauds the seekers after truth in all faiths and believes that process, journey and conversation are as important as destination.

And of course down the ages the terms have become symptomatic of community division. The troubles and struggles in Northern Ireland got short-handed as Catholic v Protestant but it was always about nationality and government not religion. Thus the joke:

Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?
I'm an atheist.
Yes, but are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant one?

So a child-friendly answer? Forgive me that child-friendly always begs more questions but I think I would tell a small child they are two different styles of Jesus follower and see what they ask next.


Mr Gnome said...


Thoughtful and truthful.

I lived a big chunk of my life in the 'catholic' area and am now, I guess, in the 'protestant' area. Therefore I find this topic more autobiographical than it is academic.

Ali said...

Thankyou for for taking time in your busy schedule for answering! That's service over and above the call of duty.

I agree with Mr Gnome, a thoughtful answer, and so much more sound than anything my children might 'learn' from Father Ted (who incidently, for those who didn't know it, started all this!)

In truth, when asked, I did simply say that Catholics and Protestants just went to different types of churches and had different types of services, and that satisfied the appetite for knowledge in the meantime.

Mind you, in this corner of the world, I'm sure it won't be too long before the issue raises it's thorny head again ...

Granny Two Shoes said...

Bless your heart

Doug Chaplin said...

Surely a classical Anglican gag would be to say that there's no difference: they're both wrong.

And a child friendly answer: "The church on the right was too big, and the one on the left was too small, but the one in the middle was just right."

RuthJ said...

It strikes me as an interestingly Western view that the Eastern Orthodox church was formed at the time of the split. I think they would maintain that that was the moment at which the Roman church broke away!

St said...

Doug and Ruth. Good calls.

david said...

Ruth’s point on our typically western view of the split is well made. My understanding is that the final schism between Rome & Constantinople did not occur until the C11th when both sides excommunicated each other!