En mass to Mass

Last Sunday I went to mass. It wasn’t planned, but I was on a scout leaders’ training weekend and they decided to go to church, and since the majority are Catholics (everyone except me), we went en mass to mass. I recognised most of the words, in fact if I’d been fast enough to translate in my head I could have joined in with 90% of it. As it was I sung a few responses, said amen to the creed and performed another “history of the reformation in ninety seconds” over lunch, as is becoming traditional at Scout leaders’ events. Poor acoustics meant that I didn’t catch the entire sermon, but he used a nifty little illustration about being salt to society which I may well plagiarise for my own next preach at the end of the month.
One of the many benefits of being involved in Scouts is that it is giving me an opportunity to get up-close and personal with some real live practising Catholics in Argentina. Given that something like 90% of the population here would identify themselves as being at least nominally Catholic, one might have thought that there would have been plenty of opportunities for this contact over the last five years. However, society here is quite segregated in lots of ways, and the evangelical church seems to be more segregated than most.

Let us be fair; there is a good historical reason, which is that for many years the protestant church was too tiny to have a voice, and when it started growing it was met with a corresponding barrage of opposition from the Catholic church, including the personal abuse of believers. However, while the opposition has gone away to such an extent that these days most Catholics don’t even know any evangelicals, let alone what we believe (hence my “history of the reformation in ninety seconds” over lunch), the evangelical church still retains a dominant metaphor of itself as “victim” even though anyone younger than I, or with less than 25 years in church, is unlikely to have experienced any personal opposition.

Shut your eyes and listen for one minute. You are sitting at the back of the congregation, and above the boom-cha of the ubiquitous music group the soothing voice comes through the microphone; “… and despite all your difficulties and all your problems you have still made it to church this morning because you have chosen to make the effort to come here despite everything that was trying to prevent you, and that is a miracle…” Open your eyes. What do you see? A small group of poor, down-trodden, struggling believers, battling through the opposition in their determination to come to church? Not these days. In fact in our city, the first thing you probably experienced is a search for a parking space in between the large shiny four wheel drive trucks congregated in front of the building.

Now, let’s be fair again. The Catholic church isn’t perfect, and we can draw many distinctions between “Rome” and “the average Catholic on the street”, and clearly me making a straw effigy out of the Evangelical church is no more helpful than the Evangelical church making a straw effigy out of the Catholic church. But, when I hear one church preaching a self-centred theology of victimhood, while the other grapples with the Sermon on the Mount, it causes me to reflect less on “What is my response to the Catholic church?” and more on “What is my response to the Evangelical church’s response to the Catholic church?”

So I went searching for this, from a friend’s blog back in 2006, which is still one of the best pieces of blogging I’ve ever seen:

“I’ve just had an argument with the director of my misssion about whether or not they should accept Catholics. He thinks they shouldn’t. I thought they should, but now I agree with him. But for different reasons. He thinks they shouldn’t accept Catholics because there’s something wrong with the Catholic church. I think they shouldn’t accept Catholics because there’s something wrong with the mission. As evangelicals, they’d stop converting the damned heathen and spend all their time converting their co-workers. Christ indwells you, they say. The guiding principle of the mission is that we respect the other person because we respect Christ who indwells them. But of course, Christ only indwells them if they have an “Evangelical” faith. Of course.

You see, ecumenicalism is where the rubber hits the road in Christian witness. Am I prepared to love and accept those who are in a different tribe to me? Multinationalism is easy, because the reality of Western hegemony in missions makes it easy to claim to be multinational even when you’re not. Non-Western partners are sufficiently polite that they’ll adapt to you anyway. But ecumenicalism? Shit, this is where that whole thing about loving your enemies comes into play. And basically, we can’t do it.” Simon Cozens 22-10-2006

Certainly our own mission takes a similar line to the one mentioned above. Our official statement says:

Because of the particular characteristics of much of Latin American Roman Catholicism and the historical and ongoing attitude of the Latin American Roman Catholic Church to evangelicals, applicants from a Roman Catholic background will only be accepted provided they confess to an evangelical faith and an evangelical church allegiance.

Let’s be fair for the third time. I have very limited experience of Latin American Roman Catholicism; I’m talking about two cities, in one province, in the context of a very big country, in an even bigger continent, so I’m not really in any position to comment on the particular characteristics of much of Latin American Roman Catholicism and the historical and ongoing attitude of the Latin American Roman Catholic Church to evangelicals outside my own environment.

When I first read the bit about only accepting Catholic applicants provided they have signed up to an Evangelical faith and church allegiance, I thought this was a reasonable position because that was five years ago and I didn’t have any experience of the Catholic church. When I started meeting real live Catholics through the Scouts over the last few months, my next thought was that this requirement was wrong and needed changing. Now I think that actually we may be right to insist on this. Less because of what may or may not be wrong with the Catholic church, but because if we want to have any role in helping the Evangelical church out of its ghetto, the first thing we’re probably going to have to do, is to climb down into the hole with them.

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