Tony Blair has converted. The country that created the Church of England, when King Henry VIII wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, has never had a Roman Catholic prime minister. Now they have a Catholic former prime minister.
Blair has not made his reasons clear. Certain of his public policy stances on issues like abortion, stem-cell research, and civil partnerships for homosexuals put him at odds with Catholic teaching. Maybe his theology more closely mirrors Catholic doctrine than Anglican. Other than papal authority, however, it is difficult to find doctrinal differences compelling enough to claim that beliefs are the crucial factor. What beliefs are emphasized or how those beliefs are practiced may determine more.
More likely, Blair entered the Catholic communion in order to bring his family together under one church roof. His wife and children are Roman Catholic. Worshipping together as a family benefits the family.
Most denominational switches are hardly conversions of heart or mind. Few new members to Wilshire join us because they have researched our theology, become convinced of the rightness of Baptist doctrine, and then plunge in (literally, in our case).
Episcopalians joke that the future of their church is secure as long as Catholics keep marrying Protestants. Methodists tell a variation of the same joke, this time when Catholics or Episcopalians marry Baptists.
Worship style, good programs for the kids and youth, location, friends, and the general mission to and outlook toward the world count for a lot in decisions of which church to make home. Finding a place the family can agree upon seems to count most.
Baptists have benefited greatly from this American idea that people should pick and choose churches according to their own convictions, rather than inheriting a church based upon someone else’s decision. We celebrate freedom of conscience in matters of faith and propagate new churches the way Starbucks opens new stores.
Allow me to argue the other point for a moment. Religion should not be commodified in such a way that we treat congregants as consumers and churches as service providers seeking to satisfy the changing tastes of customers. One woman who left our church some years ago was astonished when my wife was hurt by her decision. “I have a dress-making business,” she said. “I don’t take it personally when someone chooses to shop elsewhere. Why should you, when someone chooses to worship in a different church?” Well, maybe because church is a community of faith; it is a delicate fabric of tightly woven relationships and shared spiritual convenants.
Part of the frustration with churches that value tradition over innovation is also their strength: They are slow to change. The curmudgeonly British journalist, G.K. Chesterton, compared the Catholic Church to Robinson Crusoe, scavenging the beaches of the world to reclaim things of value shipwrecked by the latest winds of culture. Chesterton said: “If the world grows too worldly, it can be rebuked by the Church; but if the Church grows too worldly, it cannot be adequately rebuked for worldliness by the world.”
Protestants generally have ourselves to blame for this penchant to split, which often leaves behind things of worth in favor of something deemed “more, better or different.” The American entrepreneurial approach to religion allows diversity to flourish and fresh things come to bear, but it also allows kooks and nuts to rise to power on the wings of charisma and charm, instead of character and creed.
Scripture and tradition are two sources of authority that keep the church together across time. The Spirit of Christ is the hidden glue.
If there is only one church in the mind of God, working for signs of unity within our churches, and among our churches, surely makes that more believable. Breaking up is hard to do. Staying together is harder still, but usually better.