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Is the Reformation Over?

The Rev. Eric Bergman thinks he has seen the future — and it isn’t Protestant. Known as Father Bergman now, Rev. Bergman became a Catholic…

The Rev. Eric Bergman thinks he has seen the future — and it isn’t Protestant. Known as Father Bergman now, Rev. Bergman became a Catholic priest after serving for years as an Episcopalian minister. His conversion to Roman Catholicism came, he relates, after he began to ponder the moral and theological issues related to contraception. Looking back, he dates the fall of the Anglican tradition to 1930, when the Church of England accepted birth control. “Out of that,” he says, “came a confusion about the roles of men and women, a theology of androgyny.”

We know all this thanks to an article by Charlotte Hays, whose writings are always thoughtful and perceptive. She serves as editor of a very interesting journal, In Character, but this article was published in Friday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal. In “The Beginning of the Reformation’s End?,” she fires a salvo at mainline Protestantism.

She writes of a Washington gathering of “ex-Episcopalians, curious Catholics, and a smattering of earnest Episcopal priests in clerical collars” who were drawn to an Evensong and Benediction service sung according to the Book of Divine Worship, which Hays describes as “an Anglican use liturgical book still being prepared in Rome.” In the main, it follows the order and language set down by Thomas Cranmer almost 500 years ago.

Confused yet? The phrase “Anglican use” refers to a limited allowance for Roman Catholics to use a revised version of the Anglican liturgy in Catholic worship. The idea has taken on a new urgency with Pope Benedict XVI’s declaration of the Apostolic Constitution known as Anglicanorum coetibus, handed down back in November. As Hays rightly explains, this papal allowance “provides for former Anglicans to come into the Catholic Church as a group and retain certain of their traditions.”

Significantly, Anglican priests undergoing conversion to Catholicism under this constitution may retain their wives, but if their wife should subsequently die, the priest may not remarry. Priests who convert to Catholicism are “every bit as much priests as other Catholic priests,” she insists, even though married priests will not be eligible to serve as bishop. There will be an “ordinariate” (much like a diocese) that will oversee Episcopalian members, priests, and congregations that convert.

The Pope’s outreach to Anglicans did not go without protest from Anglican leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Nevertheless, there is more here than Catholic opportunism. The Pope is reaching out to Anglicans who are outraged by the liberalism within their communion. The election of an openly-homosexual bishop in 2003 was the last straw for many Episcopalians. The election of a second openly-gay bishop in recent weeks will add insult to injury.

Rev. Bergman sees even more. As Charlotte Hays reports:

But Father Bergman not only predicts a mass movement toward Rome. He believes Anglican Use may mark the beginning of the end of the Reformation. There will be “a flourishing of this throughout the world,” he says. “Wherever there are Anglicans, there will be people who want to enter Holy Mother Church.” As he told a rapt audience at St. Mary’s, “If we look at histories, heresies run themselves out after about 500 years. I believe we are seeing the last gasp of the Reformation in the mainline Protestant groups.”

The beginning of the end of the Reformation? Rev. Bergman sees the 60 people gathered for Evensong and Benediction as a sign that the Reformation is over. He describes the Reformation as a movement of “heresies” and then suggests, quite creatively, that “heresies run themselves out after about 500 years.” Thus, he now sees “the last gasp of the Reformation in the mainline Protestant groups.”

In all honesty, I have to give him his due on that last argument. A look around mainline Protestantism will provide ample evidence of “the last gasp of the Reformation” within many churches and denominations founded and grounded in the faith of the Reformers.

The Episcopal Church seems determined to commit ecclesiastical suicide, electing homosexual bishops, looking the other way when same-sex unions are blessed, and generally allowing just about any heresy to find a voice and a constituency — often among its bishops. Those looking for evidence of theological disaster need look no further than the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong, the retired bishop of Newark, New Jersey. Spong has denied every conceivable Christian doctrine, leaving Christianity itself beyond its “last gasp” in his reconstruction.

The mainline Lutheran denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America [ELCA] voted this past summer to distort Martin Luther’s affirmation of his conscience “bound by the Word of God” to allow for its ministers to deny clear teachings of Scripture and requirements of the creeds. The denomination now allows for the service of openly-homosexual and “partnered” clergy and same-sex blessings.

The largest Presbyterian denomination, the Presbyterian Church, USA [PCUSA] has debated the same issues for years now, even as it has discussed allowing its clergy to replace references to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit with metaphors like “Rainbow, Ark and Dove,” “Speaker, Word and Breath,” “Overflowing Font, Living Water and Flowing River,” “Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child and Life-Giving Womb,” “Sun, Light and Burning Ray,” “Giver, Gift and Giving,” “Lover, Beloved and Love,” “Rock, Cornerstone and Temple,” and “Fire that Consumes, Sword that Divides and Storm that Melts Mountains.”

Several other denominations with Reformation roots have followed similar courses or have merged within new denominational forms that allow for much the same. The bottom line is that there is no shortage of evidence to support Rev. Bergman’s argument that “the last gasp of the Reformation” can be seen in many quarters.

Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine liberal Lutherans, Presbyterians, or members of the United Church of Christ converting to Catholicism. The same holds true, of course, for liberal Episcopalians in the United States or liberal Anglicans worldwide. Rev. Bergman knows this, but he sees the promise of more conservative Protestants giving up on their churches, giving up their Reformation convictions, and coming home to Rome.

With the zeal of a convert, Rev. Bergman calls the convictions of the Reformation “heresies.” While I hold these doctrines to be the very Gospel of Christ, I do understand and appreciate Rev. Bergman’s honesty. Evidently, he has read the anathemas from the Council of Trent.

The central doctrine of the Reformation is this — justification by faith alone. Angry and disenchanted Episcopalians may seek refuge from their denomination’s apostasy, but if they “cross the Tiber” they deny the central doctrine of the Reformation and take the position that it is heresy.

In other words, the exodus of any number of Episcopalians — whether it be large or small — will not point to the end of the Reformation, or even to what Charlotte Hays describes as “the beginning of the end of the Reformation.” Instead, it will point to the urgent need for genuine reformation in the churches that once claimed Reformation faith.

The Reformation was fed and led by those who affirmed, with Luther, that justification by faith alone is “the article by which the church stands or falls.”  Thus, those who go “home to Rome” are repudiating the core of the Reformation. This is about far more than homosexual bishops and wacky metaphors for the Trinity.

The Reformation may be on its “last gasp” in the liberal churches of mainline Protestantism, but thankfully not everywhere. If Rev. Bergman gets out much he is more likely to find a generation of young evangelicals who are embracing with fervor and commitment the very doctrines he sees as heresies on their last gasp.

Short of a major act of God, mainline Protestantism will continue its slide into apostasy and irrelevance. Pope Benedict is likely to find more than a few Catholic-leaning Anglicans who are exhausted by Anglican travails and ready to cross over to Rome.

But is the Reformation on its last gasp? Not where the Gospel is prized and preached.  Not where a repudiation of justification by faith alone is known to be a repudiation of the Gospel itself — and to be a heresy that has lasted far more than 500 years.