Several years ago, I recall inflammatory comments by a Northern Co Antrim borough councillor and then hardline Paisleyite fundamentalist that Catholics who did not repent would not go to heaven. But what about people from a Protestant background who do not repent and become ‘saved’? What is their eternal destination?
Such comments and questions have once again thrust the Evangelical Catholic Movement into the spiritual spotlight.
Is it a case that the 20th century ecumenical movement is dead; so long live the new millennium evangelical movement! That’s the clear message of the new spiritual re-alignment slowly, but surely evolving in Irish Christianity, but one which will find itself seriously at odds with the fundamentalist position adopted by many in the Protestant denominations.
The key theological question is - is it possible to become a ‘born again’ Christian, yet remain within the Church of Rome? The overwhelming majority of Protestant theologians and fundamentalists would say ‘no’, but what about those from a Protestant tradition who become ‘born again believers’ - should they remain within a Protestant church which has an overtly liberal ethos where the doctrine of Salvation is not preached?
The dramatic global rise in fundamentalist Islam, especially in the past decade, along with the fractious debates within Christianity about the ordination of homosexual clergy, church blessings and marriage for same sex couples as well as the threat posed by more liberal abortion and divorce legislation, have sparked a redefining about the concept of ‘unity’ between Catholicism and Protestantism within Ireland.
However, a sizeable chunk of theological purists remain in both camps. Within Catholicism, dogmatic conservatives still hold to the ecumenical ethos of the 1959 Second Vatican Council, which emphasised there should only be one true Christian faith.
For these older Catholics, this is the Roman Catholic Church and Protestantism is still viewed privately as a form of heresy.
The mirror image of this is hardline Protestant fundamentalism, which maintains the Pope is the Biblical Anti-Christ and every practising Catholic is doomed to Hell.
Such theology, it can be suggested, is only a footstep away from the controversial doctrine of Hyper-Calvinism - which takes its inspiration and interpretation of Scripture from the teachings of the 16th century French Reformer, John Calvin.
However, the main guiding star of the Irish ecumenical movement was that it was based on attempting to achieve structural unity and a common form of worship, prayer and praise between Catholicism and Protestantism.
However, the pitfall which the ecumenical movement did not take into account was the considerable growth in pluralism, materialism and the effects which an increasingly secular society would have on numbers in the pews.
The churches, especially those in urban localities, simply could not compete with the growing popularity of the fast-pace entertainment of the digital revolution.
The continuing exposure of convicted paedophile priests within Catholicism, coupled with an emerging ‘watering down’ of Scriptural morality within Protestantism has sparked a crisis of confidence in the clergy and influence of the major denominations.
Indeed, the world-wide Anglican Communion faces a fatal rift over some Protestant churches’ decisions to ordain openly gay and lesbian clergy against traditional Biblical Old Testament teachings.
What has emerged in Ireland is the development of a ‘back to basics’ evangelical movement, anchored on the Salvationist position as outlined by Jesus Christ Himself in the New Testament text of St John chapter 3, verse 16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Until the development of the Irish evangelical movement after the year 2000, the Salvationist position was viewed as being firmly fixed in the domains of evangelical and fundamentalist Protestantism, described in colourful terms as ‘Born Again’, ‘Saved’, and ‘Washed in the Blood of the Lamb’ – and epitomised by the Bible-thumping, street corner, Fire and Brimstone male preachers.
When Catholics and Protestants became ‘Saved’, they were expected to leave their chapels or liberal churches and join the band of growing fundamentalist denominations or independent fellowships within Irish Protestantism.
However in 2019, such ‘Born Again’ Catholics and Protestants are implementing a totally different strategy of Christian witness.
They now chose to remain in their denominations and evangelise from within rather than join a Protestant evangelical or fundamentalist church. Structural ecumenism was ditched in favour of spiritual evangelicalism.
In practice, Irish evangelical Catholics are not leaving the Church, but are choosing to remain within Catholicism and evangelise from within. There is also a movement towards Pentecostalism, however, such Catholic converts do not regard themselves as Protestants, but specifically as ‘born again Christians’.
Socially, the Salvationist evangelical movement places a strong emphasis on the role of the Biblically-influenced, heterosexual Christian family unit. The continuing child abuse and love child scandals rocking the Catholic Church fuel the allegation the priesthood has become a hiding place for gays, lesbians and closet lovers.
With its family-orientated strategy, coupled with its strong stance against abortion, divorce and sexual immorality, the evangelical movement could find itself in an advantageous position to force the Vatican to change the rules on celibate priests.
A major plank of the movement is to bring about freedom of choice – priests, or those in the Catholic holy orders, would be free to chose either to remain celibate, or heterosexual marriage. The Evangelical Catholic Movement - indeed, the entire cross-denomination evangelical, socially conservative, and fundamentalist Christian movements - will face their first real test of faith next month.
If the DUP and Sinn Fein are unable to get a power-sharing Stormont Executive up and running by the end of October, Westminster will bring in same-sex marriage and more liberal abortion laws to Northern Ireland, bringing the Province into line - in legislative terms - with the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
If this situation becomes a legal reality, how will socially conservative Christians within both Catholicism and Protestantism return the serve? Or will it be a case that the churches merely roll over and lie down?
John Coulter is a political and religious commentator, and the former Northern Columnist with the Irish Daily Star. His upbringing in County Antrim was steeped in Irish Presbyterianism, Orangeism and Ulster Unionism. His late father was Rev Dr Robert Coulter MBE, a former UUP MLA for North Antrim and a leading Orange cleric.
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Listen to religious commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online at www.thisissunshine.com