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Justin Welby: Catholic or Protestant – who cares?

In a wide-ranging interview in the Spectator last month the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said that he has no concerns about Anglican priests becoming Roman Catholics: “I don’t mind about all that. Particularly if people go to Rome, which is such a source of inspiration… as long as you are following your vocation, you are following Christ. It’s just wonderful. What we need is for people to be disciples of Jesus Christ. I don’t really care whether it’s the Church of England or Rome or the Orthodox or Pentecostals or the Lutherans or Baptists.”

One can see the appeal of the Catholic Church. Within the Church of England there is a confusing diversity of opinion and belief,  whereas on many issues Catholics – at least in their public pronouncements – seem more united, clear and socially (and theologically) conservative. Perhaps many Anglicans would be no worse off if they defected to Rome.

Justin Welby makes a great point about following Christ being the priority. What matters is not our tribal loyalties, whether as Anglicans or Baptists or whatever, but whether we are committed to Christ. We need the humility to recognise that I and my church are not the only ones who are able to understand the Bible. And there will no doubt be many surprises in heaven when we find people there from denominations we had written off.

But what does it actually mean to be a disciple? Surely it must include being committed to finding out from the Scriptures what God expects disciples to believe and how they are to live. To reduce discipleship to a nebulous “following of Christ” is to trivialise God’s revelation to us.

There are real and significant theological differences between the official positions of the Protestant and Catholic Churches and some of them are crucial to our understanding of salvation. We cannot just say these don’t matter and so we don’t care whether someone belongs to one church or the other. To suggest otherwise is to re-write history and imply that the Reformation was unnecessary, wrong or at the very least an embarrassing waste of time.

In his interview the Archbishop suggested that “as long as you are following your vocation you are following Christ.” I would rather say that we need to follow, love and obey the Christ of the Bible to find our vocation.

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