Why not become Anglican? some have asked since I laid out a case for “Reformational Catholicism” at the forum on the future of Protestantism at Biola University last month. Anglicans, they tell me, already have what I want. Others wonder why I stay in a “sectarian” Presbyterian denomination. Others ask, Why not drop the “Reformational” and become just “Catholic”?

Thanks to all, but no thanks. I’ll stay put, as long as they’ll have me. I have pragmatic reasons for staying put. If I were to move into a new ecclesiastical world, I’d have to pick my way through a new, bewildering landscape, pocked with unknown landmines. I’d have to figure out all over again who my friends are, and my enemies. Even pragmatic reasons aren’t entirely pragmatic. As James Buchanan put it, the status quo isn’t decisive, but it does have ethical weight.

My main reason for staying put is theological. God is alive, and that means he surprises, and that means he frustrates the silly projections of creatures who can’t see past the horizon. Jesus will unite his church. He asked his Father to make his disciples one, and the Father won’t give his Son a stone when he asks for one loaf. But the united church won’t look like any of the products presently on the market. God is an entrepreneur who is in the business of creating new markets.

Creation itself is a process of tearing and reunion, but Day 2’s reunited cosmos wasn’t a repetition of Day 1. God divided Adam to make Eve and told them they would be one flesh, but Adam-and-Eve together doesn’t look like Adam. When Judah and Israel were divided, the future didn’t lie with one or the other but with a new Israel, as different from old, exilic Israel as fleshy bodies are from dry bones. The Jesus who rose was the same Jesus who was torn on the cross, yet he was so transformed that even his disciples didn’t immediately recognize him.

God hasn’t stopped frustrating expectations. Who in 1900 expected that there would be 150 million Pentecostals and Charismatics in Latin America? Sure, charismatic prophets predicted it, but everyone knew they were mad. In 1900, there were 9 million Christians in Africa. Now it’s pushing half a billion, and many are members of AICs—African Independent (or Initiated or Instituted) Churches—that have no counterpart in the North and West. Who saw that coming?

Present trends never continue. We’re never called to jump on the train we think is moving fastest. Why do we think we can spot the rising star and hitch ourselves to it? What makes us think the rising star is even visible? Whatever’s coming will be as different from what we imagine as a seed is from a tree, as surprising as global Pentecostalism, as fresh as a corpse brought to life.

I have additional reasons for staying contentedly on the Wittenberg/Geneva side of the Tiber and to the West of Constantinople. For all my profound admiration for Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and for all the vibrant renewal in those churches, I continue to have standard, biblically grounded Protestant objections to Purgatory, to Marian doctrines, the Papacy, and icons, as well as lingering puzzlement about ambiguities concerning justification and the role of tradition. Though both are crucial to the future of Christianity, neither Roman Catholicism nor Orthodoxy is the Church of the future.

If I were to become Catholic or Orthodox, I would have to conclude that I have never participated in a full Eucharistic service. I would have to conclude that neither I nor my pastor friends have ever stood in loco Christi in the liturgy. I would go from a church where every baptized Christian is welcome at the Eucharist to a church that excludes hundreds of millions of validly baptized Christians, and I would never again share the Lord’s Supper with Protestant friends or family members. Becoming Catholic or Orthodox would, in my estimation, make me less catholic, not more.

Staying put is never staying put, of course. Always and everywhere, we respond though we will be changed. Lumen Gentium’s claim that the Church is “always in need of being purified” applies to every church, and unity will come as we all pass through deep, wrenching conversion. We should pursue this not in isolation but by cultivating what Paul D. Murray calls “receptive ecumenism.” Protestants have things to teach Catholics and Orthodox, and we love to do it. As many Protestants have discovered over the past century, we also have much to learn from other traditions—from Chinese house churches, charismatic Hispanics, and African Independent churches as well as Catholics and Orthodox. A catholicity of gift exchange, an ecumenism of mutual receptivity, arises from acknowledgement of lack, weakness, and failure. It is, as Murray says, an “ecumenism of the wounded hands.” Such humility isn’t unity, but it is already a precious gift of the one Spirit who animates the one body.

In the meantime, we live with the paradox of aiming at a target we cannot yet see, which is the paradox of faith, the blessed strain of following a living God.

Peter J. Leithart is president of Trinity House. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here.

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Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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