Earlier this year an extraordinary event took place in the Vatican. Bishop Tony Palmer -- a bishop in an Anglican breakaway church met with Pope Francis. Palmer and then-Archbishop Bergoglio had become friends when the Evangelical Charismatic Anglican minister was a missionary in Argentina. Once he was wearing the white soutane, Pope Francis telephoned Palmer and asked to meet.
During their extended breakfast the Pope asked Tony Palmer what he could do to encourage unity with Evangelical Protestants. Bishop Tony pulled out his iPhone and said, “Why not record a video greeting to the group of influential charismatic Christians I am going to meet at a conference in Texas next week? Pope Francis obliged and the greeting can be viewed here.
After Pope Francis’ greeting was played to the conference of Protestant Evangelical leaders, the television evangelist Kenneth Copeland gave a warm response and said he wanted to visit with the Pope.
That meeting has now taken place. Rick Wiles reports that a delegation led by Bishop Tony Palmer traveled to Rome and met with Pope Francis for three hours. James and Betty Robison hosts of the Life Today television program and Kenneth Copeland founder of Kenneth Copeland ministries were accompanied by Reverend Geoff Tunnicliff, CEO of the World Evangelical Alliance; Rev. Brian Stiller and Rev. Thomas Schirrmacher, also from the World Evangelical Alliance. Also in attendance were Rev. John Arnott and his wife, Carol, co-founders of Partners for Harvest ministries in Toronto, Canada.
This meeting is all the more remarkable since not too long ago conservative Evangelicals in North America were inclined to view the Catholic Church as the “great whore of Babylon” and the Pope as the antichrist. The Evangelical leaders were not only impressed by the simplicity and warmth of Pope Francis's welcome, but they clearly had a fellowship in Christ that has been lacking in the past.
How can we understand the warmth between conservative Evangelical Protestants and Pope Francis? What we are witnessing is the fruit of a historic realignment in Christianity. For some time now the real division in Christianity has not been between Catholics and Protestants. It has been between those Christians who believe in a revealed religion and those who believe in a relative religion. The real divide is between progressives who wish to alter the historic faith according to the spirit of the age, and those who believe the spirit of the age should be challenged by the eternal and unchanging truth of the Christian gospel. Those who believe in a relative, progressive and modernist form of Christianity dismiss the miraculous element of religion, believe the church and the Scriptures are merely man made accidents of history and think the church should adapt completely to the needs of modern society. The progressives see the church as an agent of social change and think the main task of Christians is to be political activists. The other side are those who believe the gospel of Jesus Christ is revealed by God for the salvation of souls and the transformation of the world. These historic Christians believe the Scriptures are inspired by God and that the gospel cannot be changed by the culture of any age. They might be called classical Christians because they believe the “old, old story” of a sinful humanity and a merciful God who gave his own Son for the salvation of the world.
Progressive and Classical Christians can be found in all the denominations and ecclesial structures. There are classical and progressive Catholics and classical and progressive Protestants. The recent meeting between Pope Francis and the Evangelical leaders reveals that the classical Christians of all traditions have more in common than the classical Christians have with progressives.
The astounding thing about the papacy is that the words and actions of popes are not only rooted firmly in the past, but they very often are prophetic of the future. The words and actions of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were both rooted in the past and yet pointed to the future. Likewise with Pope Francis. His meeting with Evangelical leaders points to a new alignment within global Christianity. As the progressive Christians merge increasingly with the spirit of the age the divide between them and classical Christians will become increasingly acute. As this happens the classical Christians of all denominations will begin to coalesce and cooperate more closely. Classical Christians from Eastern Orthodoxy through Roman Catholicism, classical Anglicanism and Evangelicalism will all find an increasing understanding and agreement. The increasingly close fellowship with Evangelicals will be hastened as progressive Christianity moves away to become something other than Christian. The rapprochement between classical Evangelicals and Catholics will also burgeon as dark forces on various fronts rise up against Christ and his church. Opposition to classical Christianity and simmering threat of persecution will foster a new depth of meaning to the term “Evangelical Catholic.”
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the author of More Christianity: Finding the Fullness of the Faith.