The recent appointment and installation of a Roman Catholic priest as an ‘ecumenical canon’ in St. Anne’s, Church of Ireland Cathedral in Belfast on 25th September , has been described by the Cathedral as a ‘significant event’. No-one could argue with that description! Certainly, centuries of adherence to the authority of Scripture in the Church of Ireland has been casually overturned by such an unhelpful event.
As Christians, we want to say that closer ties of friendship with members of other faith communities is something always to be welcomed. This is especially so since as Christians we are called to love our neighbour as ourselves. So, it doesn’t matter one bit to the Christian whether or not their neighbour is an atheist, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a political terrorist, a greedy capitalist, a persecuting tyrant, an indifferent cynic, or someone from a different ethnic background - we love them in the name of Christ.
But we love them as we love ourselves! That is, we want them to know and experience the truth of the Gospel that has changed our lives and brought us life and freedom. We earnestly desire for them to know God; to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and to live a new life in him. What we have been given freely by God’s love and grace, we earnestly desire for others too. That is how we love our neighbours along with actions which display this truth. Therefore, we want nothing to do with hatred of others or with sectarianism but only to love others as we are loved by Christ.
The appointment in St. Anne’s blurs this love. Official Roman Catholic teaching is not in agreement with the truths of the Scripture recovered at the Reformation. Christ alone is not relied upon for salvation in Roman Catholic Church. Yes, Roman Catholic theology recognizes that without God’s grace no-one can be saved but it doesn’t recognize the biblical teaching that it is by grace alone. Roman Catholic teaching is that God’s grace can help an individual to do good works which will attract more grace from God and thus with God’s help through the church, an individual can contribute to their own salvation. This is not only scripturally wrong but imperils the salvation of someone who relies on such a system of grace plus works. It is unloving to acquiesce in this view as it leaves our neighbour still under God’s judgement.
In relation to the events in St. Anne’s, this appointment says to the world that there is really no substantial difference between what the Roman Catholic Church teaches and what the Church of Ireland teaches and that doctrine doesn’t matter anymore. Whilst this is true for many people both within and without the Church, for Bible-believing Christians this is completely unacceptable! At stake is genuine love for others and their salvation. To act as if we simply believe that the teaching of ‘Christ alone’ and that of ‘Christ plus works’ really amount to the same thing is to be totally indifferent to the eternal salvation of our neighbour. It is to cease to love them or to care for them to know God’s saving love and salvation in Christ.
In summary, whilst done ostensibly to help community relations between the churches, this appointment and installation of a Roman Catholic priest as an ecumenical canon in St. Anne’s, Belfast has been at the expense of love and truth. It tries to paper over a chasm in belief and sends out the message that we do not truly love our neighbour as ourselves.