It is possible to enter a certain London square, approach a particular door, ring its bell and, then, proceed to walk though that doorway straight into France.
In a quiet corner of London, there is a building known as the French Protestant Church, where the congregation remains Francophone in worship. The church building dates from the Victorian era but its roots and its significance stretch back to the Protestant Reformation. It continues to be the historic center for London’s French-speaking heirs of Calvin.
Arriving here, there were two questions in my mind:
On its 500th anniversary, what does the Reformation mean to modern day Calvinists?
What part does John Calvin play in the life of his spiritual heirs?
If there is anywhere in London where the Reformation should still mean something then, surely, it is here. By 1550, French Protestants were fleeing their native land. France, the Eldest Daughter of the Church, had remained faithful when so many of the lands neighboring her were becoming enamored of the novel ideas of Luther and Calvin. Germany was bitterly divided, so too was Switzerland, as was the then-Spanish Netherlands. When Luther issued his 95 Theses, he also drove a spike through the heart of Christendom. Viewed from a distance, Luther, as well as Calvin and others, started a political revolution as much as a spiritual one. As a direct consequence, in the centuries that followed, Europe suffered war on a scale not previously experienced.
Speaking to the members of the French church congregation, one senses how acutely they are aware of history. Interestingly, their history is directly inverse to that of the Catholics of the British Isles. The French Huguenots escaped from persecution. So too did British Catholics—only they fled in the opposite direction, to France. The Huguenots’ religion was outlawed; this too was the case throughout the British Isles for Catholics who, in remote parts of England, Ireland and Scotland, and with the sentence of death hanging over their heads, worshiped in fields or in secret.
These French Protestants know their history well. It remains alive to them, but, then, that is the case for British Catholics too. In fact, one could imagine that if a 16th century Recusant wandered into a London Catholic church in which, say, an Old Rite Mass was being said, he might, with amazement, take off his hat, kneel down, and, with tears of gratitude, quietly begin to intone the Te Deum.
In the congregation of London’s French church, then, what is the view of the Reformation now, some 500 years on from it? One of the responses to this question from that congregation was resolute: ‘The Reformation is in our bones.’ That much was obvious: they live as conscious heirs of their refugee forebears who, upon arrival in Protestant England, were allowed to worship freely, though others were denied a similar right. Today, though, any ongoing relationship with the Reformation appears to be an historical one. The Reformation happened; their forefathers embraced the Reformers’ beliefs, and suffered as a result. Within that legacy, they still exist. Their ancestral Protestantism continues: it is worn as much as a socio-political badge as upheld in any theological position.
Curiously, that said, the church’s pastor is a former French Catholic. While growing up in France, he turned his back on Catholicism. He left for India in search of truth. Eventually, he returned to France as a fundamentalist Protestant, deciding to become a minister of that creed. At the end of his ministerial training, however, he left the seminary and joined instead the main French Protestant church, which is a more theologically liberal denomination than that from which he had come. His current beliefs are fully consistent with extreme liberal Protestantism: The Bible is not to be believed literally; theology mutates; doctrine and dogma change over time; and so believers welcome today’s changing social norms and new morality without any sense of rupture or difficulty. All of this is familiar, but the pastor goes further still. He is not sure about the divinity of Christ; he is not sure a church is even needed; but he is sure that Christianity was founded by St. Paul. Heaven and Hell are mere myths with which to frighten children and so on. In the end, truth is not confined to any one religion, and certainly not to Christianity. In fact, one hundred years from now, he predicts we shall no longer be discussing God in language familiar to our ancestors, in terms of Scriptures or Creeds. In that new dawn, we shall instead be exploring the spiritual through the terminology of quantum physics and the like.
By now, I sensed my questions were redundant. It was clear what these people thought of the Reformation: it was merely a 16th century event that freed them from Rome. Calvin meant nothing to them. He was consigned to history, and was in no way comparable to the devotion felt by many today to Calvin’s Catholic contemporaries, such as St. Thomas More.
Before me, I saw faces fixed on the future, eagerly anticipating the next ‘development’, the next big idea, and the next ‘great leap forward.’ This phenomenon is today called ‘progress.’ In that room in the French church where such things were discussed, I recognized an old and familiar voice telling anyone who would listen: ‘don’t you know the past is just that, past, and, now, of no consequence? Time to move on, get with the times, go with the flow.’
What these people staring back at me couldn’t see was that this ‘freedom’ they claimed to have gained was one fraught with danger. Without the safety of the Barque of Peter, they had been cut adrift upon deep waters, tossed about on the waves of this world and in the currents that, through it, run hither and thither. Following this uncoupling, they have had little choice but to go with the flow or sink below crashing waves. The only thing is, it is dead fish that drift downstream.
As I left, I noticed there was an appeal for the church building fund. Apparently, the Victorian structure that houses this congregation is crumbling to dust, and at an alarming rate.
While being shown to the door, I paused to pose one last question:
‘If Calvin came to your church today, what do you think would be his reaction?’
‘He would be disappointed.’
And, with that, the door closed behind me.