Since the Reformation there has only been one papal visit to this country and that was in 1982, when the pope was John Paul II.
The invitation then was given by the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in this country, making it simply a pastoral visit. It did set a precedent though, as well as raising some of the same issues we face now.
Our Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave the present invitation, and this makes it a state visit, with the pope receiving all the relevant privileges due on such an occasion, in addition to meeting his own people. As yet though, there is no date set, nor have any details of a programme been announced.
A papal state visit involves constitutional as well as religious issues. We assume the pope would be met on arrival in the country by a representative of the royal family and would also be invited to meet the Queen. There could well be a state banquet, and an invitation to speak to the Houses of Parliament has been suggested.
Our national constitution is clearly Protestant in its attitude towards Rome. Our Monarch is pledged by her accession and coronation vows to uphold the Protestant faith as Queen and as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Whatever may go on in the Church of England these days, the 39 Articles declare plainly that ‘the Bishop of Rome has no jurisdiction in this realm of England’. They also state that the Church of Rome has erred, along with others, ‘in living and manner of ceremonies’, and in matters of faith.
While it is appropriate to observe the necessary courtesies associated with a state visit, the pope should be reminded that this Reformation position still holds good today, and that Her Majesty the Queen remains true to her solemn promises. A good present to give him might be a beautifully bound edition of all the volumes of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
We can expect full coverage by BBC radio and TV as well as the rest of the media, and this would probably represent a significant public relations achievement for the Roman church after the scandal of child abuse in Ireland.
Small groups of Protestants might protest by appearing on the streets, carrying placards and shouting slogans, but this could harm rather than help the Protestant witness. So what should we do?
To do nothing would be to fail the Lord. We believe he has entrusted us with the gospel of salvation so that we should make it as widely known as possible. Believing in the strength of our case, we should endeavour to bring about a serious debate in which that case is put.
In the mercy of God, such action could have a profound effect. Christian truth has eternal significance. The fundamental theological differences between Rome and genuine Protestantism remain. Put simply, Protestantism and Romanism cannot be reconciled.
The best Roman Catholics, led by the present Pope, show by their devotion and effort how vital their beliefs are to them. We need to be sure what those beliefs actually are. Too often we have been content with criticising a caricature of them.
Contrary to what many think, they base their position on Scripture. But their problem is that they also link it with and are affected by the importance they give to Tradition. This second stream of authority includes their belief that Petrine authority is perpetuated in the papacy, as well as in the church and its sacramental nature.
Our main endeavour, therefore, should be to show as widely as we can what lies at the heart of true Evangelical Protestantism, the biblical revelation concerning the way of salvation and its consequences in individual lives and the church, the body of Christ.
Whatever we may be doing within our local areas, we should want a united Protestant voice from evangelical churches to reach the ears of the country as a whole. Sadly, it is a very rare event for such a voice to be heard through the national media.
Our contention is that Rome today still preaches ‘another gospel’. This is no more obvious to many than was the Galatian heresy in Paul’s day, so subtle is the doctrinal distinction between the true and the false.
In exposing that vital difference, though, Paul made plain the way of salvation. So must we. We owe it to our Saviour and to those who are resting on a false foundation. We must exalt our Lord Jesus Christ and the full sufficiency of what he has done, is doing, and will do.
We must demonstrate when we come together that he is the Head of the Church, including our local church, and in our daily living that he is the Lord of our lives. We need to be moved to the depths of our being by the grandeur of God’s work, so others can see its effects in us.
This presents us with a great challenge, but the early Christians were no different from us. They had their weaknesses. They were put straight on certain matters. They were shown the need for holiness.
Humbled by the cost of their salvation, they had to realise that being a Christian was the highest and most serious vocation of all. They had been saved by grace alone through faith alone, and this was the gift of God. We share the same relationship to our Saviour as they did, believing and proclaiming the same truth.
The pope may come, but he will also go. We shall remain, with the opportunity to go on witnessing to the truth. God has given us our armour to put on and two great weapons, his Word and prayer.
We are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. What then have we to fear? Our country needs more than anything else to hear the gospel. If it takes a papal visit to bring this about, we may live to praise God for his mysterious providence.
The author is Chairman of the Protestant Truth Society Council