Some years ago I spoke to the mayor of a nearby town, who happens to be a friend of Jacques Chirac. I asked him about the presence of Protestants in Auvergne, on which he remarked that the Charles Martel had stopped the Arabs at Poitiers — and then suddenly paused in the middle of his sentence, realising that I might not be pleased to have the Reformation compared to Islam!
But he was obviously happy that the Protestants had been ‘stopped’ in Auvergne, which, in fact, happened through persecution from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Unfortunately it must be added that not all the Protestants were little angels either.
Except in the south and east of the Massif Central, the Protestant presence is weak and sparse. As far as the present administrative area of Auvergne is concerned, the south-easternmost Department of Haute Loire is an exception. Here the Plateau is traditionally a strongly Protestant area. But not all Protestants are Reformed Evangelicals.
France is the land of Calvin, but a prophet is not without honour except in his homeland. Sadly, many French Evangelicals seem unaware of how much they owe to John Calvin and have little knowledge of (or sympathy with) his theology. He is generally supposed to have been unduly severe and rigorous, especially by the vast majority who have never even attempted to read any of his writings!
However, there is today one promising sign: the writings of Spurgeon are quite popular amongst many Evangelicals, thanks largely to the work of Europresse.
As to the progress of the gospel here in Auvergne, it appears to be slow but sure. In our own work, over the last ten years, we have seen the little church in Clermont-Ferrand grow gradually, and we are thankful.
It should be added that the majority of Evangelical churches round here are of the Pentecostal or charismatic varieties. We are regarded as quite an exception.
Unfortunately, we receive no help or encouragement from the local authorities. When we lost our little meeting hall in the centre of Clermont-Ferrand ten years ago, I went to see if the town council could help us find at least a temporary meeting place. I met only hostile indifference.
When we did find what had once been a fairly large shop, suitable for use as a church building, the powers that be insisted that we must apply for a building permit and employ an architect, although no structural changes were involved. Even then they never gave formal permission. We only had permission by default.
They wanted us to pay to park our cars in the street, until we pointed out that this requirement had been waived for the local mosque, after which we heard no more about it!
The area where our present hall is situated has a large immigrant population from North Africa and Turkey. In practice this means that we meet opposition from the local youth; so much so, that we are now looking for other premises, although this is also partly because of the increasing numbers at services.
Recently, most of our mid-week meetings have been disturbed by shouting and banging on the door, the glass of which was broken for the third time last week. The vast majority of those involved are from this immigrant population.
Contrary to our previous experience in Normandy, we have had hardly any positive contact with the Roman Catholic clergy in Auvergne. For some reason they seem to be afraid of us. A couple of years ago, a dear lady in a local town invited the priest to her table at the same time as us: the invitation was refused.
More recently the local parish magazine carried an article exhorting the faithful to ‘dialogue’ with Protestants, but my letter suggesting a meeting received no reply.
So I went to see the local bishop about this, but was received with considerable suspicion. He complained about the sectarian attitude of ‘Evangelicals’ (by which he meant Pentecostals), and went on to claim that Paul had gone seriously wrong in Galatians in his teaching about the Law! However, he did wish me ‘Good Easter’ on parting, so I suppose we must be thankful for small mercies!
As already mentioned, most of the folks who live around our hall are Moslems. Recently a couple of girls took exception to our text stating that ‘Jesus is Lord’. According to them, only Allah is worthy of this title. Some of the local lads have been asking us why Jesus ‘committed suicide’! I tried to point out to them that it would be difficult to crucify oneself.
Anyhow, please pray for conversions amongst these young Moslems and of course in the Roman Catholic community also. Although most French people are baptised Roman Catholic, only a small minority actually practise their religion, and there is a great shortage of priests. However, there is also a great shortage of preachers of the gospel. ‘Pray therefore the Lord of the harvest …