Consider the sedevacantists. After the Second Vatican Council, when the old liturgy was abandoned and the new liturgy abused, certain Catholics in a fit of disgust decided that the Church headed by the Pope no longer existed, that they were the last remnant of the real faithful.
This sort of split is, sadly, not unusual. It may even be archetypical.
After every council, or so the story goes, a small, local number of Catholics will leave. They may persist and they may persist for centuries, but they are always minor and small. Their split is as the inedible outer skin of an onion, peeling off with the brush of a thumb and soon discarded.
While their size in and of itself does not discredit them, for truth is true no matter how few adherents believe it, that these schismatics become theologically wayward does. In abandoning the structure of the Church the sedevacantists found their way to abandon theology older than they, as with the Union of Utrecht before them; as the Union dismisses in the modern way a historical interpretation of pelvic issues, just so the sedevacantists abandon right interpretation of certain pronouncements of the First Vatican Council. Just so it is with Protestantism, but worse — Protestantism is in ruins, and Evangelicalism its shantytown.
If there is a life in Protestantism it is in the death of all structure; if there is another it is in the revival and worship of discarded relics from those selfsame structures. Pieces of doctrine, defined centuries before, yet live their unlife as rubble recycled. This is the problem: Protestants solve with solvent. When they detect corruption, the only solution is to dissolve and reconstruct. That reset button hasn’t worked yet, they must say, but that doesn’t mean it won’t!
Of the three main branches of Protestantism, not a single one has survived without further major split. Structure anywhere it was has crumbled, as all men and all works of men do, and in parts to the point of dust. From man it came, and to dust it goes. As the Methodists tore up the Anglican communion, whatever the intentions of Wesley, the remaining Anglicans and Lutherans today keep at best a shell from their glory days. Even in the radical Reformation we have dissolution of design — as with “anti-Clerical lite,” just so with the Baptists from Anabaptists, the Presbyterians from Calvinists.
Each renewal within Protestantism, if we can speak of a renewal, is in proposing new doctrine, destroying old doctrine whenever the New Prophet is revealed to be a False Prophet. Old moods and discarded novelties litter the landscape, not worth a nickel but recycled nonetheless.
That a street preacher pitches a tent and not build a thing lasting he owes a great deal to the Reformation, but from there his heritage becomes more complicated. His tent may be scavenged from the Friar, his bedroll from the Lawyer, his song from the King. We cannot blame him for insolvency, for in the heart of hearts he and we know his house will not stand the coming generation. Why build when the hurricane will come?
When chosen people abandon the promised land, leaving behind the good soil of their fathers and the gardener Himself, we should expect as much. But this is the very charge levied against the Catholics. In history, what do we see in the Catholic Church but the onset of corruption shed, at the least every few centuries, for an enthusiastic renewal in faith and morals, not to mention art and culture? There has been and is renewal here — and will, God willing, there will be — so surely this soil is the fertile land. Thorns do get weeded away, and rocks do get removed, and without leaving our homestead to search for home. Perhaps some men need this, and perhaps Chesterton is right to write admirably of leaving home to find it, but how wide is the world that in walking the distance so many haven’t yet returned?
Reformers called for reform, and this was laudable — but reformers did not have to leave the Church to do so. A great many reformers did not, and these men or their heirs saw that very century the new flourishing of the Church, these centuries of the Jesuits. Even if the Reformation were the only reason the Church became again the Church, a false claim I will not here rebuke, it stands that the Church is the Church. Reformers — rather, the children’s children of reformers — there is one thing left to do: Come back.