Controversial Protestantism

French Protestantism took part in the great debates of the second half of the 20th century. The controversial position of some Protestants in the 1960s was exemplified by the fight for an end to colonisation and the criticism of contemporary society.

Decolonisation

  • Church and Power’, Bulletin n° 165 of CPED, december 1971 © Collection privée

The council of the French Reformed Church (ERF), regional or national synods took a stand on numerous occasions in favour of the emancipation of various colonies. As early as 1947, they condemned the acts of violence committed in Madagascar – a traditional protestant mission area : « we refuse Nazi methods » could be read in the magazine Le Semeur (The Sower) or in Foi et Vie (Faith and Life).

Most Protestants followed the views of their representatives concerning Algeria. In 1957 the council of the French Protestant Federation demanded that the public authorities put an end to the methods used in Algeria. Issues such as torture, insubordination, conscientious objection were openly discussed. Many young Protestants were among the 1960 rebels and the Rev. Etienne Mathiot, a former resistant pursued by the Gestapo, was sentenced to 8 months’ imprisonment in March 1958 for having lodged and then helped an Algerian escape to Switzerland.

Criticism of contemporary society

Confronted by the profound changes which marked French society, some were critical, others more pragmatic. While “at the beginning of the 1960s, some Protestant authorities in France gave the impression of giving in to a sort of enthusiasm for revolution, between theology and Marxism” as P. Cabanel said, on the contrary Jacques Ellul in 1963 derisively said some Christians « could picture no other way of being in the world than being involved in politics or belonging to a trade-union ».

In July 1966, after the main decolonisation crises, the international conference « Church and Society » brought together representatives of Western and developing countries. The French participants were André Philip, André Dumas, Jacques Ellul, Claude Gruson. The need for a « theology of revolution » was evoked – similar to the movement born in South America. Some saw in Christianity a revolutionary calling and many young pastors or theology students gave up the idea of parish ministry in order to dedicate themselves to medical-social or intellectual tasks.

In 1968 student « leftism » was at its peak, supported by some strong Protestant personalities. Georges Casalis, a Barthian and former resistant, claimed in his radio-broadcast sermon on 19 May that « the utopia which motivates the masses is the name of a new spirituality » and that the May slogans « contain multiple symbols, and echoes of the gospel ».

In 1969 the theme of the general assembly of the French Protestant Federation was « What development and for what people ? » One of the final resolutions was the creation of a working group comprising pastors and lay people with Claude Gruson as president. In November 1971 the group published a text entitled « Churches and Powers » ; Le Monde newspaper wrote : « The French Protestant Federation deems present society unacceptable ». The text was diversely accepted by the Protestant community, and some conservative currents objected to it, as proved in 1974 by the creation (against the wishes of the French Protestant Federation) of the free theological faculty in Aix-en-Provence.

In the following years, the climate of controversy became quieter. Thanks to advances in ecumenism some debates were taken up by think-tanks such as the « Justice and Peace » committee, the centre at Villemétrie and some European institutions. These debates were less media worthy in a context where the economy was changing on a global level. What some called “leftist Protestantism” was outdated ; the Protestant involvement seemed above all « reformist ».

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