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Papal trip: Protestantism revisited in Britain

The controversy among Britons over the Pope's planned visit to their country--still hanging by a thread because of the Falklands crisis --is further evidence of the growing influence of religion in world politics.

At one end of the spectrum, is the incipient polarization of Christian attitudes over the Falklands into Roman Catholic (pro-Argentina) and Protestant (pro-Britain) camps. At the other, the assertiveness of the evangelical Protestant fundamentalist ''moral majority'' in the arena of US domestic politics.

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In the spectrum, too, are proliferation of cults (such as the Unification Church, Hare Krishna, and Church of Scientology), as well as the Islamic fundamentalism embracing Ayatollah Khomeini and President Sadat's assassins. The spectrum also includes the Roman Catholic Church's central role in Poland with a Polish Pope as well as those politicians in Israel set on banning El Al airline flights on the Jewish Sabbath.

But there is an aspect of the debate stirred by the Pope's planned visit to Britain that is of peculiarly English interest. It may have roused the members of the Church of England to the significance of their Protestant heritage.

The basis for any such assessment is not the raucous, even violent, efforts of the Northern Ireland Protestant zealot, the Rev. Ian Paisley, to stir up opposition in England to the Pope's visit. The more meaningful, and considerably more subtle, straws in the wind, are:

* The disappointment of those organizing the visit, even before the Falklands crisis, at the apparent lack of public interest in the mass rallies that were being planned for John Paul II in such big cities as Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, and Cardiff.

* The ability of the organizers to raise no more than half of the $3.3 million (according to The Sunday Times of London) needed to finance the Pope's tour. Helping the church organize the visit is a commercial concern, International Management Group, with special responsibilities for marketing, transport, and catering.

* The conviction of leading British Roman Catholics that, if the visit is canceled, it will be at least a decade before it can be reinstituted. The director of press and news media for the church in Scotland is quoted as saying: ''If it's off, it's off, and if that happens I can't see the Holy Father coming here for another 10 years.''

* The heritage of English Protestantism includes the King James translation of the Bible into English (1611) and the Book of Common Prayer (1662), both of which would have been impossible without Henry VIII's break with the Vatican in 1533.

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Those two volumes, with their incomparable language, had a liberating and dynamic effect on the ethos, culture, and politics of the English people. In the immediately following centuries, they were the pacesetters in carrying the imprint of European civilization to all parts of the globe. The impelling and enlightening force of their Protestantism in all this was crucial.

In modern times, however, the principal institutional vehicle of that Protestantism, the Church of England, has been the most severely affected of all the mainline churches by the secularizing effect of postwar urbanization, science, and technology.

Writing in the winter 1982 issue of Daedalus, journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Prof. David Martin of London University says:

''The '60s and '70s were a time of contraction for the historic state churches of European and English Protestantism. The imposing shell of a state religon was held up by the performance of the rites de passage at birth, death, marriage and (in Scandinavia) confirmation.

''There is a slow erosion of these rites, but they still cover some four-fifths of the population in Scandinavia, and in England nearly half the population is at least christened and married in the Church of England.

''But the actual weekly practice of Anglicans, Lutherans, and Dutch Reformed is startlingly similar. It varies between 3 and 5 percent on any given Sunday.''

This does not mean that Englishmen are more un-Christian than other Europeans or North Americans. They preserve their Christian sense of values, their sense of justice and fairness, their broad religious and political tolerance, their general commitment to free inquiry in the fields of education and the natural sciences--all born of the Protestantism they fashioned for themselves from the Reformation onward.

But what many Englishmen of this generation have hitherto tended to overlook is how much they owed to that Protestantism. They have shied away from the institutional and denominational concept of church in favor of ecumenism. And like other Christians in many parts of the world, they have shifted the emphasis in their church from religious to social activism.

There was no apathy about the debt to Protestantism 300 years ago. King James II, the first Catholic to come to the throne after Henry VIII's break with Rome a century and a half earlier, showed signs of trying to re-Catholicize the country. As a result he was ousted in 1688 and replaced by his Protestant daughter Mary and her very Protestant husband, William of Orange.

To ensure no repetition of this, Parliament passed the Act of Settlement in 1701 specifically barring Catholics or any heir marrying a Catholic from the throne, and insisting that the crown pass only to an heir in communion with the Protestant Church of England.

This law is still on the statute books. But the tide of ecumenism in England had reached such a height last year that the head of the English Roman Catholic Church, the nationally respected Basil Cardinal Hume, was given a role--albeit minor--in the marriage in St. Paul's Cathedral of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer (both members of the Church of England.)

In March of this year, by coincidence, an Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission published a report after 12 years of study saying that the Pope had the best universal claim to be recognized as the ''universal primate'' if the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches reunited.

(The Church of England is the name under which the Anglican or Episcopal Church is known in Britain. It is the state church in England, but not in Scotland or Wales, although the latter two are predominantly Protestant lands. Of the total population of the three countries, about 53 million in the early 1970s, just over 4 million are estimated to be Roman Catholics.)

Pope John Paul II, with his frequent travels, is increasingly perceived as a Pontiff committed to reasserting the authority of his church in a secularized world. He is insisting on the leadership within his church of the Catholic priesthood, or magisterium, from the commanding role of the papacy itself down through bishops to parish priests.

This perception may also have roused British Protestants, to whom any suggestion of ecclesiastical authoritarianism has long been distasteful.

Roused to exactly what, or how far, remains to be seen.

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