Protestant churches

   Of the world’s 1.7 billion Christians (around 25 percent of world population), about a quarter are, at least nominally, Protestants (more than twice as many are Roman Catholics). Historically, ‘Protestant’ was the nickname for those who at the Diet of Speyer in 1529 rejected the majority decision that would have banned Lutheranism in the Catholic parts of Germany. Though originally applied to churches adhering to the teachings of Martin Luther (1483–1546) or the Genevan reformer John Calvin (1509–64), ‘Protestant’ became one of the terms used to denote the various churches, sects and denominations—their very number and diversity provoking further criticism from Catholics —that sprang up during the Reformation in the sixteenth century.
   Characteristics of Protestantism are the conviction that the source of revealed truth is the Bible, which is to be read in the congregation’s native tongue rather than Latin, and the doctrine of the universal priesthood of believers, which means that the clergy have a less crucial role than in Roman Catholicism. While Protestant churches respect the sacraments, with some (such as the Baptists) placing great emphasis on certain of them, they are generally less important than for Roman Catholics. A common factor amid bewildering variations in organization, church discipline and liturgical practice is a distrust of the authoritarianism and centralization considered characteristic of Roman Catholicism. The preference for self-government in individual congregations, which generally have to be financially self-sufficient, is marked, though episcopal structures or something similar often serve a unifying function.
   Protestantism accepts as a fundamental in theology the doctrine that mankind is separated from God by sin and cannot be redeemed through any individual’s effort, but only by the divine will. Nevertheless, great stress has always been laid on the obligations of examining one’s own conscience and following a strict moral code. It has been argued that a consequence has been the development of selfreliance and high standards in personal and public life, translated sometimes into the ‘Protestant work ethic’ and ‘Protestant thrift’, thought by some commentators to be, along with individualism, formative and progressive influences in Protestant societies. In a multicultural, multi-faith Britain where Christianity has declined, recent years have seen the gradual replacement of antagonism, not only between the various Protestant churches but also between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, by tolerance and mutual respect as witnessing, albeit in differing ways, to the same faith.
   See also: Anglican Church
   CHRISTOPHER SMITH

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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