I don’t feel like anyone is capable of doing an adequate job summing up the immense loss. While blessedly the damage was significantly less than previously thought, the scarring is still a civilization-level tragedy. It is hard to imagine another symbol generating this much grief across the world.
And yet before it is a symbol of French architecture, the city of Paris, or western civilization, it is first and foremost an active cathedral and a Roman Catholic church. Which begs the question for Protestants, what should Notre Dame mean to us? Unless one is of significant French heritage, Roman Catholic or a Francophile, it can feel a bit like being on the outside looking in. Like a family funeral your friend invited you to; tragic but somewhat disconnected. However, it does not have to be like this. Though tangled, Protestant relationship with Notre Dame and France is still worth valuing.
Early & Medieval French Roots
France holds a complicated place in the Protestant tradition, especially in the English speaking world. The French alliance of Throne and Altar persecuted French Protestants – called Huguenots – and waged war on various Protestant countries. Huguenots ransacked the cathedral, destroying various pieces of art. In return, Notre Dame rang the bells for Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the executions of Reformed martyrs and the victories over Protestant armies. Calvin’s Institutes were even burned on the cathedral steps.
Yet this is not the whole story. The French roots of Protestantism* run deep. It starts with the earliest days of Christian missionary activity and continues to this day. A Merovingian brought one of the first Christian bishops to the Anglo-Saxons. When Augustine of Canterbury was sent by Gregory I to officially start an evangelization effort, he was supported by French bishops and used French Christians as interpreters. When missionaries were sent to Gaelic Ireland and Scotland, they were often supported financially by churches in France. These churches would eventually become to the Church of England, the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland, the Scottish Episcopal Church, the (Anglican) Church of Ireland, the Methodist and various independent Protestant churches.
After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, William the Conqueror picked a Norman nobleman, Osmund, Count of Sées as the bishop of Salisbury. Bishop Osmund commissioned a new liturgy, drawn from a variety of Saxon and Celtic sources but was also largely identical to the liturgy written at Rouen. The new Sarum Rite became a source used by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer to write the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, itself influential in wider Reformed and Methodist liturgies. Today some variant of the prayerbook is used by over 180 million Christians worldwide.
Additionally medieval France itself was a place where the Reformers looked to for inspiration. Ratramnus, a monk from Amiens became famous for his work on the Eucharist (On the Body and Blood of the Lord) and predestination (On the Predestination of God), both of which became immensely influential to Protestant Reformers. French theologians like Jean Gerson, Berengar of Tours, John of Paris, and Pierre d’Ailly, developed arguments on church authority that became critical to later arguments during the Reformation.
The French Reformation
Therefore it should be no surprise that the Reformation broke out vigorously in France as anywhere else. In the 1200s, French Christians following a layman named Pierre Vaudès (commonly anglicized as Peter Waldo) started a reform movement that rejected transubstantiation, clericalism and advocated for worship in the language of the people. The Waldensians survived to the Reformation itself, eventually officially adopting Protestant doctrine. Additionally, it’s clear that no summary of the French influence on Protestantism would be complete without John Calvin. While not the only or first Reformer to come from France, he was arguably the most noteworthy. Under his leadership, Geneva became a center of Protestant theologians and missionaries across Europe, his liturgy shaped Protestant worship internationally, and his Institutes of the Christian Religion (aside from becoming a French classic that influenced the language) became the premier systematic Protestant theology of the day. A Reformation without this combative man from Noyon would be literally unrecognizable. In the end, after the French Wars of Religion, the Huguenot exodus would fill Protestant churches across Europe, South Africa, and the Americas.
Finally, Notre Dame itself plays a positive role in the French Protestant experience. During the Reformation, a celebrated choir singer was revealed, to the royal court’s shock, to be a Huguenot. In the late 17th and 18th centuries, the goldsmith’s guild of Paris paid for a total of 75 paintings for the cathedral. Two of these artists (Sébastien Bourdon and Louis Testelin) were Protestants, contributing works like The flagellation of Saint Paul and Saint Silas, Saint Peter Reviving the Widow Tabitha, and The Crucifixion of Saint Peter.
Two major protectors of Protestantism were either married or crowned at Notre Dame. Henri IV married Margaret of Valois in 1572 (as a then-Protestant, the marriage was on the parvis). Though he later abjured Calvinism for Roman Catholicism, he remained the protector of the Huguenots, issuing the Edict of Nantes to secure their rights. Napoleon Bonaparte famously crowned himself as Napoleon I at Notre Dame in 1804. Bonaparte would later give remaining Huguenots state support alongside the Roman Catholic Church in France.
A New Chapter
Lastly, it is clear that Protestantism in France is not dead but in fact in the middle of a revival. In the midst of the historic dechristianization across Europe, and while Roman Catholicism continues to regrettably decline, French Protestantism has seen as much as 15-20% growth since the late 1990s, with evangelicals driving much of the progress. Like the historic repair and renovation of Notre Dame itself, Protestants’ relationship with the cathedral and France overall is a long and tempestuous story. But it does not have to be one purely of mourning.
Even if none of the above were true, we would still have reason to grieve with our Roman brothers and sisters. Spurn atavistic and gleeful ramblings from folks like the fools over and Pulpit & Pen. Had there been no Protestant connection to France or Notre Dame at all, we should mourn the wounding of a sacred Christian space where, for centuries, marriages were consecrated, Christians baptized, the Gospel preached, the Word pronounced, and Holy Communion given. This, more than all the art, the relics, the architecture, though glorious, is where the beauty of Notre Dame resides.
While it was (and is) sometimes debated among Protestants if the Roman Catholic Church is a true church, the overall consensus among classical Protestants is that it remains part of the worldwide Church albeit a branch that is in deep error. Reformed theologian Isaac Causabon, himself from Drôme once noted:
The denying the Church of Rome the being of a Church has been a hindrance of Reformation.
If we conclude that by simply being in error, that the Roman Church is no Church at all, then we must functionally conclude that in Europe there was no Church and no Christians for centuries. The early and later consensus of Protestantism, on the whole, rejects this thinking. Richard Hooker, Anglican theologian put it best:
We earnestly advise [those rejecting Roman Catholics as Christians] to consider their oversight, in suffering indignation at the faults of the Church of Rome to blind and withhold their judgement from seeing that [Rome is] nevertheless still due to the same Church, as to be held and reputed a part of the House of God, a limb of the Visible Church of Christ.
Though separated by error and mutual schism, those worshiping at Notre Dame, both in the centuries past and this Holy Week, remain our brothers and sisters. Their loss is ours. And yet all is not lost. Many have seen the fire as a metaphor for the crisis that Christianity in Europe finds itself in. If it is then we should rejoice. Holy Week will still come. Easter is almost here. We will rebuild. Upon the destruction of St Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry, the provost remembered:
That night the city burned and the mother church of the city burned with her. Can’t help feeling there’s a sort of emblem of the eternal truth that when men suffer, God suffers with them….it was the spirit of our forefathers that built that grand building. I believe that spirit is with us still and will help us…build it again to the glory of Jesus Christ.
Various & Sundry Essays
- “The Loss of a Lady: Notre Dame and Sacred Space,” Bruce Hillman. 1517.
- “The End of Christendom: Notes on the Burning of Notre Dame.” Jake Meador. Mere Orthodoxy.
- “Behold Thy Mother: Notre Dame.” Michael Brendan Dougherty. National Review.
Various & Sundry Books
- Ann Williams, Kingship and Government in Pre-Conquest England, c. 500-1066. Macmillan Press 1999.
- Christopher Wordsworth, Theophilus Anglicanus; Or, Manual of Instruction on the Church, and the Anglican Branch of it. Rivingtons, 1886.
- Richard Winston, Notre Dame: A History. New World City, 2017.
- Edited by Raymond A. Mentzer & Bertrand Van Ruymbeke, A Companion to the Huguenots. Brill, 2016.
- Henry Martyn Baird, History of the Rise of the Huguenots of France, Volume 1. Scribner’s Sons, 1896.
*By Protestantism, I am really referring to the Reformed, the Anglicans and those who branch off of them. I know very little about the French influence on Lutheranism though I am sure someone can fill me in.