I believe that one of the biggest challenges the independent sacramental movement faces is the shame many feel at our perceived failures because we don’t replicate the mainstream churches in certain ways. Here is a list of some of those ways in which we differ from mainstream churches and about which I have witnessed much embarrassment among independent sacramentalists:
· Tiny congregations
· Lack of a centralized unifying organization
· Very high proportion of membership who are ordained
· Unpaid clergy
· Lack of recognition by the “real” church, whoever that may be (for some, it is Rome; for others, it is Constantinople; for many liberals, it is either Utrecht or the Episcopal Church)
· Embarrassment at “bad” clergy
Of course, there are many others, but I do want to address the shame behind these, because I think the shame attached has done far more harm than the conditions about which the shame is felt.
The reason many people end up in the independent movement is because they are unable to be ordained in mainstream churches, especially the Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches, for a variety of reasons. For those from Roman Catholic backgrounds, it is often because of celibacy, sex, or sexual orientation. For those from Episcopal backgrounds, it is often sexual orientation, or because of arbitrary and abusive ordination processes that exist in most dioceses (especially liberal ones), or because someone deviates from the norm of the ideal priest in some way, or because of going against the prevailing trends. (For example, in my early 20’s, the trend in most dioceses was to discourage young aspirants to ordination, because the ideal was someone with lots of life experience, but then in my 30’s, the trend was to encourage those in their early 20’s as being more energetic.) Both the Roman Catholic and Episcopal denominations have many good, solid clergy doing great work, and both denominations have many clergy who never, ever should have been ordained – in fact, that is true of every denomination, because despite the best efforts of church bureaucrats of all persuasions, there is no perfect ordination process. Heck, JESUS made Judas Iscariot an apostle! And so many who end up in the independent world, where it is much easier to be ordained, are good people whose gifts were spurned out of human sinfulness. Many others are nutcases who were rightly turned down. In other words, we are EXACTLY IDENTICAL to every other Christian denomination – and probably every religious denomination of every persuasion – on the planet. We have good, bad, and indifferent clergy.
But because the overwhelming majority of our clergy come from other backgrounds, unfortunately, it is easy for us to view some mainstream denomination as the standard by which we should be judged. And it is easy to forget the problems the mainstream churches face, or else to reduce them to one or two issues – celibacy, women’s ordination, lgbt issues – and ignore the many other problems. I hear a lot of complaints among independents about the lack of standards for our clergy – yet we forget that the very absence of uniform standards is precisely what has allowed us to embrace the ministry of women and lgbt persons who would have been rejected elsewhere (particularly at the time we started embracing them) – and we also forget the harmful clergy who are nevertheless ordained in churches with high standards. We bewail the lack of a unified structure – yet forget all the headaches that they bring in churches that are more centralized (look at all the lawsuits over property in the Episcopal Church, for example) – and the reason we are unable to develop a structure is that, when push comes to shove, we are (rightly, in my opinion) unwilling to surrender the freedom that such a structure would demand.
I believe that, for us as a movement to move forward, we must recover from the “mainstream shame/envy” we feel, realize that we CANNOT and, more importantly, SHOULD NOT try to replicate the mainstream churches, but that instead, we should embrace the positive things about our own identity – including the positive aspects of those things listed above – and be who we are with the greatest degree of integrity and faithfulness possible. We are not here to replace the mainstream church – they have their own mission from God to which they must be faithful – we are here to complement them and provide ministry they are unable to, and that is our mission from God, to which we must be faithful.
I hope to explore some of these differences and the positive gifts they bring in the coming weeks.