Friday, February 10, 2006

A 2,000 year-old conversation

I want to commend another Independent Catholic blog to everyone’s attention – Even the Devils Believe, by seminarian Chris Tessone. In particular, I want to commend his recent discussion of what it means to be “Catholic” in the context of the Independent Catholic movement, outside the Roman Catholic Church. I agree wholeheartedly with his comments, and want to amplify one of them: universality. Chris states that “Catholic teachings must be comprehensible in the context of the wider world.” I would add that being catholic/universal has a temporal component – that is, to be a Catholic Christian is to recognize that one is part of a two-thousand-year-old continuing Christian tradition, a two-thousand-year-old conversation, and that Christians of all other times and places are somehow mystically united with one in the church, the body of Christ. While this point may seem obvious, it stands in stark contrast to the view of many evangelicals, whose high view of scripture leads them not only to reject the tradition, but also to hold an ahistorical view that sees a pristine scriptural faith that was allegedly practiced by the early church, which then fell by the wayside until it was rediscovered by some modern group (some would say the Protestant Reformation was that point of rediscovery, others would place it at another point), when it began to be practiced exactly as it was in the early church – even though such an identical practice is not actually possible, because we live in a world that has changed. By recognizing the fullness of tradition and the diverse ways in which Christians have responded to contemporary society and its challenges, we are better equipped to face the challenges of our own day. (Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I must acknowledge that there are Catholic fundamentalists as well, both within the Roman church and within the independent movement, whose view of tradition is very similar to that of their evangelical fundamentalist brethren in that they see “tradition” as a rigid set of unchanging propositions that is handed down, rather than as an ongoing conversation that is constantly developing and renewing itself. This view is alien to the best of the Catholic theological tradition, but has gained a foothold in some circles nonetheless.)

My Ecclesiastically Checkered Background

I come from an ecclesiastically checkered background. I will give a brief summary here, so that readers can have some idea of where I am coming from, but this post will only contain the “where” and not the “why”, which I will save for further posts. My father and eight of his brothers are/were ministers in various conservative evangelical Christian denominations (my father was nearly 50 when I was born, so a number of my uncles have passed on to their eternal reward). My father started out Free-Will Baptist (licensed but not ordained), was for a short while a Cumberland Presbyterian minister, and spent most of his career as a Southern Baptist minister except for a few very unfortunate years in the early and mid 1970’s when he pastured a couple of Assemblies of God. Here are the denominational affiliations of my uncles (multiple listings indicates the successive denominations in which they are/were clergy):

Luther – Nazarene
Rupert – Nazarene, then United Methodist
Wilbur – Cumberland Presbyterian
Vernon – Southern Baptist, Cumberland Presbyterian, Presbyterian Church US, United Presbyterian Church –USA (these merged late in his life to form the Presbyterian Church USA)
Marvin – Cumberland Presbyterian
Robert – Cumberland Presbyterian
George -- Nazarene
Ellis – Free-Will Baptist, Cumberland Presbyterian

I was baptized at the age of 5 by my father in a Southern Baptist church, very early for a Baptist (and young enough to be considered an “infant baptism” by the Roman Catholics, which is hilarious given the strong opposition to infant baptism by Baptists). We were members of the Assemblies of God from the time I was 7 until I was 10, when we returned to the Southern Baptist fold. Remarkably, the summer I was 10, I was elected as a messenger (as Southern Baptists call their delegates) to the Southern Baptist Convention from our church (my parents were the other two messengers). A couple of years later, my father left the Southern Baptists again, for non-denominational charismatic churches, and was unemployed for 5 years. We would go to one church for a few months, until my father invented a reason why the pastor was scripturally unsound, and then another. For some reason, we wound up going to a United Methodist church, and I joined when I was 15. A year later, in 1983, I served as a youth lay delegate to the Holston Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

In my senior year of high school, I started attending the Episcopal Church, and was confirmed as a freshman in college. While in college, I majored in Judaic studies, with a minor in Hebrew. I went to Harvard Divinity School, and while there, was received into the Roman Catholic Church. After working a few years, I entered the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement at Graymoor. After a year and a half, I realized that I could not become a Roman Catholic priest in good conscience, and I left both the Friars and the Roman church to return to the Episcopal Church. Shortly thereafter, I met John Plummer, who gave me my first in-depth introduction to the Independent Catholic movement, which I ultimately embraced, being ordained and ultimately consecrated a bishop, while at the same time continuing to attend my local Episcopal parish. About a year ago, I moved to Philadelphia, where I met two wonderful newly-ordained Independent priests, and became involved in their newly-formed parish, and it has been a joy to collaborate with them in ministry.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Pass the Unity, Please

There have been many attempts over the years to bring “unity” to the Independent Catholic movement. Often, this comes in the form of some proposed ecclesiastical council or synod. This is a slightly edited version of a post I recently made to an Independent Catholic discussion group in response to one of the latest attempts. I was surprised at how many supportive emails I got in response to it.

“Most of the time, when someone proposes some cooperative body, it is an elaborate one, with long lists of doctrinal standards, validity requirements, educational requirements, etc. Quickly, arguments develop over whether or not these are correct, and over who is or is not valid and is or is not properly educated, not to mention the endless arguments over whether or not this or that person has a “real” ministry – not to mention whether or not people like gays or women. (And for the record, I adhere strictly to the Nicene Creed; have the Mathew, Vilatte, Thuc, Duarte Costa, Ofiesh, Cummins, and a bunch of other lines – including an alleged Mary Magdalene line and various Irvingite, Mormon, and made-up Gnostic lines from dead Cathar bishops appearing in visions – even though I am not an Irvingite, a Mormon, a Gnostic, or a dead Cathar bishop; my M.Div. is from Harvard; we ordain women and lgbt folk and marry gay couples; and we had 10 people at Mass on a recent Sunday, including the man who will be confirmed at Easter – thank you very much.) I have witnessed many bitter feuds between people who have never met in person over these and other similar issues.

Now, if a friend of mine went on a first date and announced the next day that they would be flying out to Vegas within the week to get married, I would try to talk sense into my friend by persuading him or her to get to know the person before rushing into anything.

Similarly, I am very wary of agreeing to join some organization run by people who immediately want to issue all sorts of directives about this or that pet peeve of theirs -- but whom I’ve never met. And, yes, I know the independent sacramental movement is like a breakfast cereal – made up of assorted fruits, nuts and flakes – but I am actually a part of this movement because I like it and feel that this is where I can best serve God, and having been in mainstream denominations, I know that they also have their share of problems – so when the people wanting me to join their group which will finally – yes, this time, we’re really going to do it – reform the movement once and for all and unify everyone – are whining about the long laundry list of faults of the movement, I’m rather turned off.

Here is the actual and only way whatever degree of unity that we may achieve this side of the beatific vision – we need to get together for dinner and visit. No checking of consecration certificates or diplomas or doctrinal statements to see who’s worthy to sit at the table. And the conversation won’t be negotiations for some list of standards that everyone agrees to and no one follows – it will be for the purpose of getting to know each other, hearing each other’s stories, actually listening to one another. No elections for Grand High Patriarchal Poobah and Supreme Water Buffalo of All Independent Catholics Everywhere. And then in a couple of months, we need to do it again. And again. And we can visit each other’s churches.

After actually getting to know one another, and becoming a real community – organically, over time – then maybe we will begin to get to the point of achieving some unity. Some of us have begun doing that in New York and Philadelphia, and I hope others will do so as well.”

I am re-posting it here because I remain convinced that any real unity within our movement must begin with getting to know one another, rather than by setting up elaborate structures similar to the now-defunct National Conference of Independent Catholic Bishops or its proposed replacement, the National Conference of Autocephalous Catholic Bishops and Religious Superiors (website:

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Questions I'll Consider

First, for those of you who are not familiar with the Independent Sacramental Movement, the best resources for learning more about it on-line are the woefully out-of-date yet nevertheless quite comprehensive and the new, as-of-yet woefully incomplete, but hopefully expanding daily database For those who want to do more in-depth reading, the best resource is Bishop Dr. John Plummer’s The Many Paths of the Independent Sacramental Movement, available from Amazon: In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that John is a close friend and my primary consecrator.

Here are some of the questions I intend to explore initially:
1. What is the role of the independent sacramental movement? Is it to form a new denominational structure that replicates that of more mainstream denominations, with church buildings, paid clergy, a lot of denominational infrastructure? Or is it good that we are small, meeting in homes or rented space, with volunteer clergy and lots of small jurisdictional family groupings?
2. Most independent sacramental communities have a much larger proportion of ordained clergy than is the norm in mainstream churches. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Are there other models that might be helpful in coping with this situation? What, exactly, is the role of independent clergy?
3. What is the best way to achieve some degree of unity within this movement?
4. There are many horror stories of people who are inadequately trained becoming bishops; of criminals, cheats, frauds, and other rapscallions being ordained; and the overwhelming majority of people have been in more than one jurisdiction, which causes much grief for those bishops whose clergy leave shortly after ordination. These have led to calls for some sort of reform, some set of standards to be widely adopted in the movement, yet no attempts to establish them have been successful. What would be the best way to establish these standards without sacrificing the freedom which the movement has found so precious?

I invite your comments, as well as suggestions for other issues to be explored.

I also intend to post humorous things amidst the serious discussion.

What this blog is about

The Independent Sacramental Movement, comprised of the Independent Catholic, Old Catholic (non-Utrecht Union), Autocephalous Church, Independent Orthodox, Continuing Anglican, and other movements of Christians holding the apostolic succession of bishops, priests, and deacons while not being in communion with the Roman Catholic Church headed by Pope Benedict XVI (Ratzinger), the Anglican Communion, the Ecumenical Patriarch, the Union of Utrecht, or the ancient non-Calcedonian Eastern churches, is a strange and wonderful little ecclesiastical world. This blog will explore questions facing our movement from the point of an insider – an Independent Catholic bishop who has been a part of this scene for over seven years and knows the joys, the exasperations, the frustrations, and the comforts of this part of Christ’s One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.