Monday, July 30, 2012

The ISM and the Future Beyond Inclusion

Where does it all go from here?
This is the third of three pieces on the Independent Sacramental Movement, Inclusion, and the future.  Part I, Saltwater or Sanctification, ran on last Wednesday and Part II, Towards a Taxonomy of the ISM ran last Friday.

Having other, larger, better-resourced religious bodies accepting the ordination of the divorced, women, LGBT people, and members of other marginalized groups creates a particular crisis for the ISM.  Independent sacramental bodies have always drawn heavily from these groups, who now have a variety of choices among churches and denominations that, in some cases, are actively recruiting them.  In a world where Presbyterians now ordain LGBT candidates and the Episcopal Church has become increasingly open to the ministry of transgendered people, what is the distinctive purpose of the ISM beyond ministry to the marginalized?

The ISM in the US has historically had a hard time attracting lay people, since the impediments to lay membership in any religious body are significantly fewer than those for candidates for holy orders. The ISM was always heavily peopled by those who found what they believed to be their calling to holy orders denied elsewhere.  To point out the elephant in the room, it is true that a number of these were unstable or even unscrupulous individuals, who saddled the movement with a legacy of scandal and derision.  That’s hardly everyone or even anything approaching a plurality, but that legacy rests uneasily among us to this day.

So what is the purpose of the ISM other than granting orders to those denied them elsewhere and how will different segments of the movement try to face the future?  There seem to be a variety of responses, three of which I find to be worth examining in some detail from among the five types of groups I sketched out in Friday's Towards a Taxonomy of the Independent Sacramental Movement.

Unionist Institutionalists

First, there are the Institutionalists, and here I am thinking of a particular sub segment of that group: those who hope that various schemes for union among the different ISM bodies or with the Union of Utrecht will help the movement achieve critical mass and allow a degree of quality control and stability that will prevent some of the more colorful episodes of the past.  While recognizing that this is a well-established ecumenical strategy, I fear that these sorts of Institutionalists risk repeating the errors of the past by not confronting the structural weaknesses that drove them. 

Here, once again, there is the question of appeal.  Other than to those who feel called to holy orders, to whom will these bodies that mimic the larger churches and denominations appeal? The lay person will find a ready welcome among Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Unitarians, and other groups.  Many institutional bodies replicate these larger groups in all aspects except available resources.  What is their distinctive ministry that will appeal to the unchurched?

Second, there is probably little realistic hope of recognition by the Union of Utrecht.  The United States already has The Episcopal Church, fully in communion with the European Old Catholics with a three-fold order of ministry and a sacramental emphasis.  Even should the Institutionalists manage to get themselves organized, where is the incentive for Utrecht, which would seem more likely to tell these groups to enter dialogue with the Episcopalians, to whom they already entrusted one such meeting in the US?

Finally, would name-brand validation materially change the prospects of the Institutionalists?  While I am sure we are all eager to follow Our Lord in his desire that we all may be one, what is to be gained from seeking this sort of institutional recognition that seems so psychologically important to so many in the ISM in the US?  The Churches of the Union of Utrecht are small and their demographic patterns mirror those of other European religious bodies.  Other than shoring up some concept of validity or legitimacy, what is to be gained?  And does this represent a real gain in an increasingly post-denominational society? 

That said, Institutionalist groups more broadly construed are often better able to provide stability and continuity than the more fluid concepts of church that are coming to the fore in the ISM.  They often have models for spiritual growth, community development, and clergy training that are absent or yet to be developed in other models.  The difference between community baby and institutional bath water is far from cut and dried.

Roman Replicators and Continuing Catholics

The second group to consider is what I call the Roman Replicators or Continuing Catholics.  The term “Continuing Anglican” was coined to describe conservatives who left the Anglican Communion over the ordination of women and the revision of the Book of Common Prayer and sought to preserve their vision of Anglicanism.  Paradoxically, the term “Continuing” might also be applied to those in the ISM who have left the Roman Catholic Church in recent years over its perceived conservative shift and, to varying degrees, seek to preserve or extend the “Spirit of Vatican II,” embracing post-conciliar language and worship and generally welcoming the divorced, LGBT people, and women to Holy Orders.

The question for these groups is whether they will face the same institutional dilemmas as the Anglican Continuers.  At present, these groups have a large potential pool of converts and their congregations are enjoying considerable success around the country, but is this sustainable?  For the present they offer a familiar community and identity for disaffected Catholics for whom the Episcopal Church may be too formal and the UCC too Protestant, but how will these communities change as the larger religious culture changes?  Many would identify one of the downfalls of the Anglican Continuers as being an inability to take their eye off their parent body.  Even forty years on, much Continuing Anglican energy is spent dissecting the failings of the mainstream Anglican Communion.  Will the Continuing Catholics take their eyes off Rome or will they, as some consciously do, seek to build a church in exile rather than a new movement?

Another challenge for Continuing Catholics may lie in culture.  At present, many of these bodies recreate the ethos of progressive Roman Catholic parishes in their liturgy and music.  This will appeal to contemporary Catholics, but, if the Continuing Catholics hold fast to their vision of the church that should have been, how successfully will they appeal to Catholics of a new generation raised with different language and worship?  In 20 years will aging congregations cling fondly to the Sacramentary of 1970 much as graying Continuing Anglicans do to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer?  Will Haugen and Haas appeal to the 20-somethings of three decades from now?  Pulling the frame back wider, will this type of church community appeal to current and future potential members who were not raised Roman Catholic?  The potential to fall into the Continuing Anglican’s self-referential nostalgia trap seems quite real and all of these concerns point to the need to develop a dynamic culture that is not defined in terms of another body or a specific cultural period.  The process will be most interesting to watch and, make no mistake from my questions, there is undeniable potential here to fundamentally transform the character of the entire Independent Sacramental Movement through sheer numbers.

Free Catholics and Sacramental Christians

Finally, on the list of groups to watch, there are the Free Catholics or Sacramental Christians.  These are the groups that are wedded to the sacramental system, including holy orders, but not necessarily to historic sounding church names and more formal structures of governance.  The inspiration here is drawn from the Free Church tradition and also owes something of its culture to the Emergent Church movement with a dash or two of Christian Anarchist thrown in.  While degrees of liturgical traditionalism and theological concerns may vary, these are the groups who have a self-understanding of doing something that is quite new and distinct from either mainstream religious groups or from the more institutional models of previous ISM groups.

The focus among these Sacramental Christians is not the jurisdiction but the shared belief in the sacraments as vehicles of divine grace.  Most or all members of these groups may be ordained and there is less anxiety with “validity” just as there as less insistence on external institutional validation. 

The challenges faced by these groups mimic many of the challenges faced by the wider ISM in the past, but there is a tendency here to find the strength in what was in the past seen as a weakness.  These groups are self-consciously fluid and dynamic.  “Intercommunion” and other such concepts tend to be informal and based on personal relationships rather than concordats.   Some use traditional liturgies while others are more experimental and draw from a wide range of traditions.  The thing that binds Sacramental Christians as an identifiable movement is their comfort with a studied messiness in opposition to the tendency in the past to recreate the structures of the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Churches.  These factors make this group difficult to quantify and probably make the adjective “Sacramental” best understood as a loose descriptor like “Protestant” rather than as a brand name for a specific tradition like “Anglican” or “Orthodox.” 

Even with this flexibility and possibility for experimentation, there are potential pitfalls here as well, at least as they concern identifying this group as a distinct movement.  As Nelson Aldrich once said when using the analogy of the Cheshire Cat in another context, “How long can a cat be called a cat when it is only a smile?”  Will the centrifugal force inherent in the adaptability of this model lead its adherents to become something entirely different? How long will these individuals and groups be recognizable to one another and others in the ISM and is this even a legitimate concern? As with the Continuing Catholics, the next decade will be interesting.