Thursday, July 26, 2012

Towards a Taxonomy of the Independent Sacramental Movement

The Bishops of what would become the Liberal Catholic Church.
As someone who has watched the Independent Sacramental Movement off and on for two decades, it seems that developments of the last several years have fundamentally changed the movement.  What we see emerging is very different than the world which was as much created as described by Peter Anson in his book, Bishops at Large, whose fiftieth anniversary of publication will come next year.

Anson, a gifted writer with an acid tongue, introduced the wider public to the episcopus vagans with his colorful accounts of those in the 19th and early 20th centuries who sought to found churches with valid orders in the apostolic succession.  Anson painted, sometimes accurately and sometimes theatrically, a picture of a demimonde inhabited by prelates with strange titles given to schism and ever-shifting alliances.  Whatever the truth of that picture, the image of the vagante was set in the wider culture as one who called himself a patriarch, had his cathedral in a spare bedroom, and whose only followers were his ordinands, who would, no doubt, soon be bishops, archbishops, and metropolitans in their own right and rite.

In what has probably been the most important and widely-read book on the topic since Anson, John Plummer gave us a picture of a world much changed in his 2005 book, The Many Paths of the IndependentSacramental Movement, which took a much more sympathetic and systematic approach to describing the descendants of those ordained by Anson’s bishops as well as new movements that have emerged in the intervening years.  Looking over the internet in the seven years since Plummer’s book, several distinct families seem to be coalescing within the ISM, though, given the nature of the beast, many groups bridge or defy these categories.

Vintage Vagantes
While Anson’s portrait may have been skewed, there have always been those who, for whatever reason, seem to find their primary interest in title and vesture with elaborate ideas of legitimacy resting upon claimed ties to or succession from various existing or defunct bodies.  Fifty years on from Anson, the tradition continues and, to the consternation of many in the ISM, continues to be a defining image of the movement to the wider public.  We should all be quick to remember that without such colorful characters a century ago, there would be no ISM today.

Esoteric Catholics
Anson chronicled the Liberal Catholic Church’s attempt to blend Christianity and Theosophy and, in the intervening years, Esoteric Catholics have become an increasingly complex group, with adherents who trace their lineage or inspiration to various forms of French occultism, modern Gnosticism, the cult of the Magdalene, and any number of other philosophies.  In a nation of seekers hungering for a mystic experience of religion, the Esoteric Catholics jurisdictions continue to multiply and grow and are likely to do so.

By institutionalists, I mean those who place a high value on jurisdiction and the creation of permanent institutional structures.  While small, these groups adopt and adapt the structures of larger churches to fit the needs of the ISM.  Some do this thoughtfully and successfully.  Others may do it a bit grandiosely.  Still others extend their organizing to pan-church plans of ecumenism, either by schemes for reunion among various ISM bodies or with the Union of Utrecht.

Roman Replicators and Continuing Catholics
By "Roman Replicators," a term coined by a friend, I refer to what has perhaps become the largest group within the movement over the past decade and whose ties to the world of Mathew, Vilatte, and Brothers are often the most tenuous.  These are the groups that identify themselves as dissenters from the current teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on a variety of theological and moral issues.  They often have sizable congregations, at least by ISM standards, sometimes as the result of parishioners withdrawing from an existing Roman Catholic parish.  Their ecclesiology is often unsettled and many of these groups are free-standing congregations with no tie to a bishop or larger jurisdiction.  In worship, they tend to contrast sharply with the Vintage Vagantes, using the modern Roman Liturgy and modern Roman hymns and folk music. These groups may be thought of as the cultural mirror image of conservative Continuing Anglicans, who withdrew from their own church a generation ago to preserve distinctive worship and doctrines.  How or whether these groups will coalesce into larger structures remains an interesting question, though they increasingly seem to claim the title “Independent Catholic,” giving a more specific shading to what had once been a generic term.

Free Catholics and Sacramental Christians
The hardest group to track, because of its amorphous nature, is that of the Free Catholics.  While other groups advocate ready access to holy orders, the Free Catholics make this a theological point in advocating a free priesthood with holy orders available to all or at least most.  Combining free church ideas of polity with some influence from the emergent movement, these groups tend to emphasize small communities whose identity lies in their belief in the sacramental system with wide varieties in doctrine.  In fact, they might be more correctly described as “sacramental christians,” since they tend to be non institutional and many have given up the term “catholic” altogether.  While it is one of the ISM’s smaller and newer segments, it may, like the Esoterics, find fertile ground in contemporary America.