I am continuing my series of articles and reflections on what is being termed by many as independent sacramental Christianity so that the category may include both those who are orthodox and unorthodox by classical Roman Catholic standards. At one end of the spectrum are traditionalist Roman Catholics of various “positions” and tendencies (sedevacantists, sedeprivationists, etc.) and at the other end are neo-gnostics, theosophists and the more liberal or progressive tendencies. The term seems to cover the whole spectrum on the basis that all these communities have a ministry of bishops, priests and deacons (unlike most Protestant denominations) and a liturgical / sacramental life according to traditional and modern rites.
There is a website called the Mathew Center for the Study of the ISM, dedicated to the history of the Old Catholic movement in England and other English-speaking countries. It has not been updated since last year. It has mutual links with the European- American University. This educational institution is run by Bishop John Kersey, a prelate identifying with the Liberal Catholic tradition and an accomplished concert pianist.
On the page dealing with the Arnold Harris Mathew Center for the Study of the Independent Sacramental Movement, we find a fascinating introduction to Catholicism beyond Rome. Kersey is clear about the one criterion that defines Catholic churches – the Apostolic Succession, which means bishops, the Priesthood and the Sacraments. A church can be independent from Rome, get its members to pray and hear God’s Word, but it is only Catholic if it has valid bishops. Rome would say that the canonical aspect has to be right too, but does concede some Catholicity in separated churches like the Orthodox and the Old Catholics (at least before the latter started ordaining women). Kersey is concerned to give the widest possible meaning to the word Catholic to include the liberal notion of it encompassing all mankind.
A denomination is defined as an organisation of Christian believers with a common vision and administration. In this more liberal vision, Catholicism may be expressed in any number of denominations without losing its essential ontological unity. I have used the analogy of the Blessed Sacrament – the Host can be broken up into any number of pieces, but each piece contains the whole and entire Sacrament of Christ’s Presence. That is simply a reflection of standard Thomist theology and expressed in the liturgy for Corpus Christi. It is an idea I have always found interesting in authors like Soloviev and Khomiakov in their ecclesiological speculation based on the Eastern Orthodox tradition. With my refusal to compartmentalise everything into ontologically separate packages, as the Nominalists did, I find the Catholic Church expressed often in the most unlikely places and people! Among the Catholic denominations, there is of course the Roman Catholic Church with its local and particular churches in communion with Rome, and then there are the “canonical” and “non-canonical” Orthodox Churches. There are also all the Churches that for one reason or another broke away from institutional Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Orthodoxy and the branches of Lutheranism with bishops and a sacramental life. There are also churches with a valid priesthood that strive for originality in a world that is tired of clerical tyranny and is affected by conditions of modernity and post-modernity. There is no longer a notion of “true Catholic” and “imitator / impostor / deceiver”, though some individuals may have bad intentions, but a Catholic ideal with any number of expressions to suit differences of culture, temperament and conditions of life.
Like John Plummer (mentioned in previous articles about this subject), Kersey has introduced the various categories he includes in the genus of independent sacramental Christians. After the Old Catholics, directly broken away from Roman Catholicism (pastoral neglect of the Archdiocese of Utrecht on the pretext of Jansenism and the definition of Papal infallibility – the growing “totalitarianism” of Rome in both cases), there are Continuing Anglicans like the TAC, the ACC and many other smaller jurisdictions. He divides the category of “non-Roman” Catholics into the three adjectives traditional, old and independent.
Roughly speaking, the traditional Catholics are a direct split-off from Rome on account of the liturgical reforms and liberal drifts of Rome since Vatican II, and appeal to the Tridentine monolith as prevailed until the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958. The Old Catholics come in two versions: Old Catholic and Old Roman Catholic. The former are modelled on the Swiss and German reaction against Vatican I and the definition of Papal infallibility in 1870. The latter are modelled on the Dutch Church prior to the Union of Utrecht and Archbishop Arnold Harris Mathew’s rejection of some of the reforms introduced in 1910 like the vernacular in the liturgy, the abolition of clerical celibacy and the introduction of radically reformed and simplified rites based on Enlightenment principles (cf. Synod of Pistoia). Thus, Old Catholics are inspired by the Union of Utrecht as it was until quite recently, and Old Roman Catholics are similar to traditional Catholics except for allowing married priests, a vernacular liturgy and a less radical political outlook.
Old Catholicism outside the Union of Utrecht has done better in the United States than in England or continental Europe. This side of the Atlantic, independent Catholic churches suffer hostility from Roman Catholics and Anglicans, so it has always been difficult to establish a foothold and gain credibility – that together with the lack of discipline and eccentricities of too many clerics.
With most of those attracted to these churches seeking a path to ordination, their model tends not to be that of a traditional parish but rather that of a clergy union or dispersed order.
That seems a succinct way of putting it. These churches are needed by clergy and have little in the way of lay membership, because the mainstream churches have less oppressive control over the laity than the clergy. The laity can generally find their tolerant niche without leaving the mainstream churches. Kersey is realistic about the fact that many Old Catholic churches are hostile to each other, a trait that parallels the alphabet soup world of Continuing Anglicans. Such hostility, sadly, can only play into the self-satisfaction and smugness of mainstream “totalitarianism”. Many independent Catholics and Anglicans are concerned to find a new way to open the way to greater unity in diversity, tolerance and respect of difference.
There are various traits that attract interest, notably the idea of being moderately liturgically traditionalist and theologically liberal with less of an emphasis on “truth” and obligation of uniformity and compliance. Such an attitude can open the way to a bewildering kaleidoscope of individual opinions and obscure the notion of orthodoxy and Catholic unity, but it resolves many conflicts between persons and groups. The pre-Constantinian theme is also present with extremely spiritually open attitudes. That is Bishop John Plummer’s approach, with which I am brought to sympathise, tired as I am of conflict and hostility between Christians. The problem is the reductio ad absurdam. How far does inclusivity go? That is an unresolved problem. At least we can talk with each other even if we are not prepared to do same-sex unions and ordain women ourselves. But it is difficult…
Kersey addresses many other questions that people frequently ask, and the article is worth reading in its place. He has done interesting work about this subject as an academic discipline. We find the same conflicts between conservatives and liberals, but the consequences are usually splits and the birth of new denominations. It all seems complex, and ISM communities can be very unstable. Very few scholars in the mainstream have been prepared to undertake such studies, apart from Dr Jean-François Mayer of Fribourg University whose mind is extremely open and enquiring, given the diversity of his own experience as a spiritual seeker. The mainstream churches see independents as a threat, competition, and very much like the way the Inquisition of old viewed the Brethren of the Free Spirit, the Goliards and the Fraticelli. There are periods of history when small groups and sects proliferate, and there may be some constants to observe each time such a phenomenon occurs.
Independent groups exist because there is a need for them, a need that is not catered for in the mainstream churches. It seems logical. The laity are cared for in one mainstream church or another. A lay Roman Catholic who finds his church too intolerant can go to the Anglicans, or an Anglican looking for the “true church” and is disappointed with liberalism can “convert” to Roman Catholicism. People move around. Clerics go further when they find they are stricken with perpetual canonical irregularities and are convinced that the ecclesiastical equivalent of capital punishment (vindictive sanctions) in their case is unjust. Churches of clerics? Is such a thing possible or desirable? Can there not be a more pastoral approach by the mainstream churches if independent communities are so threatening?
There are several interesting articles in this website:
- About Catholicism beyond Rome
- About the Apostolic Succession and independent bishops
- Roman Catholic views on holy orders in the Old Catholic and independent sacramental movements
Studies on particular personalities (Word document format):
- Antoine Aneed (Antoun Anid)
- Sophronios Beshara (Bishara)
- William Montgomery Brown
- William Albert Nichols
- Joseph John Skureth
Bishop Kersey has written several books
- Joseph-René Vilatte (1854-1929): Some Aspects of his Life, Work and Succession
- Arnold Harris Mathew and the Old Catholic Movement in England 1908-52
- A History of the Old Catholic Movement in England (2 volumes)
- Two Works by Archbishop Bernard Mary Williams, Second Archbishop of The Old Roman Catholic Church in Great Britain: A Summary of the History, Faith, Discipline, and Aims of The Old Roman Catholic Church in Great Britain (1924); A Pastoral Letter for Advent, 1920
He has edited several works by Leadbeater, the Science of the Sacraments in particular. Some of these works are no longer available, and others can still be found.
Dr Bertil Persson is another fascinating personality and prolific writer.
All in all, I believe in religious freedom and the right for individuals and communities to practice their faith according to their conscience. Many of us who “feel legitimate” may be afraid of being discredited by unscrupulous abusers of freedom, imitators, shenanigans, but that seems to be the price to pay. Caveat emptor! Anyone going this way needs to tread carefully in an underworld that contains both the sublime and the criminal. There are no guarantees of anything, but such is life or the voyage of the adventurous mariner who faces a fickle sea and unpredictable weather!
We all have questions to ask of ourselves…