Analysis of the Independents

This subject has filled my mind for some days now, as it has for more than thirty years. To a young man, it represents a world of exotic fantasy for the curious mind, perhaps a little mocking humour like seeing a freak show or mentally ill people. One has only to think of the notoriety of the Bedlam lunatic asylum in the so-called Age of Reason immortalised by Boris Karloff in a film from the 1940’s!

Then the compassionate mind asks why. Why do some men not go through the ordination procedures in the mainstream churches and go on a way that is generally a dead end? In was in about 1982 that a friend gave me my copy of Peter Anson’s Bishops at Large. It was truly a freak show of domestic patriarchs and the wildest craziness. This book features someone I knew in London, who attended Evensong at St Augustine’s Queens Gate where I had an organist job playing for Evensong. This was William H. Turner who turned out to be a bishop, and was coming along to our Anglican service for a little friendship and a sense of Christian fellowship. He was a jolly fellow, dead now, but who left a pleasant memory.

Most of my own experience has been somewhere between mainstream and ‘vagante’. Of course, my earlier church upbringing was Establishment Anglicanism, and then I was attracted to high-church eccentricity and then to traditionalist expressions – since the discourse seemed cogent and compelling. I had no taste for 1970’s altars facing the people and musical tastes that would replace the organ and the choir. Being something of an ‘anarchist’ in my early teens would also predispose me to take an interest in eccentricity and personal expressions.

As the Internet arrived, even though I had the privilege of a university education and an excellent library, I was opened to a whole new world. With my disillusionment with traditionalist Catholicism and the idea of becoming Western Orthodox (its practical realisation being at the time unavailable outside the USA), I began to explore other works, especially those written by those who were themselves episcopi vagantes. I was quite put off by the waspish language of Anson and the snotty sneer of Brandreth, and needed another point of view.

So it appears things are changing as men grow up and become more realistic. They see how silly it is to dress up to the nines just to entertain themselves, and the fact the modern world is hostile enough to the mainstream Churches, let alone to these little men whom no one else understands.

The real reason appears to me to be the exclusivism of the mainstream churches and the ever-tightening criteria and procedures for selecting suitable candidates for the priesthood – and then the control exercised over those who are ordained. It is a particularly modern phenomenon essentially going back to the anti-Modernist purge of the late nineteenth century, the reaction against Vatican I and its entire ethos and teaching, and by way of exception the story of Utrecht in the early eighteenth century. As ‘orthodoxy’ tightens the screws, there are dissidents. And this is happening right now. I shudder to think what is about to happen in Austria in a short time, unless it will be a damp squib and the ‘progressive’ dissidents simply cease to practice their faith or go to church – leaving the remaining parishes to the conservative hard-core.

As conservatism and liberalism polarise like twentieth-century politics, increasing numbers of people have had enough and are alienated. They switch off, wanting nothing to do with something that is diametrically opposed to what Christianity is supposed to stand for. That is what is behind independent sacramental Christianity, whether modelled on liturgical traditionalism, radical inclusivism or mysticism and gnosticism. It is the instinct that drives someone to leave a western country to live on a little island out in the middle of the Pacific!

Broadly speaking, there are several tendencies after the folie de grandeur phase. There are quite a few manifestations of esoterism and gnosticism, the most successful of which has been the Liberal Catholic Church – which has fragmented. Some seekers are attracted to a mystical experience, and this fact brings lay people to those communities.

I am intrigued to find the notion of institutionalists. These are bishops and their communities who emphasise jurisdiction and the creation of permanent institutions. They adopt the canonical concepts and methods of the mainstream churches, Roman Catholicism in particular. This is understandable, if you go along with the notion of man being a social animal and needing structures and laws. The problem of this is where the buck stops. In the Roman Catholic Church, it is the Pope who is at the top of a very large structure. In a “non-canonical” church, the structure is small and the prelate can become painfully aware that he has no authority over him. They try to achieve critical mass by concordats of intercommunion and ecumenical initiatives, and even try to get in with the Union of Utrecht and the Orthodox. Sometimes they succeed and negotiate conditions for the amount of freedom they need in tension against their newly-acquired brand legitimacy.

And then we have the replicators and continuers. They replicate the mainstream church they left, but an archaic version of it. Continuing Roman Catholics refer to the Church before Vatican II, and Continuing Anglicans refer to a period when they still had the Prayer Book and no women clergy. Conversely, there are also replicators for whom the mainstream isn’t liberal enough. They use the modern Roman liturgy, ordain women and welcome the LGBT agenda. There is a strong collusion between those movements issuing from Anglicanism and from Roman Catholicism and even from Eastern Orthodoxy. I have always been unable to compartmentalise my mind on this question, and therefore to understand the fact that many Anglicans converting to Roman Catholicism refuse to admit the possibility of encountering some of the very same problems they fled when they left the Anglican establishment. I have been amazed at some of the stuff I have read in the blogs over the past four years or so.

There is another category, some thing more or less corresponding with the post-Evangelical and post-Fundamentalist “emergent” tendency in the Protestant world. This paradigm is selectively exploited by some sacramental Christian clergy and laity. They are sometimes called free Catholics, motivated by a combination of sacramentalism and congregationalist ecclesiology. They open the criteria for allowing individuals to become ordained priests with the idea that the Church is less of a clerical institution than a presence in the secular world. Different values and conceptions give rise to new approaches. Much of the Protestant emergent movement is perceived as unworkable or unacceptable for other reasons, but there are fundamental intuitions in this response given to a world that is increasingly hostile or indifferent to Christianity, or at least the caricatures conveyed by mainstream churches. I find I am beginning to like this approach, even though I have no way of knowing whether it is not yet another dead end. But, I do say that if Christianity has to be based on the exclusive sect model and bigotry, then I would have to reject Christianity or find a way to reconnect to a more authentic version of it.

How do they go about it? Thousands of ways probably, but small family-like communities and friendship seem to be the key – as an alternative to legalism, exclusion, institutionalism and bigotry. If we have to imitate what we left, why leave it in the first place? These are fundamental questions. Another good thing about this approach is that they are rid of the accusation coming from the mainstream churches – They are copying us and deceiving our faithful. Whether we originally hail from an Anglican or Catholic background, this might be a way that could find fertile ground and adapt to the post-modern world in order to maintain the leaven of Christ’s spiritual presence.

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3 Responses to Analysis of the Independents

  1. Stephen K says:

    These are all fascinating subjects, Father. But I find it hard to keep up with your streams of consciousness! All your posts require hard thinking as well as stimulate intuitive internal responses. I may not be able to provide any comment but I AM reading them!

  2. Pingback: An Interesting Consideration of Independent Catholicism

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