Church Hopping

I was certainly a little uncharitable about jibing someone for church-hopping when I have done it myself. I was originally Church of England, was Roman Catholic for about fifteen years, was in the traditionalist fringes for a little under ten years, TAC for seven years and in the English diocese of the ACC from April this year.

Many of us find ourselves in the situation of “ecclesial refugees” looking for a way to continue to practice our religion according to our consciences in a setting where we can credibly claim to believe in it sincerely. At least, that is the way I see it, having to make changes to continue along a line of thought and belief corresponding with my intimate convictions and what I believe to be good and true.

When changes do occur, we are always challenged for them and thought to be opportunistic or emotionally “unstable”. The notion of stability can sometimes be distorted. I remember a film about a Russian submarine defecting to the west, and its Zampolit (political officer in Russian) explaining to the captain that his job was to oversee the “stability of the crew”- viz. making sure the crew remained blindly loyal to Communist ideological “orthodoxy”. I define stability in several ways. There is the stabilitas loci of Benedictines and many established middle-aged and elderly people, who live in the same place for forty, fifty or more years. Secondly, there is the idea of people in sound mental health and who settle down to a steady job, marriage, family, commitment, life in society, that sort of thing. Thirdly, there is a notion of constancy of belief and thought, or at least change in the sense of development, discovery and growth. The growth curve takes us out of childhood and along the path we take for good or ill.

Change is sometimes needed for the sake of survival, such as when a person has to leave his country and live somewhere else in a place perceived to be a safe haven. The same thing happens in spiritual and religious terms. This is the drama of Anglicans who are opposed to the priestly and episcopal ordination of women for doctrinal reasons. The choices are Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy or one of the Continuing Anglican Churches. Staying put might in some cases actually mean instability for a person seeking to live without cognitive dissonance and conflict of conscience. It’s probably the same thing for a convinced Protestant who believes that Anglicanism should be Protestant and the existence of Anglo-Catholics, also claiming to be Anglicans, creates cognitive dissonance in the same way as women clergy for those opposed to them. Either that or ecclesial communion is based on something other than doctrinal agreement and consensus. It is the drama of comprehensiveness to which I alluded in a previous posting.

In churches, this elusive notion of stability is situated either at an institutional level or at the level of conscience, belief and intellectual conviction. The most “visible” type of stability is institutional, that of the Vicar of Bray. It is the story of a clergyman who stays in the same institutional position, but as an opportunist changes his beliefs to suit the historical situation in which he finds himself. The Vicar of Bray is not a church-hopper, but it would seem that he is not a man of integrity or trust either.

There is of course the “sleazy” factor, for example of a priest not promoted to the Episcopate in his particular ecclesial body and joins another for a promise of promotion and consecration. It is something like the syndrome of the stereotyped episcopus vagans who has all the grandiose titles in the world but not so much as a cat at Mass on Sunday mornings. There may be (or have been) men of this level in some of the Continuing Anglican Churches, but I have a great degree of confidence and trust in our present ACC hierarchy, especially my own Bishop and our Metropolitan Archbishop. They are men of integrity, with a respectable level of theological learning (a doctorate in the case of Archbishop Haverland) and above all a significant number of clergy and laity under their oversight.

As we have three forms of stability: institutional, emotional / mental and in terms of belief and intellectual conviction allowing for organic growth – we have three correlative kinds of church-hopping. Some change from one Church to another to remain true to belief and intellectual conviction. Others are vicars of Bray doing anything needed to cling onto their position and have nothing substantial about them. Others still are of twisted morality or of poor mental health and hang around churches in a quest for emotional security. That’s how it seems to me.

I am uncertain of the motives of the person I rather unkindly mocked over this issue. Who am I to judge? I have notions given to me by others, and some make me think. But in the end of the day, the respect of other people’s freedom and fundamental rights is something very important for me. If they seek to take away ours, we can only offer peaceful resistance, turn the other cheek or make of it all an occasion to learn and understand things better ourselves. This is why I look at his blog fairly frequently and see what is going on. There is very little on the blogosphere these days about Continuing Anglicanism – only one regularly maintained blog about the Ordinariates, compared with the feverish activity just two and three years ago.

If someone is changing Churches for reasons of staying the same in terms of belief and intellectual conviction, he will inevitably suffer hardship and worse criticism than what I levelled at him. I can only respect and praise him and again wish him peace and God’s blessing on his spiritual integrity. If this is not the case, I won’t be his judge. His judgement will come from elsewhere – from himself and God.

Personally, I have a sense of foreboding about the future of all Christian Churches and others “kinds” of Christian communities. I have a sense of foreboding about our world. Perhaps that is my introverted and fearful nature. I no longer have the freshness and enthusiasm of thirty years ago, but yet try to hang onto the essential contemplative nature of the Church. I don’t have a taste for doctrinal debate and counter-apologetics – yet I still read books on theology, philosophy and spirituality. There is something I cannot allow myself to lose on pain of losing my very soul, and this is something I have held onto since my adolescence.

Will I remain a priest of the ACC until my dying day? I sincerely hope so. The alternative would be returning to the Roman Catholic Church as a layman, perhaps attending Mass and Office at Saint Wandrille Abbey. Would this be the thing to do? It doesn’t attract me, and I have grown beyond where I was thirty years ago. One has to go on and on. When I joined the ACC, totally bereft of any clerical or institutional ambition, I knew I was joining an imperfect community of human beings, just as sinful and weak as myself. The important thing for me is that it and I agree on the essentials, at least what we believe to be essential, without which we would be something else in that notorious hermeneutic of rupture. For me, it is the end of the road – which is to say I’m not going anywhere else. If the ACC starts with women clergy and clown masses, then I might consider just fading out of the picture altogether, but that seems more than unlikely. The Romewards movement has been halted by what happened to the TAC (even though there are now happy signs of reconstruction). I am a priest and do what I can for the good of my Church, and am happy to benefit from that grace from the Lord. My Church gives me everything I need in terms of intercession, prayer and ecclesial communion. I seek nothing more.

Souffrir passe, avoir souffert ne passe jamais – Léon Bloy

Many of us have church-hopped and incurred the wrath of those who expected institutional stability of us. Change always brings suffering, but yet it is needed when it is needed.

In the end, it is just a question of knowing what we wanted. Sometimes we want something so badly that we get it! I’ll leave you with that thought.

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