Yes, from the very author who wrote “Hell is other people” – L’enfer c’est les autres in his play Huis clos. Jean-Paul Sartre was unfamiliar with the various grotesque parodies of churches and bishops one occasionally sees on the Internet. This is certainly the only place you will see them.
I have already been familiar with one Anglican Rite Catholic Church with Cardinal Rutherford Johnson – see Rod Dreher’s Behold, the patriarch, which is an old article. One would almost imagine that this fellow has simply put up a parody, a spoof, but he seems to take himself seriously (see comment below). There is already a Pope Alexander IX who uses photos of American Anglican clergy and churches – with a liberal use of Photoshop. Some years ago, I came across a fake prelature (Prelature Personnelle de l’Institut Sacerdotal International Mater Ecclesiae) claiming to have secret approval from Rome (then it wouldn’t be secret any more…). The prelate’s name was that of a bishop who lived a couple of hundred years ago. That also was a spoof and its website disappeared many years ago.
This new one seems to be one of many taking themselves seriously – the Anglocatholic Church, which for once is not American! Its chief bishop, His Beatitude, The Most Reverend Dr. Heigo Ritsbek, MA, MDiv, DMin, LittD, DD comes from the little Baltic country of Estonia. There are bishops in the USA, Australia, Africa (several countries), Brazil (ex. ICAB), Costa Rica, the Philippines, France, Poland, Italy, Germany. The site is interesting to look at. Their liturgy is disappointingly modern Roman in style, and almost seems to be for the sole purpose of consecrating bishops! There is the old jibe about one of the old English Mathew succession bishops: Bishop Lines of many lines. In some of the African and South American countries, there seem to be small numbers of lay faithful.
Old Atkinson-Wake is still going in his Catholic Church of England and Wales, as grandiose as ever with some of his “wooden leg” bishops like whisky-breath Philip French in Whitby. See two old blog posts Philip James French: the Fake Catholic Bishop of Whitby and The Reckoning of the Fake Catholic Bishop of Whitby? What is incredible is that few ordinary people these days are going to be impressed with men dressing to the nines and living a lie.
My immediate reaction is that people with physical abnormalities used to be exhibited to the public in “freak shows” in return for being housed and fed, usually in appalling conditions. Perhaps this kind of show could be brought back for men who are physically healthy but suffering from conditions like narcissistic personality disorder! Prod them with sticks and shout at them…
I have written a few postings about this subject, which is close to my own life. I too went through the logic of independent clergy, trying to maintain the ideal of the Church and the priestly vocation outside the “system” of the Roman Catholic Church or the Anglican Communion. Some men like the dressing up, others feel that it confers status or power, and others have a higher notion of their calling. I recommend John P. Plummer’s The Many Paths of the Independent Sacramental Movement. The term “independent sacramental” was coined in an attempt to give a common title to an extremely diverse movement of single-issues and an idea of a church of the future composed of small independent communities and house churches. Given the free-fall of church attendance in the mainstream churches, it can appear to be an alternative to being resigned to the death of Christianity in the western world.
Many of these reflections have helped to form my own mind. I belong to a “mainstream” Continuing Anglican Church, which has gained pignon sur rue and is in serious dialogue with three other Continuum churches and the Polish National Catholic Church. I can claim a degree of canonical seriousness and respectability, but living in rural France, I am unlikely ever to find myself as a parish priest. One cannot make a norm from an exceptional situation like mine, but it does make one think.
One thing I have learned in life is that priesthood and liturgy alone do not create the Church or even ecclesiastical institutions. Every Church has been responsible for schisms and disputes in history, and none can before God make an honest claim to be unilaterally the “one true church”. There are still institutions that own ancient buildings and have influence over the “secular arm” and the politics of their countries – and still have plenty of money and visibility. There have always been conservative and radical breaks, and the fracturing process accelerates as the central notion of Christianity is questioned.
Increasingly, Christian commitment is a personal and individual approach, no longer the tradition of the tribe, community, parish, village or whatever. When I arrived in the village where I live, in 2006, there was a monthly Mass in the church. One Sunday, I my wife and I went, and I was in lay dress. It was dead, with a few elderly people without the slightest concern to take interest in potential newcomers. The liturgy, celebrated by a priest without a server, was deadpan. If I were a layman, my Christian life would be better without such a charade – and that is the “official Church”. A French friend of mine pointed out that there has never been a time when there were so many priests for so few laity. What is the justification for ordaining priests, and what becomes of the notion of “vocation”? Around the same year, Sophie and I attended a service in southern Rouen celebrated by an independent bishop and a bit more “show”. Blessed roses were on offer, at one price if blessed collectively and another price if “done” individually. Perhaps I was in the fifteenth century in some English country parish where – As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs. I may be an enthusiast for the Use of Sarum, but I can imagine the reality of some sleazy dump of a parish in the 1490’s! I have to be a Romantic to keep sane. What is reality? I had about fifteen years experience of traditionalist Roman Catholicism. For most of them, it boils down to politics and forcing people to belong to the tribe for the sake of self-justification of the rich and powerful. The same old story repeats in history as the Church craves its Caudillo and its Inquisition to enforce the rule of “Christ the King”. Perhaps some might feel at home at Palmar de Troya in southern Spain, considerado por los especialistas un monumento a la demencia humana, with its businesslike Swiss pope Peter III. I feel quite cold within about the future of Christianity in an increasingly hostile and polarised world. We live in a world that is devoid of culture and education in essential philosophical principles.
My own experience has taken me beyond that question many people ask about who “is the Church” and who “is playing Church as an impostor”. The distinction for me has become highly blurred, at least with any real objectivity. This posting began with obvious shenanigans of dishonest or challenged individuals. But I see this whole thing as one who lives a private life without any desire to traipse around dressed as a baroque cardinal and attract ridicule both on myself and what I would be claiming to represent! Life has been both kind and unkind to me. I try to see the essential and go all the way.
I think there can be some opportunity to rethink Christianity beyond the failure of clericalism and the nausea of the population. My own intuitions have often been expressed in this blog. No one becomes a Christian without asking the right questions and without a certain culture that makes the soul seek something beyond our world of competition, status, power, money and mass fashion.
I look at the Church, at the lowness of politics in many countries including my own. I feel like Wordsworth at the cusp of revolution, wanting to rejoice in change and renewal, but knowing that there will only be more violence and death. The darkness is overwhelming, but the Ungrund itself contains grace and light. We need to have faith and hope, but above all, knowledge of ourselves and true humility. Perhaps this is fertile earth on which the priesthood of Christ may flourish and find new meaning.