A poignant but honest look at the independent Catholic scene

A website referred to an article I wrote quite a long time ago about the independent Catholic movement, as it is known most charitably. The article in question Can the Independent Sacramental Movement Be Revitalized? The article is long and rings true, and it is unclear what conclusion its author will draw from it. I would also recoil from his reference to occultism and magic, and I hope that he is not doing things that could land him in very serious trouble at a spiritual level.

In the past, I was quite impressed by men like John P. Plummer who have written books and done some serious study. John Plummer still has a page on Facebook, but rarely writes on it and never refers to any ministry as a bishop or a priest. Many do give up and seek a meaningful life elsewhere.

I remember as a student being fascinated by independent bishops – traditionalists, sedevacantists, western Orthodox, liberals, esoteric Christianity, just about everything one could imagine. I visited quite a few of them in France, and I knew a few in England who were hangers-on in Anglican parishes. The novelty of it all was quite stimulating, but the reality as it is encountered each time is a disappointment. I do know some independent bishops who do have active pastoral and humanitarian ministries, and I can only admire their constancy and courage. I have also known charlatans, sexual perverts and crooks, as can also be found in the mainstream Churches. As I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I was encouraged to accept the episcopate for a small community of clergy and laity. It was a mistake on my part. In 2005 I joined the TAC under Archbishop Hepworth, and transferred to the ACC in 2013 when I found myself “shipwrecked”. I serve as a simple priest. Some ecclesial entities have credibility and others do not.

This article does not exactly exude optimism, and it is a sign of humility that the author of the article sees the limits of his own quality as a priest and his ecclesial perspective. The independent movement was modelled by historical circumstances, its roots in Old Catholicism and esotericism at the end of the nineteenth century. As prophetic vision gave way to men seeking ordination who would not have been acceptable to the mainstream churches, things began to change. Many of the early independent churches had about the same reason for existing and vision as the Continuing Anglicans of the present day. They had church buildings and lay faithful. The raison d’être of Old Catholicism was Jansenism in the eighteenth century and opposition to the extreme of Papal claims in 1870. Who cares about either of those issues today? Who tomorrow will care about the ordination of women, homosexuality and DIY liturgies? From the moment there are no laity, then the church exists only for the sake of ordaining priests and consecrating bishops for a more or less credible raison d’être. Another reason for existence was ethnic identity, especially in the USA, the Polish diaspora in particular. The Polish National Catholic Church has kept its stability, buildings and communities of lay faithful. Another, in England, was some kind of pro-uniate movement of Anglicans who sought Orders that Rome would have to recognise to give substance to the corporate reunion project.

The reflections on mission and commission are interesting, because these are aspects of ecclesiology – the theology of the Church. A church made up only of bishops and priests seems to be self-defeating. Even the traditionalist reaction against modern style liturgies and openness to dialogue with Protestantism is wearing thin. The article is of course written from the American point of view, particularly in regard to concepts of “church planting” and missionary work.

Another consideration is the way such independent churches were treated by the Roman Catholic Church: cast doubts on their mission and, particularly, the validity of their orders. Every independent church would be treated as an usurper intent on deceiving ordinary lay Catholics. This fact, like the Church of England in regard to the Continuum, has had a rarefying effect. The analysis without the tone of a conspiracy theory is quite cogent, which makes this article quite relevant to all of us.

He goes into questions like worship styles. I find the constant references to John Plummer very reassuring, since he is one of the more honest voices I have read. I find the reflection on the “level playing field” caused by the SARS-COVID-2 pandemic interesting. We have all been recording and streaming liturgies, they too. It is quite a confusing idea to imagine an ordinary lay person sorting out all the available services and sermons on YouTube and deciding which he will choose to lead his own prayer at home. How things will pan out after the lockdown is lifted is anyone’s guess.

Perhaps a new public relations strategy is needed and different priorities given from considerations of the validity of the bishop and his lines of succession.

Going by what he says, I hardly imagine myself in an American context. There are independent bishops and priests in France, and I am sure that some of them are noble in their intentions. Frankly some of them repel me for secondary reasons, and I have lost that fascination I had as a student. Most independent jurisdictions do not survive their founders. I sympathise with the desire for a profound vision and commitment, but how long do the good resolutions last?

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2 Responses to A poignant but honest look at the independent Catholic scene

  1. Agostino says:

    Greetings, Father! Thank you for your honest analysis and critique of my blog post.

    I feel a little context might be in order. This post was actually inspired by a research project I recently completed, discussing occultist-derived (namely French-Gnostic) lines of apostolic succession found throughout the Traditional Roman Catholic movement’s smaller groups. This in turn led to reading about the conditions of the very early Independent Movement, which in turn led to the reflections in the blog post.

    I don’t necessarily endorse any of the suggestions made in the article, but rather offer them up as possibilities for “what can be done.” This may account for the lack of optimism you sensed, as neither optimism nor pessimism were intended.

    Again, thank you for your honest and thoughtful commentary. I have been aware of you and followed your blog off-and-on for some time now, and it’s good to be able to say hello. Cheers!

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I have not read the article, yet, but the ‘matter’ is interesting – as you say, with respect to “mission and commission” as “aspects of ecclesiology” – and also with relation to ‘sacramental theology’ in that context.

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