We spent some time today puzzling over a minor liturgical problem, viz., whether to observe the Feast of the Transfiguration this coming Sunday, according to the custom of our American church, or join our European hosts by refraining until August 6. In the natural course of things, we googled the word "Transfiguration," and were hit with a blast of not-entirely-welcome nostalgia.
Pictured, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, is a photograph of a small and pretty church, located near the place where we were raised -- walking distance from our house, in fact, provided one possessed thighs suitably muscular to endure the purgatory that is Meads Mountain Road. Originally a seasonal chapel for hotel guests, it continued long after the hotels died, first as an Episcopal chapel and then as ... well, we'll get to that. We have passed it thousands of times, by car or (bragging here) on foot. You would see it on your left as you headed toward the trailhead, the anarchist's print shop or, perhaps, the Buddhist monastery. (Ah, our golden youth.)
This church -- the Church of the Holy Transfiguration, or more commonly the Church on the Mount -- was tended for many years by an elderly cleric named William Henry Francis, although we cannot recall ever hearing him spoken of except by title, as "Father Francis." As we did not then know his proper name, we did not know that he was, properly speaking, also the Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Old Catholic Church in America, a predecessor body to the Autonomous Orthodox Metropolia of Western Europe and the Americas. Headquarters in New Jersey.
(By the way, our own house was far up another nearby road, and even though it was a clearly a modern construction, and not in the least ecclesiastical in appearance, an amusingly large number of tourists, misled by the sign with our family name, stopped in the driveway to inquire about Mass schedules.)
Now, this Fr. Francis was notorious for telling slightly-different versions of his own story, and we doubt that there is much truth to be known about him. It seems that he had been a Benedictine monk in Waukegan before his ordination as priest and bishop. It is extremely unlikely that he had married the Duke of Windsor, and no more so that he had performed services for "the Vanderbilts and others of their strata," as he claimed in a 1970 article in The Churchman. But he did, as a matter of fact, receive into his church a retired Episcopal bishop of Arkansas who had been drummed out of the corps for publicly supporting Communism. His background does seem to have been Anglican, and the Old Catholics had for some time been well-tolerated by the high-church Anglicans. The rites of his parish seem to have had Prayer Book roots, and even today claim to be an easternized "Sarum" use.
Here is what we do know for sure: he was popular with the long-haired young people who claimed Woodstock as the spiritual (and sometimes administrative) capital of their supposed nation. Although made a fuss over not trusting anybody over thirty, they seem to have waived that rule for this one octogenarian. They recognized, quite correctly, that he too was part of a despised subculture.
It is really all very sweet, in a cranky way. "The Hippie Priest," and all that. But beneath the surface, there is another story, both less romantic and less savory. We have no details to share, but this little church isn't an entirely happy place, as we understand it. (But then, in fairness, no place is entirely happy.) Years ago, we heard gossip about an especially ugly power struggle. Perhaps other readers will know more.
Beyond the parish, there is the bigger question of the church to which it is affiliated. This may be unfairly broad, but the Old Catholic movement, originally a principled liberal reaction against Vatican I, to which were later added a variety of renegades from Anglicanism and other church families, strikes us in its subsequent forms as a dodge for self-important poseurs.
It sits nicely on a shelf beside the many Lutheran micro-denominations. These are variously reported as anywhere from 28 in number to "over 100;" we have no idea how many there are, and we doubt anybody else does either. But we do know that their clergy and, to a lesser extent their congregations, are often people who couldn't handle even the fairly modest requirements of the mother denomination: don't sleep with your church members, for example. Put up with meetings where nothing gets done, and learn to work and worship with people who share your creed but not your reading of it. And all the other stuff that the rest of us do more or less easily, because we know that living in community, while difficult, is worthwhile.
So this little church that we remember from childhood, although a delightful place in many ways, is not something we would desire for ourselves, precisely because it is a retreat from true catholicism. Even cranks need a home, and we are glad they have one. But it is by nature a very small home, disconnected except in its own imagination from the rest of the neighborhood. Schismatic clergy rarely sit at the table for ecumenical dialogues, because they bring to little to it. An individual priest may do genuine ministry -- as well as anybody else or even better -- but it is arguable that his church (or "church") does not.
Yet such a small home, an ecclesiola extra ecclesiam, is the best that our own schismatic Lutheran and Episcopalian friends can hope for, over the next few decades. They break away, now, from well-established churches, with whom they can no longer live in community. And what will become of them? The answer, very likely, is nothing. They will disappear into the same oblivion that has claimed most of their kind -- continuing to exist, to preach the Word and celebrate the sacraments, but to do so only locally, in isolation from the rest of Christianity.