Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Best They Can Hope For

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.  


LiturgyGeek said...

I love this line: "people who share your creed but not your reading of it." What graceful language. That is what my mother denomination, the UCC, tries to embody (though, strictly speaking, we are a non-creedal church). I would say we have varying degrees of success at this within our body, as well as among our other brothers and sisters in Christ.

I am going to put this little phrase in my toolbox. Thank you again!

I'm so happy I've discovered your blog.

Father said...

Awww. Right back atcha.

mark said...

Living a stone’s throw from the church on the mount (it was 125 we were 131 Meads Mountain Road), we were able to be of some assistance to Father Francis in his final years. He was a kindly old gentleman indeed. The church and property were actually owned by the town. Sensing the need for divesting the municipality of a decaying building of dubious authenticity, the elected officials were in a quandary regarding a designee. The unseemly factionalism among the tiny “congregation” was certainly an embarrassment to all.
Regarding our own and our communion partner’s present embarrassing factionalism, it seems to be accelerating the already alarming numerical decline. In our own ELCA corner we may simply wind up with de facto return to pre-1988 multi-synods with the ELCA standing in for the old LCA, the CORE folks as the ALC, and the others as . . . the others (I can’t quite picture the LCMC as the AELC). Of course the LCMS & WES will not recognize any of us. Recent news from Father Francis’ Merry Old England suggests that the Anglicans are going to recognize two US branches: TEC and ACNA.
Looking back at what I have just written I guess I am most horrified by the stupid plethora of acronyms. As for churches and their members, we are all still walking the real and sinful earth.

Anonymous said...

I'd rate this one of your top 10. Nice work. Perfectly charitable criticism. And this is a gem "people who share your creed but not your reading of it." Thanks. web

Sophia said...

You are right about some people and groups in the Old Catholic/Independent Catholic/Independent Sacramental Movement....But far from all, because the other reason for the existence and survival of such churches is the historical and ongoing discrimination in established churches, especially against women and LGBT folks who are so often barred from ministry and/or full dignity in virtually every mainline denomination.

I am ordained in the IC movement and am a professional theologian with far more theological training and spiritual formation than the vast majority of mainline clergy: a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. in theology from major universities; a certificate in spiritual direction from a Benedictine women's monastery; and a semester of Episcopal seminary. I also have extensive lay ministry experience in Roman Catholic and Protestant parishes as well as hospices, hospitals, and social justice settings. ISo why am I and, many others like me, not ordained conventionally? Because I and many others experienced our call to priesthood as Roman Catholic females, or gay males, or males called to marriage as well as priesthood. We are doing important and prophetic ministry and also providing a home for those who fall through the cracks for whatever reason and are rejected by, or don't find themselves nourished, by mainline communities. And 99% of us, by the way, are worker priests who minister without the salaries, pension plans, support systems, and social respect enjoyed by mainline clergy--after the long hours of our day jobs, and sometimes at a financial cost to ourselves.

I have paid a high price for following my call, professionally and relationally, and one of the significan pieces of that is living with the ignorance and disrespect evident in your post. (It may appear charitable to other mainline folks who enjoy looking down on those who are outside their paradigm but sure feels different to those of us being dissed and dismissed). I have issues with God sometimes for calling me to something so marginal--but I take strength from knowing that Jesus and the early Christian house churches were equally marginal and disrespected by the religious authorities of their day. I have also found strength in community and shared ministry with mainline folks including now being a valued member and something of a leader in the RevGals blogring, which you may know of....They didn't know anything about the movement when I joined but have learned from me and others, and I invite you to open your mind and heart and do the same.

Anonymous said...

The "Mainline" protestant churches will probably find themselves in something like the same boat within the next thirty years; the percentage of people in the USA under 30 years old and members of "Mainline" churches is about 3.4% and it's been going down for the past thirty years. The median age for "Mainline" churches is around 57 and it's been rising for the past 25 years.
Without unofficial cultural establishment, and massive endowment funds, most "Mainline" churches would be in even greater trouble than they already are.