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Friday, November 4, 2022

Playing Loosey-Goosey With Scripture to Keep the Faith

Efforts to adapt Christianity for the current age continue, and we're definitely seeing a trend in how some scholars now present the Bible. It's one that doesn't really win me over.

When I was evangelical there were three characteristics of mainline Protestantism were especially bothersome to me. First, there was the tepid commitment to the faith. The first Easter I was a Presbyterian I was shocked and a little disgusted at how many strangers turned up for the service. They were unknown to me, but other parishioners knew them as holly and lily Christians who only showed up twice a year. Even the regular church-goers seemed absolutely clueless about the Bible.  Second was the seemingly permissive attitude toward sex. Premarital sex was no problem, and the push was already then towards acceptance of LGBTQ folks. In my young, conservative mind, that was proof positive that they had no regard for 'scriptural standards' of morality. Third, the Bible commentaries by 'liberal' scholars seemed to focus heavily on how the Bible was not divinely inspired, or at least not reliable historically or otherwise.

Contemporary progressive Christians, and particularly those coming from evangelical backgrounds, are finding ways to understand the Bible as something other than flawlessly inspired. At the same time, they're putting a positive spin on the facts that much of what the Bible represents itself to be simply isn't so. Consider, for example, how Dr. Peter Enns describes it.
Summarizing, he accepts the Bible as a 'human' document in the same sense that orthodox Christianity accepts Jesus as a 'human.' That is to say, Jesus is described as fully human and fully God, and that while he was on Earth in his mortal life he was subject to all the mental and physical limitations of any human being. The same is said to be true of the Bible, which is fully divine and the word of God, while at the same time being subject to the limitations of the people of the times in which it was written. 

Now, take a listen to how Dr. Daniel McClellan, a Latter-day Saint and scriptural scholar, talks about the Book of Mormon.
@maklelan

This one’s more for the Latter-day Saints out there.

♬ original sound - Dan McClellan
Basically, it's the same thing, right? The Book of Mormon might be sourced from a record of ancient people in the Americas (or maybe not), but it was written in the language of 19th century America and for the people of that time.

It's all rather convenient. Nothing has to be accurate, or truly of the origin it claims, and people can continue believing the same things. The argument Enns makes for God stooping down to speak to people in the ways that they could understand is all well and good, until you consider the absolute cruelty of it. If there were an omnipotent, benevolent being communicating with ancient humanity, why didn't he warn them directly about hygiene, or provide tips on safer child birth methods? The rules of clean and unclean in the Hebrew scriptures were ceremonial and inconsistent in places with modern scientific understandings, so don't even bother with that. Further, how could such a being not be able to find a way to communicate more clearly with humanity to avoid all of the misunderstandings among us over what the Bible means?

This is how religion works, though. It's not a real thing. It's human values, tradition, and imagination that lives in our heads and is expressed through the works of our hands. It is supremely malleable, and so as scientific understanding advances, people will think differently about religious beliefs and work out ways to make it still be meaningful in ways that they want. Sure, there will always be fundamentalists who decide to subsist in the squalor of their own ignorance, and yes people who favor an evidence-based worldview will continue to walk away from Christianity and similar religions, but there will also still be those who hold to the larger claims of the faith while thinking about the fundamentals in ways that permit doing so. 

We are an odd bunch, us human beings. So committed to our habits and symbols that we'll contort our minds every which way to hang on to them. It's fine with me, because it's part of being human. At least, so long as it doesn't lead to hatred and violence. We've had quite enough of that in the name of religion.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Do You Remember Your Favorite Playground?

Kids should have good playgrounds.

Did you have a favorite playground when you were a kid? I did. Mine was the one that originally existed at Hurdland Elementary School. It was on a corner of the property, near the school, shaded by a few small but substantial trees. It was cozy and, much to my delight, the area around one of the roots of the trees was great for playing with Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars. My friends and I could completely lose ourselves in our little world of cars under that tree. In the Fall we also made house outlines on the grass with leaves that fell from the trees, pretending we were building a mansion and its various rooms. 

Projetos Sociais Estação Vida is asking us to help raise the funds needed to rebuild the playground equipment at their community center in Uberlandia. Through years of enjoyment the equipment has had plenty of wear and tear, to the point where it's now unsafe for the children to use. The photo you see to the side here was from its better days. As you can see in the photo below, taken just last week, it's now taped off until work can be done on it

In order to effect the repairs we need to raise US $1500, of which at this writing we have $125. If you are in a position to help out, in any dollar amount, it would be gratefully received and go 100% to this project. 

To donate, you can either do so through this Facebook link (active through 10/31/2022) or via Paypal: https://www.paypal.com/donate/?hosted_button_id=355QMVTMXBHQQ.

It's going to be great to get this done and be able to share photos of kids making new memories of their own on the rebuilt playground. 

Friday, October 14, 2022

A Partnership for Community Development in Brazil

The outer wall of the community center is getting a fresh coat of paint and a new mural.
The first time I visited the Estação Vida community center, it was to help set up a computer lab. A local bank had upgraded its computers and offloaded the old ones on the center as a donation. They were pretty dated, but with the right, light-weight Linux distro they were good to go. It took a few visits to get the computer lab in shape, and on the last one I got to watch a volunteer work teach the kids some computing basics. What really got me hooked was seeing the space and everything the center offers the community in general, and the children in particular.

It started very small nearly two decades ago. A group of women met regularly at a local church to learn how to do sewing and crafting to produce items for sale. As time went on, childcare became more of an issue, as these women usually had children that they'd either bring with them or leave home alone. Someone started taking them to an open, grassy area for games to keep them busy, and soon enough that became it's own program. Eventually the city donated land, and people and organizations came together to build the basic structure. 

Now home to classrooms, a kitchen and cafeteria, plenty of trees and open space, and a large garden that supplements the meals prepared on site, Projetos Sociais Estação Vida is a vibrant place. Since I was there last several years ago they got an upgraded computer lab, a new space for martial arts training, and have gone essentially off the electrical grid with solar panels. Seeking to be sustainable in even the smallest details, rainwater and the runoff from water fountains is saved and used for cleaning as well as irrigating the garden. 

There are over 200 children enrolled in weekday programs for the period they are not in school, and they have a nutritious meal prepared in the kitchen every day. This is especially important because the public schools in Brazil usually don't offer much in terms of a lunch, when they offer it at all. With homework help, crafting, martial arts, sports, and other offerings, the community center enriches the lives of the children enrolled.

Some of the programs offered are open to children not enrolled full time, with spaces available to them in things like dance and martial arts. There are occasional community events there as well. Honestly, I'm not doing justice to all it provides.

A truly grassroots effort brought this great community center and its programs into being, and ever since I moved back to the United States in 2015 I've wanted to do something to support that ingenuity. I could promote it here, but then it would be nearly impossible for people to contribute financially, and even if they could, it would not be tax exempt in the US, despite being a non-profit organization in Brazil. The solution I hit upon was Uberlandia Development Initiatives.

Uberlandia Development Initiatives (let's call it UDI Brazil) is a small, US-based non-profit that aims to spread the word about our partner NGO, Projetos Sociais Estação Vida, and raise funds to help extend what they can do. Everyone involved in UDI Brazil is a volunteer, drawing no salary, and aside from transaction fees, all the money raised goes to the community center. Unlike other organizations supporting international NGOs, the only strings attached to our funding is that the community center provide a full accounting for how it is used. They have already demonstrated that they know what to do and how to do it, so we're not going to dictate policy and programs to them. 

Because UDI Brazil is an IRS-recognized, tax exempt non-profit, every donation made to us is tax deductible. And, importantly, we'll handle the bureaucratic logistics of actually getting the money to the community center. You can follow UDI Brazil on Facebook and Twitter, and should check out the website.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

The Ethical Society of Saint Louis | Platform Talk: Our Ethical Future

Episode Description: What future did you imagine growing up? Did you imagine we would have flying cars by now? Hoverboards, perhaps? Often, when we imagine the future, we focus on technology: the cool toys we will get to play with, the innovations which will make our lives easier. But what about our ethical future? What innovations in living together will we develop? And, more important, what are we doing now, which we shouldn’t be? Join James Croft for an inspirational exploration of the future of ethics!

Friday, October 7, 2022

The Value of Well-Prepared Clergy

While the Unitarians and Congregationalists of New England in the 1800s carried on with business as usual, the Methodists and Baptists were spreading through the westward-moving frontier. Aside from fervor for making converts, a big boost to the spread of the latter faith traditions was the ease of sending out preachers. Men would be licensed to preach and sent out with minimal formal ministry training. Circuit riding Methodist preachers kept new parishes going and helped found new ones, while Baptist preachers did the same and put in place local leadership for young churches. The Congregationalists and Unitarians, on the other hand, were committed to a well-educated clergy, and thus you will find that most small towns across the Midwest have both Methodist and Baptist churches, but not Unitarian (UUA) or Congregationalist (UCC, NACCC, CCCC) churches. This reality has long made me critical of the more stringent educational and formation requirements of some denominations, but I believe my perspective is changing.

When I went to Brazil the first time in 1997, as a 'mission intern,' it was all the rage for churches there to operate in cells. They called it 'cell church,' and it's basically a highly organized way of doing small groups. Although that terminology and the formal practice is no longer in much favor among evangelicals, small group ministry remains quite big. It's a simple fact that the larger a church grows, the fewer people any individual member can feel like they really know. That makes it extremely important for such churches to have small groups where people can build deeper relationships and have that sense of being known and truly belonging. While this can be accomplished relatively easily, having reliable leadership in the group is another question.

"What I found in our research is that small groups are terrific for establishing and sustaining community. They're not very effective at growing people spiritually because what you wind up having is ignorant people sharing their ignorance. It's kind of a democratic form of education: 'We're going to vote on what the truth is.' That's not actually how biblical truth works." - George Barna, quoted in Soul Winners: The Ascent of America's Evangelical Entrepreneurs, but David Clary

During my short stint in Bible college many years ago one of my professors described most church Bible studies as people 'pooling their ignorance.' It's harsh, but there's a truth to it. I've heard so much nonsense said in Bible studies, both by participants and by the leader or teacher. Sometimes someone says something crazy and it simply goes unchallenged, and it other cases the leader agrees. One example of the former is when in a Bible study at a Methodist church one of the men attending insisted that a sign of Christ's return would be Elijah reappearing. He'd read that in the Old Testament but was apparently unaware that Jesus affirmed that John the Baptist fulfilled that prophecy. The Methodist pastor got a funny look on his face but continued without comment. 

Given that I'm a Humanist, what difference does any of this make to me? Well, it helps to explain the Christian Right. Although the Bible is full of genocide, misogyny, homophobia, and other morally and/or ethically questionable content, I still think that a complete and balanced reading of the canonical text should result in churches that at the very least don't attempt to obtain political power to enforce their vision of the world through legislation. Further, a person like Donald Trump, with his vulgarity, lies, and history of unethical behavior does not conform to any New Testament ideal, and thus should not have the sort of rabid support that white evangelicals in particular give him. 

Of course, what's happening is that white evangelicals see in Donald Trump a person who will push back against the things that frighten them, such as the loss of hetero-normative white hegemony in American society. His is their 'Cyrus,' an ungodly man to deliver them from the ungodly. Although, of course, many would not admit his ungodliness as such, and instead argue that he's a politician, not a pastor. What enables this perspective is a shallow understanding of the Bible that allows people to impose whatever vision of the world they have on it.

Clearly, the Bible is ineffectual at correcting anyone. It's a tome of writings created and edited at different points of ancient history, with a wide range of purposes, and addressed to a variety of audiences. It is open to a great deal of interpretation, and so we have the thousands upon thousands of sects and denominations that exist today. It can mean whatever one wants it to mean, this is so much easier to do when people do not know the truth about how it came together or the likely earliest meanings of its contents. The more one learns about these things, the humbler one will be in making absolute statements about it, and also the less inclined a person will be to buy into radicalism. Note that I'm not saying it's about knowing the contents of the Bible really well, because that alone enables some of the wild of speculative teaching. I'm talking about serious, critical scholarship of the Bible as an ancient text. 

Anyone with a Bible can self-declare as a preacher. It happens all the time, and no formal process or ordination is even required. This is freedom of religion. The sad result, however, is people who gather others to pool their ignorance, and often at a serious cost to those involved and to society at large. A poorly-prepared minister is one who goes to the bedside of a cancer patient and insists that God will heal that person through faith and prayer. When the patient dies, loved ones are left picking up the pieces and wondering if the outcome could have been better if they'd had more faith. An unvetted preacher is one who could never prepare a background check and ends up stealing from people or committing sexual assault. An unqualified Bible teacher is one who encourages hatred and fear over faith and love. 

While I continue to support the concept of other forms of ministry than ordained ministry, such as licensed or commissioned ministers, these cannot be without proper formation. In my own Central East Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association we have a Commissioned Lay Ministry program. While it does not lead to ordination as a UU minister, the successful candidate will be commissioned to serve by their local congregation. There isn't a set course of study, but one will be prepared as appropriate for what the candidate aims to be doing. Most importantly, I believe, there's a measure of accountability both in the formation process and once the person is commissioned. 
 
Beyond that, I want a well-prepared ordained clergy. Growth for the sake of growth is no good, particularly when it results in congregations that foster bigotry. It's better to take the time to lay a good foundation and then do actual good in the world. 

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Why Similar Evangelical Denominations Don't Merge

In commenting on the ongoing split between the United Methodist Church and the newly-formed
Global Methodist Church, Betsy Phillips asked the following:

But the No. 1 most baffling thing is that the reason the Methodist church has split in the past is that a minority of Methodists want a more conservative church, so they break away to set one up. So if you’re sitting in a United Methodist Church and you feel like it’s gotten too liberal for you, you have many, many conservative Methodist churches you could go to instead. Why wouldn’t you just join one of them?

Oh boy, I have thoughts on that one!

There are many, many conservative Wesleyan denominations in the United States, and they don't all use 'Methodist' in their name. Two noteworthy examples of such would be the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) and the Church of the Nazarene. There's also the Wesleyan Church, but at least it mentions the initiators of the movement (John & Charles Wesley) in its name. Of course there are others with Methodist in the name, such as the Free Methodist Church and the Congregational Methodist Church. So, why doesn't the group leaving the United Methodist Church now just merge with one of these?

A positive spin on it would be that the people who are forming the Global Methodist Church have shared common experiences in the United Methodist Church, and have a distinctive culture and approach to being the church and doing theology that they would like to carry on. Were they to merge with an existing conservative Wesleyan denomination that could be lost, or even cause trouble within the resulting body. After all, they might reason, the United Methodist Church itself came about through the merger of the United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church, and from their perspective that was a fiasco. 

A more negative spin, and one that I tend to favor, is that it's a matter of power. The people who have been leading the Wesleyan Covenant Association all these years have a certain seniority and influence. And to be sure, it's not necessarily a matter of money or status in the world at large. People want to be held in esteem by their peers, and it can be very difficult to find the humility to blend into another body where one is less well-known. In other words, leaders of the new Global Methodist Church would risk losing status and influence if they were to instead lead a merger with another denomination, and that simply can't happen.

Christians often cite the prayer of Jesus for unity among his disciples as a a worthwhile goal, but in my opinion most of them don't mean it in any practical terms. For evangelicals it's enough that they show up to See You At The Pole and the March for Jesus. They rationalize denominations as a way of organizing people and resources to carry out the work of the church, avoiding the simple fact that there could be a far greater economy of resources if they weren't duplicating efforts in every town, territory, and nation on earth. Even in an age in which denominational branding is less important, and non-denominational churches are thriving, evangelicals are not interested in coordinating regularly with each other beyond the ministries that they are a part of. And in the case of the evangelical denominations, the leaders have every reason not to want to lose their position, as I've already said.

There are a number of denominations that are so close theologically as to make no sense for them to be apart, as I see it. This is the case with many of the conservative Methodist denominations and their Wesleyan-Holiness kin. The reasons they remain separate are just as I described. First, they have distinct histories and culture. Second, mergers would dilute the influence of some. 

It's just as well for the world that evangelical denominations squander their resources and turn people off with their divisions. The sooner anti-science, pro-bigotry movements can die, the better it will be for all of us.

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

In Defense of Plants Podcast | Ep. 382 - The Rediscovery of an Extinct Oak

Episode Description: Extinction due to human activity is a terrible thing, but every once in a while, a species thought to be extinct is rediscovered. If we are extremely lucky, small populations still exist in the wild. If we are less lucky, only a single individual remains. Join me and NatureServe botanist Wes Knapp as we discuss the rediscovery of Quercus tardifolia and the idea of extinction gardens.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Ethical Obsolescence Management

My mother has a lightbulb that is about a hundred years old and still lights up. It had belonged to her parents, and she refers to it as an 'Edison bulb.' The story goes that lightbulbs could always have been made to work indefinitely without burning out, but then there would be no market for lightbulbs. Planned obsolescence was the solution. Simply put, if lightbulbs are made to burn out after a period of use, people will have to buy more, and the market for lightbulbs can continue. Something similar is happening now with smart TVs, though it is less 'planned obsolescence' and more 'obsolescence-by-innovation.'


Someone I know received the email above from Hulu a while back. One of the downsides to smart TV technology is that it becomes outdated relatively quickly, especially in comparison to traditional linear television. When I was growing up (Gen Xer here) my family had the same TV in the living room from the time I was 5 until well after I headed off for college. The only reason we got that one when I was 5 was that the old one had been destroyed by a lightning strike to the antenna on the house. Otherwise we probably would have had the same one from before I was born all the way through.

The days of buying a TV and using it for decades are gone. Now that TVs and computer technology are integrated there will naturally be a limit to the useful life of a smart TV. Improvements in hardware and changes in software will add up, eventually rendering older models less and less useful. There are TVs in use right now that in 10 years, even if they are still perfectly functional otherwise, will no longer be supported for most smart TV apps. 

The amount of electronic waste that this is creating should leave us all concerned. Obsolescence leads to the dump, unless good e-waste recycling programs are in place. 

I have two suggestions. First, when you go to buy a new TV, be willing to pay a little extra for the latest model. Getting a slightly older model on clearance means the device will have a shorter useful life. Second, have a plan for how you'll properly dispose of electronics. Investigate e-waste recycling in your area and be ready to dispose responsibly of that not-so-old TV when it no longer serving its purpose fully. Really, you should know where and how to send all of your electronics off for recycling. Please don't just dump it all in the trash.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Does Ordination Matter?

In December 1999, the day after I graduated from Harding University with a Bachelor of Ministry degree, I was ordained to the ministry. In my faith tradition at the time, ordination was by laying on of hands with prayer by the elders of a local church. My ordination was by that congregation but for the purpose of ministry everywhere. I was thankful for that church and its leaders having my back. But what does ordination really mean?

In the Roman Catholic Church, ordination is 'Holy Orders,' a sacrament that leaves an indelible mark on the soul of the recipient. It must be carried out by a Bishop who is in a line of apostolic succession that purportedly dates back to Christ and his apostles. Martin Luther thought that through and decided it didn't make sense, particularly in cases where Christians were hauled off in chains as slaves to Muslim lands or otherwise separated from the universal church. He reasoned that the Christians could select by vote the one they considered most qualified (had to be a man though) and appoint that one as a minister capable of administering baptism and the Lord's supper. Other Protestant churches descending from the Reformation reached the same conclusion, with some having ordination as a responsibility of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and others leaving it to a vote of the local church (as it was in my case).

In the mid-20th century a man named Kirby J. Hensley used the freedom of religion available in the United States to start his own church and issue ordinations for free, though there was a fee for people to pay to receive a printed certificate by mail. His church ran ads in the backs of magazines for years, ordaining anyone who asked. The legitimacy of his church and its ordinations were fought out in court for years before finally it was established that the government cannot be the judge of what is a valid religion and what is not. Now, with the exception of Tennessee, ministers ordained by a branch of the Universal Life Church are able to officiate weddings legally throughout the United States. Tennessee passed legislation a few years ago specifically invalidated weddings carried out by ministers ordained through the internet, though frankly I don't see how that law can possible remain on the books given how it violates religious freedom by determining what kind of religious practices are unacceptable.

What does ULC or any other 'online ordination' actually accomplish? Other that providing people the legal standing to officiate weddings and sign marriage licenses, not much. They are also given the same protections and responsibilities around pastoral privacy that all other ministers have. Beyond that, really anyone can organize religious rituals like baptisms, baby namings, funerals, and whatever else with or without ordination. The law really isn't involved in such matters of religious practice.

If ordination accomplishes so little, then why do churches and other religious organizations still bother with it? That is, they could easily issue a document to whoever they want to officiate weddings and call it a day, without the need for significant ministry education or any ceremony to recognized the ordinand. It's not just about a legality, of course, and that's what makes the difference. 

In the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations the practice is to have local congregations sponsor whoever they want to have ordained, and the individual then goes through a process set forth by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. It's a long process that includes criminal background checks, completing an MDiv or equivalent approved course of study, a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, and an internship. Once the person has passed all that an various interviews, they may be recommended for preliminary fellowship. Assuming the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association accepts, the candidate can then be ordained by the sponsoring congregation and received into fellowship by the UUMA. 

As I said, it's a long process. It's costly and time consuming to answer a call to ordained ministry within Unitarian Universalism, and what is missed in that description is what really sets ordination in such a scenario apart from easy online ordination. It's not just the requirements for preparation. It's the relationships and ministry that are formed along the way.

So far I have attended two UU ordinations. One was more Christian-leaning, and the other was centered more on the candidate's social justice ministry. In both cases they were surrounded by colleagues, professors, friends, family, and congregants as they were welcomed into ordained ministry. In this setting, ordination is very much an act of the community, and the ordinand has deep ties to the tradition not only in terms of theory, but in practice and especially in relationships.

That isn't to say that such is lacking in other traditions, by any means. In Roman Catholicism the bishop is the one who ordains, but the ceremony is attended by other clergy, family, friends, and parishioners. Along the way to receiving Holy Orders the candidate for priesthood has formed bonds with the tradition and its people, and these are expressed in and through the ritual that they consider a sacrament. 

What I've described above is wholly lacking from 'online ordination.' It is perfectly fine to be ordained as such and start a wedding business or even a church. It just doesn't have the profoundly personal touch that a full-blooded ordination within a more traditional church body will provide. For the ULC and similar online ministries, ordination is simply a transaction that provides a certain legal status for limited purposes. There is no gathered congregation, and no sense of a major milestone shared among any people. 

For those who seek ordination within Unitarian Universalism, the Roman Catholic Church, or any Protestant denomination it's not just about a legal formality. It is a matter of putting down roots and being recognized as a trustworthy person to embody and carry forward the faith tradition. Setting aside any spiritual considerations, which are invisible and unprovable, what we can see is a tangible expression in ordination of a sociological reality.

That's why ordination still matters. 

Monday, September 12, 2022

Good Shepherd American Reformed Catholic Church in Toms River, New Jersey

As I've been bringing my self up to speed on the fascinating world of the Independent Sacramental Movement I have encountered few active communities of parishioners. It seems to be largely about people obtaining holy orders, and quite a few apparently celebrate mass on their own at home, without anyone else around. There are small parishes around, to be sure, and perhaps a few that are larger. I've highlighted one in Kearny, NJ, part of the American National Catholic Church. Just yesterday I discovered another one, Good Shepherd American Reformed Catholic Church in Toms River, New Jersey. So far as I can tell it's the only one of its kind, though I could be mistaken. What really surprised me looking through their website is how active they are, with families and people of all ages. There must be an interesting back story there. Here's a video highlighting what they are all about.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Inestimable Worth with Andrew Miller | Sacramental Whine (Podcast)

This episode of a podcast focused on the Independent Sacramental Movement was particularly interesting to me because it features a former Mormon who studied through the Community of Christ Seminary after he had become independent Catholic. The episode description follows below as well.


Welcome to episode 98, the count-down to episode 100 continues! In this episode, I have the honor of interviewing Father Andrew Miller. Andrew Miller is an ordained priest in the Celtic-Rite Old Catholic Church He came to organized religion as a teenager when he converted to Mormonism at age 16 where he discovered a love for Theology. While Studying Theology and philosophy in college, he felt himself called to a more orthodox expression of Christianity. For a time, he became an Evangelical Protestant and began seminary in 2009, attending Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky with the goal of becoming a Minister in the Christian Church - Disciples of Christ. It was at this time that he felt himself called to a more sacramental and traditional expression of the Christian faith and so became a Greek Orthodox Catechumen. He eventually decided not to be baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church as he was told that he could not receive Holy Communion unless his wife consented to allow his marriage to be blessed in the Orthodox Church, which she was not willing to do.

It was at this point that he became Old Catholic, receiving Baptism and Confirmation in the Ecumenical Catholic Church - USA

He received a call to ordained priesthood because of a mystical experience at a time of deep depression and returned to Seminary, first at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, and finally at Graceland University’s Community of Christ Seminary from which he finally graduated with a Master of Arts in 2017.

He joined the Celtic-Rite Old Catholic Church because of a long-time personal relationship with then Presiding Bishop Thomas McKenna but has also served in the United States Old Catholic Church and is in formation with the interjurisdictional Society of Christ the King. He is an Associate of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, and a practitioner of Vincentian Spirituality. He was ordained to the Priesthood of the Celtic-Rite Old Catholic Church in 2014 while serving as a Chaplain Resident at KU Hospital.

He spent two years in Clinical Pastoral Education at KU Hospital, both in Residency and in Fellowship.
 
Andrew enjoys stories, particularly movies and television and much of his writing has been about the theological implications of fictional stories, particularly movies and television.

Through his love of the cinema, he came to know Rev. Michelle Byerly of the United Methodist Church with whom he went to seminary at St. Paul’s in Kansas City Missouri. The two remained close friends and together started and co-host the Podcast “A Pastor and a Priest Walk into a Movie Theater.” Together with Rev. Byerly, he is one of the four founders of “New Faith New Media” which is a Progressive inter-religious Podcast Platform, currently hosting two Podcasts: “A Pastor and a Priest Walk into a Movie Theater” and “Faith and What Resonates,” with a third in development. Currently, besides co-hosting his and Rev. Michelle’s podcast, he serves on the Core Team of Christ the King Independent Catholic Church in Kansas City, Missouri, is a Volunteer Prison Minister with the Bethany Catholic Callout Group at Lansing Correctional Facility in Lansing, KS.

He is also actively involved in Politics according to his understanding of Social Justice, having served as a Precinct Committee Chair for the Leavenworth County Democratic Party and as a Volunteer Election Researcher with the Democratic Socialists of America. He has been married for 13 years and has a seven-year-old daughter named Scarlett. 

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Chaplaincy for the Theologically Uncommitted

Professional chaplaincy is no longer solely the domain of people who have their minds made up about their theology. Below I'll offer some options for anyone interested in ministering to others as chaplains, but not keen on being anchored by dogma. 

When chaplains began to be a more regular part of the military, hospitals, prisons, and other settings in the United States they were Protestant, Catholic, or — eventually — Jewish. As the century progressed and American society became more clearly pluralistic the chaplaincy began to reflect that reality. Buddhist and Baháʼí chaplains are still not as common as their Baptist colleagues, but change is afoot. 
 
People are still surprised when news comes out about an atheist chaplain taking a role at a university or elsewhere. While we don't have any in the US military as of the time of this post, I can't imagine that they'll be kept out forever. The American Humanist Association has about 34,000 members, and there are surely many more who hold to Humanism without also holding membership in the organization. I myself am a member of the AHA and also an endorsed Celebrant of The Humanist Society. As such I have the same rights and responsibilities of theistic clergy. Unlike the 'online ordination' offered by the Universal Life Church, my endorsement came about through a deliberative process after having submitted an application and supporting documentation. Further, if I cease to function as a Humanist minister, measured by offering a certain number of ceremonies during a set period, my endorsement cannot be renewed. 

Being a Humanist Celebrant does not qualify me as a chaplain. That's an altogether different endorsement which has it own standards. Like Celebrants, Humanist Chaplains must also continue to serve in their roles in a significant way in order to maintain this recognition. Further, people endorsed as Chaplains by the Humanist Society are eligible for membership in the Association of Professional Chaplains and similar organizations, and through proper preparation are qualified to serve as professional chaplains.

However, since Humanism involves a certain set of ideas, including that ethics can be developed apart from reference to any deity, and a commitment to an evidence-based approach human understanding, this might not be ideal for everyone. So, here are a couple of other options for anyone looking into being a professional chaplain, is open to theism, but who doesn't want to be part of a confessional belief system.

Unitarian Universalism is probably the best-known alternative to creedal religion. Originating in mid-20th century with the consolidation of Unitarian and Universalist denominations into one, this faith tradition welcomes atheists, Christians, Buddhists, Pagans, and anyone else who wants to be a part. The clergy is open to anyone willing to go through the rather lengthy process of training and hands-on experience to be ordained and fellowshipped. It would not be correct, however, to say that one can 'believe anything' and be a Unitarian Universalist. Hate does not have a home in this denomination, and those who openly espouse bigotry will find themselves shown the door. That's not to say that all is well, as in fact the denomination is facing a pivotal moment as systemic racism has been brought to the fore, and some don't like it, believing that 'free speech' is more important than loving their neighbor. 

As I've indicated, the path to UU ministry is not an easy one. In addition to a Master of Divinity degree, the candidate must serve in an internship and complete at least one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, in addition to following a number of other guidelines and demonstrating personal spiritual growth along the way. For someone looking to be a chaplain, none of the above should seem too daunting, as the requirements to be accepted as a chaplain in the military and in many other organizations are virtually the same. Speaking of the military, Unitarian Universalist chaplains have long been part of all branches of the US armed forces. 

A final option that checks all the boxes for endorsement that will be recognized by professional organizations and hiring institutions is The Chaplaincy Institute. Described as 'an interfaith seminary & community,' this organization was founded in 1999 and has a partnership with Starr King School for the Ministry for the preparation of its clergy. While many Unitarian Universalist ministers plan to serve congregations once ordained, people ordained through The Chaplaincy Institute are instead usually preparing specifically to serve in institutional settings. While this organizations standards will certainly be as thorough as they need to be for ordination and endorsement, I suspect that it is not as 'fussy' and bureaucratic a process as that found in UUism. 

If you think chaplaincy might be the type of ministry you want to be in, check out The Humanist Society, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and The Chaplaincy Institute.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Congregational Christians in Northeast Missouri

In 1994, around the time I graduated from High School, I joined Baring Community Church in Missouri. It was located less that 12 miles from where I grew up in Knox County. To join I was asked a few questions by the board members and minister shortly after a church service, and they welcomed me in. During that conversation I mentioned that I was pursuing individual lay membership in the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference, and one of the board members mentioned that 'Congregational Christian' was actually part of the legal name of the church, on documents. I filed that away in the back of my mind, and recently I've dug a little more into the history there. 

Here's a bit of Knox County, Missouri history. The Baring Community Church, which I believe has closed after being under 'new management' for a period, was originally organized as a Christian Church. This was not independent Christian nor Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It was part of a different denomination commonly known as the Christian Connection.

The Baring church, before its property was acquired in the early 2000s by a local church planting initiative, was actually listed as Baring Community Congregational Christian Church on legal documents. That's because early in the 20th century this Christian Church denomination merged with the Congregational denomination, forming the Congregational Christian Church. Around mid-20th century this denomination merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church, which resulted in the United Church of Christ (UCC) that exists today. 

Not all the churches went along with this merger that formed the United Church of Christ. Some had become alarmed in years prior at a trend among the Congregational Christian Churches toward utilizing contemporary biblical scholarship and embracing a broader vision of Christianity. These formed the strongly evangelical Conservative Congregational Christian Conference with which I was affiliated for a time. Others departed at the time of the merger that created the UCC and formed the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, which holds space for a range of views and approaches to biblical interpretation that fall within the realm of historic Christianity.

Evidently the Baring church opted not to remain with the new denomination, and seems not to have affiliated with either of the two alternative denominations. Instead, it continued as non-denominational until it was closed and a replacement was incorporated around 2003, as mentioned above. During the time of my membership in the mid-1990s it was quite small with an active youth ministry and a strong evangelical streak. Ministry was supplied by Village Missions.

The page below is from an October 1910 edition of The Herald of Gospel Liberty, the periodical of the Christian Connection in that era.



Saturday, August 6, 2022

Denominational Churches in Non-Denominational Clothing

There is a very obvious trend among evangelical churches to deemphasize their denominational affiliation, if they have one. They take names that omit the name of their denomination, and in many cases you can scour their website without finding their denomination mentioned at all. Here are a few examples, at least two of which do have a non-prominent references to their denomination. I wonder how many of the sites will provide you enough information to determine their affiliation.
A cursory inspection of those sites might lead you to assume that they are non-denominational evangelical churches. They are all evangelical, to be sure, and they are each affiliated with a different denomination. Why does it matter?

According to research published on the Christianity Today website the non-denominational churches in the United States are no longer drawing quite so many members in from mainline Protestant churches as they used to. In fact, the majority of their growth is now organic, through reproduction, with a significant 'pipeline' of new members coming in from Roman Catholic backgrounds. This is significant in a number of ways, but here are two.

First, while mainline Protestant denominations continue to decline, the people they tend to lose now are young people who leave once they become adults and never come back or go anywhere else. They become what many refer to now as the 'nones.' Typically they either describe themselves as 'spiritual but not religious,' agnostics, or atheists. 

Second, the reported 17% of former Roman Catholics who are now members of non-denominational churches are a testament to the fact that not all former Catholics are giving up on the Christian faith. Perhaps, like me in my youth, they read the Bible and became persuaded that the church found their is unlike the Roman Catholic Church of today. Or, maybe they left in disgust over the sexual abuse of children by priests, and the complicity of bishops in covering it up. Maybe it's both and then some. 

Third, most people tend to continue identifying with the religion in which they were raised, at the very least because that's where they have family and other connections. Many might disappear from church for a time, but if they turn up anywhere again later, it will likely be the same as what they grew up with. Non-denominational churches are increasing in comparison to others not solely through conversions but also through reproduction and some measure of retention.

What is it that attracts people to non-denominational churches, and why do denominational churches now mask their affiliation even when their denomination doesn't have a bad public image (as in the case of the Southern Baptist Convention)?

Channeling my former evangelical self I can speculate somewhat safely. There is a culture of anti-institutionalism along with a desire for a church that is 'Bible believing' and not perceived as beholden to denominational 'traditions of men.' I have no idea how many times back in my youthful days as an evangelical missionary and minister I was told by someone with a wrinkled nose that they had no use for denominations. It was pretty frequent.

On a more positive note, I do also recall a desire for non-denominationalism because it appeared to be a move in the direction of Christian unity.  By rejecting denominational labels and gathering only around the Bible in the name of Christ they were affirming the unity of all Christians. At least, among evangelicals who were to be considered the only 'real' Christians. Catholics and others might also be saved, some would say, though to hear them tell it, it would be only by the skin of their teeth.

Meanwhile, the mainline Protestant churches often emphasize their denominational affiliation and traditions. Look through the websites of the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, or United Church of Christ and you will often see the denominational name in the parish's name and even the denominational logo up front on the main page. Often under 'About Us' you'll see something of the history not just of the local parish, but also about the larger denomination. This is going in the opposite direction of where evangelical churches appear to be headed, but then the mainline Protestant churches are also trying to play to a different crowd. For one thing, if they used denomination-free names and had websites that downplayed the connection they might end up with evangelical church shoppers showing up on Sundays and leaving quite annoyed. 

At the same time, who really is the target audience of the mainline Protestant denominations? I don't think they know for sure, although perhaps they would point to the supposedly more progressive 'nones.' The 'nones' tend not to trust 'organized religion,' or else having been raised without formal religion are completely indifferent to church. 

This trend toward hiding denominational affiliation among evangelical churches is easy to understand. There's the innate American distrust of institutions that drives people toward congregational polity along with a commitment to the Bible only, as though it could ever be interpreted cleanly without any reference at all to a religious tradition. The emphasis on individual personal faith as well certainly must contribute to the wider embrace of believer's baptism, something that just a couple of centuries ago would have seemed quite odd to most Christians other than Baptists. 

Returning to the local churches listed above, here they are with their denominational affiliation:
As I noted above, most of these denominations don't have a great deal of notoriety outside of their immediate circles, so hiding the name likely isn't about a problem with the denomination. It's representative of adaptation to a climate that rejections denominationalism and favors local ownership and autonomy. 

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Humanist Ministry for New Jersey

Being raised Roman Catholic meant that when, in my early teens, I started to think ministry would be in my future, the specter of celibate priesthood loomed large. As time passed and I explored religion further I became unconvinced of Catholic teachings and moved on to Protestantism. Along the way I studied for the ministry and was ordained by an independent Christian Church, serving churches and in Brazil church planting along the way. Now, as a Humanist, that draw into ministry remains even as I work in streaming technology program management as my 'day job.' Fortunately, avenues of service remain for me, including as a Humanist celebrant. 

An odd thing about a lot of ministry education is that the practical element is often left to the side. At no point in studying for my Bachelor of Ministry degree was there a class on officiating weddings and funerals. It must have come up as a topic somewhere, but there was certainly no instruction provided on how to go about it. We were more focused on marriage and family counseling than on the mechanics of a ceremony. That's probably fairly typical of evangelical ministry training. So, what I know I learned through experience.

The first time I was approached for a wedding ceremony was in New Mexico in 2004. A young couple came to church one Sunday expressly to talk to me about officiating for them. I don't know what drew them to that church in particular, but I was happy to help. It turned out to be a great experience, and I officiated two more weddings in the following months, before relocating my family to New Jersey and ultimately beginning a new career in technology. Even in the process of career change I offered my services to officiate, and handled a few more weddings in New Jersey.

Last year I had the honor and joy of officiating my daughter's wedding, and it got me thinking again about how much I enjoy offering this type of service. For me it's less a business, though I'm in the process of organizing an LLC for legal and practical reasons, and more about giving back to the community. It's for that reason my rates are lower than what might be expected from any other officiant in the area. 

As a Humanist celebrant I am "authorized to attend to the pastoral and ceremonial needs of Humanists and all others seeking these services," as it says on my endorsement document from The Humanist Society, and this is exactly what I am to do. People in our times are more disconnected from organized religion than previous generations, which means that when special occasions arise they won't necessarily have a clergyperson they know to officiate for them. I am glad to be able to fill this role for them.

Further, while I am certainly happy to be a one-off celebrant for a wedding or other milestone event in the lives of families, I am also available for pastoral care. While I am not a therapist and wouldn't think to take the role of a mental health professional, I can be there for people in times of crisis. For that there is absolutely no fee. As a Humanist minister it is my privilege to be the ear that listens and the presence that consoles. 

While I am registered to officiate weddings in New York City, and can certainly do so, I am especially committed to provide my services in New Jersey, where I make my home. Simple ceremonies in Carteret, where I live, can be made available for free. Anything a bit more involved or taking place elsewhere in the state will have a fee, but as I said above, it won't be on the level of some of what I've seen out there in terms of cost. Weddings are expensive, and I have no need to make it more difficult for anyone.

For weddings, vow renewals, infant dedications, and more, contact me. I look forward being of assistance.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Dan White Jr., and the Great Pastor Resignation (Podcast)

I felt every word that Dan White, a former church minister, said in the podcast below. People don't know how difficult ministry can be. What got me out of full-time ministry were the attacks on my character. There were many.

There is very little in this world as disappointing as giving your all for others only to have them criticize absolutely everything and then say you're lazy or ambitious or bad or too authoritarian or too lax or whatever.

More disappointing still is no one coming to your defense.
 
And that, kids, is one of several reasons congregational ministry is off the table for me. The dynamics can be toxic in ways a workplace can never be.

Episode Description:

America is burned out. Between the stress of the pandemic, growing polarization and declining trust in institutions, many people are near their breaking point. The feeling is particularly acute for those who have traditionally been society’s bridge builders — teachers, health care workers, faith leaders — as they increasingly find themselves in the cross hairs of our divisions.

Dan White Jr. was a pastor in New York for nearly 20 years until the stress of trying to mend the chasms within his church led to his physical collapse. When he went searching for a place to heal and find support, he found few options. So he decided to create his own.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

A Master of Divinity in Humanist Studies Program is Now Available!

At long last, there is finally an accredited Master of Divinity program with a Humanist track! United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities and the American Humanist Association Center for Education have partnered to make this possible.

The Humanist Studies Program is one of the key offerings of the AHA Center for Education, and it is composed of the following courses:

  • Humanist Worldviews: Then & Now (Pre-requisite)
  • Humanist Philosophies and Understandings
  • Humanist Aesthetics & Practices
  • Humanist Leadership: How to Run Organizations
  • Capstone
At a rate of $665 per credit hour, the cost of each of those courses and the Capstone is $1,995. The objective of this program has always been to prepare people to be better, more effective Humanist professionals, and they are offered at the graduate level. Now, through this relationship with United Theological Seminary, these courses can be taken for credit. 

The two Master's degrees available through UTS that include these courses are the Master of Divinity (MDiv) and the Master of Arts in Leadership (MAL). The difference between the two is that the MDiv is the standard degree required for ordained ministry in many religious denominations, and as such it might not be for everyone. Coursework is included in ministry, while the MAL does not have this emphasis. 

United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, which is a very progressive Christian denomination. The seminary does not, however, identify solely with that tradition in its coursework. Here is the full range of MDiv tracks currently offered:

Clearly this is an ecumenical and interfaith seminary that is focused on preparing people for ministry in a wide range of contexts. 

Courses are offered online, through either synchronous or asynchronous programming. The Humanist Studies coursework will be signed up for via the seminary but taken directly from the AHA Center for Education in a synchronous format. Synchronous classes take place for three hours once a week, and at present the Humanist Studies courses are provided on weekday afternoons, which could be something of a barrier for some people. 

Hopefully word of these Humanist Studies degrees will get out and people will take advantage of the opportunity to deepen their Humanism and develop as professionals within the Humanist community. 

Friday, July 22, 2022

Sunflowers Are Great!

I love sunflowers. Every time I have a place where I can grow a garden I plant sunflowers and
maize...usually side-by-side. My late father, a 4th generation farmer in Missouri, wouldn't allow me to grow them when I was a kid because he said they would 'escape' and grow wild on the farm. I still can't figure out the problem there. The plants are edible for livestock, and squirrels tend to eat most if not all of the seeds produced if the plants are unattended. Aside from use as decoration and for food (and oil!), sunflowers are amazing at pulling up heavy metals out of contaminated soil, and are used to some extent now as cover crops as part of regenerative farming. 

Sunflowers have an interesting history that starts in North America that you can learn more about in the video below. 

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Carl Sagan Testifying Before Congress in 1985 on Climate Change (Video)

In 1985 Carl Sagan testified before the US Congress about climate change. He laid out the foundations for understanding its reality, outlined the consequences that it would have, and enumerated some next steps for the United States to respond to the challenge. He was reasonable, acknowledging that drastic measures like banning fossil fuels outright would break the economy, and provided well-reason actions that could be taken instead. Virtually nothing came of it, and now we're seeing everything he said would happen taking place in our world. He was no prophet. He was a man of science who looked at evidence, tested hypotheses, and drew tentative conclusions that were open to further evidence and testing. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Cobwebs, Walkers and Lace: AMC Networks Has Franchise Fever with Anne Rice and ‘The Walking Dead’ (Podcast)


Dan McDermott, president of entertainment for AMC Networks and AMC Studios, details the world-building process that began after the company struck a wide-ranging deal with the estate of famed novelist Anne Rice. McDermott, a veteran executive and producer, explains the new TV math of developing programs and characters designed to support interlocking characters across multiple platforms that to play out over a decade or more. McDermott discusses the pros and cons of aiming so high and why it’s such a departure from pilot season of old.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

A Chat with Rev Brandan Robertson (Podcast)

This interview with Rev Brandan Robertson is top notch. He talks about his youthful conversion to evangelicalism and his troubling experience of being forced out of the closet. The shadiness of Moody Bible Institute in how it treated him was particularly appalling to me. In my late teens, when I became evangelical, I thought of Moody Bible Institute as a bastion of sweet Christian holiness. Now I understand it more as a bitter fundamentalist hellhole.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

The Wild, Woolly Weirdness of the Independent Sacramental Movement

For some years the Independent Sacramental Movement (ISM) has been on the periphery of my awareness. Since I was a teenager I've had a fascination with the many varieties of Christianity out there, and yet I've only known of the ISM as 'independent Catholic' until recently. "Independent Sacramental" is certainly an accurate denominator, though in terms of movement I'm pretty sure there isn't a particular direction. 

The two books that have been the most help in bringing me up to speed on the ISM have been The Many Paths of the Independent Sacramental Movement, and The Other Catholics: Remaking America's Largest Religion. What I found in these and with some other reading and poking around online has revealed a world I didn't know existed. This is a hodge-podge of bishops and priests who claim (for the most part) apostolic succession without any binding ties to a larger communion. They mostly trace their lineages back either to bishops who parted with Roman Catholicism, or to some form of Orthodoxy. Various liturgies are used, from Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, or elsewhere, and often these are homebrewed to some extent to fit the perspective of the priest or bishop running the show. Theologically they ranges from New Age/occult all the way over to extreme traditionalist, although what counts as 'traditional' depends on the tradition. That is to say, some on this end of the spectrum devoutly hold to the old Latin Tridentine Mass, others to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer forms, and so on. As for the New Age/occult side, that can get pretty weird, with Theosophy as a primary although not sole historic stream of influence. 

What Protestants would identify as denominations the people of the ISM tend to think of more as 'jurisdictions.' Usually a bishop will provide holy orders (ordination) to priests with the intention that the bishop is at least symbolically 'in charge.' The system of bishops, priests/presbyters, and deacons that they employ dates back at least to the 2nd century CE, when many early Christian churches were using this model. It caught on and became the standard for orthodox Christianity until the Protestant Reformation. In western Catholic thought, influenced by Augustine of Hippo, the sacraments leave a mark on the soul, and this includes holy orders. Just as I will technically always be a Catholic in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church, even through I left when I was 17 and am now a Unitarian Universalist, so every deacon, priest, and bishop will forever have their holy orders. In Roman Catholicism it's understood that clergy who are 'defrocked' or excommunicated are to cease using their priestly powers except in certain extreme circumstances. The ISM disagrees with that assessment. 

If we're looking for commonality among the jurisdictions of the ISM, one could say that what ties them together is saints, sacraments, and succession. All seem to agree to some extent on the relevance of saints, often naming their parishes (when they have them) after one or the other of the saints. The sacraments are absolutely central to the life of the ISM. The eucharist in particular is emphasized, with some bishops and priests even holding private, solo mass in their homes as a form of private devotion. This is controversial even in the ISM. The reality is that ISM clergy often don't have a parish at all, and instead serve the general public as officiants for baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Divorced Catholics in particular can often find an independent Catholic clergy person to officiate for their new marriage, even providing a nuptial mass, and without it having to be held in a church building. Roman Catholic priests won't officiate elsewhere, such as beach weddings.  

It's apostolic succession where ISM clergy focus their greatest attention. In order to bolster their legitimacy, bishops of the ISM have long 'collected' lineages, such that the various lines have permeated pretty much the entire movement. Since the legitimacy of holy orders is understood to be the correct intent and form, it happens that more conservative people have received their ordination/consecration from more liberal bishops. 

The two primary issues I see with their understanding of apostolic succession are that it defeats the apparent original purpose of the practice, and it depends on an interpretation unique to western Christianity. 

First, there was not one church from the very beginning. In the first centuries of the Common Era there were multiple Christianities. For a long time there was a misconception that it was 'the church' and 'the gnostics,' but in recent decades we've come to understand that much of what's been grouped in with gnosticism was, in fact, other varieties of ancient Christianity. In the thick of that multiplicity, emphasis was placed by some Christians on following leaders who had known the apostles personally, with the idea being that they were more likely to be 'right.' Then it became about who was associated with people who knew the apostles. And so it went in the 2nd century that bishops began claiming apostolic authority by association. 

Second, the idea that apostolic succession can exist apart right doctrine and right worship (orthodoxy) relies on a very narrow interpretation of a western Christian idea that is not generally shared by the Orthodox, Copts, and others of ancient communions.

The most fundamental problem I have with the ISM isn't doctrinal, since I don't believe any of it anyway. What I don't like is the lack of actual focus on real ministry to people. Bishops and priests of the ISM are not uniform, by any means, but there's an overwhelming tendency to focus on the provision of sacraments over caring for people. Now, there are bishops and priests engaged in important non-profit work and practical ministry. That just isn't the overall trend of the 'movement.' 

Most ISM clergy are unpaid volunteers, except when hired as officiants, and don't have as much availability as full-time clergy to extend pastoral care. They also usually lack the formal training required of mainstream clergy. On the point of education, it has to be acknowledged that many evangelical preachers also don't have that much formal preparation, but even in evangelicalism it's common for ministers to at least try to get an undergraduate degree in Bible. One of the defenses offered in my reading for independent clergy not obtaining earned, accredited degrees is that they don't have the resources to up and move to go to seminary. That objection is a bit dated, as now the Association of Theological Schools, the accrediting body for graduate theological education in the United States, allows for full-online MDiv studies. In fact, I'm currently studying for my MDiv in this model. Sure, there isn't a guaranteed paycheck in the end for ISM clergy, as there would be for priests in some churches, but if this is truly their 'calling' then why can't they make it work?

Going into my reading about the Independent Sacramental Movement I was open-minded. While I wasn't going to change my mind and run to join them, I figured that they had something to offer. I still think that they do, particularly in terms of extending ceremonial services to people excluded by the mainstream Catholic and Orthodox bodies. There are certainly some bishops out there doing good, as I've said, and some jurisdictions seem to be striving to do better. One that I've taken an interest in especially is the American National Catholic Church, based out of New Jersey. With several parishes in the United States, they seem like a very Vatican II type of body, with the same liturgy I grew up with (born in the 70s), and inclusive of women and ltbtq+ folks. Still, I haven't seen evidence of a strong family ministry, or really a lot other than their mass schedule. In the video at the bottom of this post is a recent news report about one ANCC parish providing gas cards to people for free, so that's nice. 

By and large the impression I get of the ISM is that most of those involved are LARPing as Catholic or Orthodox clergy. Certainly that's not the case in every instance, but when a religious movement has more clergy than adherents, what else am I supposed to think?

Sunday, July 10, 2022

The Point Humanist Hour at All Souls Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma

All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma offers a Humanist service that they call The Point Humanist Hour. This isn't a new offering, by any means, which signifies that there is sustained interest in this type of gathering. You don't have to be a Humanist to attend, of course. It's just that the focus will be shifted away from the supernatural and towards the real world we share. Check it out below. 

Thursday, July 7, 2022

The (Relative) Ease of Becoming a Priest

In a couple of recent posts (here and here) I have shared about the Independent Sacramental Movement (ISM), and the American National Catholic Church in particular. The ISM is composed of countless jurisdictions of Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches and bishops, ranging theologically from liberal to traditionalist, New Age/occult to Nicene, and all points in between. What they have in common is succession, sacraments, and saints. That is to say, they all hold to the importance of apostolic succession for valid holy orders in a system of deacons, priests, and bishops, they all affirm the seven sacraments we know of from Roman Catholicism, and they all revere saints in one way or another. As a Humanist and Unitarian Universalist, this is all fascinating to me but not directly relevant to my life. However, I have observed that it would not be too difficult for someone with an affinity to this sort of thing to obtain holy orders, at least for the priesthood. 

In my reading (I highly recommend the book The Other Catholics) and online perusing I've gathered that the boundaries between jurisdictions are often quite soft, with priests and even bishops moving around within the ISM, between formal bodies. I can't imagine this apparent instability is healthy for any of the individual micro-denominations, though perhaps the ones who move around most don't have regular parishes they serve. I simply don't know. There are, apparently, a number of on ramps into this group. One of which is through the Liberal Catholic Church - Young Rite

The Young Rite organization, which confusingly also utilizes the name Community of Saint George, holds to an 'esoteric' form of Christianity that is less concerned about the historicity or literal reading of the Bible, and more interested in drawing out meaning and applications for the here-and-now. This group is especially eager to confer holy orders for the priesthood, saying "Priesthood is for all, therefore all may become priests." This isn't the same as online ordination as offered by the Universal Life Church, by any means. There is a formation process that seems to take about three years and involves readings, writing summaries of the readings, regular meetings with a mentor (can be via Zoom), and practical training in serving at the altar. Priests in this body are also required to attend an annual Fall synod that involves traveling. 

So far as I can tell the expenses for the candidate for ministry are primarily books, vestments and altar materials, and cost of travel for altar training and the annual synod. Considering that ordained ministry in a denomination like the Episcopal Church requires 4 years of undergraduate work and another 3 or so years for a Master of Divinity, along with CPE and internship, the cost is much lower to go this route. Then again, there's no guarantee of a pastoral assignment with the Young Rite or even most of the independent jurisdictions. It appears that the thought is that a priest will either form their own community or serve in some other capacity, such as officiant or chaplain. The doctrinal commitment required seems to be exceptionally light as well. 

By the way, the application to start this formation process can be found here

Another path to priesthood could be found through the Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch. This jurisdiction maintains Sophia Divinity School (unaccredited) as a primarily distance learning program of formation. Successful completion of all program requirements usually leads to holy orders. 

Visit the website of virtually any ISM jurisdiction and you'll likely find pages related to vocations and incardination. The former has to do with becoming a deacon or priest, and the latter is for people who already have holy orders and want to change jurisdictions. 

As I've said, none of this is really for me, but if this sounds like your sort of thing, and a way you could express your faith through service to others, then by all means go for it.