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Monday, June 13, 2022

Ceremonies as a Service

via Facebook
In preparation to offer my services to the public as a Humanist celebrant I have been looking into ways to get the word out, and this has given me the opportunity to see what other officiants are doing out there. While Universal Life Church ministers are fairly common, I have also noticed listings for 'Contemporary Catholic' priests. Digging into it further, I have started to become familiar with a religious world I knew little about before. Not long ago I blogged about an independent Catholic parish in Kearny, New Jersey. Since then I've been reading The Other Catholics by Julie Byrne, and learning about the 'Independent Sacramental Movement' has got me thinking. 

The movement's name is an expansion of an earlier term: the Independent Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican Movement. This earlier term was used extensively during many years when many of these groups cooperated, although they were not in formal communion with one another. The majority of these groups' holy orders and sequences of apostolic succession are derived through mutually-common sources, especially Arnold Harris Mathew, Aftimios Ofiesh, Carlos Duarte Costa, and Joseph René Vilatte. It remains difficult to define the ISM as an entity and to distinguish it from the closely-related Independent Catholic movement; the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, seemingly to refer to the same reality. (Wikipedia)

Independent Catholicism is an independent sacramental movement of clergy and laity who self-identify as Catholic (most often as Old Catholic or as Independent Catholic) and form "micro-churches claiming apostolic succession and valid sacraments", in spite of not being affiliated to the historic Catholic churches such as the Roman Catholic and Utrechter Old Catholic churches. The term "Independent Catholic" derives from the fact that "these denominations affirm both their belonging to the Catholic tradition as well as their independence from Rome." (Wikipedia)

The underlying theory that supports independent Catholic groups, such that are not in communion with the pope, is that they have valid apostolic succession. In historic orthodox catholic Christianity it has been believed that bishops stand in a line of succession that goes back to the original apostles and Jesus himself. In the early church it was evidently meant as a sort of guarantee that the bishop was orthodox, holding to the true faith of the apostles. In Roman Catholic interpretation, which is adopted by independent Catholics, the sacraments leave an indelible mark on the soul, meaning that once someone has received holy orders they are forever a priest, even if they 'leave' the priesthood, and the same is true of bishops. For the Roman Catholic Church this means that bishops who have left can still ordain priests and consecrate bishops, but such deeds are 'illicit.' Independent Catholic Churches depend on this interpretation.

If you start looking into the Independent Sacramental Movement (ISM) you'll quickly find what seems to be an obsession with apostolic succession. I was raised Roman Catholic and no one ever really discussed what lineage the parish priest or diocesan bishop was in. It was sufficient for lay people to know that they were validly set apart for ministry by the church. For independent Catholics and others of the ISM this luxury does not exist. They have to be able to defend their right to practice ministry in ways that can be considered 'Catholic.' I imagine there has to be quite a bit of fanboy/girl geekery about apostolic succession among them as well, given just how much they discuss it. 

Exponents of the ISM range from conservative to liberal, orthodox to New Age. It's evidently not uncommon for more conservative individuals obtaining holy orders and consecration to the bishopric from people they would not usually associate with on the more liberal end. Someone attending a parish led by an independent Catholic priest might find a mass identical to that of the Roman Catholic Church down the road, a bit different, or heavily modified. The liturgies vary as do the theologies.

Endemic to this movement is a great instability and frequent lack of accountability. 'Jurisdictions,' as what anyone else might identify as a 'denomination,' come and go regularly. Countless dead websites for disbanded independent groups exist across the internet, even as new sites heralding a freshly-organized jurisdiction springs to life. While it has been said that the Universal Life Church abolished the laity with its free-for-everyone ordination, that isn't too far off for the ISM as well. Functioning parishes are less common than active priests and bishops, but that doesn't mean that the parish-less clergy are unoccupied. They serve as institutional chaplains, say Mass for people in prison or drug rehab, and officiate baptisms and weddings for Roman Catholics and others.

That last item is important. Roman Catholics who are divorced, for example, are generally not seen as divorced by the church, regardless of civil status. For a divorce to be considered valid it would need to be investigated and some grave fault would have to be found in how it started, which is very difficult to accomplish. That being the case, divorced Catholics cannot remarry and have it recognized by the church, and they are not to take communion thereafter as they are considered to be adulterers. Generally speaking, none of this is a problem for an independent Catholic priest. Additionally, there are a lot of rules laid down by the Roman Catholic Church on how and where weddings are to be officiated, so if someone wants a Catholic beach wedding this will only be possible with an independent priest.Then, of course, there are lgbtq+ folks who would like to get married or have their children christened, and for them an independent Catholic priest is a good option. 

Aside from instability there is a lack of accountability. With virtually anyone with apostolic succession able to hang out their shingle and start a ministry, there isn't a lot of oversight. That's ironic, considering that bishops were meant to be overseers. Then again, the Roman Catholic Church has a vast hierarchy that protected pedophile priests for centuries, so the age and size of an organization is no guarantee of security. 

What I do see in the ISM, and through my review of the world of officiants and ceremonies, is what I think will be the future of religious ceremonial practice. We can call it 'Ceremonies as a Service.' In times past people would be members of a local church, or at least know one in the neighborhood to hit up for weddings and funerals. Even with fewer and fewer people maintaining membership in an organized religion that doesn't mean that they prefer civil ceremonies. People dream of their wedding day, and what they picture doesn't usually peak with a trip to the courthouse. They want a ceremony that celebrates their love and reflects their identities. And so, they find an officiant who can help them have that dream ceremony, even if outside the boundaries of formal religious organizations. 

Churches will continue to decline, but I don't see clergy as ceremonialists and providers of spiritual care going away. This goes for independent Catholics as much as anyone.