"Bishops Still at Large" - Some thoughts on the state of the Independent Sacramental Movement today ...
by the Rt Revd Dom Alistair Bate OSBA, M.A. Div.
In his marvellous essay, “Wandering Bishops: Not all roads lead to Rome”, Bishop Stephan Hoeller wrote, “The unworthiness of the many should not blind one to the potential residing in the few. The mass of wandering bishops is very much like a kind of alchemical prima materia from whence a true stone of the philosophers might yet emerge.” I wished I shared Bishop Hoeller's optimism, for the fact is that at some times more than others it does seem that “the movement” is particularly full of charlatans and incompetents.
Firstly, the charlatans - just within the last year, for example, we have had personal experience of theft of money and vestments by a priest, as well as, a bishop – a self-styled “Patriarch” no less – incardinating a "bishop" who had not been properly ordained or consecrated according to the standards universally held. I have written evidence on file for both of these cases and regrettably occurences such as these are not at all uncommon. It was also disclosed just a few months ago in the United States that the Primate of a somewhat larger Independent Catholic jurisdiction was found to be a complete charaltan and not ordained at all! How very sad for those who believed that they validly received the sacrament of Holy Orders at his hands.
Secondly, the incompetents – a much larger group than the charlatans – which of course vary with regard to the degree of incompetence. Few things shout "incompetent" more to well trained and educated Catholic clergy of any jurisdiction than a bishop or priest who wears a cope over his chasuble. To the modernists or the religiously indifferent this may seem trivial, but to the genuine guardians of tradition it is an unpardonable offence because it reflects badly on the whole movement, making us all look like amateurs in the eyes of the mainstream liturgical churches. Even worse, I have seen a bishop wear a eastern rite epitrachelion (stole) and a western rite stole at the same time. As the stole is the most vital of priestly vestments one would expect a bishop to know not to wear two at once! This particular bishop also looked like he was barely out of short pants. Worst of all, recently a photo of a clown, landed in my inbox, a "bishop" who had cut arm holes in his traditional gothic chasuble and was wearing it like a ladies' cape over his cassock. Saints preserve us!
I have myself been criticised, by a particularly picky queen, for wearing a simple mitre with ornate vestments, but there is a big difference between making do with what vestments you have and wearing them incorrectly. There are correct ways of doing these things and bishops, as guardians of Catholic or Orthodox tradition, need to be informed and abide by the rules.
So what can we do? We have no central authority to enforce discipline or educational standards. All we can do is shun the offending parties and form associations with those who keep within the standard norms. With rare exceptions (normally Liberal Catholics) nearly everyone in this movement has moved from the ecclesiastical mainstream, so it is not suprising that the level of religious education of people coming into the movement reflects the deplorable lack of the same, particularly among the younger generation, coming from Rome and Canterbury. Protestants and the un-churched are even more difficult to educate. I have found through bitter experience that when training priests you can never assume that the foundations of catechetical and liturgcal knowledge have been securely established and it is useless starting people off on theological works unless they have this basic enculturation first.
A few months ago, Fr Matthew FCM, in his insightful blog post "Reform must start with the Bishops" wrote to Independent bishops collectively, "If I could advise the bishops to do one thing it would be this: stop. Stop consecrating anyone with a pulse. ....". It is true that the movement is, and always has been, top-heavy with clergy, particularly bishops, and the temptation to consecrate others is a strong one, but fellow bishops, we simply must resist this temptation and start being much more circumspect. We must not squander the priceless gift that has been entrusted to us. These days in our global village, even if one's jurisdiction is spread over the whole world, if your seminarians really want ordination they will find a way to travel to you, or you can arrange with a bishop of another similar jurisdiction to ordain on your behalf. There is no need to have a bishop everywhere you have clergy.
Also within the last year, I heard of a not-very-well-known, far-left-of-centre bishop consecrating three bishops at once. Why, I don't know, but I do know it was not because they each had plenty of clergy (let alone laity) waiting for episcopal services or because the individuals concerned were particularly well qualified for the office. The least we bishops can do is ensure that anyone we consecrate has some active form of ministry and that they are well educated theologically, preferably with a theological degree from a reputable university, though, to be fair, some of the most admirable Indie bishops I know are largely self-educated and a theological degree is no guarantee of liturgical proficiency or aptitude for the office. Either way, we need to ensure that anyone we consecrate knows his stuff and is likely to be a conscientious guardian of the Catholic Apostolic tradition, because that is primarily what we are - guardians of a tremendous heritage and means of spiritual power.
On the matter of education it is encouraging to see that a growing number of Independent jurisdictions recognise the pressing need for clergy education and training. Many of us have good programs in place, but what the movement, can really really do without is bogus degrees! This has been a problem throughout our history. … Bishops are not automatically entitled to the post-nominal letters D.D. ... Don't do it!! ..... Not to mention the other crazy titles, from the excessively silly Lady Abbesses of Bongo-bongo-land to the title of “Patriarch” to which, if we are honest, NONE of us are entitled.
Faced with all of these problems, what can we do? Surely, all we can do is be the very best Old or Independent Catholics we ourselves can be and trust that God will sort out those whom we are powerless to change except by peer pressure and good example. We must be zealous for tradition and the preservation of the Catholic or Orthodox heritage, conspicuously prayerful, fighters for social justice and when it is possible without abandoning our principles, to err on the side of kindness. That's about all we can do. The developed world is fast being lost to secularism and we must be honest with ourselves in that our mission is likely only to have a limited local effect. In due course we will go to our ancestors and God will raise up others to inspire the coming generations, perhaps even in ways contrary to the faith we have received. Nevertheless, let us hope that our conscientious guardianship of the Mysteries will bear fruit in God's way and His perfect time.
To end on a positive note: What are our strengths? Well, we are good at campaigning for social justice. As under-dogs ourselves we understand how that feels and tend to champion the rejected. We are also good net-workers and perhaps because of the size of our community globally we tend to go out of our way to build community, even with those with whom we have significant theological differences. This inclusivity could be prophetic for the mainstream. On the whole, we are also people of prayer. Generally, we don't have committee meetings to attend and church accounts to keep, so we study, pray, and work, which is exactly what good clergy ought to do. So let's all give ourselves a pat on the back where it's due. Blessings to all.