Logs and Splinters: How to Improve the Independent Catholic Movement

There is a volume that, when the title is mentioned, still gives me the chills. “Bishops at Large” (Peter F. Anson, Apocryphil Press, 2006), is a heavy, heavy tome dedicated to the various Independent Catholic denominations that sprang up in the 19th and 20th centuries in the UK, Australia, and parts of America and Canada. As part of my first seminary class, it was one of many volumes dedicated to the history of the Independent Catholic movement and its origins. A theme of “Bishops at Large” is the idea of consistent bishops with small oratories attempting to form congregations that would unify the broken church.

It was a challenging read for me, and took several months and a lot of concentration, coffee, and the occasional shot of whisky. The reflection paper I wrote at the end of that first seminary class talked about how, as Independent Catholics, we are often called to a vocation that may on the outside seem to be solitary, fulfilled in a way that finds us sometimes isolated or feeling alone. That vocation, however, is united with the many Christians who profess of different faiths world wide. While we may find ourselves ridiculed by mainstream Christian denominations, we should be fully able and willing to turn the other cheek and focus on what we do, rather on how others perceive what it is that we do.

In that spirit, I’d like to put forward that there are fundamentally two things that we as Independents can do, and need to do, to help improve our movement: First, we need to consider how we approach the people we wish to serve, how those people view organized religion, and how we can reconcile the two so as to serve in a respectful, loving way. Second, I would invite all Independent/Old Catholic faith communities to consider a federation of denominations which, rather than acting as an agent to unify many different congregations, would act more as a co-operative organization of siblings who could offer support, encouragement, and fellowship to one another.

When I decided to write on the topic for this issue, I first went to Facebook and reached out to my friends in the Gender and Sexually Diverse community; this is one of the communities as a Franciscan I’m called to serve. I asked, “Those of you who are members or friends of the LGBTQ community that may have had experience with religion in the past, but have got a bad taste in your mouth now from something that may have happened: What could organized religion do, if anything, to make it a more welcoming and inclusive place?”

These were the responses I received:

“When I married my ex wife, my church wouldn’t marry us because she was divorced, her church wouldn’t marry us because I wasn’t the same faith. I came out as a gay man and again, feel like I am not accepted because I am being authentic. I’m not sure I could ever support a religion or church. I just believe that if I could live my life as a good person, that’s all that is needed.”

“I have big respect and understanding for spirituality and the importance of it for many individuals. I don’t’ know if I’ll ever be able to support or promote organized religion as a whole.”

“Beg for forgiveness from all the people they’ve wronged and commit some of the vast wealth they’ve made to the Gender and Sexually Diverse charities. As well as actively work to change the straight member’s minds about us.”

And, perhaps the most shocking comment that came was this: “I’m still in the closet. Can’t comment.”

What I see as being consistent in these answers is the feeling of isolation, the sense that there are two worlds: one in which religious practice is easier to include in one’s life, and one in which religious practice is, for whatever reason, seen as being either contrary or inconsistent with identifying as queer. While I am aware of people who consider themselves both religious or spiritual and queer, the majority of people I’ve spoken with see the idea of any spiritual practice that aligns itself with a western tradition as a contradiction with identifying as queer.

Coming from a Catholic tradition, I’m familiar with the latest edition of the Catechism which teaches that people who have “same sex attraction” should be encouraged to live a life of chastity. It is a cross that must be carried through life, not an aspect of God’s creation that should be celebrated as part of the diversity of Creation. The particular words that I find most challenging to accept are the words ‘disinterested friendships’.

A couple of years ago I had a conversation with a researcher who was interested in how pastors could work to make churches more inclusive for GSD people. I brought up this line from the catechism, and I asked how anyone could have a disinterested friendship with anyone? How could anyone have a disinterested friendship with the Eucharist, with the body and blood of Our Lord? I submit now as I did then, that the greatest thing we as Independent/Old Catholics can and should do to help our movement is to treat every human being that we encounter, regardless of who they are or what they profess, with the same reverence and love that we would the Eucharist, that we would Our Lord. If we cannot do that, then we need to seriously examine just how disinterested a relationship we have with Jesus Christ and work very seriously to amend the state of that relationship. If we cannot treat every person we meet with that reverence and respect, we are simply wearing the vestments and going through the motions of ritual with no love, no authenticity: we are the frauds that other Christians, other Catholics would call us.

Saint Francis encountered a leper on the road one day. The concept of leprosy for Francis was the most challenging obstacle between himself and Christ. Until he was able to break through that barrier, to dismount his horse, cross the road, and offer alms to the leper, to kiss the hands of the leper, the hands full of corruption and filth, the hands he knew to be in a sense the very hands of Christ, he knew he would not be able to better know Christ within himself. We are called today, especially in a climate where immigrants and those who are different are regularly challenged as dangers, threats to the safety of our own corruption, to serve those who we would fear. That fear is the wall between our sense of privilege and an encounter with Christ, an encounter which can be continual if we choose to live not as one who reaches down to lift someone up, but as someone who reaches up to be helped out.

As a member of the GSD community, I’ve encountered and still do encounter the paradox of some people (not all, but some) who find my religious and spiritual vocation to be a threat—and on the other side of that coin, those who profess to be Christians who find the aspect of my vocation which is queer to be equally paradoxical, equally threatening. The irony is that, while each of these views comes from opposite sides, the revulsion comes from the same place of division that helps to keep the status quo in place. This message of crossing over the road then doesn’t just apply to those of us who are religious, but also those of us who have been in communities that have experienced marginalization. It’s a tough teaching, especially when the climate has been one of advocating out of anger rather than compassion for those who oppress. But for those of us, especially those who walk the line between both communities, Catholic and Queer, it’s even more important to do so. We become teachers by our example. We preach using words only when necessary. If we want to be relevant, if we want to truly follow, engage, and live in our vocations–be they vocations of prayer, of monastic solitude, of engagement with community–we have to be willing to let go of the dogmas and stigmas that in part were part of the Church (or part of the GSD community) that we refused to believe were necessary to be Catholic (or Queer), to be true to our vocations.

As a community of Independent/Old Catholic, we need to begin to reach out to each other, to think about how as individual denominations with sometimes very different values and beliefs, can work collectively as a mosaic of peoples of faith. I myself belong to a denomination which has missions across Canada, the United States, Cuba, Russia, and Africa. As an individual Franciscan I’m by myself here in the city that I live, I practice solitarily when I pray the office, when I serve my community. But as Eucharistic Catholics, we are collectively able to celebrate Mass together and connect through mediums like Skype and Facebook. While our congregation is spread over the world, we as a community are able to find ways to keep in touch and support each other.

How much more support would we, as individual denominations and communities, be able to draw if we came together as a community of many, a community who’s many differences could be set aside for a few days of the year to meet in synod, in community, to network and support each other in prayer and fellowship, perhaps even in sacrament.

I would like to suggest that in the next few months of 2019, we might begin to discuss this using Facebook as a starting point. I know having spent much time watching my partner work with groups that work with Pride organization from all over the world, conferences are challenging to organize but in the end are productive and beneficial for those who attend. It could be an opportunity for us to celebrate our differences and to be stronger because of them, an opportunity of connection to a larger faith community that is not only supportive of what we believe, and how we practice those beliefs, but provide individual connections and networks that could provide continued support, friendship, and a means for creativity to thrive within our own individual communities.

We have to be relevant not only to the people we proport to serve but be prepared to recognize that the scope of who we serve may be limited by our prejudices, our fears, and the comforts of the walls of our chapels, churches, and oratories. We have to be prepared to welcome our siblings into our communities, regardless how small the differences in how we profess the creeds.

Ask for help from your siblings when you cannot remove the log from your own eye. Be not afraid to recognize you’ve mistaken a speck for a log, and never look at the time you’ve lived with a log in your eye as anything but an opportunity to gain experience, to learn. Look to the time we as collective communities have going forward to do great things, to help each other, to know each other as siblings, to love one another as He asked us to love.

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