In my work as a hospice chaplain I have the pleasure and opportunity to teach new employees about culture, religion and spirituality. When I discuss the differences between religion and spirituality the orientation class is usually divided between people who have a negative opinion of religion but it’s always unanimous that spirituality is seen as a positive. I do not think this phenomenon is unique to the new employees at the hospice where I work, it seems to be a phenomenon that permeates our society. Linda Mercadante in her book Belief without Borders states, “The percentage of Americans claiming “no religion” has grown dramatically since religion’s heyday in the 1950s.” As a hospice chaplain, when I conduct new patient assessments I am finding that most of my patients and their families have ceased attending a church and the growing trend seems to be a general distrust of organized religion.
In wrestling with the question, “how to improve our movement,” my mind immediately went to some obvious ways to improve such as better education and communication between clergy in various jurisdictions. These subjects are important; however, I keep coming back to the dichotomy between religion and spirituality and believe there is something there that we, as a movement, should be aware and acknowledge. Our culture is changing, and society is morphing into something much different from the “1950s church” experience.
When I ask new orientees, who dislike religion, why they feel the way they do the responses I get focuses on how religion is perceived to be authoritarian, oppressive, legalistic, and impersonal. When I ask them to share their thoughts on spirituality I get responses that illustrate feelings of connection, personal relationship with the Divine, and feeling loved by God. Reflecting on these views many of us who end up in the Independent Sacramental Movement identify as “spiritual but not religious,” in that we are repelled by the legalistic and oppressive characteristics of organized religion yet feel drawn and compelled to live a spiritual life with those aspects of traditional religion we find comforting. Whether we identify with the label, “Spiritual but not religious,” or not we seek a deeper connection with God and seek that connection in ways that go counter to mainstream, normalized society. We are not spiritual anarchists or loners, but instead of asking “where do I belong?” we are asking “who am I?” We can more effectively answer that question, “who am I,” within a spiritual movement that focuses on that ontological question without having to surround ourselves in a box that we did not create.
Diana Butler Bass in her book Christianity After Religion argues that we are living in a new age. She indicates that we have moved out of the Age of Belief and into the Age of Spirit which she describes as, “The Age of Spirit is nondogmatic, noninstitutional, and non-hierarchical Christianity, based on a person’s connection to the “volatile expression” of God’s Spirit through mystery, wonder, and awe.” Bass is articulating a theory based on the works of scholar Harvey Cox and my experience in hospice talking to patients and families seems to validate what Bass argued. The religious climate of our world is changing, and people are becoming suspicious of the “institutional church.” People have not abandoned belief and a commitment to spirituality, but where they seek solace from the harshness of life is much different now than what it was in the past. Is this phenomenon a ministry opportunity for jurisdictions in the Independent Sacramental Movement? If we become aware of what is going on within our culture, we can adapt quicker to the changing times than the larger more institutionalized churches.
In comparing the Independent Sacramental Movement to larger denominations let’s consider the places we go to eat. When you go to a chain restaurant you will likely eat food that is pre-packaged and heated up locally; whereas, a locally owned restaurant often makes their food on site every day. When I was much younger I worked at Pizza Hut making pizza. Back in the 80s and 90s we made our own dough and prepared all the toppings. Now, the toppings are pre-cut and shipped in plastic bags and the dough is created at a central location, frozen, and shipped to the local units for final production. The personal touch is gone, it is all about conformity. I prefer to eat at local places, were the food is fresh and created on site and not in a microwave. I don’t want to paint the mainline churches as the enemy or as artificial. I have seen great ministry done by mainline clergy friends; however, they belong to systems that, in some ways, seek conformity and this push for conformity can prevent them from hearing the whispers of the Holy Spirit. The older institutionalized churches are often slow to adapt to change. As church attendance starts to shrink within the mainline churches (Catholic and Protestant) many within those churches are asking the question, “How do we get more people?” This increases the anxiety of these churches and fosters a culture of fear, “what will happen to our church in ten or twenty years?” As the religious landscape in the United States continues to change, and people abandon traditional religion the anxiety of the mainline churches continues to increase. There seems to be a tension between the need for conformity and innovation and adaptation to change. This may be one reason why non-denominational churches are filled with people; whereas, more traditional churches such as United Methodist and Roman Catholic churches find membership slipping away.
Looking at the question, “how to improve our movement,” I am compelled to ask follow up questions of “who are we?” and “what do we offer?” Jurisdictions within the Independent Sacramental Movement are often intimate communities and bishops are more akin to mentors and colleagues rather than distant hierarchs to be feared or reverenced. Priests within our movement are not cloistered, in the traditional sense, nor are they fully removed from the vicissitudes of life. They are also not insulated inside a clerical culture that will “take care of me,” as some denominations pay very well even though church attendance is declining. Our reality is that we are in the trenches and experience as everyday people; furthermore, as a movement we are also living in a spiritually liminal space. We do not have the financial alacrity of the Roman Catholic Church or any of the mainline Protestant denominations. We often work on a shoe string budget doing the best we can to finance our ministries. This can be our most sacred advantage.
In answering the question, “how to improve our movement,” I offer the following advice. We can improve our movement by recognizing who we are and the advantages that we have in accommodating the changing sands of our contemporary culture. It is no secret that the mainline churches are closing and consolidating. If you were to survey the Roman Catholic Churches in your area you would likely find most of the priests are close to or past retirement age and it is not uncommon for Protestant clergy to be bi-vocational or leave ministry after a few years serving a congregation. More and more people identify as “spiritual but not religious” than ever before and the religious landscape is changing. We can improve our movement by being aware of these changes and leaning into them. While the mainline churches struggle and develop anxiety over these changes we in the Independent Sacramental Movement should embrace the changes and provide quarter to those who, like ourselves, ask the question “who am I” instead of just “where do I belong?”
What does the Independent Sacramental Movement offer the would-be seeker asking the question, “who am I?” We offer people an opportunity to develop authentic and meaningful relationships with others instead of with rusty institutions that feel distant and out of touch. We provide an opportunity to connect with God in a manner that focuses on religious experience. In doing this work we should strive to authentically express that connection in a non-judgmental forum. Many jurisdictions have, for years, been welcoming and affirming of diverse expressions related to sexual orientation and gender long before even the most progressive denominations sought to do so. The most important thing the jurisdictions of the Independent Sacramental Movement offer are the sacraments in the context of everything else we do. As we offer all of this to would-be seekers we need to do so with confidence and with the conviction that what we offer has value and is provided as a blessing from God and that we are doing the work of the Holy Spirit. We are a part of the Mystical Body of Christ and we have something to say, something to offer, and a message we wish to bring to the world. How we say and offer our message will determine if we, as a movement, can remain relevant in our changing world.
Bass, Diana Butler. Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. New York: HarperOne, 2012.
Mercadante, Linda A. Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.