United By Grace: A Movement of “We” and not “I”

Some months ago, I made a passing comment on Facebook that has sparked an ongoing conversation. Before friends and colleagues, I proposed that we stop thinking of ourselves as an Independent Sacramental Movement and instead think of ourselves as a United Sacramental Movement.  Not surprisingly, we all did not rush out to immediately change our group names and online monikers to reflect us as being “USM” clergy versus “ISM” clergy. Nor is it my intention to say that there is anything wrong with being independent, per se. 

Rather, it is my intention to provoke further discussion across jurisdictions as we consider our identities and the value we hope our ministries will bring to the world. The very first responses to my initial suggestion of being a “United” Sacramental Movement rightfully asked the question, “How united are we?” The movement has seen countless attempts to bring multiple jurisdictions under a single banner. Some succeed. Most fall apart before too long. I do not propose a “unity” of church governance. We do not need to all answer to the same patriarch or have our bishops all sit on the same synod. We are united through the grace of the sacraments and our shared mission to bring those sacraments to others. That means that we are also united with the Roman Catholic Church and the various Orthodox and Anglican Churches of the world with a similar mission. We are united even if we lack intercommunion agreements with one another or those “big box” denominations. We are united even if some of them deny the validity of our orders. We are united because what unites us is of God and no one of this world can divide the gifts of the Holy Spirit. 

From my earliest memories of my Catholic education I recall teachers and priests telling me how Jesus wants one single church and that all of the denominations and schisms drive nails into the hands of our crucified Lord. The schism of 1054 that separated the Church of Rome from Constantinople just another unfortunate act of disobedience that makes our savior weep. I disagree with this assessment. We are one church even if we are not all under one roof. We are all one church even if we reside within different jurisdictions. This notion, I should mention, is better understood by our Orthodox brothers and sisters than in Western traditions, it seems. 

I do not believe that we are all better served by a shift in labels. I do believe that we may be well served by a shift in thinking. Why is “independence” so important to us all? Why so important that it comes first and before “sacramental?” Do the Oriental Orthodox churches bill themselves as being “independent” from Constantinople? Of course not. They have their own spiritual identity, which is not defined by their relationship with other Orthodox churches. During the weeks I spent in Ethiopia, I saw a country with a strong and proud Orthodox tradition. I realized in looking at all of these churches that if the Ethiopian Church reconciled with Constantinople tomorrow that nothing would change. The day to day for the faithful would go on normally. Why then do we focus so much on independence? The recently formed Nordic Catholic Church was established because of theological differences with the Church of Norway. Differing views on the ordination of women, the sanctification of same-sex marriage and sacramental theology led the clergy of one church to declare its independence from another. Yet, the Nordic Catholic Church does not include the word “independent” anywhere in their name. That church came into existence through the ordinations and consecrations conducted by the Polish National Catholic Church. Having grown up in the Scranton area where the PNCC was founded I can remember, from my teenage years as a hospital volunteer to my seminary years doing chaplaincy work at the same hospital, encountering PNCC priests as they carried on with their ministries. When asked if they were Catholic priests the answer was always “Yes, Polish National.” It was never “Well, yes, I’m an Independent Catholic Priest.” There were no meandering explanations of validity. Their website does not contain snippets of Roman Catholic canon that verifies the recognition of their orders and sacraments. There is, for lack of better phrasing, fewer signs of imposter syndrome among the clergy of these churches.

If our vision is to offer the sacraments to those disenfranchised by the Church of Rome then let that be our stated mission. If we want to be liberal then we should be liberal. If we want to be traditionalist then we should let our traditionalist flag fly. We should embrace the unique charism of our ministries rather than reducing them to merely being “independent” of another church. It is like being known by ones own merits and for ones own achievements versus being identified as the spouse, or former spouse, of someone else. 

Is it wrong to say we are “united?” I do not believe so. Our brethren in the United Methodist Church have shown recently that their church is not as united as their name might imply. Bringing too many people under one roof does not bring about unity; it brings about conflict. Let us think more about what brings us together rather than what divides us. Much can be learned through the study of ecclesiology. It is, however, possible to be so focused on polity that we lose sight of the grace given us through the sacraments. 

So I do not believe we need to, necessarily, rename everything and tear down every reference to the “I” in ISM.  I do hope that we can use this topic to start an ongoing conversation among ourselves and an introspection within each of us. The sacraments must be paramount and come before all else. By our words and deeds, however, we can focus less on an “I” and more on a “We” and a “You.”

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