-by Bp. Tim Cravens
from A Strange Vocation: Independent Bishops Tell Their Story
In my ten years’ experience in our Independent Catholic movement, I have seen a lot. Based on those observations, I have concluded that there are several elements necessary to nurture one’s vocation as an Independent Catholic Christian and ensure an authentic spirituality.
A. Sound Doctrine. Christianity is the religion of Jesus Christ, and before all things it is an absolute necessity that we recognize who Jesus Christ is and what he has accomplished for us. We believe in the One Triune God and in God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus Christ, who is both fully God and fully human. Through His atoning death and resurrection, Christ won for us victory over sin and death, which we receive as we are united to Christ in His death and resurrection both in our baptism and in our daily life. We are strengthened in our understanding of these basic Christian mysteries by frequent reading and meditation on the Scriptures, most especially the four gospels, and we are rooted in the 2,000 year tradition of the church (ecumenically understood). Isolation from the mainstream of Christianity is dangerous.
B. Lively Prayer Life. Next, it is very important that every Independent Catholic Christian, and most especially those called to a religious, diaconal, or priestly vocation (and let’s face it, that’s most of us!), develop a thriving life of prayer and communion with God. Without significant time devoted to communion with Christ on a daily basis, we risk allowing our lives as Independent Christians either to wither into nothingness or else be distorted into a hobby. Anyone who has been around the movement for any length of time has run into those who love to go to ordinations and other such events and wear all the pretty vestments (not that there’s anything wrong with pretty vestments—I have closets full of them!) but who spend no time in prayer apart from these infrequent gatherings. In the King James Version of the Bible, Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 6 reads as a commandment to “enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret,” and we should do this daily— and who better than an Independent Catholic can take some icons, some fabric and some discarded old furniture, and transform a closet into a fabulous chapel?
I find that the spiritual source of everything I do lies in my daily celebration of the Eucharist (“I will go unto the altar of God, even unto the God of my joy and gladness”) and the Divine Office, particularly in praying the Psalms, meditating on Scripture, and honoring the Incarnation with the daily recitation of the Benedictus, Magnificat, and Nunc Dimittis. We Independent Catholics are in a unique position to be intimate with the liturgy, and I hope that all who are called to our way of life will nurture that intimacy.
C. Comfort with Solitude. Although there are some pretty wonderful Independent Catholic communities around, the reality for most of our people is that much of our spiritual lives must be conducted in solitude. And only when we can come to embrace that solitude, that exile, can we fully live out our calling and vocation as Independent Catholic Christians. For years, I only rarely celebrated the Eucharist with a community, instead offering it each day in solitude. And it can become lonely and discouraging. But only if we are willing to live with that loneliness and discouragement, can we know the Lord’s blessing on our lives.
Even for those of us blessed to be part of a strong local community, there can be a sense of isolation from the larger churches, many of whom may not see our ministries as “real.” I have seen a lot of time wasted and a lot of misguided efforts diverting energy from what is needed in the vain attempt to get Rome, Canterbury, Utrecht, or other mainstream churches to “recognize” us and “take us seriously.” Enough! If God sees our efforts and knows what we are about, we should be satisfied. And if not, then all the recognition from all the mainstream churches in the world cannot make up for that lack. We need to be faithful to the calling we have received from Christ, and leave the results up to God, who looks not on the outward appearance, but on the heart.
There are many in our movement who are unstable or worse. Indeed, there are many unstable people in every religious movement, but the decentralized nature of our movement gives them much freer rein to flourish and cause trouble. In reaction, some in our movement would like to see a centralized structure to weed out the problems. Of course, this will never happen, and it ignores the fact that the chaos stems from the great freedom of our movement, which allowed us to consecrate a female bishop six decades before the Episcopal Church did, and to open our doors to the LGBT community as early as 1946, long before any other churches. The healthiest response to the problems in our movement is to be found in Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares—rather than attempting to weed out the tares and thus risk losing some of the wheat, we should focus instead on our own growth, our own spiritual lives, our own communities, and leave the problem people alone—not letting them upset our own local communities, but not worrying about what they do on their own.
D. Authentic Community. Although authentic community is rare in our movement, it is a vital component of a genuine Christian spiritual life. Some are called to an eremitical ministry in solitude—and because this vocation is so little understood in most mainstream churches, we have a unique role to play in nurturing it. However, even those with a solitary vocation should be a part of a larger community, to which they can be accountable and from which they can receive support for their hidden vocation. Many others are called to participation in the small, closeknit families that our movement provides. Most mainstream parishes offer a model of ministry in which there is a paid staff of clergy and perhaps professional laypeople who provide much of the ministry, with the laity often being fairly passive (outside of a small group of highly involved volunteers). This model certainly meets the needs of many Christians, and I don’t mean to criticize it. However, for others, we can provide a model of a small base community in which every member plays (or at least has the opportunity to play) a fairly involved role in making the community work. Without paid clergy, we have the opportunity to ordain all those who demonstrate a valid call, without worrying about whether or not we have the resources to pay them. We can offer laity an opportunity to take a very active, responsible role in their own spirituality. One lay member of our parish in Philadelphia has observed that she has learned more about the Catholic Christian faith in her year with us that in all of her years in the Roman Catholic denomination. Rather than bemoan our small numbers or lack of paid clergy or buildings, I think we should celebrate our unique contribution to the Christian church and focus on how we can complement what mainstream denominations offer, rather than attempting to replicate it.
To be sure, authentic community is difficult, and requires a great amount of hard work and dedication. It is no picnic. There will be those who are attracted to it who seek to benefit from what it has to offer (or from their unrealistic perceptions of what it ought to offer) without contributing—or worse, engaging in destructive behavior. And some of the work of the bishop is to protect the community from such people—acting in charity for all, but not exercising a misguided mushiness. I sometimes joke that my consecrators did not engage in full disclosure because they forgot to tell me that there is a lightning rod hidden in the mitre. But, at the end of the day, community is worth all of the struggles and aggravations it requires, when one encounters the growth in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that results.
E. Inclusiveness/ministry to those on the margins. We have a long history of ministering to those on the margins. In 1929, long before Anglicans began ordaining and consecrating women, Izabel Wilucka was consecrated a bishop for the Old Catholic Mariavite Church of Poland. The last bishop consecrated by Rene Vilatte before his death was George Alexander McGuire, consecrated for the African Orthodox Church, empowering African American Christians at a time when they were excluded from full participation by the Roman and Anglican denominations. George Hyde opened the doors to the gay community in 1946, and Michael Itkin was advocating for gay equality in the 1960’s as an independent bishop, long before Gene Robinson or even Troy Perry. Jesus hung out with a pretty unpopular crowd, and was criticized for it by the religious authorities of his day. In our vocation as followers of Christ, we are called to be at the margins. We will never receive the recognition that others do—nor should we, for that would hinder our ability to minister to those at the margins. We are called to a thankless, hidden calling of ministering to those that larger churches cannot or will not reach. Rather than worrying about money, recognition, numbers, or buildings, we should be concerned with how faithfully we are living out God’s call to minister to the one lost sheep, and let our Anglican, Orthodox, Protestant, and Roman sisters and brothers shepherd the 99 who are safely in the fold. They have a different call, and we should rejoice that God has given to all of us our place in Christ’s church.
F. Sense of Humor. Finally, there is one gift that every Independent Catholic Christian must have to survive, and that is the gift of humor. There is much that is hilarious about our movement—even some of the things that are holy—and only if we can see and laugh at the holy hilarity of our churches can we serve the Lord with gladness. Our beautiful vestments (bought on sale or sewn on our sewing machines) are meaningful symbols of service— and the pictures we take of ourselves wearing them are ever so slightly ridiculous at the same time. It’s okay to laugh at ourselves! May we always be blessed with the gift of laughter from our God who wipes away every tear.
Would I have chosen this vocation freely at an earlier age? Probably not. But God has richly blessed me, and given me companions on the journey. I hope and pray that our ministries may continue to receive the rich blessings of God as we prepare ourselves for that great day when we shall be united with all whom Christ has redeemed at the heavenly banquet, to enjoy communion with the Triune God for eternity.