A rose by any other name
Over the years I have associated myself with what is loosely defined as “independent Catholicism” which for many is an oxymoron since by the very definition of the word ,”Catholicism”, a community or communion of believers is implied. Congregationalism on the other hand is inherently constituted as an independent expression with little or no central authority. Presbyterianism with a little “c” implies a “communion” of congregations and that communion is represented by the presbytery which in many ways functions as the office of a bishop! There are of course varieties of all of these models or polities if you prefer.
If you grew up in the South when I did at least, you grew up in a mainly Protestant world with a predominate Reformed theology. You soon realized that if you were a Baptist you had to declare what “kind” of Baptist and even if you were Methodist in those days you may have known that there was at that time the Methodist Episcopal and the Methodist Protestant Church not to mention the Wesleyans who were sort of like Pentecostals with a communion rail! If you were Lutheran, Presbyterian or Episcopalian you probably were unaware of any variations on a theme so to speak. Back then if I may speak frankly if you were very poor and very uneducated you were probably Pentecostal or Church of God or a combination of both of them and there was a plethora of tiny congregations or “Churches” that fit that description! But none of this was considered strange or foreign. What was strange and foreign were the Catholics and that was mainly becuase you did not know any or if you did know some you knew that their church service was in a strange tongue and the people had strange and foreign sounding names. You also knew from television that this church was “the Roman Catholic” not the American Catholic so that automatically told you it was religion that the most charitable description “unique” applied.
Now to return to the subject matter at hand I would suggest strongly that what we see in the so called “Independent Catholic Movement” is not a movement at all but rather an another peculiarly and uniquely American brand of congregationalism. There are two notable exceptions to this and that is the Polish National Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Catholic Communion. All others regardless of varied and often redundant titles are simply congregational churches in vestments and miters. Despite appealing to the Vatican Document “Dominus Iesus” as proof to the contrary no matter how much said document does NOT refer to them these congregations are nonetheless just that, congregations not Churches with a capital “C”! Rather than the “First Fellowship of the Feel Good Church” on Main Street they are “the holy and apostolic and catholic and episcopal orthodox church” on the back street of a web address. The majority are “Metropolitan Community Churches” with hierarchies and in fact generally speaking that is about all they have, hierarchies!
The logical question is what influence if any do these congregational expressions of catholicism have on the larger Christian community. The answer is not any. Where the large mega churches of the evangelical brand do exert for some populations a decisively political influence and even control even this is not the case with the “Independent Catholic Movement” which by the way spins so much better when it is used than congregationalism. Another question then would be do these independent congregations influence the theological discussion either in academia or in the media and again the answer is no and the reason for this is that the larger academic and theological world not to mention the wider Christian one does not accept these congregations as legitimate faith communities. Still another question is do these “Catholic congregations” exert an influence in the culture at large in America and again the answer is sadly no.
Having said this I think it can be said the such congregations can and in some cases do have a positive influence on individuals. They can provide a small congregation in which people can experience an alternative to the mainline Church, Catholic or Protestant, and one in which they can be affirmed as children and or ministers of God. Like their” Evangelical” counterparts if the congregational leadership is honest and has integrity they can be a source of good and a place of welcome.
In separating the wheat from the chaff the Truth invariably comes out and generally speaking where there are charlatans with illegal and or pathological agendas though it may take some time such agendas are revealed. It would be a great servce to and for us all if there more exposures of the deceptions and yes prosecutions where and when necessary.
Lastly I applaud those congregations that are genuinely trying be a little leaven for the world and for people who are often excluded or banished from the Table. My recommendation is only that a name change would be most helpful in creating an atmosphere where you could be a truly effective witness to the Gospel and to Our Lord. If you prefer “movement” to “congregation” I think you diminish that possibility but that is your decision. The most fundamental question to ask, (for us all for that matter) is “are you here to serve God or to serve your ego?” and if it is to serve God how most effectively can you do that?
Polity is a tricky thing sometimes and I think the Anglicans have the most balanced approach but again congregationalism too has its strengths.
Bishop Andrew Gerales Gentry
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