History is the alchemical lab that makes gold out of otherwise lead-like times. The heavy poisonous weight of difficulty both creates the raw material for and the circumstance of, transformation.
The High Middle Ages, representing a then-pinnacle of new challenges and conflicts, saw stretched out between its pinions of persecution and crusade, the birth of the mendicant Orders, the flowering of independent spiritual trajectories such as the Cathars, the heavenward architectural aspirations of the Gothic Cathedrals and the birth of the modern University system as we would recognize it now.
This itself echoes other such dichotomies from centuries prior- the consolidation of the councils of Constantinople with the rise of the Syrian Orthodox Church through the consecrated hands of Jacob Barradaeus – an example that is close to home for any Independent Sacramental cleric- Syrian orders forming a bedrock of episcopal transmission of Holy Orders to the Independent Sacramental Movement itself on the one hand, and the fact that Barradaeus was a lone wanderer and the first Episcopus Vagans of significant note and stature.
Whether history repeats or merely rhymes, the Independent Sacramental Movement finds itself as one such modern ounce of gold amidst pounds of so much modern difficulty, a melodic counterpoint to the dark notes and low frequencies of war, poverty, disease, fundamentalism that have been the sonorous waypoints of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, that have shaken the ground underneath our feet, our institutions, and societies.
As political, social, and spiritual bonds fray, the world becomes smaller and moves more quickly owing to a constant news cycle, the instant reporting that buoys it, social media and antisocial conduct, and a complete toolkit for dissemination of every fact, every opinion, every editorial, every nonsensical bit of information, valuable or not, in one’s own pocket.
Additionally, in the race for bigger, faster, stronger, cheaper everything, this has also allowed our challenges, our wounds, our stressors, our damages, collectively and individually to move parallel to advances with greater pace than most of our lagging traditional tools to respond and reconcile them.
The slow purpose-built foundations of institutional Christianity have enabled it, for good and for ill, to weather change, and remain unmoved by the tides of most events, but its deep tangled roots have also hindered it from responding to a pace of change that is almost imperceptibly quick. Institutions respond institutionally, not individually and our individual struggles have rapidly been raised to the level of the collective while remaining individual in context, need and solution.
The ISM did not set out to be a counterpoint or antidote to this stormy present and its uncertain future, but only to the dogmas of the so-called quiet past, and in doing so, it may have unintentionally found itself on the vanguard of a new spiritual impulse that in fact does so or at least, can serve to do.
In order for it to do so, it must now make the implicit explicit and the unconscious conscious. As the Gospel of Thomas teaches, if you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not have that within you, what you do not have within you will kill you.
Many institutions have been created by community or its impulse and the value of institutions is such that they can embody the ideals and strength of a community or those impulses with one clear voice and act with unified effort, but institutions more often than not address individuals accidentally, rather than intentionally.
The Independent Sacramental Movement has been built by the tools of the Churches from which it has diverged, yet it is possessed of a freedom, mobility and responsiveness that its ancestor and predecessor communities have long since lost. This in turn empowers it to address a need that is not acknowledged by those same predecessors, assuming it is seen at all. Taken in total, it now has the fortune to learn from those histories and solutions while not being tied to its problems.
Simply put, it has the ability to meet individuals where they are, their point and context of greatest need, not with structures, rules, and purity tests, but with flexibility, guide-rails, and sincerity; the organic power of community applied with the voice and narrative of an institution to the needs and journey of the individual. The Independent Sacramental Movement must scale up its service and its character and scale down its focus, rather than the converse demonstrated by the history of those who have worked the vineyard before them.
Yet, too often it seems, small independent churches have sought to replicate the past rather than learn from it; to be a version of the Churches that gave them birth, instead of being the next generation of its mission.
We need not reach for a new analogy or allegory to understand this temptation- Christ himself spoke of it in the Parable of the Talents. Rather than building on, multiplying and applying these talents in a way that can be spread more fairly, more widely, more individually, and more purposefully, all too often we bury what talent we have just as we have it, out of fear it might be lost or that we will fail to preserve it.
It is exactly this fear which produces exactly this result.
So, what does the opposite of this fear and the result we get from it look like?
It looks like a movement that is unashamed to be who it is, armed with the knowledge of what it has and most importantly – oriented by the compass of why it exists.
The key to much of this, of course, lies in the name itself- The Independent Sacramental Movement
Each of these words carry a host of connotations and context concentrated in them – and often enough, each group or cleric that wears the label, places a different weight on one of them over the others.
For some, it is the independent that carries the weight and gets the emphasis- usually for all the wrong reasons. Instead of indicating that they are free of the encumbrance of so many centuries of things like Western legalism or Eastern ethnocentricity, to name but a few examples- it exists as a quicker way to say, ‘You’re not the boss of me’. And why? To whom are we speaking, and are we sure they are even listening? If the answer is Rome, Constantinople or Canterbury – I assure you, they are not.
Extracted and contextualized beyond simply a case of obedience to Rome or to concepts like Canonicity, we need to remember that we serve people first. Which people? Surely it is not those of our jurisdictions alone, because that would not add up to much. Embracing a wider view of who we serve allows us to organically inoculate ourselves against various strains of tribalism, territorialism, as well as tyranny by an aloof hierarchy. None of these things have served our ancestor, predecessor, or parent traditions, who are much larger, much older, and much more established than we are. It looks bad on them, but it looks ridiculous on us.
Others have shifted their weight on to the foot of the word movement, refracting the light it offers in such a way as to obscure the lesson of its meaning. A movement is something that happens naturally, organically, in concert, facing the same direction with the same goals. None of this is true when we have defined ourselves in such a way as to define people out. Purity is almost always a lie as Dr. William Behun has noted. Our efforts are far more efficiently placed when we apply that zeal to the quality of our ministry, and not who is worth ministering to or for.
As a result of this dance between the bookends, the word Sacramental, oddly enough, is the one that gets neglected – but not in the way one might think.
All clergy of the ISM, the communities and laity they serve are aware of the basic sacramental reality – it is after all what makes them clergy at all. The word independence doesn’t do that, the word movement as such, does not do that either.
Sacramentality is the ladder by which they arrive at their ministry, but not always the platform from which they minister.
Earlier I made reference to the approach that the ISM is ideally positioned to occupy and minister from – that of the organic power of community applied with the voice and narrative of an institution to the needs and journey of the individual.
In its quest for continued relevance and credibility, the ISM hasn’t just historically sought to replicate its progenitors in an organizational way but also in a sacramental and pastoral fashion as well. As it follows the steps traced by them, it also walks into versions of the same problems and a few unique ones – which while they may or can be shrugged off by our predecessors – are potentially damaging – organizationally, pastorally and spiritually – to the Independent Sacramental movement.
Seeking to stand as tall and reach as far, ISM Churches are plagued by numerous self-inflicted wounds and unforced errors to achieve but a pittance of the same effect as their mainstream counterparts.
When a church’s public material says more about its pedigree, its lineage or canon law, than it does about where to receive communion, have your troubles heard or where to get a coffee with like-minded and inclusive people – you’ve missed the sacramental reality.
In the ordination to the Holy Priesthood – the deacon to be ordained is instructed to imitate the mysteries they celebrate – they are not instructed to merely imitate the ones who celebrate them. The key is in the mystery, not in the minister.
Denis McNamara in his work Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy (2009) writes “And so the church we build today is indeed an important theological thing. In its sacramental reality, it does three things: recalls and fulfills the temple; tells of our current condition as earthly fallen beings living with grace available in the time of image; and gives a foretaste of our heavenly future. It is concurrently a place of anamnesis, imminent experience of God’s presence, and anticipated eschatology. Like the liturgy, it contracts time by pulling the past forward and pulling the future backward, all for our sanctification now”
Again – the Liturgy “contracts time by pulling the past forward and pulling the future backward, all for our sanctification now”.
This is what we are to imitate, this is what we are to replicate, this is what we are to emulate. The Independent Sacramental Movement has it within itself and all the attendant conditions and strengths to do this. We must let the Divine speak for itself in the words of mystery and silence and not through our own mouths in the form of every twenty-dollar word we know strung in a row like gaudy Christmas lights. Make straight the way of experience but not your experience – unless asked. Open a path for them to have their experience, not yours.
This isn’t just about creating a space where the Divine can be heard, this is also about how and to whom we are speaking, who our audience is and who is listening. Reserve the theological terms for topical discussion, and Monday night classes. People are theologically smarter and more literate than they have ever been and want their spiritual journey to matter as much to another as they take it themselves, but in order to want to engage more, it has to be relevant first. They’ll understand you when you talk about transformation, but perhaps less readily when you say Metanoia first. Your vocabulary isn’t what signifies your ordination.
This is a lesson I’ve had to learn and re-learn across two decades of ministry as a priest serving in a community that embraces Gnostic thought and scripture. Many of the foundational concepts are unfamiliar to most ears, yet deeply indicative of the human spiritual journey. There will be time for precision and exploration, I promise.
Additionally- Seeded throughout the context of the difficulties I outlined at the outset of this piece, is one more additional obstacle – the Church as a metaphysical reality has not only changed with time, the physical, social and spiritual realm in which it works has changed.
Played out since the advent of the Roman Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council but present well before it, is the secularization, education and increasing mobility of the laity. The laity has undergone a radical change. This is a good thing even though it may narrow the scope of what we can do.
In both the distant mists of time and within near living memory, the Priest has embodied many roles and facets in their work – part social worker, part schoolteacher, part psychologist, part counsellor and part Hierophant. As society has undergone shifts in status, education, access and need – almost all of these roles have been secularized, formalized and professionalized into the distinct and licensed professions we know them to be now.
All of them except one.
The English word priest has some of its roots in two terms- the Latin Sacerdos and the Greek Presbyteros. The former refers to that of one who offers sacrifice, a priest in the ritual sense, and the latter means quite directly – Elder.
In an effort to keep pace with the times, retain a fading social status, and inch further along the twin paths of relevance and viability, ISM Clergy have attempted to claim and reclaim these facets for which the majority of us have neither the training or the resources to do so. And it risks as much harm as good.
Let me be clear – I am not suggesting that ISM Clergy should avoid opportunities for secular education, training, or experience- far from it, take every opportunity you can get- these skills have a real need in the world, and there are real obstacles towards people receiving them from the now accepted venues- but rather that in chasing four rabbits, they catch none, and people get less than the help they need, with the added bonus of wasted time at best, and permanent damage at worst.
A priest should be equipped with the training and skills to recognize when someone in their charge needs more assistance than they can provide and enough knowledge, patience and pastoral care skills to help accompany them and navigate the world of seeking that help.
These facets and roles are somewhat covered and baked into the concept of the Elder or Presbyteros as we know it, even if we cannot fulfill it in the same way as our predecessors – but Sacerdos has no true secular counterpart. We should embrace that. Again- the key is in the mystery not the minister. Let the Divine speak for itself in the mysteries you celebrate – be it at the bedside of one who is ill, the new life of one who is born or an adult that comes to the spiritual life anew, or those who embark upon a lifelong journey of companionship through marriage.
I opened this exploration by highlighting how the alchemy of difficult history seems to produce both the opportunities and tools for transformation and transmutation. We are living in one such difficult time – a time in which people continue to seek meaning and the comfort of the spiritually familiar without all the familiar problems that have come with it. The ISM, being focused first and foremost upon the sacramental reality – has a set of rites and tools before it that not only transcend the times in which we live but touch upon something that few things in the secular world can- that of the Timeless.
Yet unlike those who have gone before us, we have access to these things free of social or political assumptions and biases, or denominational accretions through centuries of reactionary rules.
So, having outlined what I see as some of the strengths of the Independent Sacramental Movement as well as its historical weak spots, this brings us squarely to – why this book and the catalogue of insightful interviews upon which it is based?
Alchemy is a process of many stages- and this is equally true when applied to the Independent Sacramental Movement. The difficulty of history has produced the conditions, the material and the equipment in order to make possible the spiritual gold of a fulfilling path for those seek it. Whether it is a seeker whose path has been unfulfilling, or worse, damaged, by our predecessor communities or even other independent communities, or an opportunity for vocation and service for someone whose life and experience doesn’t neatly fit within the well-worn grooves and pitfalls of larger, older Churches – the ISM has an opportunity to address the gaps, and reach the places and people that have no place to go.
We have all the things we need, but initiating, stewarding and refining the process is yet to come in some cases, unfinished in others and can always use more refinement in most.
This is why the alchemy of Sacramental Whine and the ministry of Bishop Kling is needed and timely – it has opened a path to honest dialogue, needed questions, and self-examination as well as the ability to see the approaches, successes and failures our of sisters and brothers at the altar in other churches and learn from them.
In order to get where we are going, we must start where we are at, and this cannot be done without dialogue, questioning or self-examination. It also cannot be done without humble service, and the posture, questions and perspective of David Oliver Kling is service. We wouldn’t follow a guide who isn’t on the path, and we can no wise expect others to do the same for us unless we are walking and living it – Bishop Kling has exemplified many ways in which we can do that, especially by not placing himself as the focus of the work.
In time, as we refine ourselves, our intention and our materials, through the process begun by these books and the podcast of the same name, the work we do in the world, with and for each other, will likewise be refined and enough gold produced, not to adorn our physical sanctuaries, vesture and altars- but the hearts of those who seek life more abundantly.
+ Most Rev. Shaun McCann, Ep.Gn.
Patriarch of the Apostolic Johannite Church