Independent Sacramental Movement: what is it?

Last time, I wrote a bit about the congregational idea of the church, in part because that is the background of most of the people who come to this site. But what if your idea of the church depends on the presence of Christ’s empowered grant of grace to his apostles, handed down the generations? And it is from this lineage that grace is given effectively through the sacraments? Well, you would be in the Christian majority. If this is your story, you might be able to speak of what “lineage” you’re related to, even if that’s not how you ordinarily think of yourself, your church or your priest. If you’re Catholic, that is, “Roman Catholic” in the usual parlance, then your lineage is through the patriarch of Rome — who isn’t called that, but called the Pope — and who traces his authority to St. Peter, and then to Jesus Christ. There are other patriarchates founded by apostles, say, Alexandria and Antioch, and these have ancient stories though less told in the United States. There are also patriarchates that grew up later, like Moscow, that are heavy and weighty branches that fork off the main branches. What’s important is that the trunk is Christ, and generations of bishops carry the lineage to this day, and that they and the priests they ordain maintain that bridge between heaven and earth through the seven (or more or less) sacraments, of which ordination is one.

When members of the Independent Sacramental Movement (ISM) define themselves, they don’t start there. Maybe it’s too close or too obvious. It’s a valid view of the church, though it isn’t mine (or indeed others in the Reformed side of things) but without stating that nothing else that follows will make much sense.

What if one or more bishops stepped off to one side, consecrating other bishops, putting themselves at a certain distance from the mainstream of their lineages for some compelling reason? Say, the Pope was demanding too much power, or was himself at variance with the tradition of the church? Or that there was special revelation or understanding that promised new spiritual insights to a needy world? Or that the church had betrayed the needs of lesbian and gay people, transgender people or both? You would end up with a self-sustaining parallel to the mainstream of the lineage that nevertheless has the same source of empowered authority, if not the numbers, money, political power or prestige. You would, I think, have found the Independent Sacramental Movement. Some would be very right wing, or perhaps having a mix of attributes that outsiders might think both conservative and radical. Others are progressive by most measures. Some are frankly Theosophists; others appeal to Gnostic beliefs and scriptures. Some make you tilt your head in confusion. The various divisions aren’t always so tidy and distinct. Maybe that’s why self-understanding is important in the ISM, or so it seems, because of the breadth and ambiguity.

In fact, this act of definition is baked into the format of the leading ISM podcast, Sacramental Whine, produced by Bishop David Oliver Kling under the auspices of his jurisdiction, the Community of St. George, which affliated with the Young Rite. He asks his guests their elevator speech; that is, a quick description, of the ISM that they use. (I subscribe to the podcast and enjoy it.) I’ll take notes from that podcast in this series. I’ll also refer to a book by Bishop John Plummer, The Many Paths of the Independent Sacramental Movement, which I think is the best introduction to the movement and widely cited. Indeed, if all of this is new to you, start with John Plummer’s interview with the podcast. There he makes the point that some of the more traditionalist churches — say the Orthodox who maintain the old calendar and stand off, or those Catholics who think the papacy is vacant — wouldn’t think of themselves as ISM, but just the true church, despite how they look. I’ll take this tack, and not include them in my examination going forward, if for no other reason than they do stand off. I’ll also adopt his term “big box” to describe the larger churches (or call them “larger churches”) as a playful way of not identifying them as “real” and the ISM as something other than real, thus undercutting the premise of this series and my examination.

Again, this is a general review but I welcome non-trolling corrections and amplifications, especially from those in the ISM.

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