What would it take for the Universalists to have four new churches?

I’m watching the development of the Universalist Orthodox Church with a lot of admiration and a little bit of envy. In about a year it has grown to four parishes and two emerging missions. (Their site has a new page that better explains their approach and what they mean by Universalism.)

Are any of these parishes large? No. Do any have a building that they own for worship? No. Are their clergy compensated for their labor? Doubtful. But do they exist and grow? Yes. Do they ordain or receive new clergy? Yes. Do they have regular, public services of worship (liturgies)? Yes. I’ll take what they have over the unrealized plans for a large institutional church any day.

What what would it take for us on liberal Reformed end of Universalism to have four parishes and two emerging missions? That’s behind so many of the articles I write here. I’m fortunate to live in a city with a Universalist Christian church, where I am a member and preach occasionally. There’s one in Providence, and Tokyo. You might find others, historically related to the Universalist denomination or not. If I were in a city with a Universalist Orthodox church, I’d probably attend liturgies, at least occasionally. But people in most places don’t have the option.

I’m not going to build a church where one’s not needed but you may need to do so. A monthly service of morning and evening prayer led by a lay person for a congregation of three is a hundred times better than wishing that there was a church.

What would it take for the Universalists to have four new churches? A hundred? Even one? Most of all: desire to have one, even if there’s no institution “out there” to help. (That said, I’d gladly do what I could to help a new church. I bet others would as well.)

W. E. Orchard, liturgist

For years I have run into the works of W. E. Orchard, and have made references to him twice recently. He was neither a Unitarian or a Universalist, but a Congregationalist minister later becoming a Roman Catholic priest. His service book, The Order of Divine Service for Public Worship, was evidently influential in Unitarian and Universalist circles.

I make reference to his works in the following articles:

Additionally, a prayer of his own composition appears in Hymns of the Spirit, in the Thirteenth Order of Service, for Easter :

O Thou who makest the stars, and turnest the shadow of death into the morning: on this day of days we meet to render thee the tribute of our thanksgiving. We praise thee for the resurrection of the spring-time, for the everlasting hopes that rise within the human heart, and for the gospel which hath brought life and immortality to light. Receive our thanksgiving, reveal thy presence, and send into our hearts the spirit of the risen Christ. Amen.

But I also introduce him here, because he will appear again as an associate of Unitarian minister Joseph Morgan Lloyd Thomas. Both of whom were member of the Society of Free Catholics, which will get me back to my ongoing series about the Independent Sacramental Movement.


The prayer from Malabar

So, the last prayer choice under “Close of Worship” in the Additional Prayers and Collects, in the 1937 joint Unitarian and Universalist Hymns of the Spirit is cited in the index as coming from “Liturgy of Malabar, adapted.”

Grant, O Lord, that the ears which have heard the voice of thy songs may be closed to the voice of clamor and dispute; that the eyes which have seen thy great love may also behold thy blessed hope; that the tongues which have sung thy praise may speak the truth; that the feet which have walked in thy courts may walk in the region of light; and that the souls of all who here receive thy blessed Spirit may be restored to newness of life. Glory be to thee for thine unspeakable gift. Amen.

I think it’s lovely.

Loveliness aside, you may ask, how did a prayer from fifth-century India get into something as New England-bound as the old red hymnal?

My first suspicion is that a Unitarian member of the committee recommended it rather than a Universalist member. I keep finding traces of early twentieth-century interest in antiquarian liturgy among Unitarians: an attempt to find the earliest, most authentic and most lowercase-c catholic strata on which to base liturgical devotion.  What keeps this from being simple primitivism is looking past the apostolic age and outside the New Testament. The Liturgy of Malabar is very old, but is the work of a developed church, and one that would have been very foreign to American Protestants. (And provides an link between the Unitarians and their later though brief interest in what we would call the Independent Sacramental Movement. More about that some other time.) Let’s put a pin in that curiousity: we will see this interest in a more universal Christian liturgical expression among the Unitarians again, and those influences on the Universalists.

While the prayer appears in different works before the red hymnal and since, its inclusion in W. E. Orchard’s The Order of Divine Service for Public Worship is the likely source, as the red hymnal also includes one of his own prayers. (Again, for another time.) This prayer is noted in that index as “(? 5th cent.) Neale and Littledale’s Translation.” John Mason Neale, better known as a translator of hymns, also translated liturgies. His translation of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” perhaps his best known.

But their translation of what? The Liturgies of SS. Mark, James, Clement, Chrysostom, and Basil, and the Church of Malabar. Is this Malabar liturgy the original East Syriac rite of the St. Thomas Christians, the restored East Syriac rite of the Eastern Catholics or the adopted West Syriac rite of the indiginizing church? There have been Christians in South India from antiquity, and the traditional founder of these churches was St. Thomas. Today the St. Thomas Christians range in theology and jurisdiction from the Nestorian to Eastern Catholic to Anglican. I ask all this with huge caveats: this is not my field, is centuries old and in languages I don’t read. Any clarification from readers would be well appreciated. Neale, in his introduction, isn’t clear about the source of the text he translated, but presumably from the Eastern Catholics with noted and obvious changes removed.

So what was the prayer originally? One given by a deacon, at the communion of the faithful. You can read it here.

The prayer has appeared in the Armed Forces Hymnal (1950); also here, here (for use after communion), and this textbook on worship.

It’s use as a post-communion prayer fits will with a liberal-Reformed use; I’ll use it at my next opportunity.

Independent Sacramental Movement: an open discussion

I’ll be a while before I prepare my long piece connecting the Unitarians to what we would now call the Independent Sacramental Movement. I don’t want to lose momentum, though.

This is one of the few places I’ve seen where ISM members and other Christians (and non-Christian Unitarian Universalists, of course) might run across one another, so this might be a good opportunity for interested readers to introduce themselves, talk about their ministry interests (if any) and ask questions or make requests. Also, to suggest other entries in this series.

This is post #4,100.

Independent Sacramental Movement: a Universalist connection

At my home church there is an abandoned copy of Leadbeater’s The Science of the Sacraments on a shelf in the pastor’s office. It’s with a deacon’s stole, a gospel book, and a box of hosts which must be so old as to be unusable now. These are evidence of an Independent Sacramental community that once worshipped in the church but is long gone and either precipitously disbanded or moved.

What kind of Independent Sacramental community? The book is a tell. Charles Leadbeater was an early bishop of the Liberal Catholic Church, and devised its liturgy. Today, it has broken up into a number of jurisdictions which I’ll get to in a moment. Also, don’t confuse them with politically or theologically progressive Catholics.

The Liberal Catholics is one of the reasons I became interested in the Independent Sacramental Movement in the first place. It would be a lie to say I understand the ins-and-outs of the Liberal Catholics, particularly what distinguishes their various jurisdictions, except to say that they are philosophically and historically dependent on Theosophy, which is also a blurry area for me, as my faith isn’t what you’d call esoteric. None of that is so important here as that the Liberal Catholics are theologically universalist.

The first Liberal Catholics I met — this was in 1994 and I don’t know which jurisdiction —were in a storefront church near my little house in Tulsa, Oklahoma. One of the bishops described (if I can recall back a quarter century) his church as being liberal in the interpretation of belief, provided that the liturgy is observed properly. We were standing at the back of the church at the time, surrounded by the largest collection of antique vestments I have ever seen, so I took him at his word about the liturgy

Here’s the Creed or Act of Faith used in Liberal Catholic rite jurisdictions, or some of them. It exists in variant forms, sometimes tweaking the sons and brothers to something that includes women:

We believe that God is Love and Power and Truth and Light; that perfect justice rules the world; that all His sons shall one day reach His Feet, however far they stray. We hold the Fatherhood of God,  the Brotherhood of man; we know that we do serve Him best when best we serve our brother man. So shall His blessing rest upon us and peace for evermore. Amen.

I’ve noticed that Liberal Catholic jurisdictions vary on particular parts: is Theosophy optional? Likewise vegetarianism? So I assume some are more forthrightly universalist (as I understand it) than others. But the Catholic Universalist Church just puts it out there. And look at that mid-century Off-Center Cross. (I had the pleasure to worship with their parish in Queens a few years ago.)  Of note, they don’t use the Act of Faith on their site. Even more of note, some of the language in their theses are used by the Christian Universalist Association (or vice versa).

And also there’s the Liberal Catholic Universalist Church, based in the northeast of England. I wonder if there are others? Well, there was that vanished community. Were they drawn to a Universalist church? In any case, and no matter how small they may be, it does my heart good. What vanishes quickly can also reappear as fast.

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.

Independent Sacramental Movement: what is a church?

Because this site is mainly directed to Protestants in congregational polity churches, I should talk about the church itself a bit before talking about the Independent Sacramental Movement (ISM), to identify differences of focus that might otherwise turn into a confusing blur. I’m also working out of my comfort zone here and in future, so there’s probably going to be mistakes, or at least phrasings that those in the ISM wouldn’t use. If so, please comment.

(Since the ISM attracts a certain kind of viscous internet troll, I will be applying a heavier than usual editorial hand in approving comments. If you’re here to stir up trouble about the ISM, don’t bother. This series is not for you.)

The Cambridge Platform of 1648 was a New England response to the Westminster Confession; the main differences were with polity, or the system of church governance, and persists (often in wildly modified forms) in the inheriting churches of New England Congregationalism, which includes the Unitarians and Universalists. So even in these late days, we respect it and go back to its understanding. Chapter two of the platform starts “[t]he catholic church is the whole company of those elected, redeemed, and in time effectively called from the state of sin and death, unto a state of grace and salvation in Jesus Christ.” But that’s a spiritual state: it doesn’t distinguish between the living and the dead; or the past, present or future. A series of no, not that clauses follow leading to the proposition that there is no Church — that is, a single visible organization of living Christians around the world — but churches, particular instances that keep communion (both access to the Lord’s table and the disciplines of church cooperation) with one another.  Explicitly, “we deny a universal visible church.” (chapter 2.4)

Section 6 lays out what a church is: “A Congregational church is by the institution of Christ a part of the militant visible church, consisting of a company of saints by calling, united into one body by a holy covenant, for the public worship of God, and the mutual edification of one another, in the fellowship of the Lord Jesus.”

In short, Christ’s promise of the life-giving promise of the Holy Spirit leaps the generations and is present in the gathered church. To follow the thought, a group of wholly isolated persons could individually have experience of salvation (I’ll leave what that means for now), baptize one another, establish a covenant, elect and ordain “officers” (the elders or ministers, and deacons) and be a fully-formed church. Sounds good to me, as unlikely as that might be.

Among the diversity of the ISM, this certainly stands out: there are three orders of ministry (deacon, priest and bishop) and that these orders are transmitted as a sacrament from generation to generation in a succession of bishops in a line of consecration back to Christ’s apostles. Without bishops, there is no access to the other six (maybe more) sacraments, which mediate grace. No doubt the Holy Spirit empowers the consecrations, but even without wading into the ISM views of the constitution of the church, there’s a basic difference in concept. In the congregational view, the “faith once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 1:3) is held by the faithful, while in the ISM (as with other churches with apostolic succession) there is a personal continuity. (Which is not to suggest that the laity are optional in the ISM, but that’s an issue of the constitution of the church that I’m not qualified to speak about. I would be interested how the Vatican II document, Lumen Gentium has been received.) In congregationalism, at least in its “purest ” form, the deacons and ministers fill a role more than experiencing the basic, ontological change of nature as expressed in the ordinations of the ISM. Of course, what’s so pure any more? Ideas about the ministry have developed over time, including what might be called (but never is in this way) its mystical constitution. Perhaps I should ask how Lumen Gentium has influenced the Unitarian Universalists, if perhaps through the side door. After all, James Luther Adams was an observer at Vatican II.

Next time, a bit about who the ISM are in the context of the churches in apostolic succession.


Introducing the Independent Sacramental Movement

This is the first of an open-ended series about the Independent Sacramental Movement (ISM); in it, I plan on exploring what it is, how it distinguishes itself in the ecumenical landscape, what diversity it contains, how it functions as a community and how it challenges and adapts concepts of “the right way” to do church. I’ll also explore the unexpected ways it crosses paths with Unitarian Universalism, and Universalism specifically. I think we in the mainline have plenty to learn and appreciate in the ISM.

Unless you are in it, know someone who is, or study British or American religious history, you likely have never heard of the ISM. I first learned of it in the late 1980s or very early 1990s when I was a student in the religion department at the University of Georgia. A classmate friend and I would scan Melton’s Guide to American Religion, which lists and describes religious institutions, for the unusual and exotic including what I’m sure was then more commonly called “Independent Catholicism.” His quest would lead him into the more interesting and esoteric back roads; mine, by comparison, is institutional and conventional. But my respect for this constellation of believers continues to this day, and I’ve been happy to be a friend and neighbor of the movement — which also includes forms of Orthodoxy and Anglicanism, depending on whom you ask — rather than a member or priest.

But I’m getting ahead of myself: a special welcome to those associated with the ISM. Feel free to comment if I get something wrong or right, or send a message through this form. I’d also love to hear your stories, and take requests for themes to develop.

Next on the blog

After I wrap up this series on “The Gadfly Papers” I’ll turn to writing what I had intended this week: an exploration of the Independent Sacramental Movement.

What it is; what distinguishes its approach(es) to Christianity; the unexpected ways it overlaps with Unitarian Universalism; and what we have to learn and appreciate from them.

Found another Universalist jurisdiction

I’m convinced that God is not done with the Universalists when I find Christians of differing traditions and charisms professing God’s complete love to us. Tonight, I came across another.

Universalist Orthodox Church

The Universalism, as a theological point, comes through a bit clearer in what appears to be an earlier version of the jurisdiction’s website, and in any case I may be misreading it. The inclusion and leadership of LGBT persons is front and center.

It’s a young (coming together in 2016) jurisdiction, and small with two or three parishes (one the cathedral) and falls with the Independent Sacramental Movement, which I think has a lot of lessons to teach the rest of us. I pray them and their Archbishop Olga many blessings.