Can the Independent Sacramental Movement Be Revitalized?

Sept 18, 2005 (16)

From Left: Agostino Taumaturgo, John Michael Greer, John Plummer, and David Kling. Just before sunrise on September 18, 2005.

Table of Contents


The Early Independent Movement: Reasons for Existence

What Happened?
— Mission and Commission
— Societal Changes
— Actions by the Larger Churches: Fear-Uncertainty-Doubt
— Actions by the Larger Churches: Embrace-Extend-Extinguish

What Can an Independent Jurisdiction Do?
— Mapping Ministry and Mission
— Suggested Reading

Practical Considerations
— Worship Styles
— Models of Ministry
— Questions of Polity
— Availability of Ordinations
— Vetting and Training
— Finances and Funding
— Fellowship Events
— Unique Ministry Opportunities
— Satellite People
— Stop the Rome-a-Phobia!
— Fix Your Website!
— Do Not Dumb It Down!
— Have You Figured It Out Yet?



Recently I shared my thoughts on the Traditional Roman Catholic Movement and why it’s doomed to failure in the long term. That discussion was in context of the Independent Sacramental Movement (ISM) and Father Chadwick’s observations about why the ISM currently has so few laity; recent reading and studying has brought me to meditate on the Movement, how it got to where it is today, and its potential viability in the future.

This should actually be somewhat ironic, considering my background in the Trad Movement and their (public) opinion of the Independents (Trads collectively refer to the ISM as “Old Catholics” and then proceed to speak about them as though they’re all dirt – unless they’re looking to be ordained by one, that is), but I’d had an awareness of the Independent Movement since 1997, contact with individuals in the Movement since 2000, and have come to believe taking that route may have saved me a lot of stress and headache over the past 18 years since my priestly ordination.

Reflection and reading has brought me to consider the history of the Independent Movement in context of its actual ministry, the reaction of historical forces which reduced the Movement of its purposes sometime between the two World Wars, and how the Independent Movement can chart a viable path forward in spite of the ridicule of the outside world and the decline of Christianity in the First World. The successes and failures of my own seven-year attempt at an independent-adjacent ministry have been instructive in this regard, because even after reviewing its periods of growth, stability, and decline over and over again, I still continue to ask myself: “What did I do wrong? What could I have done better?”

The truth is there was much I did wrong and much I could’ve done better, alongside what we (not I as a pastor – but we as a team) were doing well. But all of this has offered insights that I’d like to share.

The Early Independent Movement: Reasons for Existence

When people talk about the history of the Independent Movement, they usually begin with Bishop Varlet and his four episcopal consecrations in Holland, starting the Dutch Old Catholic Church, drawing a line from him to Rene Vilatte and Arnold Harris Matthew. I’m not interested in that, but instead am interested in a pastoral history of the Independent Movement.

In the beginning, the Independent Movement not only had churches, it had church buildings with lots of laity, had programs, some ran charitable works, and in general had all the size and trappings most laity associate with “doing church.” In fact this was the situation in the Anglosphere (particularly the United States) from the Independent Movement’s foundation with Vilatte and up until sometime between the two World Wars, after which the laity emptied out and the Independent Movement eventually assumed its current form: a loosely-connected network of people looking for a quick path to ordination, or for a space where they can vent against whatever Rome’s doing this day of the week, or some other reason. The occasional jurisdiction might have parishes filled with laity, or the occasional cleric might have a large parish, but in general the ISM is known for having a disproportionate share of clergy.

All of this begs the question: What the hell happened to change things?

In fact before we can talk about the Independent Movement and its potential – and I strongly believe the Movement has potential – we have to talk about this inconvenient question.

The fact is, once the Independent Movement more or less collapsed after losing its laity, the Movement lost its original reason to exist.

Which leads to another question: What was the Movement’s original reason to exist?

If we trace back to Vilatte and Matthew, the Movement had congregations because there were large groups of laity that had problems with Rome at the time, enough problem to justify separating themselves from the Vatican-led hierarchy. One aspect of this was the desire to form National Churches – this could be considered a dying gasp of Gallicanism in the wake of Vatican I – while the aspect that actually brought in the laity was open discrimination from the Roman hierarchy.

One example of the above is the collaboration between Paolo Miraglia-Gulotti and Carmel Henry Carfora in ministering to Italian-Americans who were discriminated against by the American hierarchy. Another is the formation of the Polish National Catholic Church (PNCC), formed by Polish immigrants who had their own problems with the Irish- and German-led American hierarchy. Another example is the African Orthodox Church (AOC), founded by former Episcopalian priest George Alexander McGuire in response to discrimination against Black Americans.

There was also the attempt by Arnold Harris Matthew to found an Old Catholic Church in Britain, because he had been misinformed (read: lied to) that a number of British Catholics and Anglicans were looking for a church body where their sacraments would be recognized by Rome, while at the same time remaining independent from the Vatican. His project didn’t exactly go very far; even though he seems to have acted in good faith, he was nevertheless basing said project on false information which in turn undermined his ministry.

Of these churches, the “National Churches” often collapsed sooner, as they were the creations either of patriotic citizens whose level of love for country translated into having their own “separate from Rome church,” or of governments pursuing their own agenda; while what I would call the “Anti-Discrimination Churches” lasted longer precisely because they were responding to an actual need within the communities they served. We could very loosely label these as “top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches to ministry, respectively.

Then, at some indeterminate point between World War I and World War II, the Independent Churches started declining in membership until there were mostly just clergy remaining. If we’re going to talk about the future of the Independent Movement, we need to start by talking about this point in its past.

What Happened?

When we discuss the devolution of the Independent Movement from a land of large churches filled with laity to a virtual no-man’s land filled with eccentrics playing dress-up in miters, we have to take into account three major items: 1. the fact that a church’s mission and commission are not fixed throughout all time, 2. shifts in society and lay thinking during that period, and 3. shifts on the part of the larger churches.

Mission and Commission
These terms can have different meanings with different authors, so I’ll clarify my own meaning at the outset. Mission is how a given congregation or church body interacts with the world outside its doors, while Commission is the purpose to which God has actually called that congregation or church body (i.e. its reason for existing).

The Church (big “C”) has an eternal Mission to witness Truth to the world, and an eternal Commission to evangelize the entire world; this is found in Matthew 28:16-20. Protestants refer to this text as “The Great Commission,” while pre-Vatican II Catholicism implemented the Great Commission in the form of “Pagan Babies.” Post-Vatican II Catholics (at least in the First World) tend to ignore the Great Commission at their own Church’s peril; whether this is a result of contemporary de-emphasis on evangelization or the Catholicism’s tendency to confuse the “work of the Church” for the “work of the clergy,” I leave that for the reader to figure out.

A church (small “c”), on the other hand, does not have an eternal mission or commission, but instead its mission or commission may change with changing societal factors, or its commission may be something other than what the church believes it is, or it may be founded without having a commission at all. This last part may be especially true if the founders of said church incorrectly discern the situation surrounding their church’s founding, attempt to plant the church based on false information, or are acting out of ego.

A small-“c” church may even lose its mission or commission entirely, as changing circumstances show the church’s reason for being founded have been answered or rectified, and then the church has no reason to exist anymore. In this case it can either 1. find new reasons to continue existing (i.e. prayerfully discern a new commission), 2. cling onto the past and rage against the dying of the light, or 3. go quietly into that good night (often merging with another, stronger congregation).

In the case of the early Independent Movement, the mission and commission were very clear: thousands of Catholics were disenfranchised either because of the Ultramontane victory of 1870 in Rome (which mostly affected clergy in Europe), and the discrimination against immigrant groups by the established Roman hierarchy (which mostly affected laity in America). Each of these factors gave the early Movement a distinct entryway for mission, and a specific commission to minister to those who became disenfranchised. When society shifted in such a way as that commission dried up, we find that only those church who either had government support (i.e. the Old Catholic in Europe), or who still dealt with tangible issues of discrimination (i.e. the African Orthodox Church) remained.

The practical takeaway from this: the need to discern mission and commission, and never cease from reviewing that discernment periodically.

Societal Changes
I’ve already mentioned that the commission for most Independent churches dried up at some point between the two World Wars. Now we get to discuss what those shifts were.

In the first place, there were two World Wars going on, which in itself is enough to cause people to reassess their priorities. Where once the question of Papal Infallibility may have been a wedge issue, or the bigotry of some Irishman in a cassock, the question now shifted to one of society’s survival or the actions of an aggressor perceived as the absolute personification of evil. Whether any of this is true or a fabrication is irrelevant to my point, what’s important here is that the average layperson perceived these things to be true, and adjusted their priorities accordingly.

Another change (here in America) was that the various immigrant groups started assimilating, and discrimination began to lessen. This particularly affected the children of European immigrants who eventually found themselves fitting better into society, and therefore less need for “just their own space” which defined itself as being in opposition to the discrimination which was becoming less and less readily visible. What lessening of discrimination did not happen naturally, the Civil Rights movement attempted to address later on; whether its goals were achieved is a whole ‘nother conversation, but again the point here is that societal shifts were taking place that undermined the early Independent Movement’s commission.

As to the question of Anglican Orders, Papal Infallibility, and related matters, that was too abstract for the average layperson to care about, and in the First World generally irrelevant as a practical matter anyway, as most First World countries tend to be secular democracies who either have a Protestant heritage or who uphold some concept of religious freedom (our own First Amendment, for example, by which religion ended up connected to the Free Market of Ideas).

The practical takeaway from this: mission and commission are laity-centric, and laity “live in a society.” Societal conditions and societal change are important indicators of whether a church’s method of mission is becoming irrelevant, or whether a given commission is reaching its end-of-life.

Actions by the Larger Churches: Fear-Uncertainty-Doubt
If you’re old like me, you’ll remember the United States v. Microsoft lawsuit that started in 1998 and was resolved in 2001. Part of this lawsuit involved internal communications and the policies of “EEE” (Embrace-Extend-Extinguish) and “FUD” (Fear-Uncertainty-Doubt). Both of these policies have been used by the larger churches in different proportions, and not always intentionally.

Rome in particular has always treated the Independent Movement with FUD, beginning when Pope St. Pius X referred to René Vilatte and Arnold Harris Matthew by name as “pseudo-bishops” in a 1907 decree renewing Vilatte’s excommunication in 1900, and in the excommunication of Matthew in 1911, also seeming perturbed that Matthew had “arrogantly announced to Us that he received episcopal consecration” (original: Episcopalem consecrationem se recepisse Nobis arroganter nunciarint). Of course he could not claim their ordinations were invalid and he knew that, but he could get away with publicly calling them “false claimants” to any part of the (Roman) Catholic hierarchy, hence the “pseudo.”

[NOTE: The 1907 renewal against Vilatte can be found in translation in the American Catholic Quarterly Review, c.1 v. 32, page 269; the excommunication against Matthew can be found in its original Latin in Acta Apostolicae Sedis 03, page 53. Also note that the epithet “pseudo-bishop” is not found in Leo XIII’s original excommunication of Vilatte and Miraglia-Gulotti in 1900; it is possible Pius X had as much of an agenda against the Independent Movement as against the Modernists, as there was sometimes overlap between the two.)

We see another example of this in 1983, in then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s pronouncement on the episcopal consecrations of Ngo Dinh Thuc for the Palmar de Troya sect in particular and the Traditional Roman Catholic Movement in general:

… whatever about the validity of the orders, the Church does not nor shall it recognize their ordination, and as regards all juridical effects, it considers them in the state which each one had previously …

Note that the decree says “whatever about the validity,” meaning the validity of the ordinations is not being judged and will not be discussed, only that the Vatican refuses to recognize them as Catholic bishops, because they were not ordained as part of the Vatican’s hierarchy, rules, or structure (i.e. they condemn the liceity while remaining silent about the validity).

However, look at how these decrees are worded: “pseudo,” and “whatever the validity, we don’t recognize.” These were carefully calculated, because the hierarchy is well aware of two things: 1. the average layperson is ill-equipped to understand the distinction between validity and liceity, and is content to let the hierarchy do that part of their thinking for them; and 2. if the Vatican ever said “we recognize this as valid,” they know at least some Independent bishops would take that paper, plaster it over every signpost and bulletin board, run full-page magazine ads, and (in our day) internet site, and are afraid at least some among the laity would think “Hey, Rome says these guys are okay so I can go join them!”

One need not look far in the Catholic blogosphere to see the 1983 decree interpreted as a declaration of invalidity, either. But as I’ve taken enough time on this already, I’ll leave that to your Google searching skills to discover. What I want to talk about now is how Rome actually judges based on this decree.

A prime example comes to us from a 2004 decree of (still) then-Cardinal Ratzinger, in reference to Bishop Ciarán Broadbery, an Irishman who had been consecrated by the Palmar de Troya sect in 1977. At some point in the 1980s (I don’t know the exact year), he reconciled with Rome and requested that his ordinations be declared null and void. His request was answered in 2004, and Cardinal Ratzinger’s response can be paraphrased as: “We don’t discuss the particulars of individual ordinations. See the 1983 declaration, ‘Whatever the validity.’”

Broadberry - CDF Declaration

Decree of Cardinal Ratzinger refusing to pronounce Broadbery’s ordination invalid. January 28, 2004.

In other words, Rome does not make judgments on the validity of Traditionalist or Independent ordinations, not even when it would serve their political interests to judge them invalid. The word “illicit” is thrown throughout the response repeatedly, making it clear Rome’s entire problem is one of liceity, but Ratzinger intelligently and wisely stopped short of pronouncing on validity.

However, individual bishops and bishops’ conferences have pronounced in favor of validity from time to time. In terms of the Broadbery lineage specifically, we have an article from the Irish Times where a spokesperson from the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference openly referred to the 1998 consecration of Patrick Buckley at the hands of Michael Cox as “valid but unlawful.” In another article in the Irish Tmes, we have an OpEd from Bishop Buckley himself, where he quotes a letter from William Walsh, then-bishop of the Diocese of Killaloe, giving his judgment on Cox’s ordination and consecration:

My understanding is that [Michael] Patrick Cox was ordained to the priesthood by a Catholic Bishop. His ordination would therefore be valid even if unlawful as the said Bishop was acting without approval of the Holy See. My understanding is that the priest Patrick Cox was later consecrated a bishop by a Catholic Bishop. His consecration as bishop would be deemed valid even if unlawful because the said Bishop was acting without the approval of the Holy See.

The connection is that Cox was consecrated by Broadbery in 1982 thus any pronouncement on Cox’s validity also speaks to the validity of Broadbery’s own consecration. I would like to thank Bishop Buckley for having since posted a photo of Bishop Walsh’s letter along with a transcription to his blog, along with his opinion of what is perhaps Bishop Cox’s most famous act: the ordination of Sinead O’Connor in a Lourdes hotel room in 1999. (As much as I would love to pick Bishop Cox’s brain in hopes of breaking my own 20-year theological stalemate about women’s ordination, that decision with that particular candidate seems to have bitten him in the ass in recent years.)

Note that with one exception, these opinions in favor of validity occur mostly in private correspondence or in conversations behind closed doors, while in public Rome is silent, and allows her underlings to spread FUD in whatever way they see fit.

Interestingly, the only true exception to the FUD policy would be the four bishops consecrated by Marcel Lefebvre in 1988 (whom Rome declared as “absolutely valid”). If I had to guess, I would guess the reason behind this exception is at least partially political: in 1968 a feud had within the Vatican when Paul VI decided to “simplify” the Papal Court, cutting out a number of roles occupied by the “Black Nobility,” i.e. those nobles who sided with the Papacy during the “Roman Question” and were given positions in the Papal Court. One of the leaders in the Black Nobility, Princess Elvina Pallavicini, gave her support to Archbishop Lefebvre during this time and hosted a conference at her palace, where the Archbishop spoke to more than 400 guests.

Now I’m not willing to throw weight to conspiracy theories of any kind. However, the one fact that stands out is that Lefebvre and the SSPX had financial resources available to them which the other Traditionalist groups lacked, and their numbers and backing afforded them the position of being an exception to the FUD rule, with the Sacred Congregation for the Faith even ruling in 1993 that one’s Sunday Obligation can be fulfilled by attending an SSPX chapel (known as “The Hawaii Six Case”). While I conclude nothing definitively, I would also not be surprised if this positioning was helped by the Black Nobility’s backing during Lefebvre’s lifetime.

Actions by the Larger Churches: Embrace-Extend-Extinguish
While Rome’s primary method in regard to Independent, Traditionalist, and other “sacramental” clergy is FUD, they have also practiced EEE. The larger Church denominations have also engaged in EEE to a larger extent, and are probably more responsible for extinguishing the average Independent bishop’s hopes for planting a church based on doing “the opposite of what Rome does” where social issues are concerned.

We’ve already established that the average layperson couldn’t care less about “Papal Infallibility,” or “Valid Orders,” or other abstract concepts bandied about by theologians. In my experience, the laity who do care about these things tend either to be nasty internet trolls, the unpleasant people working in chancery offices or parish councils, or leave the Church altogether for whatever they happen to define as the “bigger better deal.”

What the average layperson does care about, however, would be the issues of the day: social, economic, or political. Further that, there are plenty of people on each side of most issues, thus providing a large enough pool for evangelization no matter what your church’s position. However, this also means there are disaffected who either don’t fit with either side’s expression of a given issue, or who don’t want give up their religious identity while disagreeing with their church’s take on an issue, or who find the mainstream stances on the issues contradictory. This is where a EEE strategy comes in.

In the early Independent Movement, many of the American parishes were composed of immigrant groups discriminated against by the established Roman hierarchy, but refused to give up their Catholic identity. The Independent bishops filled that need by enabling them to break away from the discrimination while still calling themselves Catholic and surrounding themselves with the trappings of Catholicism. In essence, their commission was that of filling a real need that nobody else was either able or willing to address.

The way the Romans managed to reverse this was simply to stop discriminating. One way the hierarchy accomplished this was by establishing “ethnic parishes” (some of which still exist today), with priests from the same nationality as the group in question, where the culture and identity were celebrated. This didn’t always work out in the beginning, but the system served its purpose.

Another method the Romans used was playing the long game. The (European) immigrants may not have fit in, but their children (and definitely their grandchildren) assimilated to mainstream American culture more and more with each generation; eventually they came to accept the Irish model that created American Catholicism and participate as members in good standing. Some of them even repudiated the culture their parents or grandparents had brought over with them and found a better home in the mainstream Roman Church or no church at all.

These tactics were all the Roman Church had to do to get its EEE strategy up and running, because the entire system was soon interrupted by the Spanish Flu epidemic (which hit smaller churches harder than larger ones), the Great Depression, the World Wars, the Civil Rights Movement, and the trend toward secularization. Even a large Independent Jurisdiction is tiny compared to the Roman Machinery, and most weren’t able to outlast the storm.

This is also where we have to consider the other large denominations. While Rome played hardball with FUD and managed a token (but sufficient) effort with EEE, the other large denominations – perhaps inadvertently – went full-on with EEE and took the wind out the sails for much of the later Independent Movement.

We need to understand that when an ISM bishop or priest thinks of “the larger churches,” he or she typically is thinking only of “Rome” and what “Rome” does. This enables them to say: “We aren’t like the larger churches because we have women’s ordination, social justice, and marriage equality!”

This, however, is a fatal mistake when it comes to ministry planning, because most of the other larger churches are doing those things, too. What that means is that it doesn’t matter how much you believe in the social issues you’re promoting, because many laypeople are simultaneously hypergamous and not-exclusively-theological when it comes to church-shopping; they’re attracted to numbers, large buildings, optics that look and feel “like a real church,” big enough for them to be anonymous if they want, or funded enough to afford various programs in which they can get involved.

So if you’re defining your jurisdiction on the strength of social issues alone (as many Independent Sacramental jurisdictions do), the average layperson is likely to pass you by in favor of a larger denomination that does the same things you are, only with a bigger budget and more people to do it alongside them.

This boils down to – and results from – the fact the larger mainline denominations have embraced the liberal social and political themes supported throughout most of the ISM, they have extended these themes by working toward them better than a one-person band with no building and limited financing would be able, and have thus extinguished the average ISM priest’s or bishop’s chance of planting a church around these issues, unless they’re uncommonly gifted in terms of organization, fund raising, and people skills.

For those on the conservative side of the aisle, your fortunes are no better: what exactly are your issues offering that LCMS, the Continuum, the rise of Megachurch Evangelicals, or the conservative Novus Ordo churches aren’t offering?

This does not mean all hope is lost, and it certainly does not mean your ministry has no commission. It’s simply a prompt to discern your commission elsewhere.

What Can an Independent Jurisdiction Do?

Now we get to the meat of this post. What steps can an Independent cleric or jurisdiction take to plant a strong ministry?

The first thing is to take a “big picture” view of the Movement as a whole, especially the types of people who are attracted to it. When I look, I notice they tend to share the following traits:

They are usually very intelligent.
They are usually very interested in religion.
They are usually interested in clerical ordination.
They are usually not wanting to be told what to do.

These four traits are the most common, and seem to hold across all demographics (liberal, conservative, straight, gay, exoteric, esoteric, etc). Now for a few other traits:

They have often been hurt by larger churches.
They are often seeking like-minded people.
They often do not want to be hurt again

Thus far we’ve discussed four traits that are positive and three that help us understand why someone would be attracted to the Independent Movement as opposed to the larger churches. Now let’s discuss some negative traits that also turn up:

Some want the clerical collar without doing any work.
Some want a platform to lord over or abuse others.
Some want an excuse to play dress-up without doing actual ministry.

Obviously one may be (and should be) a little leery of people with these last three characteristics,  but a cleric trained in psychology may be wise not to exclude the possibility of ministering to them in the sense of getting behind why these traits are there and helping them strive to overcome.

Thus far, we have painted a picture that would not match the average layperson sitting in the average pew in the average church, and that’s perfectly okay. Based on my own experience in ministry, the average layperson’s view of “church” might be summed up as:

Church is a building that does not look like a regular person’s house.
Church is a place for worship in anonymity, or for social networking and being part of a community (depending on individual preference).
Church is a place to be told about either the love or judgment of God (depending on individual preference).
Church is a place to receive moral instruction.
Church is a place to receive community support.
Church is a place to babysit your children.

Notice that while the average layperson and the average ISM candidate may have some overlap (both contain a healthy percentage of what I’ve come to call “problem parishioners”), the two spheres aren’t describing the same types of people. Having discerned this is a good step, because the people you’re most likely to attract are the people to whom you’ll find yourself ministering.

Whether you like it or not, this is where your commission’s going to be.

A personal anecdote about this is that in 2008, my time in the Traditional Movement had dried up. The fact is I had no commission there though wasn’t yet ready to recognize it, and the back-stabbing mill had run me through it like it does everyone sooner or later, with more knives than I can count. Though I tried hard to be a “good exoteric,” people had found out my previous involvement in the occult and used it as a cudgel (the Movement does not forgive and especially does not forget). I was effectively a pariah in those circles, pure and simple; this is something I may write about some other time.

There were people coming to me in a ministerial capacity though, and none of them were Catholic. Eventually I realized that this was my commission at the time.

So the first step in finding what you’re going to do is finding your commission. This commission won’t necessarily be in the feeling of a “calling,” but in the kind of people and personalities that are attracted to you in anything resembling a ministerial capacity. If you have a commission at all, have no fear because God will make it clear so long as you keep your eyes and your mind open.

Mapping Ministry and Mission
We’ve talked about discerning a commission, now let’s talk about mapping the shape of a ministry and mission effort.

In his Many Paths of the Independent Sacramental Movement, John Plummer defines theological reflection within the movement taking place in terms of “time, space, and event.” Re-reading his book a few weeks ago, it struck me that this “time, space, event” model is also a workable model for mapping one’s type of ministry.

In this model (which he credits to Dion Fortune), Bishop Plummer talks about “time” in terms of the period of time a given individual or community uses as their primary focus. Is it a focus on the “good old days,” as most Traditionalist groups tend to obsess about the 1950s? Is it a focus on a future time, such as modern Evangelicals with their eyes on “The Rapture” and/or “The Millenium?” Or is it a focus on the present moment, or somewhere in between any of these?

By “space,” we refer to how wide or how narrow the specific target of your ministry is (as opposed to the broad definition of the ministry as defined by the Great Commission). Are you commissioned to minister only to a specific group or sub-group within society, i.e. shut-ins, nursing home residents, drug addicts, well-to-do suburbanites, animals lovers, the leather community, certain socio-political orientations, etc? Have you discerned a commission to minister to non-Christians or to an interfaith or multi-denominational group? Your ministry’s “space” could be as narrow as a small set of people or as wide as an entire town, state/province, country, or even bigger; the important thing here is that you’re honest with yourself about who you’re actually reaching and what you’re actually capable of doing with your current skill sets, resources, and technology.

After considering the temporal and spatial focus of your ministry, it’s time to consider your “event,” i.e. the types of activity or how you’ll seek to get your ministry done; this covers matters of worship, polity, mission, communication, optics, and everything else that goes with the actions and decisions behind “doing church.” Many Independent jurisdictions make the mistake of thinking “I’ll just invite my friends over for Mass every Sunday” or “I’ll set up a webpage and post on social media,” and so forth without doing much else, but these don’t often pan out. Rather, the concept of “event” needs to be contemplated not from your perspective, but from the perspective of those who would be attracted to your ministry.

The observant reader will notice this reflection of “time, space, and event” is nothing like what Plummer wrote, as he was writing about theological reflection within the Independent Movement as opposed to practicalities of doing ministry. What I’ve found is that these concepts dovetail nicely into a paradigm to encourage ministry planning. (And yes, he is aware of these reflections because I’ve told him and thanked him!)

A shorter way of looking at this, is that your ministry should answer the question: What are you offering that other churches aren’t offering? What need can you satisfy or vacuum can you fill that people aren’t getting from the church down the street, from secular action groups, or from the local food pantry?

The more easily you can provide a ready answer to this question – and the more easily the average person will understand your ready answer – the more likely your ministry will be successful.

Suggested Reading
Another good way of mapping ministry can come from reading Protestant books on the subject and talking to your Protestant minister-friends, because the Protestantism is much closer to the world of small churches and micro-churches than are the Catholics and Anglicans, and thus have a closer parallel to what the day-to-day experience of what ISM ministry would look like.

A recommended starting point would be Arlin Rothague’s short booklet Sizing up a Congregation for New Member Ministry, which lists four styles of “church” – Family (1-50 members), Pastoral (51-150), Program (151-350), and Corporate (351+) – along with descriptions for how these congregations behave and suggestions for helping them grow. This booklet is at the root of many church-size studies to come out ever since (the model has since been revised to include a “Transitional Church” phase between Pastoral and Program), and can really help the budding ISM cleric’s understanding.

Another recommended reading would be Elmer Towns’ Putting an End to Worship Wars. While Towns’ focus is six modalities found in Protestant worship – Evangelistic, Bible Expositional, Renewal, Body Life, Liturgical, and Congregational – he also describes what laypeople from each of these traditions expect from their churches, how each type of church approaches ministry and mission, the strengths and weaknesses of each, and incorporating the best of each into your own ministry style. In my own opinion and experience, the Liturgical, Body Life, and Congregational models are deserving of special study and consideration.

Yet another book which I’m currently reading now is The Big Small Church Book by David Ray. While I have disagreements with his theology (as I would with most Protestantisms), I find the practical suggestions in his book an invaluable starting point – and this book should primarily be looked at as a starting point – for getting a handle on concerns and considerations in the life of small-church and small-group ministry. In common with most ISM clergy, most Traditionalist clergy are completely untrained and unprepared for doing actual ministry work, and it really showed in the stagnation and collapse phases when I was pastoring Columbus Chapel of Faith Ministries. Having this book (back then) would’ve helped me avoid a lot of those pitfalls and I may’ve been trying to be a “good exoteric” still ministering to this day.

Practical Considerations

Let’s see if the observant reader figures out what I have to say at the end of this section!

A lot of newly-ordained Independent clergy come into ministry with ideas of saying Mass for whatever congregation, and more or less imitating the worship and ministry patterns of the larger churches. The thing is that the ISM typically inhabits a world of small and mirco-churches, where the entire model of ministry is different from what happens in the larger churches.

Worship Styles
In the first place, the ISM likes to place an emphasis on liturgical worship. This is great and can work in small groups, but the average layperson attracted to liturgical worship also wants church to “feel like church,” i.e. they expect “church” to be a big building with a steeple, and all the expenses that come with it. You can attract a small group here who’re committed to the meaning of the liturgy, but it will be more difficult finding mainstream appeal because, again, the average layperson’s interests in religion are more superficial than what the average ISM jurisdiction is able or willing to provide.

Another possibility is to explore alternatives based on the people you’re attracting. For example, if you have a small group who wants the Mass, then say Mass for them. If you have a more “informal” group, then an informal “Service of the Word” may be the way to go, with liturgical worship featured once a month or on high Feastdays (whichever “fits” better with the people to whom you’re ministering).

Models of Ministry
Because of the size of ISM congregations, it may also be worth exploring the “Body Life” or “Cell Church” model of ministry, where a congregation is composed of independent “cells” of 5-15 people (the size of the average ISM congregation), who have some or other interest than religion in common. In Columbus Chapel of Faith Ministries, for example, one thing I didn’t approach properly was the fact all the members also knew each other outside of church, and were connected through other subcultures; one example is that on Sunday evenings after church, about half of us would get together and play AD&D until fairly late in the evening.

Ideally, the cells operate independently and “bond” during the week, while meeting occasionally (weekly, monthly, whatever interval is appropriate) for the big get-together. The typical ISM jurisdiction is able to do this, with individual congregations being cells scattered throughout the country, and many jurisdictions have a yearly convocation where the cells gather. What I’ve seen makes me think the Body Life model is already part of the Independent Movement (albeit unconsciously), and an intentional use of this model might make it helpful.

Questions of Polity
Likewise, sensitivity to the people the ISM attracts indicates a more congregational approach to polity might be desirable. Many people getting into the ISM aren’t trained in ministry, or trained well enough to minister effectively to the hurt and bruised people who’ll oftentimes cross their path, and I’ve seen enough ISM bishops who treat their jurisdictions like petty fiefdoms even if they themselves don’t have a pot to piss in! This type of behavior not only reinforces the hurt a lot of ISM clergy experienced before joining the ISM, it also encourages no end to splits and forming other jurisdictions, where the new jurisdiction might repeat the same mistakes because they weren’t shown a better example.

Remember instead that the average person attracted to the ISM is very intelligent and doesn’t like being told what to do. A collaborative approach to ministry stands to go much further in these cases than a dictatorial one.

Availability of Ordinations
Another concern in the ISM is that many people attracted to it are doing so because they’re interested in ordination to the priesthood. Obviously, there’s a need to weed out those looking for a “fast-track” or looking to be ordained for the wrong reasons, but there’s no reason ordination should be denied to a large percentage of the population either. The question of who should be ordained and what kind of vetting and/or training they should receive prior is best left to each individual jurisdiction to decide, but there is no reason a new member could not receive tonsure immediately after reception or confirmation if they so desire it, and be enrolled into a program of training that potentially leads to priestly ordination if the individual sticks it out. This model would likely lead to parishes where the average pastor is a bishop assisted by however many priests, and the average congregant can possess anywhere from the diaconate to the minor orders (this would mirror a monastic type situation rather than a parish, and reflect the average ISM member’s tendency to be interested in religion).

Vetting and Training
The important thing with this approach is that there must be some kind of appropriate vetting for candidates, otherwise the floodgates will be open to those who would abuse what they receive (which in turn will damage any revitalization effort). For example, I once incardinated two priests from a jurisdiction who ordained them not only without training, but without even having been confirmed beforehand (it was the jurisdiction’s practice to ordain without asking questions). I ruled their ordinations as doubtful – the ordination rite was a “homebrew” ceremony whose form gave me doubts – and then began a mentoring program with intention to ordain de novo when they were ready; ultimately they both decided they were better off living as laity before the program got very far.

I mention this example because it tells us the importance of training. Training is not just about the bishop vetting “whether this candidate is worthy,” the training process is also a time for the candidate to discern whether ordination is the right thing for them, and to ordain without some kind of training is robbing them of the chance to make that discernment, as well as robbing any laity they encounter of a priest with the skill set to minister to them properly and effectively.

Finances and Funding
In Columbus Chapel of Faith Ministries, I supported the church’s rent and expenses from my paycheck when I was working at a home healthcare agency. The only exception was when a member had a birthday, we’d all take a collection the Sunday before (usually each person contributed $5), and would use that to get a cake the following Sunday; we’d all gather around after Mass to share the cake and hang out for awhile.

I did this because I was uncomfortable “mixing money with ministry” as I called it, but this turned out to be a fatal mistake. When I lost my job because the IRS shut down the company over tax issues (long story I’m not getting into here), we lost our location and entered into a period of freefall precisely because of lack of funding.

What’s even worse is the whole thing could’ve been avoided if I’d listened to one parishioner’s advice and moved services to the clubhouse at her apartment complex (it turned out she knew others who were interested in joining us). A year later, another parishioner later told me she would happily have donated and helped save the building if only I would have asked her!

It would be nice to run a church without needing money, but the reality is that bills need to be paid, expendables (hosts, wine, candles, etc.) need to be purchased, and society doesn’t work on a barter system. The best thing you can do is figure out what the minimum amount you’d need for ministry, mission, and outreach are, find ways to make the ministry support itself to cover that amount at minimum, and then figure out strategies to make that funding happen while creating a minimum about of stress on your parishioners’ finances.

Fellowship Events
According to Plummer, “The most critical factor for independent sacramental identity is the single-minded focus on sacramental activity.” He then goes to quote a former pastor of St. Michaels Liberal Catholic Church in Manhattan as saying “I tell folks that if they want coffee hour, we’re not the right place. I’m just not interested in that.”

From an outreach and member-retention standpoint, there are few bigger mistakes!

In a church as with any other community, people need a way to bond, and newcomers need opportunities to meet and mingle with established community members. An hour of coffee, donuts, cookies, or whatever provides those opportunities as well as a sort of “fellowship time” that just isn’t able to happen when people show up for Mass and then leave as soon as Mass is over.

In my own former ministry, one thing we did was institute 15 minutes of “fellowship time” before beginning the Liturgy, and would often hang out for up to an hour afterwards (sometimes with cake, sometimes coffee, sometimes nothing but just ourselves). This was natural since many of us were friends outside the church and had other interests in common, and something any ministry can institute even if they’re on a shoestring budget.

One option is to bring tea and coffee and bake cookies after church, or members can take turns each week baking cookies or a cake, or buying some donuts, and it’s always a good idea to include a healthier alternative for those who don’t engage in “junk food.” Again, the main purpose is not the food itself but the fellowship people experience over the food, and the additional pathway it gives prospective new members for meeting and bonding with the congregation.

Other kinds of programs may or may not be an option depending on the church’s ministry, mission, and commission, but some type of basic fellowship opportunity should never be neglected.

Unique Ministry Opportunities
When Covid-19 shut down the churches, I immediately saw an opportunity in the form of a “level playing field,” because churches were restricted to the internet where most people have some form of access (at least most Americans). I streamed the Latin Mass over Zoom and had an “okay” turnout, but then ran out of celebrant hosts and wasn’t able to get new ones as the church supply stores were closed down (I found online shops wanting $10 shipping for a $5 box of hosts; and paying more for the shipping than for the product comes off as bad stewardship to me).

Of course I have no intention of starting a church anyway, so in my case that didn’t matter. However, the church closures presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that ISM clergy should’ve jumped on; for once people were looking at churches on the internet, nobody had to sit on the sidelines anymore!

I’ve also had great success with broadcasting a “Service of the Word” every Sunday over Facebook Live, which this Sunday I plan on moving over to Zoom because it gives everybody an opportunity to make the responses, sing along with the hymns, and otherwise participate as though we were actually together in the same room. The current crisis brings the side effect of showing us the potential for churches using virtual space and maximizing that potential.

Sooner or later, human nature dictates that communities will need to have some kind of face-to-face contact, and there’ll be time enough for that once the crisis is over. But for now, one should never underestimate the internet’s potential for forming bonds and communities even over great distances.

That’s one opportunity. Another type of opportunity came in 2014 when I first considered getting out of ministry, but then Sarah (one of our parishioners) texted me that one of her friends, Tony, was activities director for a nursing home and was looking to get a church service started there. The majority were Baptist, so a full-on liturgy of any kind was out of the question. What I instead used was a heavily-modified version of the “Afternoon Order of Service” from the American Lutheran Hymnal of 1930; the service I used in the nursing home is the same service order I’ve used in my Sunday broadcasts, and you may recognize it as the one found in My New Everyday Prayer Book on page 250.

Before long, Vicki, our organist, joined us and brought her keyboard to the nursing home. She herself was raised Baptist and her father was a pastor, so she was fully within her element. She gave me some suggestions (that I was smart enough to listen to), and we saw attendance grow to about 25% of the nursing home’s residents every Sunday. In fact the conference room was so filled that we had people crowding the hallway!

Sadly, the nursing home was closed down a few months later (they failed “survey,” meaning when the State of Ohio sends an auditor to an agency and they don’t clean up their act within 90 days; I know this because we dealt with surveyors in home healthcare too), and I really wish I’d read Sam Guido’s Disposable People: Reflections of a Nursing Home Chaplainavailable here – before that happened (I thank Bishop Sam for sending me a copy several years ago).

Other ministerial opportunities have come and gone, one example being a short-lived “house church group” in 2013, and absolutely none of those opportunities have been anything like how most people expect “church” to look or feel. My observation is that Independent and Independent-adjacent clergy are not usually called to minister in the same way as larger-church clergy are, so discern these opportunities to see if they may be part of your commission, too.

Satellite People
If you’re doing your ministry well and for the right reasons, then you’ll soon find that in addition to the people participating in your ministry, there will also be several other cheering you on from the sidelines but not actually coming to church or participating. I refer to these as “Satellite People,” and they should be treated and cared for every bit as special as if they were full-fledged parishioners.

A person may be among the “satellite people” for many different reasons: they may be different religion but interested in your work, they may have other church or family commitments that prevent them from joining, they may be waiting for your ministry to be successful before making the commitment to join in, or any number of other reasons. The wise pastor will recognize and show appreciation, reaching out and inviting them to church functions even if you know they won’t attend, treating them like a part of the parish family and making sure they receive a copy of the church newsletter (if you have one). Show them the warmth you show your own parishioners but don’t be pushy with them, and they will respond in kind and can even help your ministry grow via their own social networks, even if they themselves don’t join.

You will find – much as I have – there are people out there who want to see you succeed even more than you do!

Stop the Rome-a-Phobia!
Back in 2010, I was invited to be part of a “clergy support group” for Independent clergy in the Columbus area. The founder, Father Anthony, was strict about authenticity and required that all prospective members have a stable congregational ministry as well as showing copies of their ordination certificates before they could join. Father Anthony and I had known each other for a few years by that point and I had attended Mass at his chapel, and I thought it was a good idea to get involved.

Too bad expectation had nothing to do with reality!

What I’d hoped for was a group discussing pastoral issues, for example where clergy could offer each other advice on how to handle problem parishioners, how to deal with certain types of intra-church conflict or tricky counseling situations, in essence the “support” in “clergy support group.” What I instead saw was two hours of griping and complaining about Rome “because they don’t ordain women.”

Need I also point out that everybody in the room was a man!

Now I wish them well and hope they’re still meeting regularly, but it just wasn’t my cup of tea. The thing that goes through my mind when I think about this is: If you’re not affiliated with Rome, then why should you care so much about what Rome is doing? Shouldn’t you instead focus on the people who are coming to you and treating them rightly?

There was on other priest there that evening, Father Stephen, who seemed to share the same opinion (we never really talked about it afterward). We developed a working relationship a few years later.

The problem is, I’ve encountered this “Let’s bitch about Rome” attitude from the majority of Independent clergy I’ve met in person. In a way it’s very understandable because many of these people were hurt by “The Romans” in some way or another: I’ve known some who were molested by priests in their childhoods, and one whom the Novus Ordo diocese managed to throw into prison on account of “fraud charges” (another long and complicated story). These are not small injuries and cannot be ignored!

Here’s the thing: you may have any number of unresolved hurts, but you will neither help yourself heal nor attract a lot of people if your primary mode of talking about religion starts every other sentence with “Those Damn Romans!” You, by your own admission, are not part of the Roman Catholic Church, and therefore you are in no way bound by their rules, regulations, practices, or restrictions. Instead you are free to do the opposite of what Rome does if you find it warranted from a pastoral-, theological-, or justice-based perspective, so there’s no need to bring Rome into your daily thought process let alone your public communications.

By contrast, in 2011 I entered into a dialogue and later Pulpit-and-Altar concordat with the Lutheran Orthodox Church (LOC). Like most bishops in the Evangelical Catholic Movement at the time, their head bishop, Sam, was raised Roman Catholic and later converted to Protestantism. In November of that year I attended their ordination of C.R. Bilardi (yes, that C.R. Bilardi!) in Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania, and afterward noticed there wasn’t so much as an unkind word mentioned about “The Romans” at all, just a focus on what the LOC believes, how they do ministry, and how they handle pastoral matters. Even when we disagreed (they believe in potestas ligata theory, ordination of women, and of course Article 4 of the Augsburg Confession), we still got along and our congregation’s core group had actually gone back and forth more than once about applying for full affiliation.

The point is that it’s easy enough to tell people what you’re against. But the average person who might be attracted to your ministry is more interested in hearing What are you for?

Fix Your Website!
If there’s anything where the Independent Movement tends to be really out of touch, it’s website design. In fact, most ISM websites I look at tend to show the same cluster of problems:

Our orders are valid, blah blah blah…
Our Apostolic succession comes from, blah blah blah…
Independent Movement history, blah blah blah…
Social Issues, blah blah blah…
Rome is bad, blah blah blah…
Our Code of Canons, blah blah blah…
Abstract theology-speak, blah blah blah…

Now ask yourself, outside the “social issues,” why would the average layperson bother caring about this church or this website?

I was recently asked about redoing a website for a friend’s jurisdiction, and one look showed it hadn’t been updated since 1995! It contained all these things and more, crowded onto the page in a design-format so as to be illegible and/or make the reader “tune out” upon seeing a wall of text, and none of it covered a single subject the average layperson would be remotely interested in!

This is where you might want to look into courses in internet marketing and web design, since they strongly overlap with internet-based church outreach. Make your website cleaner, give it an updated look-and-feel, and focus on the things the average layperson would be interested in seeing (while making it easy for the average layperson to find them!). If somebody’s actually interested in the more arcane details such as apostolic succession or your theological distinctives, they’ll E-mail you and you can engage with them there.

Do Not Dumb It Down!
Thus far I’ve been talking much about “the average layperson” in what may seem unflattering terms. Now this is where I contradict those statements.

On the one hand, I do not believe the average layperson is dumb. What I do believe, is that the average layperson is disinterested in abstract questions of theology or religion. This simply means their priorities are in a different place from most clergy (independent or mainstream), and there’s nothing wrong with that.

This is the only meaning of my “average layperson” comments, and my advice to keep your messaging focus layperson-centric. Yet at the same time, they are (usually) intelligent adults and should be spoken to like intelligent adults while restricting your speech to the spheres they actually are interested in. Some may develop an interest in a deeper engagement with their religion later on down the road, but your first contact has to meet them where they are now.

You can help them grow later via whatever education and discipleship programs you wish to pursue. But if you want them to be interested in your ministry on first contact, you have to talk about the things they’re actually interested at the time. Just be honest when answering any questions and avoid professional jargon as much as possible.

Have You Figured It Out Yet?
So, have you figured out what I’ve been saying? If you pay attention to the Independent Movement, which jurisdictions are succeeding, and which are failing, then you’ll make the connection: every suggestion I’ve been making is a part of what the successful jurisdictions are actually doing!

They don’t all use the same suggestions, and I can’t think of anybody who uses all of them. In fact what works for one group won’t necessarily work for another. But they use some combination of them. Discerning your commission – knowing your mission – talking to the people who’re attracted to your ministry – organizing and presenting in a manner they can understand and reach out to others, that’s more or less the “secret sauce” with the various suggestions being the basic ingredients.


I don’t pretend that THAVMA is any sort of ministry. Rather, I’ve always been up front with the fact this is a for-profit business where I sell a product and pay my taxes.

However, I’ve also learned more about ministry from running THAVMA in the past five years than I ever did during the 13 years I was doing actual ministry!

If anything, THAVMA gave me the opportunity to talk to Novus Ordinarians who opened up to me in ways they would never have back when I was still “Trad clergy,” and may not open up to others they perceive as “clergy of other churches.” THAVMA also gave me the ability to reach people in larger numbers than I had when doing ministry, and it provides something to the world that I’ve yet to see elsewhere: an esoteric Christian spirituality that emphasizes intellectual rigor and theological orthodoxy, rather than just cherry-picking pieces of non-Christian materials and superimposing them onto a posterboard cut-out of “Jesus Lite.”

The other thing I learned from THAVMA is how to market and how better to talk to people (this is how I put food on the table, so failure is not an option), and though I don’t make a “lot,” the THAVMA website pays for its own expenditures. While most ministers don’t want to admit it, experience has only made the parallels between a successful church and a successful business more clear in my mind, and what works for one can and should be evaluated for implementation in the other (circumstances and appropriateness permitting, of course!).

In other words, I’d found my lifelong commission when I created the “choccult” website back in 1998, and I’d only undermined it by trying to be a “good exoteric” ever since!

That said, I myself am not involved with the Independent Movement, and in fact I made a point of keeping my parishioners away from the Traditional and Independent Movements, precisely because I knew too much about the personality types in both places. However, my post-2008 ministry can best be described as “Independent-adjacent,” and faced a lot of the same opportunities and challenges as most Independent clergy. I’ve spent time in Independent “spaces” on and off for the past 20 years, from a group of clergy meeting in a mostly empty house for Sunday Mass in Dayton in 2005, to a full-fledged “real congregation” of 30 people just north of OSU’s campus between 2011 and 2018 (when I was invited to say that church’s final Mass before they closed down).

Having been there, plus having a weird “outside observer but not completely outside” kind of status, gives me enough of a perception to notice the good and bad within the movement, and that’s why I think the movement has a great deal of potential even if it often squanders that potential thanks to lack of training and constantly complaining.

The Independent movement lost its original vitality because it lost its original purpose. That original purpose may never be coming back (God only knows!), but that does not mean the movement cannot find a new commission, a new lease on life, and a new future!

About Agostino

Originally from Queens, N.Y., and having grown up in Dayton, OH, Agostino Taumaturgo is a unique figure. He is the product of the unlikely combination of coming from a Traditional Roman Catholic background and a spirituality-friendly home. It was in this home that Agostino first learned the basics of meditation, prayer, and spiritual working. In time Agostino completed his theology studies and was ordained to the priesthood and was later consecrated a bishop. He has since left the Traditional movement and brings this knowledge to the “outside world” through his teaching and writing, discussing spiritual issues and practical matters through the lens of traditional Christian theology.
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1 Response to Can the Independent Sacramental Movement Be Revitalized?

  1. Pingback: A poignant but honest look at the independent Catholic scene | The Blue Flower

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