You can thank the Internet for the birth of so many independent Catholic churches. Google the phrase and you will get a huge configuration of church names like Liberal Catholic, Apostolic Catholic, the American National Catholic Church, Independent Old Catholic Church of America, United American Catholic Church and the Anglican Catholic Church. These don’t even scratch the surface.
Most of these churches are generally progressive, “inclusive” churches with female priests and bishops; married clergy; lesbian archbishops, and so on. Some independent churches will be traditional and conservative, but this is generally not the case.
I once wrote a column for another newspaper about my ordination to the priesthood in July of 2001. This may sound like a funny thing coming from this newspaper columnist; I hardly qualify for sainthood. Still, it remains a fact that in 2001 I took an Amtrak to New York state and received the traditional laying on of hands from both a bishop and an archbishop, from Israel, with Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, Anglican and Russian Orthodox ties.
The name of the Church that ordained me covered the waterfront for umbrella inclusion: the Anglican Catholic Byzantine Orthodox Church. How’s that for a mouthful? I came across ACBOC after an intense Internet search and sent an email to the presiding bishop, inquiring about ordination. The bishop who ordained me said that my ordination was valid, despite the fact that the church had a primarily Internet-only presence with priests whose home doubles as a parish. For the most part, these home parishes include a basement or a garage that has been converted to a small chapel. While I never went to seminary, I’ve spent half a lifetime reading theological and church history texts, so becoming a priest didn’t seem that far-fetched. After ordination, my bishop gave me a chalice, a friend in Montreal made me a chasuble and a stole; I was ready to go!
But go where?
Shortly after moving to the Riverwards from Center City in 2002, I started saying Mass for the Sister Peter Claver Catholic Worker House in Kensington. These were home table Masses in the bland and predictable Novus Ordo rite, and they always preceded dinner. While I had great affection for the CW crowd, the liturgies were a hodgepodge of influences reminiscent of the scattered method of writing used by William S. Burroughs. Pop music CDs often supplemented prayers and chants, and generally the Mass prayers were altered to fit the latest theological fashions: God the Father became Mother and Father God, and some celebrants even called God “She” or “Cosmic Mother.”
Depending on the personal style of the priest saying Mass, you could expect almost anything when it came to communion. Use of traditional communion wafers was rare. Often it was seedless rye bread or chunks from a Thriftway Kaiser roll, reports of occasional oatmeal cookies, and grape juice for wine. Despite these innovations, the CW participants were role models when it came to practicing what you preach, like loving your neighbor as yourself. When I said Mass at the CW House I came equipped with real communion hosts, a crucifix and a traditional stole.
In time, the CW house became so theologically out-there that anyone with a sincere intention to say Mass was allowed to do so; the thought was that every person sitting around the table was a member of the priesthood of believers, suggesting that everyone was a priest.
The bishop who ordained me would periodically ask how I was getting along in my new role. “It’s lonely.” I would tell him. “Saying Mass for a congregation of one is weird. It’s like the sound of one person clapping.” Initially, the bishop had hoped that there would be lines of people outside my house on Sunday mornings. “Look,” I reminded him, “nobody is going to leave Saint Anne’s parish on Lehigh Avenue for my humble coffee table church. I don’t even have acolytes.”
Other difficulties arose when people quizzed me about how ACBOC worked. Many were perplexed when it came to the “mechanics” of the independent Catholic movement.
“Oh,” they’d say, “So it’s Catholic but it’s not really Catholic as in part of the Archdiocese or under the Pope?”
“No, our bishop is in upstate New York. We respect the Pope, but we’re not under him necessarily; we follow the Catholic tradition.”
“You follow the Catholic tradition but you are not 100 percent Catholic? I don’t understand.”
Others wanted to know if ACBOC was headquartered in a city cathedral and I’d tell them that the only cathedral was a large garage chapel in a New York country split level home. Things got worse when people wanted an explanation of what I meant when I said that our little Internet church had a valid apostolic succession. All too often I faced empty, incredulous stares.
Nonetheless, I was still a priest prepared for anything. In my house I had a ready stock of communion hosts that I purchased from a religious goods shop in South Philly. The unconsecrated hosts had IHS inscribed on them. At one point I even debated buying a cassock but, in the end, decided that I didn’t want to walk around the neighborhood in it; it would only cause more confusion.
“What do you mean you’re not a Catholic priest but a priest with Catholic, Anglican, Old Catholic and Russian roots? What does that mean?”
“It means,” I could have answered, “that my little church contains multitudes.”
One day, I was asked to attend a Mass at an Old Catholic Church in Lansdowne. This was a traditional church with a large congregation, mostly families. Some weeks later, when the parish priest was away, I said Sunday Mass for the entire congregation. Most of the Masses in the Lansdowne church were Catholic-Evangelical hybrids, a Catholic liturgy with Methodist music and an occasional female priest thrown in for good measure. The parish was up on the social, cultural and political issues of the day; it was politically correct to a fault. My first homily wasn’t bad, but I ended up wishing that I could have read a short story instead. I hated pointing fingers and preaching to people. I knew I had to find a new way to preach.
Meanwhile, my bishop was sending me disturbing news about the interpersonal wars going on among the hundreds of independent Internet Catholic churches. These churches were like jealous siblings or vengeful spouses intent on destroying the competition. The stories I heard were quite shocking, everything from the intentional spreading of malicious gossip, tarnishing the reputations of competing churches to full-on lawsuits. Our own church was even being sued by another independent church with a similar name. Under threat of a lawsuit, our church had to come up with another name; the bishop was hard at work trying to think of something that could work.
The small mindedness of all this shocked me and, in a single moment, I understood why I once considered myself agnostic; there were just too many Pharisees in the world of organized religion. It was astounding to me how a group of people purporting to believe in the message of Christ could act like the corrupt corporations in an Ayn Rand novel.
When the bishop emailed me the new name of our church, I had mixed feelings. Yes, the bishop was a good person. Yes, I liked and respected him; but the name he came up with sounded almost farcical. The Orthodox Church of the Near Isles just didn’t sound right and I couldn’t take it seriously.
I emailed the bishop, “Please, do not use this name. It makes me think of Hobbit stories by J.R.R. Tolkien or the hair washing scene in the movie South Pacific.” But my protests went unheard. The church website was changed and from then on everything went downhill. ABCOC is now a shadow of its former self.
Not long after this, strange things started to happen in the independent church world; there were schisms and breakaways every five minutes. A priest would have an argument with his bishop and then leave in a huff to join another church. Or bishops would make their best friends bishops, then outfit them in lavish pectoral crosses and red robes. It didn’t take me long to realize that I clearly had entered a lunatic asylum where the inmates were merely playing Church.
I wanted out. I had had enough. But along the way, really good things happened. I married three nice couples. One was near the creek at the Inn at Valley Green, another in a large Center City church with over 200 invited guests. After this, I folded up and put away my faux chasuble and joined an established Northern Liberties Russian Orthodox parish as a pew occupying parishioner. (Photo: My Tonsure as a Reader, Saint Michael the Archangel Church, Philadelphia, PA)