Monday, 28 January 2008

Founders of Free Catholicism

Around the UK there are a patchwork of free and liberal religious groups. Some are simply discussion groups, and some practice forms of religion. Some that practice as well as discuss are in minor denominations, some even in the odd congregation in the mainline Churches, a number come under are pressure groups that agitate for change, and there is the Independent Sacramental Movement, scattered and relatively unnoticed (but noticed more nowadays thanks to the Internet) . Somehow in these days of larger denominations being attacked by a virus of literalism and rules, these various groups exist, and grow, if sometimes in relative isolation.

They somehow need bringing more into contact with each other. We know that, having different bases of activity, the groups do stay largely separated. I gave a talk about this and developed some thoughts afterwards. Nevertheless I detect a need to bring groups more into contact and allow overlaps to be creative.

We are talking largely but not exclusively about Christianity, but a broadest possible definition of Christianity and faith that takes account of contemporary thought and tools of thought. We need some principles, perhaps, and even some parental figures for understanding the patchwork.

I suggest two main founding characters: Ulric Vernon Herford and Joseph Morgan Lloyd Thomas. The principle is set out by J. M. Lloyd Thomas here, in 1907:

[Religion] as elusive as the beauty of a picture, the emotion of music, the breath of poetry.

He argued that religion must be widely catholic, not even limited to Christianity, but dogma will make it wither. He wanted to emphasise common worship over agreement in belief, with:

...symbols that devotionally unite, not creeds that theologically separate.

The Church would be democratic:

...and seek to minister like the son of man and not be ministered unto.

I think this is a manifesto as good as it can get. Ulric Vernon Herford around the same time was thinking on similar but even grander lines. He argued the case in front of Unitarians that he had been developing a Church for all for the future, embracing all spiritual needs, with:

...sacraments of grace for the heart and will, and sermons for the intellect.

He, unlike Lloyd Thomas, crossed over into the Catholic side proper, becoming a bishop of the Syro-Chaldean Church (sometimes called Nestorian) and developing a progressive ministry in Oxford and beyond in a larger ecumenical effort, and yet adding to the patchwork of small and progressive service-ministry identities. He was inclined to monasticism too, making connections with Benedictines among others. Although Lloyd-Thomas announced in the late 1920s that he was a trinitarian, it is thought that Herford never changed the basis of his Free Christian and Unitarian theology.

Religious thought can be free, and so can religious worship - yet richly symbolic - even if up front, close and personal. It should be possible. In a world of disenchantment, it is possible to re-enchant whilst keeping our brains in the world in which we do actually live. I am sure that the Internet can bring many groups closer together; though for worship nothing replaces the local or regional gathering.

My website has added a renewed focus on these two, as well as having made some updated changes to the large resource document about Free and Liberal Independent Catholicism.

Recently a priest, formally of the Church of England, the Rev. Chris Horseman, had to earn his living through his funeral services and he developed practices and beliefs towards Paganism and humanism. Someone like him does not have to be alone. There are a number of bishops, priests and ministers already independent and form a friendly network of Liberal and Free Catholics and other variations - like Celts and Pagans and Buddhists and Universalists. Such people think freely and worship richly, and bringing these more together would be to provide a ministry to the free thinkers who retain a strong sense of contemplation and worship.

1 comment:

Erika Baker said...

The core of the Christian faith is tightly defined by the core doctrines and their expression in liturgy and worship. Everyone who is mainstream Christian is likely to feel at home in a traditional Christian environment, unless it is too tightly defined.

But personal development away from there toward a progressive view can take place in all possible directions from this centre circle. And the more the individual develops away from the core, the further he or she potentially also travels from the other break-aways.

This alone will make it very hard for the many many "liberal" groups to form closer links.

Another factor may be psychological - once I have broken free of the tight definitions the church imposes on me, and this struggle is usually quite a tough personal development and not merely a casual stroll away, I am more likely to be very reluctant to affiliate myself again with another group, however loosely defined it may be. Especially as the group grows, there is a danger that I'm simply exchanging one set of third-party defined parameters for another. A small group can thrive if it’s flexible and dynamic enough, but I fear that any bigger alliances will eventually end up imposing their own structures yet again.

It’s probably easier to organise an effective counter pressure group to Anglican fundamentalists than it is to “soak up” all the liberals who are slowly drifting out of the church and losing much or all of their emotional links with it.