Saturday, 9 April 2011

The Meaning of Esoteric

So I have had my fingers burnt regarding my walking into the world of Independent Sacramental Ministry. This is the umbrella term, even though there are small Churches and they thus provide a 'discipline' of sorts for clergy members. They have come about because, in history, there was the 'escape' of Old Catholicism from Roman Catholicism and also because of bishops who have found themselves either free to act independently (or have had that effect) or have found themselves outside a given Church structure even if still related to one (even by opposition).

Some of these Churches are in effect intended copies of other existing Churches at one point in time, and indeed may provide means of producing 'continuing Churches' even where they are new in foundation rather than coming from a group of malcontents.

They allow for a very wide range of theological expression, so that what is hidden or suppressed or tolerated (after a fashion) within a 'mainstream' Church becomes explicit in an independent Church. So, for example, the apparent first ever pro-gay ministry came with the Eucharistic Catholic Church and its Christmas vigil in 1946 from George Augustine Hyde. He became a bishop in 1957 and ordained the gay activist Mikhail Itkin, who denounced Hyde as too conservative, and a priest associated with Hyde, Robert Clement, founded the Church of the Beloved Disciple in New York that became a model pro-gay Church (Plummer, J. P. (2005), The Many Paths of the Independent Sacramental Movement, Berkeley: Apocryphile Press, 108). Bishop John Plummer is pictured.

So many of these Churches are esoteric, and I take that to mean more 'magical' in respect of the powers of priests, following on from interpretations of Charles Webster Leadbeater. There is actually a more precise meaning, provided by John Plummer, in that whereas both the esoteric and mystical in Christianity are concerned with the direct knowledge of Christ within one's being, the mystic does this via a direct contact with the holy and divine, whereas the esotericist concerns all levels of ordinary consciousness and divine consciousness (Plummer, 2005, 96). So ordination brings forth these levels, and this is what is involved when the valid priest 'does work' with the sacraments. It is the emphasis on the spiritual and the consciousness that brings about the further connection with the Gnostic.

There is some controversy here with Anglo-Catholics and other Catholics, when you push them on the meaning of their apparent 'ontological difference' from the rest of us with their ordinations. Many shiver at notions of the magical, or of priestly power, preferring a precise definition of the supernatural over the magical. It always seems to me that the piece of paper dividing the two apparent powers is very thin. We know that many Protestants or Reformed are careful in their road towards Zwingli and memorial, so that they locate the power of the Eucharist in 'faith' - with some belief amongst Lutherans in parallel changes in the elements - but Catholics claim this ontological difference and valid Eucharistic and other sacramental work through valid apostolic ordinations.

The walk into the esoteric, then, faciliates some very broad liberal theologies of the Catholic. They are seen as pre-Nicene in reach, and faithful to the first hundreds of years of Christianity as well as afterwards (the 'orthodox' have to say, something like, "Well the pre-Nicene Christians 'would have been' orthodox," - but it is always an historical nonsense to impose backwards). Esoteric does challenge accusations of a material-spiritual divide, but it also suggests and locates stages of difference towards a cosmic Christ and many an orthodox Christian wants to affirm the material complete and in full on a kind of equalitarian basis.

But this resultant liberalism is Catholic-Esoteric in origin, and is not that which comes about due to the Reformation or even due to Enlightenment. I have to say that the sort of liberalism that interests me is the kind that was present in the left wing of the Reformation, and that flowered in the Enlightenment. Whilst a Catholic Anglican might be 'broad' in the sense of offering the 'gift' of the Eucharist to all and sundry on a wide view of incarnation, regardless of beliefs others partaking may show, and this is consistent with the Catholic-Esoteric, most Anglican and denominational liberalism is Reformed and Enlightenment in origin. None of us, indeed, can uninvent the sociology of knowledge under which we live.

From the Unitarian side, it is important to understand that at the first Puritans were very learned and well read, and that this was always going to be a driver of change once the Calvinist convictions started to slip. The road to Unitarianism and Universalism both went via Arminianism; and the original Socinianism, despised by Puritans, was not a million miles from the Puritan mindset. The Socinians were also, in a simpler sense of the word, literalists, if we take that as being pre-biblical criticism as seen later. Unitarian developments in central and eastern Europe, to be suppressed by Roman Catholicism, were, like in the Anglo-American non-credal version, entirely Protestant. Romanticism and Transcendentalism provided ways in towards more symbolic worship for Protestants that would have had Puritans spinning in their graves.

It is why I say that if a group like the Liberal Catholic Apostolic Church wants to claim a link with Translyvanian Unitarianism, it can only do so in admittance that it is in part Reformed itself. Even the Open Episcopal Church only claims to be Catholic, not Catholic and Reformed, and they are trying to be very 'usual' and 'ecumenical' and mainly liberal in outreach. Whilst there are Protestant groups within the ISM range, they are bound to be in the minority simply because of Apostolic succession issues and Eucharistic claims favouring the Catholic.

Personally, my liberalism leads me back to the small but not yet tiny Unitarian grouping, with a clear history over a long period, that is very low Church but has had some encounters with Romanticism/ Transcendentalism and as such felt the winds of the Anglican-led Oxford Movement. I like to sniff out the basis of people's liberalism, among those who express their liberality, especially trained clergy. I've developed a nose for different kinds of liberality.

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