Starting this Lent, I’m committing myself [stickK] to start attending Old Catholic mass. Now, you might wonder what this “Old Catholic” is about; it’s a long story, so let’s talk about anti-charities first.
I first heard about it from Scott Aaronsson, made an experimental short-term commitment to exercise regularly, and proceeded to forget about the site afterwards. Until Radiolab’s episode on cutting deals with yourself, which discusses drastic measures people take to force themselves to stop smoking, finish a long-overdue book, etc. Then started a frantic effort to jog my memory to find the commitment site I used before — I could have saved the trouble by just checking the comment thread for that podcast, but where’s the fun in that? — which has the side-effect of rediscovering Scott’s blog, since I used to read it before “The Great Google Reader / Feedly Unification”, and it mysteriously disappeared during the transition. A friend of mine is getting interested in quantum computation, and Scott being a quantum complexity theorist, it’s a timely rediscovery.
Unlike the featured Radiolab personalities, who cut deals with themselves, with stickK you basically have an escrow — nominate who gets your money if you fail (a charity you like, a charity you dislike — i.e. anti-charity, a friend, etc.), how many instalments, and how much money is at stake at each. You can nominate a referee (but can’t change it without appealing to the site admins), presumably when you’re still full of optimism at the beginning and thus won’t think twice about nominate someone who won’t be swayed to cover for you; if either you or the nominee reported failure, or if you failed to report, the money for that particular instalment gets sent. Like Scott, I thank Dubya for so far being successfully committed!
And now, to the Old Catholics, or more properly, its main body, Utrecht Union of Old Catholic Churches. They might be unfamiliar to English speakers — mostly limited to the Netherlands, Germany and some neighboring countries (Switzerland, Austria, Czech and Poland). The smaller groups adopting the Old Catholic name in the UK and US seem to be as quixotic as the various Anglican splinter groups in the US! Which is quite a good comparison, because the Old Catholics are, in a sense, quite similar to Anglicans, at least as found in the US/UK/Canada — relatively non-doctrinaire in theology, liturgically traditional, and socially progressive (e.g. ordination of women, married clergy, tolerance of homosexuality, contraception and remarriage left up to the individuals).
They split off from the Roman Catholics at a later stage than the Anglicans, not during the Reformation but starting with the Counter Reformation; the autonomous Bishopric See of Utrecht in the Netherlands having been considered extinct by Rome, after Calvinist suppression, the grants of autonomy are not considered binding anymore. Some of the surviving Catholics beg to differ, though the majority acquiesced to this loss. The centralizing trend, partly in response to the rise of secular states, continues, culminating in the First Vatican Council promulgating the doctrine of Papal Infallibility — the Pope being inerrant when speaking ex cathedra on matters of church doctrine. That triggered the establishment of Old Catholicism in Germany — interestingly, it began with a public meeting in Nuremberg, where I now live (the local congregation is small but quite welcoming).
Old Catholics are considered by the Vatican to have valid orders and sacraments — unlike the Anglican Communion, which is considered by Rome (but not by Anglicans themselves) not to have valid orders due to an alleged break in apostolic succession due to the overly-purged language used in consecrating bishops in its early days, though that has since been rectified. I thus expected a more Catholic liturgy than is typical in Anglican and Episcopal churches — more kneeling, for example. To my surprise (though not an unpleasant one), there was no kneeling — the small chapel didn’t have kneelers — and the wine was white, like used by Lutherans. Though unlike modern-day German Lutheranism, and more like was the case in Luther’s own time, they do celebrate the Holy Eucharist on a regular basis (i.e. at least weekly); it is ironic that, while in the past it is Roman Catholics who do not regularly provide the Eucharist for the laity, these days it’s the sacramental churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Old Catholic and High Lutherans) who practice this regularly, and the Reformed churches that do not.
(part of the reason I started attending is precisely this — as a lay associate in the Order of Julian of Norwich, I am obligated to seek weekly communion if possible. The Old Catholics are full communion partners with the Anglicans, while the Roman Catholics are not; and Lutheran churches, while easier to find, do not celebrate the Eucharist often enough. It’s quite a blessing as it drives me to be more ecumenical!)
While at mass this morning, I meditated on what it means, in this age, to have a spiritual practice rooted in Christianity. The ease of communication that modern technology affords us seems poised in balance with the decline in interest in traditional denominations. Even in the US, the growth among Catholics is attributable to recent immigrants, and among the Protestants, even the Southern Baptists are no longer growing strongly. Leaving the vacuum worryingly filled by televangelists preaching the “Prosperity Gospel”, and socially reactionary folks who home-school their kids in fear of the secular public education system.
It seems to me that we need to recover an authentic spiritual practice that is not rooted in dogmatism, like the belief in Biblical inerrancy of the evangelical right. A practice that is not overly concerned with administrativia (budget this, meeting that) but that allows space for contemplation, and engagement in the sacramental transformation of our society — to quote John Richard Orens, on sacramental socialist pioneer Stewart Headlam:
From these principles, Headlam fashioned a theology at once social and sacramental. Like more traditional Anglo-Catholics, Headlam championed the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Every child brought to the font, he insisted, is there proclaimed a child of God and an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven. But, he continued, this was more than a promise of otherworldly reward. It is the foundation of a just society. “The Catholic Churchman,” wrote Headlam, “is bound by his doctrine of Baptismal Regeneration, by his practice of Infant Baptism, to be inclusive, democratic.” Indeed, “an old-fashioned clergyman, whatever his politics . . . , was by the mere fact of baptizing the labourer’s little baby, bearing witness to the truths of equality in a more far-reaching way than any French Revolution did.”16 And, Headlam argued, it is these same revolutionary truths that are set forth in the holy eucharist.
— To Thaxted and Back: The Fate of Sacramental Socialism, The Anglican Catholic vol. XVII, summer 2005, pp. 3-19
And perhaps a new monasticism is part of the solution: anchored in a locality, where members regular set an example by adhering to stricter rules than lay members are bound by; the lay members living in the world and witnessing by their charitable work there. This model seems to me more scale-free than traditional church-planting, at least in secular post-Christian societies. Paraphrasing Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, perhaps sometimes we need a different kind of seed for a different kind of terrain!
I view my association with OJN as part of this goal; likewise, my membership in the UUA’s Church of the Larger Fellowship. And I’m experimenting with creating a society for contemplative tech-heads — the Order of Reflective Analytics, borrowing its name from a Cory Doctorow short story, The Things that Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away. Unlike the ORA in the story, though, hopefully we won’t be recluses, nor tools of the authorities, but rather thoughtful participants in the free culture, privacy advocacy, and open source software movements, contributing to the public commons. If you are interested, do contact me at michel «AT» reflective-analytics.org! (the website is not ready yet ATM).