In September this year  there was a mild flurry of interest in the international media when Sister. Frances Meigh, a 67 year old mother of three who was recognised as a hermit by the Roman Catholic Church in Middlesborough, was ordained a priest by Bishop Pat Buckley in Co. Louth, Ireland so becoming the first ‘woman priest’ In Ireland.
The ordination was not, of course, recognised by the Church as Pat Buckley is a renegade cleric who has been in dispute with the Roman Catholic hierarchy for a decade. Though it admits he was properly ordained as a priest, the Church does not recognise his consecration as bishop, on the grounds that he was raised to the episcopate by another ‘rebel’ bishop, and considers Buckley to be outside the communion of the Church.
Pat Buckley is now head of the Society of Saint Andrew, based in a former Anglican church in Omeath, Co Louth. A Catholic spokesman from the Middlesborough diocese expressed concern that the erstwhile anchorite was “taking an enormous step into the unknown with a strange organisation”, but Mother Frances (as she is now known) will apparently be followed by the ‘first married priest’ in Ireland in short order – Bishop Buckley is intent, it would seem, on creating a liberal alternative to the established Roman Catholic Church in Ireland.
That he feels he is able to do so is due to the theory of episcopacy historically endorsed by the Western Church (generally meaning Catholic, but the Anglican church subscribes to the same tradition), which in the last century or so has led to a curious legacy of sects led by so-called episcopi vagantes – `wandering bishops’, or ‘bishops irregular’ as they are sometimes called.
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (1958 edition, edited by F L Cross) gives a succinct definition of episcopi vagantes: “The name given to persons who have been consecrated bishop in an irregular or clandestine manner or who, having been regularly consecrated, have been excommunicated by the Church that consecrated them and are in communion with no recognised see. A man is also included in this group when the number in communion with him is so small that his sect appears to exist solely for his own sake.”
The concept of `validity’ is all-important to the self-legitimisation of these sects. Following St Augustine, Western theologians have held that due to the sacramental nature of ordination or consecration, a bishop once made cannot be unmade. Thus though branded a heretic and excommunicated, or otherwise cut off from the authority of a Church, a bishop does not lose the
‘powers’ of his episcopacy, one of which is the consecration of other bishops, another being the ordination of priests. Any such orders dispensed by the bishop are held to be `valid’ but unlawful, or irregular and therefore not recognised by the Church in question.
What is the point of such a distinction? It is hard to see, but one practical result of the theology is that an Orthodox priest converting to Catholicism would not have to be re-ordained – his ordination at the hands of Orthodox bishops would be held to be valid though unlawful (dispensed as it was by a body in schism with the Vatican) but submission to the Roman Catholic authorities would ‘regularise’ his status in the eyes of that Church. So a somewhat dubious notion of authenticity clings to clerics created by ‘rebel’ bishops who have strayed outside the established systems of the Church, and in time a schismatic bishop could create a whole succession of bishops, all ‘validly’ ordained and all holding themselves the power of `valid’ ordination despite the fact that no established Church would recognise them.
Bishop Pat Buckley is one such, and while Catholic commentators as doctrinaire as Mary Kenny admit that while ‘misguided’, he is essentially a ‘good’ man, other bishops irregular have been involved in fraud, fascism and organised paedophilia. While not wishing to list occultism alongside the latter vices, it also must be noted that many of the bishops irregular are conspicuous, as supposedly Christian clergy, for their interest in Theosophy, Gnosticism and various associated belief systems.
In February 1997 the News of the World, under the headline “MOST EVIL CHURCH ON EARTH”, exposed a body called the Old Catholic Church as a “sham religious order” after an investigation revealed that several of his its clerics, were involved in paedophilia and child pornography.
The group’s titular leader, Monsignor Frederick Linale, was already serving a ten-year sentence for child sex offences. At the time a certain Father Stephen (not his real name) was running an ‘Old Catholic Mission’ in Rochester, Kent. The mission was actually a private house, and his secretary was screening telephone calls to see why people wanted to speak to the priest. “It’s just that since all this business in the papers, Father Stephen has had lots of people ringing him up to ask if we’re the same Old Catholic Church, so he’s put together a whole load of information proving we’ve got nothing to do with those people.” However, both Father Stephen’s group and Linale’s group shared a common heritage, both tracing their succession from the original Old Roman Catholic Church of Great Britain, which is one of the major roots for ‘bishops irregular’ in this country.
The Old Catholic Church in Holland is seen as a perfectly legitimate institution, to the extent that it is recognised as a sister Church by the Anglican communion, including the Church of England. It has its own church buildings and a large number of adherents, being created in the late seventeenth century when a significant proportion of Dutch Catholic clergy, including many bishops, fell out with the Pope and were excommunicated. Their numbers were added to in the late nineteenth century when another generation of Dutch Catholics found the assertion of ‘papal infallibility’ as doctrine too much to stomach.
In 1908 the Dutch Old Catholic bishops ordained an ex-Roman Catholic priest called A H Mathew as the first Old Roman Catholic bishop of Great Britain, believing that there was a significant number of Catholics in England who would be happy to follow their lead in keeping their basic beliefs and ritual but dispensing with the Pope. In this, the Dutch bishops had been deceived. They were also unaware that Mathew was married, which would have invalidated the consecration in their eyes.
Mathew returned to England to find that there was little support for his movement and in time he became disillusioned.
After first splitting from his Dutch superiors, he repudiated his Old Catholic movement and returned to the Roman Catholic Church as a layman in 1915. One of the reasons Mathew tried to disband his movement was that he had discovered that most of its members were involved in the contemporary craze for occultism – specifically, they were Theosophists. But the die had already been cast – Mathew had ordained, on his authority as a bishop, several other priests and a bishop who were not willing to give up their perceived status. What happened next is characteristic of many of the subsequent movements of bishops irregular in their stretching of the concept of “valid succession”.
Proceeding in a rather ad hoc fashion, Mathew’s remaining priests elected two of their number as bishops and had them consecrated by F S Willoughby, who Mathew had created ‘Bishop of St Pancras’ before deposing him for his occult connections. Theosophy at the time was fashionable even among the clergy of the well-established Churches in England. In 1911, Theosophical luminary Annie Besant wrote: “Theosophy is spreading much among the clergy of the English Church and the ministers of the Nonconformist communities. Not only have we members of the Theosophical Society among the clergy, but there is an increasing number who welcome sermons on Theosophical teachings, and many more who themselves teach a mysticism indistinguishable from Theosophy.”
The Old Catholic movement was seen by many occultists as a back door into an old established mystical tradition – Christianity – which they hoped to influence gradually into convergence with their own ‘flowering of divine consciousness’, for the greater good of the whole world. Jesus was, for them, one of a succession of mystical masters who are incarnated on earth to raise humanity towards the highest possible spiritual state. In denying the uniqueness of Jesus, such a worldview differs radically from Christianity.
By 1918 the Old Roman Catholic Church in Britain was almost completely Theosophical. Its ‘presiding bishop’, or leader, was James Ingall Wedgwood, by all accounts a remarkable personality. He changed the name of the movement to the Liberal Catholic Church and his energy and enthusiasm ensured that it spread throughout the world, counting several thousand among its membership even today. Liberal Catholic clergy do not wear black – it is considered a negative colour and much of their ritual centres around the magical properties of colours and substances.
A keen exponent of such ideas was Bishop Charles Leadbeater, Wedgwood’s successor as presiding bishop, whose book The Science of the Sacraments sees the Christian sacraments as a form of ‘high magic’. There is no doubt that Leadbeater was considered a clairvoyant of unusual power and likewise there is no doubt that he had been suspended from the Theosophical Society in 1906 for sexual perversion involving young boys. One written source maintains: “The ‘high spot’ of Leadbeater’s teaching to young men was reached during collective masturbation, whereby at the point of climax, all were exhorted to raise their thoughts to the highest planes.”
The confusion continues over such liberal use of the word ‘Catholic’ today. A television documentary screened in May last year featured Pamela Crane, ordained minister of the Liberal Catholic Church and wearing a dog-collar, as an expert on ‘Christian astrology’. The programme sought to show that some Christian clergy were sympathetic to divination of this sort, but failed to make clear that the Liberal Catholic Church could not really be called `Christian’ and that the ‘TS’ after it, as spelt out on her doormat, stood for ‘Theosophical Society’.
Father Stephen in present-day Rochester claimed his ‘valid’ ordination through succession from a body descended from the Old Roman Catholic Church of Great Britain who were not Theosophists and therefore did not stay with the Liberal Catholic Church in 1918. Again, they elected their own leader and claimed a valid succession from the Dutch Old Catholics through Mathew, even though both the latter refused to recognise the existence of such a succession. Though not a member, Stephen was sure that the Liberal Catholic Church did not go in for collective masturbation anymore, if they ever did.
“They’re very New Age,” he said “they channel energies and things … I have no problem with some of the claims they make, but you’ll find there’s a lot of prejudice against them.” Indeed, Father Stephen knew Gerard Crane, husband of Pamela and a Liberal Catholic bishop. “I’ve got a mitre of his downstairs,” he said – the world of bishops irregular is a small one. Too small, in fact, for Father Stephen, who was leaving the Old Catholics because he was “fed up of all the scandal”.
In the 1970s Frederick Linale, of “MOST EVIL CHURCH ON EARTH” fame, was a bishop in the church but was stripped of office when he was found to be a child abuser. However, Linale just ignored the injunction and carried on as a bishop with his own group, still using the Old Catholic name. Father Stephen wanted to move on, taking his ‘flock’ – under twenty people – with him to join another body untainted by the sordid history of Linale and his ilk.
The problem was where to go, organisationally speaking. He mentioned several bodies, all of them descended from questionable sources, as possible sponsors for his ministry. None were in Britain, but this doesn’t matter as bishops irregular often exercise their pastoral responsibility by post. The important thing for such ‘irregular’ clergy is to be recognised by a bishop, often any bishop.
Stephen explained: ‘When you make contact with these people, you really don’t know anything about each other… A chap calling himself ‘Bishop Austin of London’ got in touch with me about forming a new Catholic body and this looked quite promising until a friend of mine told me that Bishop Austin was really Roger Gleaves using another name.” Robert Gleaves is another of Linale’s associates, with a long history of child abuse and several prison terms to his name – another Old Catholic ‘bishop’.
However, it would be quite wrong to tar all ‘bishops irregular’ and even all Old Catholics with the same brush. Linale and his associates would seem to be an extreme example of what can go on in these groups who to all intents and purposes appear to be “regular” clergy but in fact are accountable to no-one but themselves.
This view is endorsed by Alan Bain, who in 1985 self-published the most recent work on episcopi vagantes, Bishops Irregular. This was a directory of all the ‘independent’ bishops in the world that Bain could trace at the time, and a historical record of those that had passed away as well. Bain, now 65 and retired, had been ordained a deacon in the Reformed Catholic Church in 1977, and was consecrated a bishop in the Independent Catholic Church in 1982.
In 1985 he estimated there to be some 1,000 episcopi vagantes scattered around the world – no-one knows how many there are now. In 1989 he dropped his interest in bishops irregular, putting aside his mitre and episcopal functions in favour of an interest in Theosophy. He writes: “Were I writing the introduction to the 1985 edition of Bishops Irregular, it would be very different, not least because I can no longer support the idea of an all-male deity, nor of a divine trinity, confident in the assertion that ‘God is One’ without division or He describes the Old Catholic Church (of Linale, Gleaves, et al) and its organised paedophilia as ‘an exception’.
Most wandering bishops would seem rather to be as Henry T Brandreth described them in his 1961 edition of Episcopi Vagantes and the Anglican Church, a survey he conducted (originally in 1947) to assist his fellow Anglican clergy in establishing the status of any interlopers they might come across claiming to have succession from various Catholic, Orthodox or Anglican communions:
“…some are honest and believe they that they have a genuine vocation to guide, in isolation from the rest of Christendom, the small handful of people which acknowledges their claims; some others are clearly not honest and use their supposed episcopal status as a means of personal enrichment at the expense of any who are so misguided as to support them; others again are mentally unbalanced and suffer from a folie de grandeur.”
The latter would perhaps seem to be the case with the most famous bishop irregular of recent history. Hugh George de Willmott Newman, now deceased, was born in 1905 in Forest Gate, East London. He became interested in the Old Catholic movement in the 1920s. From his first extremely questionable consecration as a bishop in 1944 he sought to unify in his own person as many lines of succession as he could. He gained consecration after consecration from all manner of alleged bishops, and consecrated them in turn into his own church, the Catholicate of the West.
There are numerous photographs of Mar Georgius, his principal but by no means only title (other included Patriarch of Glastonbury, Apostolic Pontiff of Celtica, Prince-Catholicos of the West, Exarch of the Order of Antioch for Britain, Ruling Prelate of the Order of Corporate Reunion, etc, etc, ad nauseum), in full regalia, but despite a few faithful followers, his umpteen bishoprics and dominions seemed to exist only on paper. He also set up a university which granted worthless degrees for a small fee. All this while working as the General Manager and Secretary for the National Association of Cycle Traders.
One of the groups subsumed into the Catholicate of the West was the Free Catholic Church, worth noting for the history of its founder, Victor Alexander Hayman. Hayman was already an Anglican clergyman in Leyton, East London, when he was consecrated as ‘Bishop of Waltham for the Free Catholic Church’ in 1930 by another irregular bishop who enjoyed creating new churches.
Apparently, after giving up his Church of England living, Hayman became chaplain to the British Union of Fascists and was subsequently interned on the Isle of Man during the Second World War because of his fascist connections. This information is found (originally, as far as I can tell) in Peter Anson’s Bishops at Large (1964) – however, research at the Public Record Office turns up no mention of Hayman being interned with the other BUF members, and correspondence with a former BUF member and intimate of Oswald Mosley would seem to indicate that the BUF had no `chaplain’ whatsoever.
What is beyond doubt is that in 1949 Hayman was jailed for two years for fraud – the Daily Mail reported: “The prosecution stated that Hayman, wearing a clerical collar, obtained money for advertisements for the Free Catholic magazine, of which he was the general editor, when he well knew he was in no position to produce the magazine.” At the trial it was revealed that he had been living for some time on the proceeds of such frauds and that his bishop’s ‘palace’ was a basement room at a house in Highbury, North London. He was prosecuted again for a similar offence some years later and died in prison in 1960.
The particular succession of irregular consecrations which included both Hayman and De Willmott Newman, and which would become particularly significant in terms of Mar Georgius’ eventual transmogrification of his movement into an `Eastern Orthodox’ body, originated with Jules de Ferrete, an ex-Dominican priest who arrived in London in 1866 claiming to have been consecrated, for the purpose of a mission in the West, as ‘Bishop of Iona’ by the Bishop Bedros of Emesa, of the Syrian Antiochene Church (one of the ancient Churches of the Middle East). He was carrying a translation of the ‘instrument of consecration’ to prove his claims, but despite his assertions that two experts from the British Museum had translated it from the original Syriac document, he was never able to produce the original or the two experts to defend himself from the charges of fraud that followed him around the capital.
In 1943 De Willmott Newman was merely ‘Abbot Hugh’ of the Old Catholic Orthodox Church of Europe when he attended a meeting in London of several bbishops irregular’ and their followers. The same raggle-taggle reconstituted themselves soon after as the ‘Catholicate of the West’, and in this body De Willmott Newman was raised to the status of Mar Georgius, ‘Patriarch of Glastonbury’. Later he became the body’s leader. The basis of his authority was described by him in 1955:
“This Rite is not autogenic, but is… the direct spiritual heir of the Ancient Celtic Church, established at Glastonbury in AD 37, immediately after the Passion of Christ, by St Joseph of Arimathea, and afterwards extended into the Celtic and other lands of Western Christendom, and restored in 1866 upon the authority of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch…”
This statement came seventeen years after the categorical denial of any such restoration by the Syrian Antiochene Patriarch himself. Writing in the 1960s, Anson noted:
“So far the Catholicate of the West has neither been offered membership of the World Council of Churches, nor has the Prince-Catholicos ever applied for it. The Glastonbury Patriarchate still awaits recognition by its fellow Patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem and Moscow … If the truth must be told, the Catholicate of the West has never been much more than an unsubstantial pageant, a fascinating castle in the air … conjured up by the versatile patriarchal Secretary and Registrar of the Incorporated Cycle Traders and Repairers. Mar Georgius is the magician to whom the credit must be given for having kept it alive on paper for the last nineteen years.”
Until relatively recently, the ‘church’ of De Willmott Newman was known, after more name changes, as the Orthodox Church of the British Isles. It now has around 250 members, one bishop, seven priests and two deacons. At its head is William Newman Norton, 50 years old and the nephew of De Willmott Newman, whose ecclesiastical title is ‘Abba Seraphim’. Father Sergius has been a priest in the church for 31 years, having been ordained by Mar Georgius himself. The faithful in Sergius’ parish in South London borrow a nearby Anglican church once a week to hold a service for around seven people. Sergius, who sports the heavy beard and black robes of an Orthodox priest, admits his church has a chequered history: “We were one of the Free Catholic Churches, but head and shoulders above the rest, or we would never have been accepted into the Coptic Orthodox Church.”
This last remark is particularly significant – notwithstanding Anson’s assessment some 35 years previously, the British Orthodox Church has achieved the Holy Grail of irregular episcopacy, recognition by one of the ancient Patriarchates. In this case not Antioch, which supposedly was the origin of the British Orthodox Church in the first place, but Alexandria, seat of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate. However this is a trifling detail compared with the advantages of being incorporated with a bona fide Orthodox Church. The British Orthodox Church is now recognised as a ‘real’ Church by a historical and legitimate Eastern Orthodox Church – this is, finally and some years after his own death, the realisation of De Willmott Newman’s ‘dream’.
The Orthodox Church of the British Isles became a Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate in 1994. I shall let Abba Seraphim’s own publicity tell the story:
“In the 1990′s the British Orthodox Church was a scattered fellowship of congregations under the care of Mar Seraphim and Mar Ignatius. An increasing number of people from a very wide range of backgrounds were making contact, finding in the British Orthodox Church the fulfilment of their aspirations towards a Traditional, Orthodox and British Faith. Mar Seraphim was invited to visit His Holiness Pope Shenouda III in Cairo at this time, and a very warm sense of fellowship was immediately present between them. In a series of discussions over some months it became clear that God was leading the British Orthodox Church and the ancient Coptic Orthodox Church to enter into a union. The British Orthodox Church began to use the Liturgy of St James, perhaps the most ancient of Liturgies, and to prepare for union with the Coptic Church. It seemed to all who awaited this event that God’s hand was upon the Church and that he was about to do something wonderful for Orthodoxy in Britain. At Pentecost 1994, in Cairo, Mar Seraphim was made a Metropolitan of the Coptic Orthodox Church and the British Orthodox Church became an indivisible part of the Coptic Orthodox Church. History had come full circle and the missionary church had been re-united with its Middle Eastern roots.”
Elsewhere in the official potted history of the British Orthodox Church is the tale of its origins in Jules de Ferrete’s mission to England, without mention of the Syrian rebuttal of any such mission in 1938, nor a similar one issued in 1958.
Abba Seraphim and all his followers were accepted into Coptic Orthodox Church “on the basis that there was no significant difference in doctrine”, according to Father Sergius. Could the Egyptians also have been swayed by the alleged Coptic Orthodox line of succession Mar Georgius added to his person in 1951? This was received from Denis Quartey Arthur, an Afro-Caribbean cleric who called himself ‘Mar Lukos’ and claimed to represent a Coptic Orthodox Patriarchy when he arrived in Chelsea. When Mar Georgius heard about him, he was sceptical of his claim but on seeing a document of consecration with episcopal seals which he felt could not have been forged by a ‘Harlem negro’, he changed his tune and received consecration from Mar Lukos.
In fact Mar Lukos himself had been consecrated into the Coptic Orthodox line of succession by `Bishop St-John-the-Divine’ Hickerson, who ran the Church of the Living God in New York. Believing he himself was God, Hickerson ran into trouble when some of his followers, the ‘Temples of God’, ran amok and stabbed some of the ungodly. For whatever reason, the Coptic Orthodox accepted the British Orthodox Church without examining their clergy or their history too closely. While for many years Father Sergius could be accused of being an imposter when walking the streets dressed as an Orthodox priest, now he is completely justified. Indeed, Abba Seraphim himself was recently quoted as an authoritative Orthodox spokesman in an article in the Guardian (12 October 1998) about the increasing number of converts in England to the Orthodox faith.
Alan Bain is dismissive of this development in the history of bishops irregular, the first time in this country that any group has succeeded in their mission of being recognised as a ‘true’ Church, by other Churches, the media and the public: “I would say that it makes the Coptic Orthodox Church appear foolish.” But somewhere, perhaps, Mar Georgius, Patriarch of Glastonbury, is having the last laugh.