Fr Jonathan Munn has written an article / sermon on How to recognise a bishop.
I have written a number of articles on independent bishops and their churches.
This is not an area where we can be too judgemental, because we get what we give. We call someone a false bishop, and someone will qualify our own bishops with the same adjective – because the person is a Roman Catholic, Church of England or Orthodox. So we go round in the same circles. We can certainly find the stereotypes of episcopi vagantes in men like the one who is styled (or self-styled) Cardinal Rutherford Johnson. There are many bishops of small communities, and there are some who appear to be making a complete mockery of it or are suffering from some kind of narcissistic personality disorder. Like Cardinal Rutherford, there is one in England who has deliberately pretended to be a Roman Catholic bishop, and has accordingly been exposed as a fraud.
Rather than judge others, I will describe my own personal experience, which will not come as a surprise to most of my readers, since I have been “outed” (with less than accurate information).
After my ordination in 1998 by Bishop Raymond Terrasson (consecrated at Palmar de Troya in 1976) some brother priests and I found that Bishop Terrasson was less than honest with things like money. We got involved with a bishop who proved even worse, one Jean-Gérard Roux. Roux was outed by a man in the south of France called Dominique Devie, who ran a website on this and other unsavoury characters. Roux took me to court in 1999 accusing me of libel for the website in question. The website in question was taken down years ago. My lawyer argued for a statute of limitations, which avoided all the rigmarole of talking about histoires de curé with a secular court. Roux lost in the civil court and appealed, and also lost the appeal. The article linked to above was based on the information given by the site in question, and is also covered by the statute of limitations for internet sites as defined by French law. I have no control over any part of Terence Boyle’s website. I link to this page with these reserves.
Another priest and I were lodged at the time in a large town house in Montmorillon, and the way Roux emotionally abused the owner (a widow) caused her to suffer from a stroke and die in hospital. Roux disappeared, and moved from his lodgings in Chaillac (Indre) to a community of religious ladies to the east of Paris, more profitable and with juicy pickings. A number of lay faithful and an elderly priest took over the situation with me in Montmorillon and contacted the family of the deceased. It was quite complicated, but it all worked out. With help from my own family, I bought a house in Montmorillon where we were two priests and five or six faithful. We belonged to no institutional Church and we were aware of that.
St Ignatius of Antioch said Ubi Episcopus, ibi Ecclesia – where the Bishop is, there is the Church. We had either to find a Church to join where our priesthood would be like the strings of the harp played by the Bishop, the one pastor of his flock – or give up the priesthood and revert to the lay state. Small as my community was, it was real. The community and the elderly priest encouraged me to seek and accept the Episcopate. We would have the essential basic elements of a Church in awaiting union with some more “canonical” Church. I was consecrated on 25th March 2000 in Gent in Belgium by Bishop Luc Strijmeersch who seemed to share the same traditionalist Catholic outlook as I did at the time.
As I became disillusioned with sedevacantism, I began to explore the world of Old Catholicism, hoping that something orthodox had remained of the old Dutch Church. It was not an avenue to follow. As people died in Montmorillon or returned to more mainstream traditionalist communities, I moved to the Vendée and bought a house to live in the deep countryside. I was frequently contacted by men wanting to be ordained and consecrated, sometimes by people in Africa thinking I could provide them with money and the conditions required in France for them to get an immigration visa. There was a Scotsman living in England who seemed to be sincere. I ordained him and immediately he was gone in a puff of smoke.
In 2002, I was contacted by the Order of St John, an organisation claiming legitimacy from the Russian Prince Troubetskoy and led by Dr John Grady in his vast property near Benton, Tennessee. My flight was paid by the Order and I was accommodated in a lovely modern house in the grounds.
I was dubbed by Dr Grady and made Prelate of the Order. I was not really interested in titles and honours, but rather in ministering to a community of people who have been badly served by fanatical or eccentric priests who had come and gone. Perhaps I would build up a small commandery in France. I took a lot of stick from American traditionalists who were concerned that this order should be condemned as bogus. The Order still exists in a reduced form under new leadership, but Dr Grady gave his property to the Diocese of Knoxsville as a retreat centre and has since died. It is not for me to judge the OSJ, but something happened that shook me to the bone.
Dr Grady presented an elderly man for ordination, who seemed to be the hope of the priory at Benton. In the summer of 2003, I collated his file of papers with due care and asked for a background check, which came up clean. However, after his ordination, it turned out that he was credibly accused of impropriety with young boys, though he had no criminal record. How that ended up, I have no idea.
Dr Grady wanted to get the OSJ regularised by Rome. It was just not realistic, because irregular clergy are not regularised by Rome. Rome would not recognise an Order of St John alongside the Order of Malta. The project of getting in with an Indian diocesan bishop came to nothing. The numbers were too insignificant for that to happen. In late 2003, I resigned, for I was living in France and the OSJ was of interest only to Americans. It was a harrowing experience for a simple priest in episcopal orders who was available to be of help at a pastoral level. I also had the ordination of a priest who was under a very dark shadow on my conscience, even though I took the proper precautions (background check from the American authorities).
I spent two years reflecting on things, the very meaning of my vocation, still harassed by fanatics and those seeking easy ordinations. This was a world of lost and wandering souls, just as I was wandering (I was living in a fixed place, but I was Bishop of Nothing). I ordained a third priest in 2004, a young man from Lyon who had done a course of theology and had done some seminary. He remained in contact with me, and eventually joined the Greek Old Calendar Orthodox. Who was I to stop him? He was reordained, and I have no idea whether he is still with the Orthodox. In late 2004 I decided to cease any episcopal act or even to use the style or dress of a bishop. I reverted to being a simple priest and contemplated the future. And if I returned to Anglicanism in a continuing Church?
I began to contact the TAC in early 2005, mainly through Father Graeme Mitchell in Australia. We had had discussions about the liturgy by e-mail, and since I was living in no TAC diocese, it would be appropriate to apply to the Patrimony of the Primate, then under Archbishop Hepworth. I was received and licenced in the TAC on the feast of the Curé d’Ars 2005. That was the official end of my episcopate which brought me relief and blessing.
I had been asked to become a bishop by a small community, and it seemed right at the time. I was young and had no leadership skills, and I must have looked silly all decked out as a post-Tridentine bishop. I still have all the “tat”, but have not worn it since 2004. I tried the ring a few months ago, and it is a tight fit. I took it off again and put it back in its little box. With me, it just didn’t go to my head, and I kept a realistic view of the whole thing. I have known of other bishops who relinquished it one way or another, reverting to the simple priesthood or even reverting to lay life. In the end of the day, the “ecclesial context” – even the OSJ – was never sufficient to justify my being a bishop.
Throughout my time in the TAC, I remained a simple priest, and it has been the same thing since the débâcle of Archbishop Hepworth and my joining the ACC under Bishop Damien Mead. My experience confirms the constant teaching of the Church about her lofty expectations of bishops. A bishop is first and foremost a pastor of souls and his presbyterium in his diocese. The various things a bishop wears in the street, at the chancery office, at the cathedral, in choir, vested for Vespers and Mass, attending a synod of bishops are but symbols of his gift and office to teach, sanctify and govern the faithful. Was I doing that as Prelate of the Order of Saint John or in my little community at Montmorillon? I don’t think so.
What was more important than anything was to serve a Church, which I am now doing as a diocesan priest and member of the European Deanery of the ACC. My chaplaincy is described here. The internet is an instrument of ministry. For any question of “parish” work, I live in a country and region where people are devout Roman Catholics or nothing at all. France is in a poor state in terms of faith and religion. The Revolution ruined everything, as did the growth of the Catholic bourgeoisie in the time leading to the anti-clerical attacks against the Church in the 1900’s.
There are far too many independent bishops and men living in delusions and illusions. I am now one less of them whatever sacred character I may bear in my soul. Some of those characters like Roux or Cardinal Rutherford Johnson (I don’t like using inverted commas, because I will respect the way someone styles himself without any judgement of his legitimacy or lack thereof) commit the same stupidities as adventurers like Vilatte. However, within, I cringe for the sake of decent Catholic people and for the misled souls dressing up to the nines for no useful purpose. Some independent bishops are doing humanitarian work, like Archbishop Jerome Lloyd in Brighton, cooking good food for homeless people. He is almost atoning for the arrogance of others assuming the Episcopal Office. I have heard of some Old Roman Catholic bishops in America who have real churches, parishes and even a seminary. Goodonem! – as one of my sailing correspondents would say.
We cannot exactly judge a “true” bishop by whether he is in a mainstream Church like Rome or Canterbury, but we can ask if that bishop’s church is a true Church. A Church, in the Catholic meaning of the word, is not merely a community of people, but is also a sacramental manifestation of Christ through the Bishop and the Eucharist – celebrated by himself or a priest he licences for the purpose. A Church can be very small. All the characteristics of a Church, in which the Universal Church subsists, is found in a single diocese. However, there is a further dimension: the communion of bishops, typically in a synod under a Metropolitan Archbishop. These are characteristics that developed from about the second century (St Ignatius of Antioch) through the medieval era and held in common between the western and eastern Churches. What is important is the Church that chooses its clergy, or by kindness accepts “orphaned” clergy from elsewhere under certain conditions – and not a self-styling individual seeking to “found” a Church to justify his assumed status.
What if the ACC asked me to be a bishop? I would not like it one little bit, any more than Cardinal Ratzinger becoming Pope. I don’t have the aptitudes to lead, and that is essential in a bishop. Someone in that situation needs to balance his own distaste for becoming someone “important” and the needs of the Church. So far, so good, we have a really good Bishop in England, and that isn’t going to change any time soon! It is my honour to serve him as a priest.