A Serious Look at Old Catholicism

I am continuing my series of articles and reflections on what is being termed by many as independent sacramental Christianity so that the category may include both those who are orthodox and unorthodox by classical Roman Catholic standards. At one end of the spectrum are traditionalist Roman Catholics of various “positions” and tendencies (sedevacantists, sedeprivationists, etc.) and at the other end are neo-gnostics, theosophists and the more liberal or progressive tendencies. The term seems to cover the whole spectrum on the basis that all these communities have a ministry of bishops, priests and deacons (unlike most Protestant denominations) and a liturgical / sacramental life according to traditional and modern rites.

There is a website called the Mathew Center for the Study of the ISM, dedicated to the history of the Old Catholic movement in England and other English-speaking countries. It has not been updated since last year. It has mutual links with the European- American University. This educational institution is run by Bishop John Kersey, a prelate identifying with the Liberal Catholic tradition and an accomplished concert pianist.

On the page dealing with the Arnold Harris Mathew Center for the Study of the Independent Sacramental Movement, we find a fascinating introduction to Catholicism beyond Rome. Kersey is clear about the one criterion that defines Catholic churches – the Apostolic Succession, which means bishops, the Priesthood and the Sacraments. A church can be independent from Rome, get its members to pray and hear God’s Word, but it is only Catholic if it has valid bishops. Rome would say that the canonical aspect has to be right too, but does concede some Catholicity in separated churches like the Orthodox and the Old Catholics (at least before the latter started ordaining women). Kersey is concerned to give the widest possible meaning to the word Catholic to include the liberal notion of it encompassing all mankind.

A denomination is defined as an organisation of Christian believers with a common vision and administration. In this more liberal vision, Catholicism may be expressed in any number of denominations without losing its essential ontological unity. I have used the analogy of the Blessed Sacrament – the Host can be broken up into any number of pieces, but each piece contains the whole and entire Sacrament of Christ’s Presence. That is simply a reflection of standard Thomist theology and expressed in the liturgy for Corpus Christi. It is an idea I have always found interesting in authors like Soloviev and Khomiakov in their ecclesiological speculation based on the Eastern Orthodox tradition. With my refusal to compartmentalise everything into ontologically separate packages, as the Nominalists did, I find the Catholic Church expressed often in the most unlikely places and people! Among the Catholic denominations, there is of course the Roman Catholic Church with its local and particular churches in communion with Rome, and then there are the “canonical” and “non-canonical” Orthodox Churches. There are also all the Churches that for one reason or another broke away from institutional Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Orthodoxy and the branches of Lutheranism with bishops and a sacramental life. There are also churches with a valid priesthood that strive for originality in a world that is tired of clerical tyranny and is affected by conditions of modernity and post-modernity. There is no longer a notion of “true Catholic” and “imitator / impostor / deceiver”, though some individuals may have bad intentions, but a Catholic ideal with any number of expressions to suit differences of culture, temperament and conditions of life.

Like John Plummer (mentioned in previous articles about this subject), Kersey has introduced the various categories he includes in the genus of independent sacramental Christians. After the Old Catholics, directly broken away from Roman Catholicism (pastoral neglect of the Archdiocese of Utrecht on the pretext of Jansenism and the definition of Papal infallibility – the growing “totalitarianism” of Rome in both cases), there are Continuing Anglicans like the TAC, the ACC and many other smaller jurisdictions. He divides the category of “non-Roman” Catholics into the three adjectives traditional, old and independent.

Roughly speaking, the traditional Catholics are a direct split-off from Rome on account of the liturgical reforms and liberal drifts of Rome since Vatican II, and appeal to the Tridentine monolith as prevailed until the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958. The Old Catholics come in two versions: Old Catholic and Old Roman Catholic. The former are modelled on the Swiss and German reaction against Vatican I and the definition of Papal infallibility in 1870. The latter are modelled on the Dutch Church prior to the Union of Utrecht and Archbishop Arnold Harris Mathew’s rejection of some of the reforms introduced in 1910 like the vernacular in the liturgy, the abolition of clerical celibacy and the introduction of radically reformed and simplified rites based on Enlightenment principles (cf. Synod of Pistoia). Thus, Old Catholics are inspired by the Union of Utrecht as it was until quite recently, and Old Roman Catholics are similar to traditional Catholics except for allowing married priests, a vernacular liturgy and a less radical political outlook.

Old Catholicism outside the Union of Utrecht has done better in the United States than in England or continental Europe. This side of the Atlantic, independent Catholic churches suffer hostility from Roman Catholics and Anglicans, so it has always been difficult to establish a foothold and gain credibility – that together with the lack of discipline and eccentricities of too many clerics.

With most of those attracted to these churches seeking a path to ordination, their model tends not to be that of a traditional parish but rather that of a clergy union or dispersed order.

That seems a succinct way of putting it. These churches are needed by clergy and have little in the way of lay membership, because the mainstream churches have less oppressive control over the laity than the clergy. The laity can generally find their tolerant niche without leaving the mainstream churches. Kersey is realistic about the fact that many Old Catholic churches are hostile to each other, a trait that parallels the alphabet soup world of Continuing Anglicans. Such hostility, sadly, can only play into the self-satisfaction and smugness of mainstream “totalitarianism”. Many independent Catholics and Anglicans are concerned to find a new way to open the way to greater unity in diversity, tolerance and respect of difference.

There are various traits that attract interest, notably the idea of being moderately liturgically traditionalist and theologically liberal with less of an emphasis on “truth” and obligation of uniformity and compliance. Such an attitude can open the way to a bewildering kaleidoscope of individual opinions and obscure the notion of orthodoxy and Catholic unity, but it resolves many conflicts between persons and groups. The pre-Constantinian theme is also present with extremely spiritually open attitudes. That is Bishop John Plummer’s approach, with which I am brought to sympathise, tired as I am of conflict and hostility between Christians. The problem is the reductio ad absurdam. How far does inclusivity go? That is an unresolved problem. At least we can talk with each other even if we are not prepared to do same-sex unions and ordain women ourselves. But it is difficult…

Kersey addresses many other questions that people frequently ask, and the article is worth reading in its place. He has done interesting work about this subject as an academic discipline. We find the same conflicts between conservatives and liberals, but the consequences are usually splits and the birth of new denominations. It all seems complex, and ISM communities can be very unstable. Very few scholars in the mainstream have been prepared to undertake such studies, apart from Dr Jean-François Mayer of Fribourg University whose mind is extremely open and enquiring, given the diversity of his own experience as a spiritual seeker. The mainstream churches see independents as a threat, competition, and very much like the way the Inquisition of old viewed the Brethren of the Free Spirit, the Goliards and the Fraticelli. There are periods of history when small groups and sects proliferate, and there may be some constants to observe each time such a phenomenon occurs.

Independent groups exist because there is a need for them, a need that is not catered for in the mainstream churches. It seems logical. The laity are cared for in one mainstream church or another. A lay Roman Catholic who finds his church too intolerant can go to the Anglicans, or an Anglican looking for the “true church” and is disappointed with liberalism can “convert” to Roman Catholicism. People move around. Clerics go further when they find they are stricken with perpetual canonical irregularities and are convinced that the ecclesiastical equivalent of capital punishment (vindictive sanctions) in their case is unjust. Churches of clerics? Is such a thing possible or desirable? Can there not be a more pastoral approach by the mainstream churches if independent communities are so threatening?

There are several interesting articles in this website:

Studies on particular personalities (Word document format):

Bishop Kersey has written several books

  • Joseph-René Vilatte (1854-1929): Some Aspects of his Life, Work and Succession
  • Arnold Harris Mathew and the Old Catholic Movement in England 1908-52
  • A History of the Old Catholic Movement in England (2 volumes)
  • Two Works by Archbishop Bernard Mary Williams, Second Archbishop of The Old Roman Catholic Church in Great Britain: A Summary of the History, Faith, Discipline, and Aims of The Old Roman Catholic Church in Great Britain (1924); A Pastoral Letter for Advent, 1920

He has edited several works by Leadbeater, the Science of the Sacraments in particular. Some of these works are no longer available, and others can still be found.

Dr Bertil Persson is another fascinating personality and prolific writer.

All in all, I believe in religious freedom and the right for individuals and communities to practice their faith according to their conscience. Many of us who “feel legitimate” may be afraid of being discredited by unscrupulous abusers of freedom, imitators, shenanigans, but that seems to be the price to pay. Caveat emptor! Anyone going this way needs to tread carefully in an underworld that contains both the sublime and the criminal. There are no guarantees of anything, but such is life or the voyage of the adventurous mariner who faces a fickle sea and unpredictable weather!

We all have questions to ask of ourselves…

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15 Responses to A Serious Look at Old Catholicism

  1. Stephen says:

    Interesting that the perspective of the author lumps Orthodox with all others who “broke away” from Roman Catholicism at on point or another, when of course the Orthodox themselves view it quite differently, specifically, as you know, that Rome left the faith once delivered, and all the rest that happened in the west since then are breakaways from that breakaway. The first Protestant was the Pope from this POV.

    • Unfortunately the situation is one of hundreds and thousands of Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant denominations. No one will ever unify all that into a single administrative body. We are crying over spilt milk or broken Humpty Dumpties, so we can either write off Christianity or make the best of it – or even shut ourselves up in our ivory towers. That’s the bottom line.

  2. Stephen K says:

    Yes! This is the challenge most miss! The unity of Christianity is not a something that hangs off any single expression of it, but a something only possible by the conjoining of all expressions of it. The reason why Roman Catholicism is intrinsically offensive is not because of anything except its overweening complacency with itself. The “Church” is splintered. No matter how large any individual shard may be, it remains just another “splinter”. Unity will require profound humility from everyone including the Pope, the humility that can only come from waking up in the morning and realising that one knows nothing for certain, but hopes abound. God is a mystery and greater than any of our minds; the fractures started the day we forgot this and thought we knew what it was all about.

    • William Tighe says:

      I began to compose a response to this comment, but it is growing so long that I shall send it separately to Fr. Chadwick when it is finished, and let him decide where to place it, if he decides to post it at all.

      * * *

      Moderator’s remark: Here is the comment in question I received by e-mail. Like Voltaire, I may not agree with every conviction or opinion, but I will fight for the right of a person to express himself according to that conviction or opinion.

      * * *

      I apologize in advance to our blog host if I am being offensively contentious, but the statement to which this is a reply displays a remarkable ignorance, or at least indifference, to the facts of Church History in regard to ecclesiology. The idea that “the ‘Church’ is splintered” and “no matter how large any individual shard may be, it remains just another ‘splinter’.” may or may not be true, but even if it is true it is in origin a fundamentally Protestant ecclesiological idea for which no precedent can be found before the 16the Century; and in the 17th Century some “Laudian” Anglicans both narrowed it and elaborated it into what eventually became the “branch theory” ecclesiology of High-Church Anglicanism and Anglo-Catholicism of the non- or anti-papalist sort. This is fine if you wish to be a Protestant, or an Anglican, or some kind of self-created “Evangelical Catholic,” but to term it a “Catholic” ecclesiology just will not do. (I am aware, of course, that it is effectively the ecclesiology that inspired the Union of Utrecht, or at least the one that it came to embrace, but since the more historically-informed proponents of Old Catholicism tended to appeal to the Fathers [or the “Vincentian Canon” of quod ubique, quof semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est] against the “papal claims” it is only fair to evaluate their own claims by the same standard.)

      Put bluntly: the idea that “the Church” was “splintered” (or divided, or even “splinterable” or divisible) was an idea unknown to the Early Church Fathers and “Early Christian heretics and heresiarchs” alike. “The Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils” claimed to be “the One True Church.” So, also, did those bodies which emerged in rejection to those councils: the anti-Chalcedonians, represented today by the Oriental Orthodox churches, made and make the same ecclesiological claim; the so-called “Nestorians” did likewise (although their current “non-Roman” representative [the great majority of the descendants of the historical “East Syrian Church” were gathered into the Chaldean Catholic Church between 1765 and 1810], the “Assyrian Church” seems to espouse a kind of “branch theory” by which they recognize as churches those bodies that possess the apostolic succession, believe in the Eucharistic Sacrifice and Real Presence, and do not ordain women), and so did the Arian Church, or churches. The same ecclesiological claim was made by “schismatic” bodies that emerged before the time of the Emperor Constantine: the Donatists, the Novatianists, even a wildly heretical group like the Marcionites (perhaps the first “counter-church” ever) — all claimed to be the One True Church. Perhaps the various Gnostic sects or “schools” did not make such claims for themselves, but, then, it is not clear whether they considered themselves to be “churches” or had much use for the “church idea.” The Montanists seem to have considered themselves initially a “charismatic revival movement” (to use an anachronistic term) within the Church, and even when the bishops condemned their beliefs and practices many of them seem to have resisted being driven out — but when they were driven out, as the eventually were, in Asia Minor at least (taking in some cases whole churches, bishops and all, along with them, as at Thyateira), they, too, considered themselves to be “the Church” (the one and only one). If you desire to seek scholarly verification of the argument I have advanced here, you may wish to consult S. E. Greenslade’s Schism in the Early Church (1953) and, written partly in response to Greenslade’s book, B. C. Butler’s The Idea of the Church (1962). Greenslade was a liberal-ish Evangelical Church of England clergyman and Divinity professor; Butler the Abbot of Downside and eventually auxiliary bishop in the Westminster archdiocese. Greenslade’s book argues strenuously that in the Early Church schism — except perhaps for purely local disputes, as over the choice of a bishop — was never within the Church, but always from the Church (thus agreeing with the claims I made above), but he goes on to argue that this claim, however “venerable” its age, and however universally once held, is mistaken, as well as incompatible with the historic claims of the Church of England since its “reformation” in the 16th Century, as well as with its original recognition of the Reformed and Lutheran churches as “true churches” — and thus, that it should be repudiated by the Church of England and Anglicans in general. Butler’s response was a full-throated defense of the claim of the (Roman) Catholic Church to be “the One True Church,” but even more a defense of the idea (hence the book’s title) that the visibility, unicity and indivisibility of “the Church” was a fundamental postulate of “Catholicism” of any historically genuine sort (he argued that the Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox make exactly the same claim for themselves as Catholics do for the Catholic Church, so the difference between them is one that concerns more the identity of “the Church” than its nature).

      Assuming for the moment (even if merely as a case of datum sed non concessum) the facts of the case are as stated, how can the case be made for considering as “Catholic” a view that holds the Church to be divisible and divided, splinterable and splintered, the Old Catholic and “Independent Catholic” views in effect, and not the Protestant view, or at least the predominant historical one, of the essential invisibility of “the Church,” or of the “adiaphoristic” (inessential) nature of the apostolic succession of bishops and of a episcopally-organized church polity (these last a view that almost all “Evangelical Catholic” Lutherans, however “Catholic” their liturgical practice and sacramental theology may be, as well as the “official stance” of the Church of Sweden, which alone of all Lutheran churches believes itself to have retained a continuity of bishops at the Reformation)? I ask this question, because I have never seen it clearly posed or coherently answered. And it seems to me that if one can depart from what I have claimed to be one primordial aspect of Catholic ecclesiology, historically considered, and yet still claim to be “Catholic churches,” then the same can be done with regard not only to those matters of ecclesiology to which I have just made mention, then I do not see why those who would “ordain” women or “bless” same-sex “partnerships” may not do likewise.

      • Stephen K says:

        Thank you, William, for your comments which you present concisely. I particularly note your comment that my splinter theory “may or may not be true, but even if it is true it is in origin fundamentally a Protestant ecclesiological idea” and wondered if that meant you allowed the possibility that it is true or whether you were principally concerned to show that it is a Protestant, not a Catholic view.

        I don’t doubt for a minute that my view that the separated expressions of Christian belief all represent broken or incomplete manifestations of “the Church” is not a traditional Roman Catholic one but one closer to the view that may be found in “The Protestant Dictionary” (H&S, 1904). But I don’t think I claimed that my position is a “Catholic” one. In fact I think that the term “Catholic” has by long usage diverged from the term “catholic” in meaning so that it means almost its opposite where it does not merely mean something narrower.

        In the historical dimension I think it is true to say that there has always been a fact and tendency of separation, however each part regards itself. Reconciling this with understanding the universal scope of God’s redemptive action is what appears to ground the view that the Church in the spiritual plane is “invisible”. The article in the work I cited above puts it as follows: “the true and ideal Church is the spiritual and invisible, the living Body of the risen and glorified Redeemer, which consists of all believers in Him, who are led by His Spirit…..” etc. (This does not exclude the allowance that the invisible “Church” may be glimpsed by and through visible communities.)

        It is not so much that I ignore the traditional ecclesiological view as that I think it represents a limited perspective. I liken it to the perspective of a person who insists that the scene unfolding before their very own eyes is the complete truth, when in fact a person in a helicopter above the city sees that it is one of many contributing to a larger pattern. I believe that this “larger” perspective has to be striven for and cultivated. I concede it does not come easy to us.

        Well, this is one way of putting it. I can hardly assert that it covers all the ground, but I think it provides a cogent basis for a less warlike attitude towards the perennial problem of religious divisions. Christianity embraces a wide spectrum of particular belief, understanding and praxis. Like colours, some may be more appealing to the eye and some may be for all intents and purposes ‘off the scale’. Things which are later recognised as prophetic are often like that in the beginning. But we need to recognise that it is a spectrum and not an asteroid cluster orbiting around the biggest planet in the system. Even the sun is ultimately a speck in the scheme of the universe.

        Again, I thank you for your reply.

      • William Tighe says:

        Stephen K., an important question is, what does the word “Catholic” mean in an ecclesiological context? I would contend that it does not mean “universal,” and certainly not “universal” taken as meaning “inclusive” or “wide-embracing.” The sense that it means “universal” (as opposed to “particular”) was first used by St. Augustine when he contrasted the “local” situation of the Donatist Church with that of their Catholic counterpart. Earlier, from St. Ignatius (who first used the term) onwards kata ten holon or kath’holon, “according to the whole,” means simply that (one and only) church or communion that professes the Faith in its wholeness, without additions, subtractions or distortions. *If* that is the case, *then* what you write in your second paragraph about “Catholic” vs “catholic” is, historically speaking, beside the point.

        I am myself a member of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, but in my ecclesiology I am a papalist Catholic. So I was principally concerned, as you wrote, “to show that it is a Protestant, not a Catholic, view.” Thus, I do not believe that it is true, and I do think that the view that you have expressed is not only “not a traditional Roman Catholic one,” but not traditional nor Catholic in any historical sense at all — just as alien from the Eastern Church Fathers as from the Western ones; and for me it falls (and fails) under the famous lapidary phrase of Pope Stephen I, “Nihil innovetur nisi quod traditum est,” for it has no “traditum” earlier than the 16th century.

  3. Stephen says:

    What is the basis of unity if not unity of faith? That is the bedrock question. Only accepting this question as the prime mover can any one person take the next steps – What is this “faith once delivered”? “How do I know it if indeed I find it?” “How will I know that if I find it, the community espousing it is linked to Christ and His formation of His Chuch way back when?”

    Put another way, the first leap of faith is accepting that Christ was not kidding when He said that He would be with His Church always, and no gates of Hell will prevail against it. That means that His Church is indeed “out there” somewhere, and so all this other stuff is just noise obstructing us from entering in Christ.

    • Stephen K says:

      I think I understand your question/statement, Stephen. What I thought necessary to consider was the idea that no-one or no group could afford the luxury that they had the self-sufficient essence to which everyone else had to conform or embrace in toto. Thinking so seems to me to strike at the foundations of the humility we need to listen and learn from each other. A conviction that one ever has THE faith is rather akin to a sense of elite gnostic knowledge. The unity of faith is more a unity of wanting to believe, perhaps, rather than a unity of intellectual assertions.

  4. Stephen K says:

    William, your explanation opens up some interesting ideas. In saying that the original and correct meaning of “catholic’ (kat’holon) referred to the “wholeness” of the faith and that the church which had the pistēn holēn – the wholeness – was the church catholic, then this means the creed asks people to say that they believe in ‘the church which has the wholeness of the faith’. Now clearly, different people have different objects in mind when they say so: Catholics will mean the ‘Catholic’ church; others will mean something else. It does not advance us far it seems because the identification is self-referential: that is, each church often says they have the wholeness of faith. I don’t know off-hand of any church that would use the word ‘catholic and apostolic church’ that would not say it had in some sense the wholeness of faith. Perhaps someone knows of one. Trying to isolate and identify an objective KO argument for indisputable wholeness seems impossible and I suspect it mostly, eventually, comes down to Episcopal continuity which doesn’t appear persuasive of much (hence the proliferation of exotic bishops). I confess I am still unable to see that a distinction between “Catholic” and “catholic” is without any significance or relevance. My answer to your question ‘what does ‘Catholic’ mean in an ecclesiological context’ might be, for the moment, that it is a character that shares or mimics all or a significant proportion of institutional and theological features of the Roman Church, which would incorporate all other self-styling Catholic Churches and even some that do not so self-style. I am sure the Orthodox see themselves as kat’holon even if not “Catholic”, although in the sense of my answer above, they almost certainly could be called “Catholic” too.

    The intersection of the act and aspiration of faith with doctrinal cohesion and identity is hard to pin down, I think.

    All that said, your citation of Ignatius drew me back to ‘The Protestant Dictionary’. The writer quotes Ignatius in his “Ep. Ad Smyrn, c.viii” thus: “Wherever Christ is, there is the Catholic Church”. Without wishing to take this quote out of context, nevertheless, it certainly can be read as underpinning the “Protestant” view I have reflected.

    William, you clearly have scholarship in this field. I therefore certainly welcome any further clarification you’re willing to propose.

  5. Stephen says:

    Does not the “splinter” concept of the Church contradict our Lord’s promises? I think it’s a lack of faith in Christ that would lead one to think that man can undo what He promised; therefore, is it not most correct to assume that one of those groups that claim to be the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ” is indeed it?

    Once one rejects the “splinter” concept, one realizes that this Church must be found and submission given to its dogma, doctrines and practices. If you are not ready to search and then, once found, submit, you’re kidding yourself.

    So the question becomes learning and realizing the characteristics of Christ’s Church.

    • We can go on with this forever. If you’re Orthodox you have to become a Roman Catholic and vice versa, or work for a political regime that would whip everyone into shape. Wherever you are, you’re in the wrong church – perhaps it’s better to stay with your original “owners”. If we go on with this kind of ecclesiology, we go into cognitive dissonance and then we find we have to “grow out of it”. Wouldn’t Richard Dawkins be thrilled!

      • Stephen says:

        I always like the way the Church Fathers framed it in the Councils. By using the construct of the anathema, they took a very humble approach and said simply “This is where the Church is NOT”, leaving the rest to be assumed that that is where the Church is.

        Could you pls elaborate on the inevitability of going into “cognitive dissonance” if one stay’s with one’s original “owners”? Granted, most men and women in the G-20 countries suffer a great deal from CG, but I am curious about your thesis here.

      • I suggest we stop this. With all due respect, I suggest you begin a blog with Word Press or another provider and give us the link. I just don’t want to go on and on about this “true church” stuff. All I will say here is that there is confusion between the Church as the sacramental Mystery of Christ and the human organisation that splits up as humans are humans.

  6. Stephen says:

    Fair enough, but I couldn’t disagree with you more. If you’re happy where you are, there is at the same time a desire to both share that joy (and a mandate to evangelize from our founder), and to live and let live. But the latter should not negate the former.

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