Independent Sacramental Delinquency

I can anticipate the question in some people’s minds, asking whether I have opened the flood gates and am prepared to condone the behaviour of all those who get themselves consecrated or ordained. I think I have been clear about the self-aggrandizing, the quacks and criminal elements. I have bumped into a few myself, especially in this country (France), and it is so frustrating to see a noble idea shot down by the lack of accountability that unbounded freedom can entail.

Anson dwelt at length about the eccentric and criminal elements of so many prelates and priests. This aspect dominates Bishops at Large, and he is sympathetic only in regard to the intellectual Freidrich Heiler, a Lutheran theologian who was consecrated by a Vilatte-lineage bishop. He rips the others to pieces.

It would be a mistake for me to mention any names on pain of legal action being initiated against me. That has already happened about 13 years ago when a French document forger, compulsive liar and fraud took me to court, accusing me of publishing a libellous website, which actually was published by another person. My lawyer found it simpler to argue for prescription (statute of limitations) – the site had been up for so long that in the absence of legal action, its sayings no longer constituted a breach of libel laws. The case was thrown out of court in the Cour d’Instance. The “bishop” appealed and lost the appeal. My lawyer suggested that I could prosecute him for taking out frivolous legal action against me. I declined, because law courts and conflicts are not exactly my cup of tea. Forgiveness seems the best way, and he went his way and I went mine. The man has made several attempts to join respectable churches, and I am thankful that my warnings have been heeded.

The small number of independent bishops here in France are well-documented, and various books and other publications have been written. A few are frauds and document forgers, claiming consecrations that never occurred. Others are simply quacks, offering exorcisms and spiritual healings for money. I have met one who sells blessed roses on St Rita’s day – at twice the price if they are blessed individually rather than as one of a pile of flowers. Others still are so grand in their finery out of all proportion with their humble surroundings!

So, my readers will see that I am all too aware of the sleaze factor in the independent sacramental world. From thence comes the self-defensive instinct to claim some special status and legitimacy to place oneself above the charlatans and crooks. So, we have the absurd situation of someone being considered a pariah by Rome or the local Anglican vicar, and then considering someone “under” his level as a pariah, and so it goes on.

In England, I have read about a certain number of troublemakers, whose names I will not mention. However, those in the know will guess. There is one who dresses up as a cardinal, has a group composed of bishops he consecrated or got his consecrator to consecrate. They misrepresent themselves as Roman Catholics, and Roman Catholic bishops in England and elsewhere have had to issue warnings. Another prelate in England has a Post the Host service (sending consecrated hosts through the Post to people requesting them) and numerous other eccentricities that make me cringe to read about them. It is of no suprise that Damian Thompson has picked up on this subject with his usual merciless manner of a journalist:

As it happens, we do. Let me introduce you to the loopy world of episcopi vagantes – “wandering bishops” – which is springing back to life now that the Anglican Communion is tearing itself into tiny pieces.

“Independent bishops”, as they prefer to be known these days, are men and women who have left the mainstream Churches and got themselves consecrated “bishop” by someone who claims to have authentic episcopal orders. Normally these orders will have been passed down from the Roman Catholic or Orthodox Churches via a breakaway group such as the Old Catholics of the Netherlands. If you have a spare couple of hours, try asking one of these bishops to take you through his or her episcopal pedigree. Trainspotters have nothing on these guys.

As a rule, the grandeur of a self-styled bishop’s title, robes and ceremonies is in inverse proportion to the size of his Church. So the Metropolitan Archbishop of Great Britain and the Colonies, Supreme Patriarch of the Reformed Western Orthodox Church (Ethiopian Rite), will devote four hours to his Pontifical High Mass in his Cathedral, otherwise known as the sitting room of No 3, Gasworks Lane, Edgbaston. Also in the sanctuary: the Master of Ceremonies (the missus) and the deacon and sub-deacon (the kids). Congregation: Hilda from next door, who will stay on for Strictly Come Dancing once the ceremonies are over.

The classic book on this subculture is Bishops At Large by Peter Anson, published in 1963, by which time the phenomenon was already a century old. Anson lovingly details the theatrical schisms that led the bishops – electricity clerks during the week but dripping with lace and gold embroidery on Sundays – to excommunicate each other in “synods” held in railway hotels.

It looked as if the amateur bishops would die out. But the internet has revived this strange hobby. I’m looking right now at the website of a gloriously bedecked prelate who used to run a dry-cleaning business.

Some of these bishops are ultra-liberal. This week I received an email from a tiny denomination run by a very pompous woman bishop and lesbian rights campaigner furiously anathematising one of her rivals. (I won’t mention names, because these folk are pathologically litigious.)

But it’s the high-camp Anglo-Catholics you need to watch. For years many have been behaving like prince-bishops in their parishes. But now the C of E wants to get rid of them, and they can’t face the discipline of Rome. So I’m expecting a number of traddies to flounce out of their vicarages to join (or set up) an outfit where they can receive the mitre that’s always been denied them.

I can’t wait. Witnessing a DIY bishop in full flow is easily as much fun as seeing some old trout dance the fandango on Strictly. A colleague once interviewed an “independent” prelate who turned up wearing a dog collar underneath a raincoat flecked with cigarette ash. “Good morning, Reverend,” my friend said respectfully.

The little chap drew himself up to his full height and replied: “Your Holiness, if you don’t mind.”

I can’t honestly say that I am surprised that such things would be said about such pitiful men. I find the language ratty and waspish, coming as it does from a conservative Roman Catholic point of view. Such sneering is just unnecessary, but this is journalism, appealing as it does to the reader’s curiosity and sense of the exotic. But, one can all the same understand why there should either be a very severe curtailing of religious freedom to all except the Roman Catholics, Anglicans a few selected non-conformist denominations and the main non-Christian religions like Judaism, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism – or a new reform movement involving a return to pre-Constantinian sacramental Christianity or a “new monastic” vision.

I have Fréderic Luz’s book Le Soufre et l’Encens (Paris 1995) in which he writes about his enquiry into parallel churches and dissident bishops. Perhaps I might translate it into English if I can get the author’s permission and find a publisher to pay me for the job. Vital distinctions are made, but the stories of charlatans and antipopes are harrowing. There are a few bishops doing some kind of ministry and show signs of genuine piety and spirituality. Generally, here in France, it is not a scene I would ever want to be involved with since my own priestly ordination by one of the more genuine of those bishops and my brush with the document forger and fraud.

When things go beyond a certain limit, French legislation sanctions a category of delinquency called dérives sectaires, cult-like tendencies like brainwashing, separating people from their cultural and affective roots, making people pay exorbitant amounts of money, dividing families, breaking the law, endangering health and life, and various other questions related to life, property and rights of the human person. Cults can hide criminal psychopaths and narcissistic personalities.

This is something I have to be very clear about, and we do have to realise that – as in the mainstream churches – the good grain cannot be separated from the weeds, or the gentle sheep from the ravening wolves until the Parousia. I am sceptical about the idea some bishops have of compiling lists of “goodies” and “baddies”. If a bishop has a substantial organisation, he can say who belongs to his church and who are in communion with him according to mutually agreed terms. This is the tragedy of Christianity and human freedom as Christ desired for us in the Gospel message. We can only go by discernment, knowing the way is dangerous, knowing it is the price of liberty. Mainstream churches are generally convinced that the people who live in the boundaries of their dioceses and parishes are their “property”, or so childish and stunted that they have to be protected. Most people I know are quite critical of the mainstream priests and lay pastoral administrators they know in the parishes!

We all have to assume our freedom and intelligence. As always, it is buyer beware. There’s nothing wrong with buying a second-hand car, but at least give it a good look over first, check that it works properly or have a friend who knows something about mechanics to give his opinion before you commit yourself. It’s just the same with clergy and someone who has a religious ideology to sell or share free of charge.

A priest embarking on this journey is likely to have a very lonely and frustrating life.

Know what you’re doing before accepting that ordination!

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2 Responses to Independent Sacramental Delinquency

  1. Michael Frost says:

    As always, fascinating topics and interesting commentary. With humor! Keep up the great work. From my limited personal experience with these sorts of independent or splinter-type entities, I’ve usually found them very frustrating as they are often (a) hard to specifically pin down on their theology and (b) tied to a specific person, whose thoughts may change significantly over time. And often it seems the reason for the existence is tied specifically to the individual who started it, in that that person wants to lead their own church and does whatever he needs to in order to give at least some appearance of legitimacy.

    I wish there were some good contemporary unbiased academic studies of larger such groups–entities like the Polish National Catholic Church, the Old Catholic movement(s), and the cointinuing Anglicans–which would look at how they arose, who led them, how their positions have changed over time, and how they are viewed by others over time.

    But I think the very limited size, scope, and duration of many of these groups (esp. individual-centered ones), even when aggregated worldwide, should temper any great enthusiasm for or against them. When compared to Orthodoxy, the RCC, Anglicanism, and the various major historical Protestant groups, these tend to be very minor players. I think an analogy to American baseball works pretty well. These are the minor leagues. Few ever reach even Triple A (AAA) minor league status and most are more lowly Single A (A) teams, who come and go, move, die off, and otherwise usually have or leave little lasting impact over time.

  2. Charles A. Coulombe says:

    Well, Father, this is a world I have been interested in since High School, when I catalogued those in the Los Angeles Archdiocese for the then head of the Ecumenical COmmission, the redoubtable Russian Catholic Priest, Fr. Feodor Wilcock, S.J. There were then nigh on 200 here – and that was in 1977! I think for many (and I am not talking about frauds or crazies) the great attraction is to have a church the way YOU want it – Mozarabic Rite in Gaelic? Not a problem! Catholicism and Qabbalah? Of course! We all of us want a perfect Church – that is, one that conforms perfectly to our own ideas. To me (and I would immediately start saying the Tridentine Mass with all the goodies Dom Gueranger shows were cut out put back in) the story of the EVs shows the inherent limitation of such an approach – my “Catholic Church of Charles” would be a disaster for the same reasons I never seem to have a lack of things to say in the confessional.

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