Arnold Harris Mathew

Arnold Harris Mathew (1852-1919) was an enigmatic figure. I first discovered this character through the “usual” source, Peter Anson’s Bishops at Large. Anson portrayed Mathew as an unstable and vacillating person, perhaps even deceitful in regard to the Dutch Old Catholic Church from which he received the Episcopate. He has come up quite a few times in things I have read over the years. Peter Anson had his own axe to grind as a convert to Roman Catholicism, and thus I think that Mathew needs fresh consideration.

I have sometimes been criticised for giving some measure of support to “independent” Catholicism and those bishops who came to be called episcopi vagantes or bishops at large. My “conciliar” view of Catholicism has given me a soft spot for Old Catholicism as it has been expressed in some places and what came to be known as Old Roman Catholicism to distinguish it from Swiss and German “liberalism” (against which Modernism reacted, but that is another subject). The ideal is not very far removed from Anglo-Catholicism and the positions we uphold in the Anglican Catholic Church.

What is unfortunate is that the various Old Catholic and Old Roman Catholic movements reacting away from the “liberalism” of the Union of Utrecht tended to fragment and split apart at the drop of a mitre. We have had the same problems in Continuing Anglicanism due to clericalism and petty jealousies between men who were clearly unsuitable for the Episcopate in any Church or Christian community.

Old Roman Catholicism, which seems to be currently represented in England by a number of prelates, is quite post-Tridentine in its ethos, whereas I have come to be more “medieval” in my tastes and the way my experience has marked me. Old Catholicism (without the Roman) seems to have another ethos, that of trying to recover the Church of the first millennium or explore affinities with modern liturgical movements and forms of Evangelical Christianity.

We see three “strands” of an attempt to perpetuate “conciliar” (based on the communion of the Bishops rather than on the person of the Pope) ecclesiology, between medievalists, those with a Roman Catholic ethos or those who reflect the reforms in the Roman Catholic and Anglican communions over the past forty or so years. It can seem confusing, but a study of the history of the movement’s progenitor is very helpful to make the distinctions that have to be made. There was also the influx of Gnosticsm in the form of late nineteenth-century Theosophy and Liberal Catholicism, representing the more mystical side of Modernism. Mathew himself had sympathies with Tyrrell and the Modernist movement, condemned by Pope Pius X. The drama and chemistry of these movements need to be understood and studied with sensitivity and intellectual rigour.

I think it is a very good idea to learn about this important figure of English Old Catholicism, despite the various drifts of Liberal Catholicism and other departures from strict orthodox Catholicism. I here link to Arnold Harris Mathew and the Old Catholic Movement in England 1908-52. The site hosting this article represents the work of Bishop John Kersey who is also an accomplished musician. I personally feel uneasy with chivalrous orders and principalities, but that should not be taken as a judgement on my part for or against them. I find the work on Archbishop Mathew highly interesting and instructive. I would recommend my readers to go down this avenue of discovery, whether or not they sympathise with the Old Catholic or Old Roman Catholic ideal. This article includes an opportunity to buy John Kersey’s Arnold Harris Mathew and the Old Catholic Movement in England 1908-52 or to read it online.

It’s all food for thought wherever we are as Christians and clergy in the various Catholic traditions of the past couple of centuries. One final note is that some clergy claiming succession from Archbishop Mathew are or have been disreputable persons, and this has done no good for the reputation of the ideal. I try to be as kind and positive as possible, but they don’t always make it easy.

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9 Responses to Arnold Harris Mathew

  1. Jim of Olym says:

    Parenthetically, the former Cathedral of the Liberal Catholic Church on Argyle Street in Hollywood CA is now a parish of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia (ROCOR)! I remember hearing radio broadcasts of the ‘Liberal Catholic Quarter Hour’ back in the ’50s when I was in school.

    • Liberal Catholicism seemed for a long time to be once of the most stable offshoots from Mathew’s movement. I would imagine it is because it presented something “original” and not what would be seen to be an imitation of Roman Catholicism (albeit without the Pope). It is now extremely fragmented, not only along the lines of Theosophy and vegetarianism but also on questions of female clergy and homosexuality. It is not surprising that they lose popularity with the laity.

      • William Tighe says:

        I read this long Liberal Catholic bishop’s book well over 35 years ago; it is ceertainly unique:

      • Leadbeater was not the only one. There was Blavatsky before him. Berdyaev and René Guénon were both quite hard on Theosophy, fundamentally the forerunner of modern New Age movements. That being said, we should gain knowledge and insight into historical Gnosticism and the various ancient scrolls and scriptures that have come to light over the past century. We should also acquire knowledge of the “soft” or non-Valentinian Gnosticism of the Alexandrian school as expounded by Origen and St Clement of Alexandria. There is also the work of C.G. Jung. Leadbeater’s stuff seems pretty weird!

  2. Dale says:

    One does indeed have to be careful with Anson’s “Bishops at Large.” Anson not only had an axe to grind against Old Catholicism, he had one against the Orthodox as well; his book, which I have not seen for years, and have no interest in seeing again, actually includes early leaders of Western rite Orthodoxy as vagante bishopsl! Anson should have stuck to church fashions, which he does quite well.

    I also have a soft spot for Bishop Mathew; his departing letters to the continental Old Catholics are quite interesting and he seems to have prophesied their continuing fall into both theological as well as liturgical liberalism, which has indeed happened. Also, we should remember in a time long before it was popular, he was an Orthophile. This alone was not, at the time, very well thought of in England or by the continental Old Catholics (who were busily moving in a more Protestant direction and closer ties with official Anglicanism). And his diocese was received, for a short time, as a western rite community in Antioch, but they, following all of the projectiles of such communities was treated rather badly by the Orthodox; once again, the normal culprits made the move impossible, the Greeks and the Anglicans.

  3. Statement of union upon which the short-lived communion between Mathews’ Old Catholic Church of England and the chalcedonian Patriarchate of Antioch was based:

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