Life in the Church – part 1 “Dominus regit me”

A number of factors led me to leave the Church of England, the church of my birth and in which I had undertaken lay work as a musician for some twelve years. My background was in the Diocese of Edmonton under the late Bishop Brian Masters. Some of the parishes there, including one where I worked for several years, used the full Roman Rite, and in general there was a strong legacy of High Tory working-class Anglo-Catholicism. When Bishop Brian died in 1998, it was effectively the end of an era. The Times published what I and many others considered a mean-spirited obituary, and my letter protesting at this was duly published by that newspaper in reply.

Having first felt a call to ordination in my teenage years, I now found myself revisiting the idea of non-stipendiary ministry to be pursued alongside my teaching and other work. The response to my enquiries was not encouraging, however, and I was left with the firm impression that someone of my traditionalist theological and political views would not be welcome in the present-day Church of England. This seemed to me to be the case even were I to remain a layman, as liberal evangelicalism enjoyed its ascendancy. Ultimately, I came to feel that it was as much the case that the Church of England had left me as the other way around. Many in a similar position crossed the Tiber; I however found myself unable to accept either of the Vatican Councils in conscience, and regarded the second as an open door to the modernism to which I was opposed. Under the circumstances, I concluded that it was preferable to serve within a smaller communion where my viewpoint would have a chance of accommodation, rather than a larger one where I would be a marginal figure at best. At this point, initially through common interests in other areas, I came to meet some members of the Society of the Divine Spirit.

The Society was a small autocephalous group of Christians that had first formed in South London in 1999. First called the British Liberal Free Church, and later renamed the Society of the Divine Spirit (SDS), the inspiration for this foundation was the work of Revd. J.M. Lloyd Thomas and the Society of Free Catholics earlier in the twentieth-century, with the aim of combining the intellectual freedom of the Free Church tradition with gently Catholic worship. The Society of Free Christians was also formed in 1999 as a ministerial organisation working in parallel with SDS.

Ministerial training in the Society of the Divine Spirit ensued, and resulted in my receiving my licence. For some years, our worship took place in the side chapel of Bloomsbury Baptist Church and the chapel of Wimbledon YMCA, and the community eventually came to be led by three co-equal ministers including myself. A number of liturgies were specially written for our church by the ministers, and resulted in beautiful and moving celebrations.

Subsequent developments saw the evolution of SDS into the English Liberal Free Church (ELFC), a stronger sacramental emphasis to our worship and a more formal administration, in which I served as Chancellor. In 2006, several major changes took place. The longest-serving of our ministers, the Revd. Stephen Callander-Grant, decided to leave ELFC in order to exercise a specifically Unitarian ministry. The other two ministers, the Revd. Andrew Linley and myself, with the support of the laity, decided to seek Holy Orders in the historic Apostolic Succession in order that we might bring sacramental validity to our community.

There was a strong synergy between our approach to theology and church practice and that of the Liberal Catholic Church. The Liberal Catholic Church was formed in 1916 by British Old Catholic clergy who were seeking a church that was historically rooted, liturgically and structurally traditionalist, while also being open to freedom of interpretation, including that provided by esotericism. Later developments in the LCC had led to the existence of a Liberal Catholic movement consisting of a number of different churches. These churches maintained a similar ecclesiology deriving from their common origin, but differed on such matters of practice as the emphasis given to Theosophy, compulsory vegetarianism and abstention from alcohol and tobacco.

In addition to those churches that described themselves as Liberal Catholic, we also became aware of the Apostolic Episcopal Church, which had been founded in the United States in 1925 as a Continuing Anglican and Orthodox body, but that had also had extensive contact with bishops from the esoteric tradition, notably the late Archbishop George Boyer who was then its senior representative in Great Britain. We also came to know the Ancient Catholic Church, then based at the Cathedral Church of the Good Shepherd in Clapton, London, which had been canonically established in 1950 under the aegis of the British archbishop of the Apostolic Episcopal Church, and which had taken a path very similar to that of Liberal Catholicism. The esoteric teachings of John Sebastian Marlow Ward, a bishop of the Catholicate of the West, were also an important discovery, and I formed a friendship with his son Bishop John Cuffe of the Orthodox Catholic Church in Australia that endures to this day.

From this came the overriding concept which has remained with me throughout my ministry, of an orthodox and traditionalist theology and practice within a formal and hierarchically-structured communion that is also intellectually open to other currents, including esotericism. My models in this came to be the bishops Arthur Wolfort Brooks, William Bernard Crow, Harold Percival Nicholson, J.S.M. Ward and, at least in the earlier part of his ministry, Hugh George de Willmott Newman. The connexion between all of these bishops was the Apostolic Episcopal Church and the Catholicate of the West which the AEC eventually absorbed. The summary that I would in time adopt for my work was Orthodox in Faith, Catholic in Practice, Anglican in Outlook.

Although we explored the option of uniting our work with another church through discussion with several bishops, our conclusion was that our jurisdiction had developed its own particular character and that its independence should be maintained. In particular, we did not find that all of the smaller sacramental churches shared our ideas as to the nature and direction of our mission. Nevertheless, it must be said that few of the churches that we encountered corresponded to the Anglican stereotype of uneducated wandering bishops obsessed with extreme ritualism and exaggerated titles, and it was obvious that a number were patently sincere and engaged in laudable work in the community. Our aim was therefore to find a bishop who would be prepared, through ordination in the Apostolic Succession, to bestow valid sacraments upon our communion.

It was certainly not the case that I regarded the prospect of becoming a bishop as desirable per se. But within a traditionalist church hierarchy, there is no viable alternative to episcopally-based organization. Only a bishop can ordain and confirm, and if a church is to be fully autocephalous, it must have its own bishops to ensure its succession and survival. It was with this duty in mind, therefore, that it was accepted that we would need to be consecrated to the episcopate.

The late Thomas Illtyd Thomas was Primate of the Celtic Catholic Church, which was then in communion with the Apostolic Episcopal Church, and had while living in Canada in 1986 served as Assistant Bishop in the Liberal Catholic Diocese of Niagara. Consequently, he represented two of the significant strands with which we wished to unite our heritage. He had been consecrated bishop by the Primate of the Holy Celtic Church, Archbishop Anthony Walter John Williams, in 1979, and in 1985 was subconditionally consecrated by Archbishop Bertil Persson of the Apostolic Episcopal Church, also receiving the Cross of Merit of St Martin the Evangelist from that church. Illtyd Thomas had undertaken many ordinations and episcopal consecrations, and we were interested to note that two of the men who had been consecrated by him also held active office in the Church of England.

Cardinal Hume, then Archbishop of Westminster, with Illtyd Thomas and the wife of one of the deacons of the Celtic Catholic Church

At the time we contacted Illtyd Thomas, he was eighty-nine years old. He was mentally acute and physically vigorous but greatly limited by arthritis and a leg injury. His study contained an extensive library of books on theology and ministry, and although he was clearly self-taught, he was both widely read and knowledgeable. He produced the church magazine, The Visitor, without interruption for twenty-five years, and this enjoyed a wide circulation among members and friends of his church. It was printed for him by a clergyman of the Church in Wales.

Before agreeing to ordain us, Illtyd Thomas examined us thoroughly in theology and ministry, and took a keen interest in understanding the nature and work of our denomination. At the conclusion of his enquiries he not only agreed that we had met the standards required for ordination and consecration, but expressed enthusiasm about our ministry and candidacy for Holy Orders.

The Celtic Catholic Church (in conjunction with the Religious Society of the Good Shepherd in Austria under Bishop Viktor Schoonbroodt) had in 1985 established its own seminary, St David Œcumenical Institute of Divinity. This conferred degrees after the manner of Lambeth degrees, on the basis of the achievement of the candidate, and without charging fees (thus being exempt from the restrictions of the Education Reform Act 1988). As will be seen, the wording of the degree certificate also commends the graduate’s moral character and social status. The Institute decided to confer on me the degree of Sacræ Theologiæ Professor (Doctor of Divinity) as a mark of recognition.

The remainder of our discussions with Illtyd Thomas centred on the history of the smaller churches in England, and I was interested to hear his memories of such figures as Archbishop Geoffrey Peter Paget-King and Archbishop Williams. He also kindly gave us some books, vestments and archival documents that he no longer needed.

While our relationship with Illtyd Thomas was at all times civil and friendly, we had a number of reservations that led us to maintain our distance. Illtyd Thomas was a widower with three adult children, and lived alone (except for his Jack Russell terrier Simon) in a three-bedroom house in London’s Muswell Hill. He operated what was in effect an open house policy at his home, and invited anyone in need of ministry to call at any time. It seemed to us, however, that a number of those who took advantage of his hospitality were in fact unsavoury characters who were exploiting his goodwill, and that he was too naïve to see this. It came as no surprise when he reported to us that some of his regular house guests had stolen money from him and engaged in drunken misbehaviour. Unfortunately, any advice to dissociate himself from these individuals was clearly unwelcome.

The Celtic Catholic Church, like our own, was a small house-church and community ministry movement that would hire church buildings from other denominations for major services. It was Illtyd Thomas’s and our wish that the ordinations should take place in a local church, but it quickly became clear that his age and lack of mobility would not make this possible. We therefore agreed that they would instead take place in his house chapel dedicated to St David. The resulting ceremonies were modest and homely in style (and none the worse for being so), but thanks to the input of a knowledgeable liturgist, every care was taken to ensure that they were conducted to the highest standard. They were open to the public, and lay representatives were present. Concerning the episcopal consecration, Illtyd Thomas acted solus rather than being assisted by other bishops, a practice also seen in several other British Old Catholic churches.

Before we proceeded to ordination, we were conditionally baptised and confirmed by Illtyd Thomas. We were then ordained to the Sacred Diaconate on 10 June 2006:

On 8 July 2006 we were ordained to the Sacred Priesthood:

 

On 8 July 2006, we were elected to the Episcopal Order:

In order to ensure that there was no misunderstanding on certain points, a statement was signed by Illtyd Thomas before our episcopal consecration. This would prove a prudent measure in light of subsequent events.

On 29 July 2006 we were consecrated to the Sacred Episcopate:

A summary of some key points is given below:

1. When we made contact with Illtyd Thomas in 2006, we did so as an existing church (the English Liberal Free Church) which was jointly led by the Revd. Andrew Linley and myself.
2. At no point during my preparation for ordination to the diaconate and priesthood and consecration to the episcopate were either of us under any Oath of Canonical Obedience to Illtyd Thomas.
3. At no time did we ever sign any Instrument of Canonical Obedience to Illtyd Thomas or any other document to similar effect.
4. It was made clear from the outset and understood clearly throughout the entire process of preparation for Holy Orders that Andrew Linley and I had come to Illtyd Thomas as clergy of an independent and fully autocephalous church; as a result, we remained autocephalous before, during and after the ceremonies of ordination and consecration. The sole purpose of these ceremonies was to transmit the Apostolic Succession for the benefit of our church.
5. No payment of money or any benefit in kind was ever made to Illtyd Thomas by us in connection with my ordination and consecration, nor did he ever request the same.

The following photograph and announcement would appear in the magazine of the Celtic Catholic Church, The Visitor, in September 2006, demonstrating its official endorsement of the consecration:

Following my ordination, contact with a former police officer and further contacts with fellow clergy provided me with compelling evidence that showed that Illtyd Thomas had been wholly untruthful with us regarding the details of some of his ordinations, the nature of his associations with others (including individuals with serious criminal convictions), and his own past history, which included a criminal conviction for theft. This information was shared by us with other jurisdictions, including the Apostolic Episcopal Church, and caused us to discontinue our contact with Illtyd Thomas. As a cautionary measure, it was agreed that we would undergo ordination and consecration to all the major orders sub conditione, which took place at the hands of a Traditional Catholic bishop that November.

During the following year, the elderly and vulnerable Illtyd Thomas came under the malign influence of several individuals, including a convicted felon, who sought to use him for their own purposes. Documents have since been posted online by these individuals that they allege were written by Illtyd Thomas, and that purport to be “instruments of laicisation” directed at us and at a bishop of another jurisdiction who was also ordained and consecrated by Illtyd Thomas. It should be added that no contact was ever received by us from Illtyd Thomas directly regarding these matters, nor were enquiries directed to him in their aftermath acknowledged.

We note that Illtyd Thomas habitually took care in the preparation of official documentation, which was generally printed or typed on headed paper and that bore his official seals. Examples are provided on this page. He was not accustomed in our experience to issuing official documents by scrawling them in pencil on scraps of notepaper, not least because his arthritis made it difficult and painful to write. Even if they were to be authentic, the legitimacy of the circumstances in which these documents were procured would be highly questionable.

No bishop can laicize a person who is not a member of his church, and any act or purported act of this kind by Illtyd Thomas would be canonically null and void. The purpose of such behaviour is, of course, to sow discord and to attempt to create doubt. Fortunately, no doubt as to the facts of the case exists, as is clearly demonstrated by the evidence above.

The position of the Apostolic Episcopal Church is as follows:

  • A bishop of another jurisdiction who was affected by these actions performed a solemn excommunication of Illtyd Thomas on 1 March 2007. While this was undertaken outside the Apostolic Episcopal Church, it was done with the support of the Apostolic Episcopal Church and has consequently been recognized as effective within the Apostolic Episcopal Church by decision of Metropolitan Synod.
  • The intercommunion that existed between the Apostolic Episcopal Church and the Celtic Catholic Church has been repudiated.
  • Holy Orders that were conferred by Illtyd Thomas continue to be regarded as valid in principle by the Apostolic Episcopal Church, although a careful examination on a case-by-case basis is necessary in light of the above facts.

>>Continue to part 2

About johnkersey

Historian, musician and educationalist.
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