Life in the Church – part 5 “Quis et unde?”

In 2018, I was faced with a challenging combination of circumstances. With our third child now expected, my family had outgrown San Luigi House and needed a bigger home. Moreover, having elderly family members living on the other side of the country, we no longer wished to make marathon train journeys to see them. Added to this, the AEC had continued to grow overseas, but had dwindled in Great Britain to the point where I was now the only remaining clergyman in major orders. With the exception of my own family, the remaining laity were, through age and geographical disparity, no longer in a position to form a viable worshipping community.

In such circumstances, a public chapel could no longer easily be sustained, and when we moved to Shropshire in December 2018, it was with an awareness that the provision of congregational worship in Great Britain would no longer be a priority. Even in far larger and better-resourced churches than ours, the decline in congregational worship was endemic. For all that our vision of the church is built upon the worshipping community, it proved necessary for us to reconsider how and where ministry can take place when people are no longer turning to the church as they have done in the past. Our solution was in various forms of voluntary service in the community and in the preservation of the distinctive history, tradition and identity of our communion through curation of its archives, the preparation of further book and article publications, and the maintenance of its detailed and informative website. Through all of this, we continued to support our overseas parishes and missions through practical assistance and in prayer.

During 2019, I was particularly pleased when a group of Brazilian clergy joined the Byelorussian Patriarchate, having previously been part of the related Belarusian jurisdiction of the American World Patriarchates (which was now issued a Perpetual Charter in the Catholicate of the West). The creation of the Brazilian Exarchate under Dom Nagui Zayat brought about a new headquarters for our mission there in the form of the Cathedral of St George and St Sebastian in Rio de Janeiro.

The new year and the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic brought a much-needed opportunity to re-think the structure and organization of our missions going forward. The outcome of this was that the Abbey-Principality of San Luigi became the parent body for all jurisdictions, and the Catholicate of the West was established as the ecumenical organization within the Abbey-Principality under which they would be gathered.

The most visible blows dealt to us by the pandemic were the deaths of Dom Nagui Zayat from complications of Covid-19 and the death of the wife of one of our senior priests in Scandinavia as a result of a reaction to the Covid-19 vaccine. Inevitably, public worship was placed under even greater strain than had been the case previously, and it still remains to be seen whether it will return to the position prior to 2020.

Following the death of Dom Nagui, the Synod of the Byelorussian Patriarchate elected Dom Bartholomews his successor as Exarch. Unfortunately, this appointment was not accepted by some of the clergy, who proceeded to separate their missions from the Patriarchate, and there was further and ongoing legal strife concerning the Cathedral in Rio de Janeiro, which was claimed by Dom Nagui’s family as their personal property. Fortunately, alternative premises were found in which worship could be continued and a new Cathedral established, and it was not long before the Patriarchate was once more engaged in productive mission among some of Brazil’s poorest citizens.

Between October 2021 and June 2022 we took on responsibility for the oversight of a number of parishes and missions in the Spanish-speaking world under the aegis of the Apostolic Episcopal Church. These parishes followed the Use of Sarum, a rite with a long tradition within the Catholicate of the West. As of June 2022, the majority of these missions had been released from our jurisdiction, leaving solely the Carmelite monastery in Esmereldas, Ecuador, which remains part of the AEC. The monastery undertakes a wide range of mission activity in this deprived part of the world, with three dedicated brothers serving in the community.

As a postscript to this series, I have included some general observations drawing on my experiences of exercising the episcopate in the smaller churches, which can be read here.