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 immediate 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. In time, we would develop a more substantial view of the mission of an inner church dedicated to the contemplative tradition.

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 in the event, the majority of our congregational and mission outreach would not survive this.

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. A new Cathedral was established, and it was not long before the Patriarchate was once more engaged in a productive mission among some of Brazil’s poorest citizens, expanding further overseas in Europe and Africa.

However, this too was not to last, and during Holy Week of 2023 the majority of the clergy decided to repudiate the leadership of Dom Bartholomews. With attempts to bring about a reconciliation having failed, I took the decision to bring a formal end to the Patriarchate’s remaining missions and congregational outreach, returning it to its former role as a purely dynastic ekklesia. This crisis had not in my judgement been the fault of Dom Bartholomews, who had offered generous support and competent leadership only to see this repudiated by clergy who had their own agendas. Accordingly I transferred Dom Bartholomews and his remaining clergy and laity to the Apostolic Episcopal Church and the Order of Antioch in order to make a fresh start, which opportunity was enthusiastically received.

Between October 2021 and November 2022, I also took on responsibility for the oversight of a number of parishes and missions in Spain and Latin America 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, and had previously been organized under a Continuing Anglican ministry. Unfortunately it was not long before significant internal dissent had developed within this group, with the result that the majority of these parishes were released from our jurisdiction in June 2022 with the last continuing with us until November 2022.

Following the end of the missions of the Patriarchate in April 2023, I implemented a new policy for our communion that sought to refocus our energies upon the spiritual essentials of prayer and private worship, as well as an active openness to the mystic and esoteric aspects of the Christian Faith, so as to create a true inner church that could serve as a counterpart to its external peers. It seemed clear to me that in the decline of our congregational outreach, we were being led to a more inward mission that would concentrate on a smaller number of genuinely committed adherents rather than seeking to continue to involve ourselves in areas that the larger denominations were better equipped to address.

In embracing this new direction, I reflected that it was in fact the approach which was most in keeping with my own spirituality and with which I felt most at home personally. A key inspiration at this point was the work of the Apostolate of the Holy Wisdom (for which I had had responsibility since 2015) as it had been constituted under the late Archbishop William Bernard Crow, which became an important model for the way forward.

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.