Richard Smoley's Blog

The Liberal Catholic Church Celebrates Its Centenary

February 17, 2016

Tags: Liberal Catholic Church, C.W. Leadbeater, independent sacramental movements, Theosophy, esoteric Christianity

“Are you a bishop?” I said to Dan, the man who picked me up at the Albuquerque airport. He was wearing a purple fleece windbreaker.

“Me? No, I’m an acolyte,” he replied.

Thus began my immersion into the world of the Liberal Catholic Church (LCC), which was celebrating its hundredth anniversary on February 13, 2016, in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. I had been invited as a dinner speaker for the anniversary banquet.

I knew that the Liberal Catholics were very much into liturgy and ecclesiastical garb, so, seeing someone wearing purple, I thought he might be a bishop. Purple is a color reserved for bishops in the Catholic and Anglican churches. Years ago, when I was introduced to the Anglican bishop of Winchester, he was wearing a purple shirt and a clerical collar very much like those I was about to see on many Liberal Catholic clergy for the next three days.

But in the Liberal Catholic Church, purple is worn by lesser clergy as well, as I could tell from the purple windbreaker (and socks) that Dan was wearing. The reason, as I would learn from Presiding Bishop Graham Wale, is that purple is a color that fosters “cleansing.”

The LCC owes its origins to a curious fact about Roman Catholic dogma. While a priest can be unfrocked for lapses in faith or morals, a bishop, once consecrated, can never be unconsecrated. (You ordain a priest, but you consecrate a bishop.) When a bishop is created, he is given the Apostolic Succession, and that is that. He also has the right and ability to consecrate bishops himself.

This fact gained importance after the First Vatican Council of 1870, which decreed that the pope is infallible when speaking in matters of faith and doctrine—something that had never been claimed before. A small number of bishops, finding this intolerable, broke off ties with Rome. Nevertheless, they were still, technically, bishops and Catholic bishops at that. This was the origin of what are called the Old Catholic churches.

One of these Old Catholic bishops was an Englishman named A.H. Mathew. In 1913 he was contacted by James Ingall Wedgwood, who had been preparing for Holy Orders in the Church of England but was expelled when he revealed that he was a member of the Theosophical Society. Although the Theosophical Society does not require any specific beliefs from its members, it has put forward ideas, such as reincarnation, that have never been congenial to mainstream Christianity.

Wedgwood was not alone. The Theosophical Encyclopedia says, “The LCC arose from the sense of loss of many English theosophists whose new affiliation left them unwelcome in the churches where they had been worshiping, and from the endeavor of these people to find a place of Christian worship, along with freedom of interpretation.”

Mathew ordained Wedgwood as a priest in 1913. Soon after, Mathew consecrated F.S. Willoughby as a bishop. On February 13, 1916, Willoughby in turn consecrated Wedgwood, an event from which the Liberal Catholic Church dates its origin (hence the hundredth anniversary). Originally called the Old Catholic Church in England, it was renamed the Liberal Catholic Church in 1918.

By far the greatest influence on the LCC was C.W. Leadbeater (1854–1934), a former Anglican priest who became a pupil of H.P. Blavatsky in 1884 and who went to India in 1886. Here, it is said, he developed certain clairvoyant abilities under the direction of the Theosophical Master Koot Hoomi, including the ability to see otherwise invisible “thought forms.” He and Annie Besant, later president of the Theosophical Society, did a number of clairvoyant investigations and published their results in books such as Thought Forms and (For more on this aspect of their work, see my blog posting, “The Future of Thought Forms,” January 27, 2016).

Leadbeater’s clairvoyant abilities shaped the development of the LCC. In 1920 he published his magnum opus, The Science of the Sacraments, which described the astral forms that he saw when the Christian sacraments were performed.

The Eucharist, or mass, said Leadbeater, was particularly powerful. “It is a plan,” he wrote, “for helping on the evolution of the world by the frequent outpouring of floods of spiritual force.” When properly enacted, he said, the ceremony created an astral “thought-edifice” that can take on any number of variations, although it is usually based on a foursquare ground plan surmounted with a dome. Leadbeater even said that “the Church of Sancta Sophia at Constantinople was erected in imitation of one of these spiritual edifices.”

To create as powerful a vehicle as possible, the celebrant needs to perform the Eucharist correctly and with intention (as opposed to rote mechanical enactment). The Catholic and Anglican rites of Leadbeater’s day were, he said, defective, so he and Wedgwood recast them. “We set to work to eliminate the many features which from our point of view disfigure and weaken the older liturgies,” Wedgwood later wrote. “References to fear of God, to His wrath and to everlasting damnation were taken out, also the constant insistence on the sinfulness and worthlessness of man.” The resulting liturgy was published in 1919.

As a result the LCC combines an elaborate, “high” Christian liturgy with freedom of thought. The church’s website states:

The Liberal Catholic Church erects no barriers around its altars. All who come in a spirit of reverence are welcome to Holy Communion and to all other services of the Church. What opinions or beliefs an individual holds is considered to be his/her own affair. The mind that is free is in the best condition to grow. Growth into spirituality enhances the perception of truth which each one must discover for himself/herself and in his/her own way. Anything less than full mental freedom is thought to retard progress. Thus, the difference between The Liberal Catholic Church and all other Catholic and Protestant Churches lies in the fact that with the ancient sacramental worship have been associated the widest measure of intellectual freedom and respect for the individual conscience.

Membership figures for the LCC are difficult to come by, and it does not seem that any intense effort has been made in recent years to count members. William Downey, U.S. Regionary Bishop of the LCC, told me that the membership in this country had been reported as 8000 for some time, but that this figure was almost certainly overstated.

The anniversary celebration took place in the Albuquerque suburb of Rio Rancho, hosted by Our Lady Queen of Angels Liberal Catholic Church. It had been preceded by a synod of LCC bishops worldwide that had taken place during the previous week. Around sixty people attended, including LCC dignitaries from Australia, New Zealand, Britain, France, Hungary, and Brazil. I was received very warmly, and I was gratified to learn that many LCC clergy had read my books, especially Inner Christianity, and sometimes used them in study groups.

My own talk related to my forthcoming book, How God Became God. I tried to argue that since the literal truth of the Bible has been increasingly called into question in recent decades (archaeology, for example, has by no means verified many of the historical claims in the Old Testament), if we are to make some real use of the Bible in the future, it will have to involve returning to deeper, esoteric levels of meaning—such as, for example, seeing the biblical stories (such as the Exodus and the passion of Christ) not necessarily as factual accounts but as representations of stages that the soul goes through in its evolution. These meanings have been known since antiquity, but were pushed into the background in recent centuries. It seems to me that movements that are sympathetic to these approaches, including the LCC, could play a crucial part in revivifying Christianity in the years to come.

Comments

  1. February 17, 2016 8:13 PM EST
    Looking forward to the book. If your talk doesn't contain too many spoilers, it might provide some additional publicity.
    - Tom Hutcheson
  2. February 18, 2016 1:36 AM EST
    A nice little article, direct and concise in its history of the LCC, and insightful.
    - Steve Schweizer
  3. February 18, 2016 7:19 AM EST
    Thanks, Richard. Beautifully lucid, as always! I am still puzzling though over the difference between the Reformed Catholic Church and the Liberal Catholic Church? Any enlightenment?
    - Cherry Gilchrist
  4. March 22, 2016 7:26 PM EDT
    The Reformed Catholic Church is independent from the Roman Catholic Church and was formed primarily to address the Roman Church's practice of withholding the sacraments from the faithful based one's marital status, sexual orientation or state of mortal sin. From its website (www.reformedcatholic.org): "We reclaim Jesus Christ, the Bible and the Church. We include everyone in our ministry of Jesus Christ because that is what Jesus would do. We read the scriptures through the lens of the present and from a multicultural point-of-view. We celebrate the sacraments with anyone who wishes to receive them, because these are the gifts of God for the people of God." The Liberal Catholic Church also makes use of an open communion but was formed specifically to allow a traditional Catholic liturgy while allowing the faithful to explore other religious traditions. From their website (http://www.thelccusa.org/about/doctrine.html): "The Liberal Catholic Church believes that there is body of doctrine and mystical experience common to all the great religions of the world and which cannot be claimed as the exclusive possession of any. Moving within the orbit of Christianity and regarding itself as a distinctively Christian church it nevertheless holds that the other great religions of the world are divinely inspired and that all proceed from a common source, though different religions stress different aspects of this teaching and some aspects may even temporarily drop out of recognition. These teachings, as facts in nature, rest in their own intrinsic merit. They form that true Catholic faith, which is Catholic because it is the statement of universal principles in nature.” — from The Statement of Principles.
    - Chris Sedlmeyer
  5. April 8, 2016 10:37 AM EDT
    Very helpful article - a concise history.
    - Janet Kerschner
  6. April 27, 2016 12:07 PM EDT
    It's time for them to ramp up and come on back, they are sorely needed. Some of the best esotericists like Paul Case and W. E. Butler have been Liberal Catholic priests. They must be doing something right, but no one knows about them. Like, no one. And those who do think they're a relic of yesteryear. Come on back, you are needed! Those of us with extensive liturgical experience can help you freshen and tighten up a bit...
    - Clint
  7. May 17, 2016 8:57 AM EDT
    What a beautiful article to read. I only recently found the Liberal Catholic Church here in Perth, two years ago. I have been consecrated a Religious Franciscan Brother by our Bishop, Bishop James White. A wonderful man in every way and a very generous and kind Bishop. I now have many Programs which aim to be of service to our local Fremantle Community. All of our work is supported and part of our LCC Perth. We also run Multifaith Programs here which bring people together, all sort of men and women with different faith path and traditions. All this sits very well within LCC theology, Free Thought. I am very content now, I am welcomed, I am accepted and loved. I value deeply our LCC and am doing my best to bring it to the attention of many others who are excluded for any number of reasons. Blessings. Br Francis Mary (Franicscan's of the Cross) LCC. St John the Divine, Perth. WA.
    - cledwyn Stafford
  8. May 17, 2016 8:59 AM EDT
    Dear Richard, you can read more about me if you look at my Blogg, brothercledwy.weebly.com. I would love to keep in touch with you, and share with you all of the wonderful Programs that we do here in Fremantle.
    - cledwyn Stafford
  9. April 23, 2017 1:50 AM EDT
    This article that Richard has written and explained the LCC in great detail is most interesting and enlightening. Secondly I was fortunate to be one Priest present amongst many including Bishops at the Centennial dinner where Richard gave his very polished Presentation to all present. May I personally thank him for that presentation which contained much factual evidence he brought forth and which he argued well for his case! I have enjoyed reading Richard's book and am most pleased to post this testimonial of his profound knowledge of his subject matter. I look forward to his forthcoming next book, and would urge any organisation seeking a speaker on religion to seriously consider requesting Richard. With all blessings from the UK Richard. +David Bennett. OSJ.
    - David Bennett
  10. June 26, 2017 9:30 AM EDT
    Hi again, it has been a year since I first made my initial comment on this page. I am still within the LCC and still doing the work that I had initially started. What I am now beginning to see, feel and experience, is the separation between those who are more traditional in there thinking and practice and those who are esoteric. This seems to be the dividing line within our Church. We draw into our Clery, x Roman Catholics, Anglicans, you name it, they end up here becoming our Priests and bringing with them all of there history and practice. It makes for some interesting Homilies. Our challenge, applying the Freedom of Thought, is to still, at some level be on the same page. We are going to Ordain a man into the Priesthood who does not even believe that Jesus was ever born, lived or died. As you can imagine, this is a big one for those of us who do. Freedom of Thought, I don't think so, there is some question as to whether he will be Ordained or not. Anyway, its all interesting. BFM
    - Brother Francis Mary ( Cledwyn Stafford )
  11. November 15, 2017 6:56 AM EST
    This article is not completely accurate. The author states:
    While a priest can be unfrocked for lapses in faith or morals, a bishop, once consecrated, can never be unconsecrated. (You ordain a priest, but you consecrate a bishop.)
    To begin with, there is one Sacrament of Holy Orders, Deacons, Priests and Bishops are all ordained in this sacrament. It is common in some jurisdictions to talk about the consecration of a bishop,there is nothing wrong with this, the bishop is however ordained, it is known as an episcopal ordination. Of course, priests and deacons are also consecrated to the service of the Church.
    The article gives the impression that a bishop cannot lose his ‘bishopness’, but a priest can lose his ordination through being unfrocked. This is not so.
    Traditional western theology states that three sacraments leave an indelible mark on the soul. Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders. You cannot therefore be un-baptised, neither can you be un-ordained.
    A priest (or deacon or bishop) can be laicised, unfrocked, suspended, excommunicate or even become schismatic , but he still remains a priest. He can still validly celebrate the sacraments. As a schismatic bishop can validly impart the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
    - Dom Edward
  12. November 15, 2017 10:07 AM EST
    Thanks for the clarification, Dom Edward.
    - Richard Smoley

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