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Richard Smoley's Blog

The Liberal Catholic Church Celebrates Its Centenary

“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.
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