Liberal Catholic Church

views updated


A group or groups within a movement known as "Independent Catholicism." It has roots in the Dutch Old Catholicism and has some theological affinities with Roman Catholicism, such as the meaning of sacraments, but with serious departures both in its theology, ecclesiology, and pastoral practice. In the U.S., there is a Liberal Catholic Church (LCC) that is a regional body within the larger international communion and claims legal title to the name in the United States. There is also a group that splintered from this body in 1947, yet is resident in only America. The latter is called the Liberal Catholic Church International, yet its members simply refer to their church as the LCC. Both entities describe themselves as the Liberal Catholic Church or the Liberal Catholic Church in the Province of the United States and both claim "official" status as the true church. Both the LCC (the international body) and the LCCI (the American body) have similarities and differences, but the critical distinction lies in the succession of bishops. In 2001, Dean Bekken was the presiding bishop of the LCCI with a headquarters in San Diego, California; James P. Roberts, Jr., was the LCCI regionary bishop in the Province of the United States (New York). In that same year, Ian Richard Hooker was the presiding bishop of the LCC with a headquarters in London, England; Bishop William Downey was the regionary bishop of the LCC in the Province of the United States (Ojai, California).

Both members of the Liberal Catholic movement use the same basic liturgy and both have an open communion table. Both churches acknowledge the laity's freedom of belief. Both churches accept married and celibate clergy. Both churches will remarry the divorced. Neither church ordains women. However, the LCC requires its clergy to accept the basic tenets of theosophy (reincarnation, karma, ascended masters, etc.) as well as Catholic Christianity; the LCCI requires only that its clergy accept the basic tenets of Catholic Christianity (the Holy Trinity, a real Eucharistic presence, etc.). The LCC does not permit its clergy to receive a salary for their religious work. The LCCI permits a salary if a parish is financially able.

History. On April 28, 1908, Arnold Harris Mathew (18521919), a former Roman Catholic priest, was consecrated as the Old Catholic Bishop for Great Britain and Ireland (see old catholics). By 1915, the movement to convert the English to the Old Catholics of Utrecht was failing. On Dec. 31, 1915, Bishop Mathew left to rejoin the Roman Catholic Church and Bishop Frederick Samuel Willoughby soon followed, but not before consecrating James Ingall Wedgwood a bishop. Theosophists of the Old Catholic Mission in Great Britain rallied behind Wedgwood of the famous tableware china family. In 1916, Wedgwood consecrated a kindred spirit in the noted theosophist Charles Webster Leadbeater regionary bishop of Australasia. Within a year's time, Wedgwood and Leadbeater had compiled the liturgy for the church, which on Sept. 6, 1918, was renamed Liberal Catholic.

In 1917 Wedgwood established the church in the United States. Its growth led him to create (1919) the American province under Bishop I. S. Cooper, who by 1924 had built a procathedral in Los Angeles, California. Cooper was consecrated in July 1919 by Wedgwood and Leadbetter. The St. Alban Theological Seminary was established in America in 1923. It is the LCCI's official seminary, and instructs its seminarians worldwide through distance learning from its base in San Diego, California. It is not an accredited institution, nor does it claim to grant educational degrees. There is also a St. Alban's Press that publishes tracts by its theologian-bishops. Adherents of the LCC are estimated to be around 8,000 worldwide; for the LCCI adherents number approximately 5,000.

In 1947 a controversy arose over what appeared to be a jurisdictional dispute between the American clergy and the then presiding bishop, F. W. Pigott of London, England. As part of the dispute, Bishop Pigott "suspended" the regionary bishop, Charles Hampton, and all the clergy supporting him. A cleft between the U.S. regionary and the presiding bishop resulted in litigation over the control of the church. The result was that Bishop Edward M. Matthews was awarded control of church property as well as the name, though the LCC's international governing body, the General Episcopal Synod, did not acknowledge his authority. While he later reconciled with the LCC, control of the American body fell into the hands of Dean Bekken, whom Matthews ordained a priest, and under whose direction the group came to be known as the LCCI. The schism continues to the present day. The effects of this fracturing have been to surface many scores of claimants to the title of "bishop" for an equal number of "churches."

Belief System. Holding that there are diverse paths to truth, the LCCI does not proselytize. The LCC on the other hand is expansionist and has established itself on every continent. Both groups affirm an apostolic succession through Old Catholicism. Both churches permit laity absolute interpretive license, seeking its members' fellowship in their willingness to worship corporately through a common ritual. While no creedal adherence is demanded from its members, some core teachings resonate with other Christian communities. Among these teachings are a doctrine of the Trinity, creation, Christology (including incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension), the seven sacraments, and that the church is the mystical Body of Christ. The LCCI also teaches that human beings are all immortal, both before and after physical death, and bodies are vehicles or expressions of human consciousness wherein the Spirit dwells. It does not teach reincarnation.

In the ministry for both groups, minor orders (cleric, doorkeeper, reader, exorcist, and acolyte) are intended primarily to assist the candidate in his own spiritual growth and life. Major orders (deacon, priest, and bishop) are intended primarily to assist the Christian community. Subdeacon is an intermediate stage. The hierarchy comprises regionary bishops over provinces; suffragans over dioceses; and auxiliaries, with various duties; they are all chosen by the general episcopal synod that also selects the presiding bishop. Presiding bishops for the LCC have been J. I. Wedgwood (191623), C. W. Leadbeater (192334), F. W. Pigott (193456), A. G. Vreede (195664), Sir H. Sykes (19641973), S. H. P. von Krusenstierna (197384), E. S. Taylor (198493), and J.C. van Alphen (19932000). The LCCI claims apostolic succession up through the presidency of Bishop Pigott and then Bishops R. M. Wardell, E. M. Matthews, F. Erwin, W. H. Daw, J. Neth, and since September, 1979,D. Bekken. The LCCI publishes Community, a thrice-yearly journal of news, articles, book reviews and poetry relating to spirituality and religion. The LCC publishes The Liberal Catholic.

[e. e. beauregard/

p. j. hayes]