The Liberal Catholic Church (hereafter, LCC) is a sacramentally oriented Christian Church combining the stately rituals of Catholicism with teachings more akin to the Neo-platonic Christianity of ancient Alexandria, than to the current doctrines of any of the mainstream churches.
The dual emphasis upon sacramental worship and eastern-inclined teachings is not hard to account for. In the first place both of the founding bishops, James Ingall Wedgwood (1883-1951) and Charles Webster Leadbeater (1847-1934), were aware of the potency of the Christian sacraments, correctly celebrated, not only through personal sensitivity of a religious or aesthetic nature, but also through the highly controlled clairvoyant capacities each of them is believed to have developed.
In the second place the teachings arising from the LCC were naturally shaped by the world view shared by Wedgwood and Leadbeater and their associates. Both men were actively involved in the work of the Theosophical Society (TS). Wedgwood had come under the powerful influence of Annie Besant, then International President of the TS, so that, by 1916, when he joined Leadbeater in Australia to build the foundations of the new church, he had already spent a very strenuous term as General Secretary (national administrator) of the TS in the United Kingdom. By 1916, Leadbeater, much the older of the two, had long been a close associate and trusted colleague of Annie Besant, with whom he had co-authored a number of major theosophical treatises. He had, in addition, lectured for the TS in several countries, and had written extensively on theosophical themes, often emphasizing “the hidden side of things.” Moreover both men were deeply committed members of the Esoteric School of Theosophy.
In view of these influences, it will not be found surprising that the LCC offered an interpretation of Christianity in which judgment and salvation after only one life, were replaced by liberation from the need for rebirth after many; and in which avoidance of the consequences of sin via the redemptive sacrifice of Christ, was replaced by the just and educative reaping of whatever had been sown in earlier human incarnations under the “Law of Karma,” or, as preferred by the LCC, “under an inviolable law of cause of effect” (Summary of Doctrine, Para 5).
It will be appreciated that teachings built on these foundations would inevitably be seen by the orthodox as non-Christian, or anti-Christian, whatever other common ground might be pointed out. Notwithstanding such reactions, the LCC has, from its inception, insisted on its essentially Christian character. Indeed, the official Statement of Principles opens with the words, “The Liberal Catholic Church exists to forward Christ’s work in the world.”
The Origins of the LCC. 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, in the English branch of the European Old Catholic Church. The Old Catholic Church, centered upon Utrecht in the Netherlands, had itself been formed when Dutch “Old Roman Catholics,” independent from Rome since 1724, had combined with the hundreds of thousands of European Catholics who rejected the doctrine of the Papal Infallibility proclaimed at the First Vatican Council (1871). The members of the resulting Communion declared themselves to be “Old Catholics” as distinct from the allegedly new-style Catholics acceding to the infallibility of the Bishop of Rome, when speaking ex-Cathedra on questions of faith and morals.
Convinced, unjustifiably, as it turned out, that substantial numbers of disgruntled English Catholics were eager to give allegiance to Utrecht, the Old Catholic bishops consecrated Arnold Harris Mathew as bishop in charge of their new English branch. Mathew, an Englishman who had for a long time in the Catholic church, and for a shorter time in the Anglican Church, served as a priest, was full of hope for the new venture. The Old Catholic bishops and their new English colleague were all to be disappointed, for the expected flow of eager new members did not eventuate, at least not immediately. When, a few years later, numbers did begin to grow, those entering were nearly all the theosophists referred to above, who were seeking to continue their participation in the sacramental life of the Church without having to conceal their theosophical convictions. Mathew, urbane, cultivated and deeply devotional, made them welcome. First came the young James Wedgwood, soon to be followed by increasing numbers of his theosophical colleagues. But if Mathew was charming and devout, he was also changeable. It was more than likely his maturing plan to return to Rome bringing his congregation with him, that led him to realize how unacceptable his theosophically tainted flock would be. His ultimatum to withdraw from the Theosophical Society or from the Old Catholic Church, left him stranded, as the vast majority of his people at once gathered separately and chose James Wedgwood as their leader. Eventually a retired Old Catholic bishop, hearing of Mathew’s reversal, offered to regularize the separated group’s position by consecrating their elected leader. Accordingly the consecration of James Wedgwood on February 13, 1916 is regarded as the foundation date of the Church later (September 1918) to be known as the LCC.
Having already (1915) interested Charles Leadbeater in the potential for good of the Old Catholic Church, Wedgwood prepared some foundational documents (Constitution and Rules for Clergy, Statement of Principles), secured for them the approval of his English colleagues, and set off for Australia to enlist Leadbeater’s help in devising a new liturgy, building congregations, and finding suitable candidates for Holy Orders. Both men were convinced that the blessing of Christ Himself rested upon their work. In a letter to his colleague Annie Besant, Leadbeater lamented her absence: “Your splendid gift of language, your wonderful power of putting things poetically, would be invaluable to us.”
First, Wedgwood re-ordained Leadbeater “conditionally” through all steps up to the priesthood — Leadbeater had much earlier been an Anglican priest — then consecrated him as Regionary Bishop for Australasia. With, it is held by most Liberal Catholics, frequent recourse to their capacities of extra-sensory perception in order to evaluate the effects in the “inner worlds” of their liturgical innovations, Wedgwood and Leadbeater prepared an entire liturgy of services. Their principal models were current Roman Catholic services, but they wrote in English, and in a style more akin to the Anglican Prayer book. The Liturgy of the LCC was published in 1919 but copies of parts of it, and especially of the Holy Eucharist, had been circulating in the growing Liberal Catholic community from as early as 1917. During these formative years Leadbeater built a firm base in Sydney, while Wedgwood traveled at intervals in New Zealand, the United States and the United Kingdom, in each of these countries establishing new centers, and ordaining suitable candidates for Holy Orders. Wedgwood emerges from all accounts of those who knew him well, as an inspiring ceremonialist and speaker, and as an effective organizer. Possibly his most lasting contribution, however, is in the liturgy to which he was the primary contributor, revealing a gift for language of a very high order. To Leadbeater, Wedgwood accorded the credit for the careful supersensory observations which guided their joint efforts. In this respect it must be pointed out that although Wedgwood may not have had the extraordinary powers of his colleague, his own observations were by no means commonplace. He is now known to be the principal author of what have long been referred to as “the Kollerstrom Notes” in Leadbeater’s 1929 edition of his 1920 publication, The Science of the Sacraments. How the LCC Spread. In reviewing, however briefly, the rapid rise of the LCC, it must be acknowledged that the existing strength and established membership of the Theosophical Society were essential to its growth.
A Christian church whose sacramental life had been clairvoyantly observed by the founders, it was believed, and whose doctrines quite clearly embodied a theosophical interpretation of Christian teachings however carefully these were re-expressed in Christian terms, quite understandably appealed to a great many theosophists. The immense reputation of Charles Leadbeater in the theosophical world, and the enthusiastic commendation of the new church from the only other living theosophist more highly regarded, International President Annie Besant, ensured widespread support. Wherever Wedgwood and the others who soon also traveled for the LCC went, there were theosophical lodges to welcome them. Increasing care had to be taken to stress the organizational separation of the two movements, but the overlap of ideas and members was obvious to all. Two further crucial influences galvanized the theosophical world in favor of the LCC. In 1916 Leadbeater and Besant simultaneously affirmed, he from Australia, she from India, that they had been instructed, overnight, while “out-of-the-body,” that three movements were considered very promising and that theosophists should, if their circumstances permitted, support at least one of them. These movements were the Liberal Catholic Church, the movement for comprehensive reform in education, and the Co-Masonic Order — a Masonic fraternity which admitted women and offered a theosophical interpretation of Masonic symbols. This instruction was said to have come from a very high adeptic source. 1, 2, 3
If the effect of this pronouncement on committed theosophists was powerful, even more so was the effect on members of the Esoteric School (ES), where the guidance seems to have been expressed in firmer tones. The second crucial influence referred to above was that of the ES itself, for from among its members the early ordinands of the LCC were drawn. The bishops could rely on ES members to be well versed in theosophy, familiar with its classical literature, and eager to serve “the Masters of the Wisdom,” believed to be the inspiration behind the TS and its leaders.
This accounts in part for the rapidity with which the early bishops were able to locate suitable candidates for Holy Orders. The other factor was the capacity believed to be possessed by Wedgwood, Leadbeater and some others, to search the auras of possible candidates and so discern their strengths, weaknesses and possibilities. For all of these reasons, the LCC spread swiftly in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, the USA and the Netherlands, with expansion to some thirty and more other countries following later. To leave this comfortable and reassuring picture to stand unqualified would be, however, to tell only half of the story, for all of these developments took place amidst accelerating messianic expectations, and in Australia and the US especially, accelerating protest and opposition.
The protest and opposition arose in Australia and spread to the USA. Long-time adversaries of Leadbeater, on hearing he had moved from India to Sydney, in Australia, advised authorities there that an evil man had entered their jurisdiction. A police investigation was initiated with a view to gathering evidence against him. Then, fueled in part by TS members hostile to the LCC, a newspaper campaign directed scorn and innuendo at the new church and its leaders. After some years of intermittent police enquiries and press attacks, the police stopped looking for evidence and the newspapers lost interest. Unpleasant as this had been, the failed Messianism of the 1920’s was to be the more severe test.
The LCC and the Messianic Expectation of the 1920’s. One of the least understood episodes in the history of the Theosophical Movement was the rise and then the collapse of the expectation that the Lord Christ, identified in the theosophical mind with the “World Teacher,” or “the Lord Maitreya,” would undertake a new ministry in the world by speaking through the form of an Indian disciple, J. Krishnamurti.
It should be kept in mind that Besant had predicted a second coming as early as 1908. Further, there is strong evidence that Blavatsky had in 1889 linked the purposes for the founding of the TS to the same prediction. Leadbeater’s “discovery” of the young Krishnamurti dates back to 1909, and in the same year he is known to have formed the conviction that Krishnamurti was likely to be the “vehicle” through whom the Lord would giving His new message. This was of course long before English theosophists, Wedgwood included, began filtering into the Old Catholic Church. Thus, messianic expectation was present in the leadership of the LCC in its earliest beginnings, and became more explicitly so as the response to the idea increasingly captured the theosophical foreground.
Krishnamurti initially accepted gracefully the role predicted for him. His natural reserve sheltered him to some extent, but publications and public appearances revealed him to the fascinated theosophical world as a young man of uncommon charm and deep spirituality. He seems to have experienced some hesitation in the early 1920’s, then to have allowed certain mystical or supernatural experiences to draw him fully into line with the mounting hopes and anticipations. During this period it was believed, by Krishnamurti himself and by the theosophical leaders, that the Lord was gradually accustoming him to the strain involved in being “overshadowed.” While all of this was going on and while most members of the LCC were fervently supportive of the Order of the Star in the East formed around Krishnamurti, Krishnamurti himself was to be perceived as singularly unenthusiastic about ceremonial in general and the LCC in particular. Liberal Catholics, taught to believe their Church was the only one likely to recognize the Lord when He came, had to contend with the dismissive attitude of the “Vehicle.”
Liberal Catholics were fully involved in the jubilation of the mid 1920’s when the Lord was believed to have spoken on several occasions through the body of Krishnamurti — even change of voice having been reported on occasions — and as fully crushed when Krishnamurti, after becoming increasingly critical of rituals, paths and organizations, dissolved the Order of the Star (1929) and disassociated himself from the theosophical movement. No longer the Vehicle awaiting the Teacher, he claimed to be the Teacher, offering an astringent challenge to individual self-discovery in place of the compassionate, gospel reminiscent utterances thought to have been given recently “through” him. The LCC was as devastated as the Theosophical Society. Membership of both organizations fell by more than half. The bishops who had euphorically written World Teacher expectation into the official Summary of Doctrine at the second General Episcopal Synod in 1926, carefully removed all traces of it at the third in 1930. The whole theosophical leadership was in public tight-lipped about Krishnamurti’s reversal, but in private Leadbeater said “The Coming has gone wrong.” He would not criticize his one-time protégé, but it is plain that he felt this was where the difficulty lay. Wedgwood’s response was similar. Everywhere emotional and spiritual deflation were reinforced by the economic depression of the period and many wondered whether the Church would survive at all. Rumors even suggested that the bishops would use the Synod of 1930 to shut the LCC down. Instead the bishops sought to widen the appeal of the church by emphasizing its Christian sacramentalism, and discouraging overt theosophical references. A drift towards liberal orthodoxy ensued, only to be reversed at the fourth General Episcopal Synod in 1958, when the Church’s theosophical foundations, carefully expressed in Christian terms, were firmly re-asserted.
The Wisdom Tradition Re-Affirmed. The crucial 1958 Synod had been preceded by a less formal gathering of Bishops at Huizen, in the Netherlands, in 1956, convened at the invitation of the newly elected Presiding Bishop, Dr. Adrian Vreede, a man standing very much in the Leadbeater-Wedgewood tradition. From this informal gathering came “The Declaration of Huizen,” recommending the restoration of the original purposes and teachings of the Church, but making no reference at all to the Messianism of the 1920’s. The 1958 Synod gave a ringing endorsement to this policy, going so far as to formulate a rider to the reinforced Statement of Principles and Summary of Doctrine making general agreement with the contents of this document a pre-condition for ordination. This was a clear indication that the 1958 Synod had no intention of allowing the LCC to again depart from its original foundation.
Since 1958 successive Synods have sustained this policy. The Summary of Doctrine, although amended slightly, remains into the 1990’s very much the Ancient Wisdom clothed in Christian terms. Nevertheless the LCC continues to be hospitable to all attracted to its churches, asking only that they participate with reverence. Moreover, lay members are free to interpret Scripture and all matters of doctrine as they choose, so that a wide range of viewpoints is to be found in most congregations but not to the extent of displacing Christian esotericism, informed by the theosophical Wisdom Tradition, as the prevailing approach within the Liberal Catholic community. The Structure of the LCC. The LCC is governed by its 35 or so bishops who meet as a General Episcopal Synod every few years. An elected Presiding Bishop is the chief executive officer and the convenor of Synods. He is aided by committees which deal with administrative and judicial matters between Synods.
The world-wide LCC is divided into 20 provinces, each under a Regionary Bishop, and a number of less populous territories, each supervised by an appointed administrator. Clergy are trained in situ and with the aid of correspondence courses offered by the Liberal Catholic Institute of Studies. These courses are unevenly supported by Regionary Bishops and are not yet widely translated into languages other than English. Clergy are unpaid and either hold secular occupations or are retired. Only men are admitted to major orders, but recently women servers have been introduced in many provinces. No charges are made for any services rendered. Donations are generally accepted, as after weddings or baptisms, but are never requested.
Liberal Catholic Ceremonial. It is firmly held by most Liberal Catholics that the founding bishops were inspired and guided in their building of the new Liturgy by Christ Himself. It is also widely acknowledged that their use of capabilities of supersensory observation enabled them to arrange the various services to maximize the flow of spiritual power or grace.
The seven historic sacraments are offered within the LCC, with the Holy Eucharist, or Mass, receiving most attention. Both founding bishops believed, and it is generally accepted by clergy and members, that the principal purpose of each Eucharist is to call down a prodigious blessing which is spread upon the neighborhood as the service ends. The benefit to those participating, while very great, is thus to be seen as incidental to the main purpose of the service.
The transmission of Holy Orders by a succession of validly consecrated bishops (the Apostolic Succession) is highly prized. Great care is taken in the selection of new bishops. Those consecrated are expected to maintain a disciplined and somewhat ascetic lifestyle. In addition to their sacramental and teaching roles, the bishops are seen as transmitting Christ’s blessing to all whom they contact.
Liberal Catholic Teachings. Members are free to believe as they choose, unity of purpose arising from sharing a common liturgy. Nevertheless most are informally comfortable with the Church’s brief Summary of Doctrine. Clergy, on the other hand, from Deacon onwards, have all formally indicated their “general agreement” with the Statement of Principles and Summary of Doctrine. This document affirms the unity of God who is said to manifest in the Universe as a Trinity. It also points to the latent divinity gradually finding expression in all human lives. Christ is seen as “a mighty spiritual presence in the world”, the compassionate guide and guardian of humanity. Humans are believed to be ultimately perfectible, as they take birth again and again under “an inviolable law of cause and effect.” There is therefore a company of “just men made perfect who help mankind”, and there is a ministry of angels. All of these ideas are explored in Liberal Catholic literature.
Conclusion. Today the LCC is a small communion of a few thousand members, quietly re-examining its role in the world. While there are always pressures to become more popular, more Christian, more modern, more orthodox or more colloquial, most are resolved that the LCC must remain true to its founders, and, more important, to the Source of their inspiration, and continue to offer sacramental grace in a pure form, and the Ageless Wisdom in terms understandable in a Christian context.
1. “On the Watch Tower,” The Theosophist, October 1916, pp. 3-6.
2. Hooker, I. R. Foundations of the Liberal Catholic Church. University of Sydney, 1981, pp. 219-20.
3. Ransom J. A Short History of the Theosophical Society, 1875-1937, TPH, Adyar, 1938, pp. 420-1.
4. Hooker, I. R. Foundations of the Liberal Catholic Church. University of Sydney, 1981, pp. 128-9.
5. Nethercott, A. H. The Last Four Lives of Annie Besant, Rupert hart-Davies, London, 1963, p. 128.
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