The Need for The Present Paper
The Ecclesia Gnostica, as the oldest sacramental Gnostic organization in the United States, possesses its own traditions and policies which were in large measure bequeathed to it by its founder, Bishop Richard Duc de Palantine. With the introduction into this country (some twenty years after the inception of our own work) of other Gnostic churches with their own traditions and customs, there arose a situation that might readily lead to certain misconceptions in the public mind. The Gnostic churches which made their appearance on our shores in more recent decades all derive their successions and most of their policies from the Gnostic Church of France, which began its work in the last portion of the nineteenth century in France (1890). In contrast, the Ecclesia Gnostica received its ecclesiastical and Gnostic communion from England, from sources that were aware of and sympathetic to their French fellow-Gnostics, but did not share some of the policies of the latter.
As we shall explain in the following, the French Gnostic Church maintained a close association with certain secret initiatory orders, while the Ecclesia Gnostica has not done so. Thus there exists certain differences in policy and tradition between the Ecclesia Gnostica and the various branches of the French Gnostic Church. These differences continue to exist in spite of the friendly relations -- in some instances amounting to formal treaties (concordats) -- existing between the Ecclesia Gnostica and the aforesaid ecclesiastical organizations of French derivation.
Owing to these considerations it seems necessary that we of the Ecclesia Gnostica should clearly state our position in regard to the relation of our church to secret initiatory orders, and the present position paper was written to serve this purpose.
What are Secret Initiatory Orders?
A brief historical review may be helpful at this point. As is well known to all who have some knowledge of the past, Gnostics have not been able to function openly throughout much of the history of Western Culture. On the few occasions when Gnostic religious organizations emerged into public view, they were brutally and vigorously suppressed. (The examples of the Cathars and Templars are the best known.)
In the eighteenth century, in part as the result of the movement known as the Enlightenment, esoteric currents, including those containing Gnostic elements, surfaced once again. In view of the ever-present powers of religious intolerance it appeared prudent to persons of esoteric interests to band together in associations that functioned in secrecy and admitted members only after they passed certain tests, and after the administering to them of oaths of obligation.
By the latter half of the eighteenth century secret orders were very much a part of European (and eventually of American) society. The most prominent of these orders was Freemasonry, although other orders, particularly the Rosicrucian Fraternity of Germany were popular also. It was in this era that the Martinist Order originated as the result of the activities of Martinez de Pasqually and Louis-Claude de St. Martin.
The secret initiatory orders served many purposes, not the least of which was the study and practice of heterodox esoteric spiritual traditions, many of which were closely related to Gnosticism. When the nineteenth century dawned amidst the turmoil of the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars, the secret orders became increasingly a subject of controversy, and their occasional suppression was brought about by the Roman Catholic Church and governments under its influence.
The Secret Orders and The French Gnostics
When the French Gnostic Church was founded (or revived) by Bishop Jules Doinel (Tau Valentin II), the secret orders were still a matter of great interest and controversy. One of the Bishops consecrated by Bishop Doinel was Dr. Girard Encausse, known by his literary pseudonym as Papus. (His ecclesiastical name was Tau Vincent.) Papus was both a prolific writer and the reviver-reorganizer of the Martinist Order. One of the later leading figures of the Gnostic Church, Jean Bricaud (Tau Johonnes), a prominent Martinist, established a formal association between the Martinist Order and the Gnostic Church that, with some modifications, has endured to the present day.
As it appears to an historian's eye, the close association of the Gnostic Church in France with Martinism and also with certain forms of Masonry, such as the Rites of Memphis and Mizraim, brought two principal benefits to that Church. One of these was theoretical, the other practical:
1 ) In matter of theory, or theology, these associations brought certain ideologies to the Gnostic Church which proved useful. One needs to keep in mind that at the outset of the twentieth century very little reliable information about Gnosticism was available. The book Pistis Sophia had just been translated by G. R. S. Mead and its contents were utilized by the early French bishops, but otherwise they had to rely on the hostile and confused writings of the Church Fathers. Thus the Neo-Gnostic mythos of Martinez de Pasqually and the esoteric Christian mysticism of Louis-Claude de St. Martin served as welcome theoretical underpinnings for the sacramental practice of the Gnostic Church.
2 ) The practical benefits arising to the Gnostic Church by way of its Martinist and Masonic associations were related to the ever turbulent political climate of France. Throughout its modern history, France generally professed religious freedom. Still, this freedom seldom extended to small heterodox religious movements. These were usually called "Sects" (equivalent to "Cult") and harassed or repressed. Masonic and Martinist lodges on the other hand, always garnered a measure of respectability and acceptance. [The sole exception to this rule being the period of the Vichy government during World War II. This government persecuted the secret orders along with "Sects" such as the Gnostic Church. One of the sad consequences of this was the Martyrdom of Constant Chevillon (Tau Harmonius) in 1944.] In relatively normal times, however, the Gnostic Church enjoyed the protection of the secret orders, conducting its services in Masonic Lodges and similar places.
The Present Situation and its Results
At the present time most of the Gnostic Churches of the French succession maintain their association with Martinism and some also with Freemasonry. Gnostic clergy are frequently required to undergo Martinist and/or Masonic initiations as pre-conditions to ordination to the priesthood. Conversely, some (not all) organizations of this nature will automatically bestow ordinations, including to the priesthood and to the episcopate, on members of the Martinist Order once they have reached a certain grade. We have witnessed the activities of bishops thus consecrated who were literally unable to say mass and were ignorant of virtually all ecclesiastical procedures. Such are the shadow-side of the present association of the Gnostic Church with secret initiatory orders.
By contrast -- and as noted above -- the Ecclesia Gnostica has no association with secret initiatory orders. Its clergy and laity are left free to join and/or be initiated into any and all organizations, while they are earnestly requested to keep their activities in such organizations separate from their activities in the Ecclesia Gnostica. In this manner we wish to guard against the possibility that our church will become a mere subsidiary activity of some secret order or the other. Neither do we feel that anyone could or would become a better Gnostic or Gnostic priest or bishop merely because of belonging to one or more secret initiatory orders.
In explanation and justification of the above policies we might mention that we feel that the historical circumstances which brought about the association of the Gnostic Church and the secret initiatory orders have changed so markedly over the last one hundred years that the need for such an association can be said to have ceased. The complete freedom of worship in the United States grants the Gnostic Church all the freedom it needs, in fact it bestows greater privileges on a church than those possessed by a fraternal order.
Last but not least, we feel that today the Gnostic Church has all the information it needs about Gnostic teachings and thus has no need of teachings that are present in some of the secret initiatory orders. With the discovery and the translation of the Nag Hammadi Library we have access to the source of the great river of Gnosis, as it were. The nearer we come to the source, the purer is the water. Thus while we are respectful of the various neo-Gnostic and esoteric traditions and schools that developed throughout history, we feel that what they offer is at best a duplication and at worst a devolved lesser expression of the original Gnostic message. Our clergy and laity are certainly free to study such materials, but the Gnostic Church as such has no need of them at this time.
Today in the United States we no longer need to disguise our Gnostic interests and dedications by locking them behind sealed portals or lodges and temples. Happily we have no need to guard our teachings and practices with passwords and handshakes. Our church is open to all those who wish to avail themselves of our sacramental ministrations, and our teaching ministry offers its instruction to all who wish to receive it. Safeguards and stratagems that were advisable in the 18th Century need no longer form a part of our Gnostic procedures today.
To sum up: We of the Ecclesia Gnostica are and intend to remain a church and nothing else. Moreover as members of this church we are Gnostics first and last. We administer the holy sacraments according to the Gnostic understanding and we teach the Gnostic world view as it appears in our scriptures. We shall never demand that anyone of our ranks belong to any order or association other than the church itself. We respect the customs and policies of our brother and sisters of the French succession, but for good reasons of our own we are not following their example in these matters.
One should keep in mind, of course, that exalted spiritual states may at times be experienced in the course of the initiations and other rituals that occur in the lodges and temples of secret initiatory orders. We have no desire to deprive anyone of the benefits of such experiences. By the same token it is incumbent upon us to remember that such experiences are of a private nature and should be pursued and cultivated privately and secretly rather than mixed up with the church and its offices.
It is our hope that this position paper has served to clarify a subject that may have become a matter of some puzzlement and question to some.
+ Stephan A. Hoeller
(Tau Stephanus I)