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Bishop Lowell Paul Wadle

Wandering Bishops:
Not All Roads Lead to Rome

by Stephan A. Hoeller

   THE OFFICE OF BISHOP is as old as Christianity itself. As early as the 90's C.E., St. Clement of Rome, in a letter addressed to the feuding community of Corinth, reminded his fellow Christians that the apostles had appointed and anointed the bishops as their valid successors, and that it would be against God's will for the people to replace them. In early Christendom, men (and, it would seem, women) called episkopoi received authority from their predecessors by the laying on of hands to exercise the fullness of spiritual power bestowed by Jesus on his apostles. The bishops then delegated special functions, such as teaching, forgiveness of sins, healing, and counseling, to ministers who acted as their helpers. The office of bishop is thus more ancient than that of priest, deacon, or other lesser churchly orders, all of which were established by the second century C.E., considerably later than the apostolic order of bishop.

    The apostles and their successors functioned in two ways: some were permanently attached to a particular city and geographical area where they cared for the spiritual welfare of a community of Christians, while others, inspired by the words of their founder commanding them to teach all peoples and nations, traveled to distant lands spreading the message of their faith. These leaders roamed far from the Mid-Eastern cradle of Christianity, penetrating even such remote countries as India, as did the apostle Thomas. Apostles of Jesus such as Thomas, Bartholomew, and Andrew, who did not remain in fixed residences caring for an established community, may thus be regarded as the first traveling, or "wandering," bishops.

    Later, other categories of wandering bishops came upon the scene. Emperor Constantine established Christianity as the state religion of his realm and proceeded to enforce an artificial unity on the Christian communities. Prior to this time, there was a strong pluralistic orientation of such communities and of their leaders. Acknowledging a common devotion to Christ and his teachings, they differed widely in doctrine and practice. With Constantine conditions changed; "orthodoxy" was declared as binding upon all. Those who did not conform were forced to leave the community and often their places of residence. They became wanderers. Gnostic, Arian, Nestorian, Monophysite, and other non-conforming Christian leaders became wandering bishops. A new trend was created. Those who conformed to emperor and bishop were allowed to remain in office and enjoy the support of the state, while those who dissented were invited to depart and became wanderers. Yet, such wanderers were not without followers, for kindred, dissenting clergy and congregants rallied around wherever they went, often impelling the orthodox authorities to acts of persecution. The rest of the story is a familiar and sorrowful one.

    From early times, transmission of apostolic authority existed outside of the mainstream of the churches of Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, and others. Many of these transmissions were condemned by their "big brothers" as heretical. Curiously, the validity of their apostolic orders was acknowledged by their critics. Due to an early tradition, articulated but not invented b y St. Augustine, the orthodoxy and validity of apostolic succession were not considered identical. Bishops could be heretics, yet could exercise their office as stewards of the sacraments in a valid manner. This doctrine (known as the Augustinian doctrine of orders) has been held to this day by the Roman Catholic Church. Provided the "wandering ones" held the same intentions when ordaining their successors as those traditionally held by sacramental Christendom over the ages, they could pass on their sacred powers and administer the sacraments in a manner that the popes would recognize as valid. Such is the character and status of the so-called wandering bishops as they exist today.


The Modern Wandering Episcopate

    Wandering bishops existed throughout history. In the Middle Ages, local bishops frequently complained to the pope about traveling prelates moving through the countryside performing functions reserved for bishops, such as confirming young people and ordaining priests and deacons. In modern times, following the Reformation, such activities sometimes became the cause of large communities falling away from the Church of Rome. One such cause célêbre involved the French bishop Varlet, who, while traveling through Holland, began to minister to an isolated group within the Catholic minority remaining in that Calvinist land. Bishop Varlet was finally persuaded to bestow the episcopate on the leader of this group of Dutch Catholics, and in 1724, the Dutch Old Catholic Church was born. This staunch, devoted community retained its identity as a Catholic church separate from Rome, yet was grudgingly recognized as a valid Catholic body by the popes, and still retains this status today. In the records of the latest council of the Roman Catholic Church (known as Vatican II), the tiny Old Catholic Church of Holland is listed at the top of the list of observers, far ahead of such huge Protestant bodies as the Anglican or Presbyterian churches, because of its unquestioned validity.

Consecration of Bishop J.I. Wedgwood (second from left), February 1916, London.

    Another place where wandering bishops abounded was the ancient Christian missionary territory of southern India, where, according to local tradition, the greatest and most vigorous of all wandering bishops, Apostle Thomas, lies in a tomb not far from the city of Madras. The Christians of St Thomas, originally Brahmins from the Malabar coast, continued for centuries as a fiercely independent series of communities, forever asserting their rights against popes and patriarchs who claimed jurisdiction over them. And so it came to pass that the stubborn Dutch Old Catholics and the factious South Indian Christians became the unpremeditated progenitors of independent, or wandering, bishops, who are now numbered in the thousands and are spread over every continent of the globe. The initiators of this unprecedented proliferation were two priests, one English, the other French-American, who, in the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries received consecration at the hands of representatives of the Dutch and South Indian Catholic bishops. They were Arnold Harris Matthew (1852-1919) and Joseph René Vilatte (1854-1929), respectively. Matthew became the leading prelate of the Old Catholic Church in Great Britain, while Vilatte brought the stream of the originally Syrian succession of the South Indian church to the United States. Not bound by traditional rules and restrictions regarding the consecrations of other bishops, these two free-lance prelates proceeded to lay their anointed hands on a goodly number of men on both sides of the Atlantic, and thus initiated a new era in the history of wandering bishops.

Bishop James Ingall Wedgwood.

Enter the Occult Connection

    In 1913, the aging, cantankerous leader of the rather unsuccessful English branch of Dutch Old Catholicism, Matthew, received a visitor. The thirty-year-old, handsome, cultured, and enthusiastic man who knocked at the door of Bishop Matthew was James Wedgwood, scion of England's noted Wedgwood china family. He was a theosophist, an avid follower of the neo-gnostic spiritual system publicized since 1875 by the Russian noblewoman and prolific writer, H.P. Blavatsky. Unlike other theosophists (and many of their counterparts in today's New Age), Wedgwood valued the Western spiritual traditions, such as ceremonial magic, esoteric masonry, and the mystery and sacred magic of the Christian sacraments. Wedgwood joined the small Old Catholic movement in England, and after some time and vicissitudes became a bishop in 1916. Many of his fellow theosophists also became attracted to the stately beauty and mysticism of the Mass and the other sacraments administered by Wedgwood and his associates. Among these was the leonine "grand old man" of the Theosophical Society, the noted teacher, writer, and clairvoyant, Charles Webster Leadbeater. Soon Wedgwood and Leadbeater settled down in Australia to a prolonged period of planning and work. The result was a new ecclesiastical body possessing its distinctive liturgy, philosophy, and customs. It came to be called the Liberal Catholic Church, and with it was born a new occult mysticism that was to have influence and consequences far exceeding the numerical strength of the new church or even of its senior ally, the Theosophical Society.

    To say that there could be an occult Catholicism is not as absurd as some might think. History teems with prelates, priests, and nuns of the Catholic Church who were devoted and skilled occultists. Kabbalah, hermeticism, astrology and magic were all patronized by numerous popes and championed by Churchmen. (Depending on the persons involved as well as on the historical period, practitioners of these same disciplines were also at times burnt at the stake by the Inquisition.) Viewed psychologically, the relationship of the Church and occultism appears to resemble the relationship of ego and shadow; in spite of their frequent conflict, they belong together and depend on each other in many ways. The greatest estrangement of Catholicism from its dark esoteric twin came about after the Enlightenment, when rationalistic considerations made inroads into the Church. Even today, one may discover that persons of gnostic-hermetic interests have more in common with traditionalist Catholics than with either modernist Vatican II Catholics or with Protestants. Without articulating these thoughts consciously, the theosophical Catholics of Wedgwood's and Leadbeater's type seem to have intuited these archetypal relationships and compatabilities between essential Catholicism and basic occultism. With these intuitions, they may have become pioneers of an approach to sacramental Christianity that has significant promise for the future of Western religion.


A New Magical View of Sacramental Power

    The champion-in-chief of occult Catholicism was undoubtedly C.W. Leadbeater. A former Anglican priest who had left church, family, and country to follow Madame Blavatsky to India and into the world of theosophy late in the nineteenth century, he remained a mysterious and compelling figure until his death in the late 1930s. Utterly devoted to the teachings of theosophy, Leadbeater was nevertheless aware that the magic of the Christian sacraments was still very much needed by contemporary humanity. As early as April 1917, he wrote in The Theosophist:

When the great World-Teacher was last on earth, He made a special arrangement that what we may think of as a compartment of a reservoir of spiritual power should be available for the use of the new religion that he founded, and that its officials should be empowered, by the use of certain ceremonies, words, and signs of power, to draw upon it for the spiritual benefit of their people.

    Bishop Leadbeater felt that by way of his extrasensory faculties he was able to describe with some accuracy the mechanism whereby the sacraments were able to work effectively. In such works as The Science of the Sacraments, The Inner Side of Christian Festivals, and his recently and posthumously published "The Christian Gnosis," he left an impressive legacy wherein he demonstrated to the satisfaction of many that the Mass and other sacraments of apostolic Christendom are capable of assisting the spiritual welfare and transformative growth of persons in our age as well as in the past. The small, but disciplined, church that Leadbeater and Wedgwood founded is still in existence on five continents, in countries such as Holland, Australia, and New Zealand, and possesses numerous impressive church buildings with large congregations. A serious blow was dealt to the Liberal Catholic Church, however, in the 1930s, when Jiddu Krishnamurti, who was heralded by the leading theosophists as the vehicle of the World-Teacher (Christ), abandoned the cause of his messiahship, and criticized all rites and ceremonies with particular vehemence.

Bishop Charles W. Leadbeater, in old age.

    Leadbeater and his new brand of occult Catholicism have acted as seminal influences for many of the wandering bishops who followed him, and who frequently functioned outside of the formal ecclesiastical body founded by the theosophical bishops. One such churchman was Lowell Paul Wadle, principle representative in the United States of the successions brought to this continent by the French wanderer Vilatte. Bishop Wadle was a theosophist and a popular lecturer in circles of alternative spirituality, particularly in California. A charming and kindly man, his influence upon occult Catholicism was perhaps second only to Leadbeater's. Holding forth in his exquisitely appointed church of St Francis in Laguna Beach, California, he was a man whom churchmen and laity of many denominations sought out for counsel and company.

    It is no exaggeration to say that the occult and theosophical view introduced into sacramental church worship by these pioneers had more far-reaching implications and exerted a greater influence that is discernible on the surface. Numerous creative persons have been deeply impressed by the possibility of an effective separation of the sacraments from the weight of the dogma and outdated moralizing with which the mainstream churches have inevitably tended to combine them. One could now partake of the benefits of sacramental grace without being forced into systems of belief and commandment that might be contrary to one's deeper convictions. More than half a century before, liberal and permissive theological trends made inroads into the main bastions of sacramental Christendom; an opening was thus created for freedom, creativity, and, more importantly, for unconventional kinds of magico-mystical thought within the grace and stately beauty of the time-honored ceremonial of the Church.


Gnostic Bishops Enter the Fray

    The ostensibly Roman Catholic country of France has harbored heretics, schismatics, and wandering bishops for numerous centuries. The gnostics of Lyon annoyed the Church Father Irenaeus so greatly that he devoted volumes of diatribes to combat them. Gnostic groups of various kinds existed in the French provinces throughout history, the best-known and most numerous being the Cathar church in the thirteenth century. It is interesting to note that every time the hold of the Church of Rome weakened on the government of France, gnostic religious bodies emerged from hiding, usually only to be suppressed soon after by another clerical government. Thus, at the time of the French Revolution, the once-suppressed Templar Order was reorganized along vaguely gnostic lines by its grand master, former Roman Catholic priest and esotericist Bernard Fabré-Palaprat, who in the early 1800s was consecrated Patriarch of the Johannite Church of Primitive Christians allied to the Order of Templars. This consecration set a pattern for many subsequent creations of French wandering bishops of gnostic and related persuasion, for the consecrating prelate, Monsignor Mauviel, was a so-called Constitutional bishop, that is, a member of a hierarchy of validly consecrated French Catholic bishops set up by the revolutionary government in opposition to the papacy. Gnostic, Templar, Cathar, and other secret groups usually possessed their own esoteric successions, but from that time on, they found it useful to receive consecration at the hands of valid but irregular Catholic prelates who were not hard to find in the wake of the revolution and its ecclesiastical confusion.

    By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, at least one major public gnostic church, the Eglise Gnostique Universalle, was moderately active in France, led by such distinguished esotericists as Jules Doinel, Jean Bricaud, and eventually the leader of the revived Martinist order, know as Papus (Dr. G. Encausse). The revival of a Catholic Gnostic (or Gnostic Catholic) public movement was thus accomplished.

    As in the case of the theosophical occult Catholicism, so here the question suggests itself: Why should occult or gnostic persons aspire to the office of bishop in the Catholic sense, and why should they practice the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church? The answer is not difficult. Gnostic movements of various kinds that survived secretly in Europe were all originally part of the Roman Catholic Church. Although they differed with their larger relative and were frequently persecuted by her, they still regarded her as the model of ecclesiastical life. They may have considered the content of their religion as quite at variance with the teachings of Rome, but the form of their worship was still the one that ancient and universal Christendom had always practiced. The kind of innovative religious pluralism that evolved in North America was unknown to them, and in all likelihood they would have been repulsed by it had they know it. A gnostic, although a heretic, was still a member of the one, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and had both a right and an obligation to practice the seven historic sacraments in the traditional manner.

    French gnosticism thus established its own ecclesiastical life, following the example of Roman Catholic practice. The movement was never lacking in vicissitudes. As late as March 22, 1944, the head of the major gnostic religious body in France, Monsignor Constant Chevillon (Tau Harmonius) was cruelly executed after the Vichy collaborationist government suppressed the Gnostic Church. Still, the movement spread to Germany, Spain, Portugal, Latin America, and such French-speaking countries as Haiti. There matters rested until years after World War II.

    The gnostic tradition, which originally had its home in France, came to be established in England and later in the United States, initially as a result of the efforts of a bishop of French descent who was raised in Australia. Born Ronald Powell, he took the name Richard Jean Chretien Duc de Palatine. A learned and charismatic man, de Palatine (who received his successions from the well-known British independent prelate Hugh de Wilmott-Newman) may be regarded as the pioneer of sacramental gnosticism in both England and the United States. His tradition survives chiefly in the Ecclesia Gnostica, based in Los Angeles and headed by the present writer, who was consecrated in 1967 by Bishop de Palatine. Other gnostic churches of a very similar orientation have sprung up in recent years in increasing numbers. Today, there are vigorous and stable descendants of the French gnostic movement functioning in New York, Chicago (headed by Monsignor Robert Conikis), and Barbados (headed by Tau Thomas). The first woman bishop in the gnostic tradition in modern times is Bishop Rosamonde Miller, who has founded the Ecclesia Gnostica Mysteriorum in Palo Alto, Calif.


Toward a New Christian Gnosis

    The names and movements mentioned above by no means exhaust the number of wandering bishops and the movements they have founded. The most populous and stable of such organizations are the Independent Church of the Philippines, whose origins reach back to the separation of the Philippines from Spain; and the Brazilian Catholic Church, founded decades ago by a discontented Brazilian Roman Catholic bishop. Both of these churches maintain vaguely defined theories of an orthodox character, although occasional positive interactions between them and the occult-gnostic bodies exist. A potential for a large schismatic Catholic church exists in mainland China, where a non-papal Roman Catholic Church came into existence under orders from Mao Tse-tung. This movement with validly consecrated bishops still functions, and curiously conducts its services without any of the changes introduced by the Vatican II council.

    Only time will tell what the role of the wandering bishops will be within the unfolding structures of sacramental Christendom. Since the second Vatican Council in the 1960s, confusion and overt dissension have appeared even within the Roman Catholic monolith. Liturgical "reforms" combined with laxity and sheer trivial-mindedness have so changed the nature of Roman Catholic church services in many countries that many of the wandering bishops can lay claim to greater traditional authenticity today than can their far wealthier and mover-powerful Roman Catholic counterparts. Also, while women still fight a seemingly hopeless battle for the priesthood with Rome, many of the wandering bishops can justly claim not only to have bestowed holy orders on women, but to have espoused a certain spiritual feminism for a considerable time. The gnostic patriarch, Tau Synesius thus wrote to a religious congress as early as 1908:

There is among our tenets one to which I shall call particular attention: the tenet of feminine salvation. The work of the Father has been accomplished, that of the Son, as well. There remains that of the Spirit, which alone is capable of bringing about the final salvation of humanity on earth and thereby, of laying the way for the reconstitution of the Spirit. Now the Spirit, the Paraclete, corresponds to what the divine partakes of a feminine nature, and our teachings state explicitly that this is the only facet of the godhead that is truly accessible to our mind. What will be in fact the nature of this new and not-too-far-distant Messiah?

    The seeming promise residing in the wandering bishops is obscured and at times negated by the personal eccentricities and unsavory character of a large number of these bishops. Since consecration to the episcopate is often so easily obtained in the subculture of the wandering ones, venal, unstable, and woefully ill-educated persons abound in the ranks of the "independent" episcopate. Quite a large number of these bishops are simply people one would not wish to invite to dinner. The "sleaze factor" is all too evident and ubiquitous, and this factor will probably remain the greatest obstacle to the positive work the wandering bishops could accomplish in this age.

    The unworthiness of the many should not blind one to the potential residing in the few. The mass of wandering bishops is very much like a kind of alchemical prima materia from whence a true stone of the philosophers might yet emerge. Christianity started as a disreputable Jewish heresy, having an executed criminal as its founder. Christian schisms and heresies that are today held in disrepute might lead to great and transformative spiritual developments as well. Cornerstones of the future are frequently made up of stones once rejected by the builders. The strange and paradoxical phenomenon of the wandering bishops may reveal itself as a vital ingredient in the historical-spiritual alchemy of the coming age. Some of us hope that this will be the case, while others sneer or turn away from such concerns. The last word, however, belongs to Powers that transcend both the advocates and the critics. And their word, we may be assured, will be final and to the point.

The article first appeared in Gnosis: A Journal of Western Inner Traditions (Vol. 12, Summer 1989),
and is reproduced here by permission of the author.

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