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Episcopi vagantes

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Episcopi vagantes

Episcopi vagantes (singular: episcopus vagans, Latin for wandering bishops or stray bishops) are those persons consecrated, in a "clandestine or irregular way," as Christian bishops outside the structures and canon law of the established churches; those regularly consecrated but later excommunicated, and not in communion with any generally recognized diocese; and those who have in communion with them small groups that appear to exist solely for the bishop's sake.[1][2](pp1–2) David V. Barrett, in Encyclopedia of new religious movements, specifies that now episcopi vagantes are "those independent bishops who collect several different lines of transmission of apostolic succession, and who will happily (and sometimes for a fee) consecrate anyone who requests it."[3] Those described as wandering bishops often see the term as pejorative. The general term for "wandering" clerics, as were common in the Middle Ages, is clerici vagantes; the general term for those recognising no leader is acephali.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church mentions as the main lines of succession deriving from episcopi vagantes in the 20th century those founded by Arnold Mathew, Joseph René Vilatte, and Leon Chechemian.[1] Others that could be added are those derived from Aftimios Ofiesh, Carlos Duarte Costa, Emmanuel Milingo, and Pierre Martin Ngô Đình Thục.

Theological issues

In Western Christianity it has traditionally been taught, since as far back as the time of the Donatist controversy of the fourth and fifth centuries, that any bishop can consecrate any other baptised man as a bishop provided that the bishop observes the minimum requirements for the sacramental validity of the ceremony. This means that the consecration is considered valid even if it flouts certain ecclesiastical laws, and even if the participants are schismatics or heretics.

According to a theological view affirmed, for instance, by the International Bishops' Conference of the Old Catholic Church with regard to ordinations by Arnold Mathew, an episcopal ordination is for service within a specific Christian church, and an ordination ceremony that concerns only the individual himself does not make him truly a bishop.[4] The Holy See has not commented on the validity of this theory, but has declared with regard to ordinations of this kind carried out, for example, by Emmanuel Milingo, that the Church "does not recognize and does not intend to recognize in the future those ordinations or any of the ordinations derived from them and therefore the canonical state of the alleged bishops remains that in which they were before the ordination conferred by Mr Milingo".[5] Other theologians also, notably those of the Eastern Orthodox Church, dispute the notion that such ordinations have effect, a notion that opens up the possibility of valid but irregular consecrations proliferating outside the structures of the "official" denominations.

A Catholic ordained to the episcopacy without a mandate from the Pope is automatically excommunicated[6] and is thereby forbidden to celebrate the sacraments.[7]

Eastern Orthodox

Vlassios Pheidas, on an official Church of Greece site, uses the canonical language of the Orthodox tradition, to describe the conditions in ecclesial praxis when sacraments, including Holy Orders, are real, valid, and efficacious. He notes language is itself part of the ecclesiological problem.[8](ch. 1)

If [...] [8](ch. 2)

This applies to the validity and efficacy of the ordination of bishops and the other sacraments, not only of the Independent Catholic Churches, but also of all other Christian churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, Oriental Orthodoxy and the Assyrian Church of the East.


Anglican bishop Colin Buchanan, in Historical Dictionary of Anglicanism, says that the Anglican Communion has held an Augustinian view of orders, by which "the validity of Episcopal ordinations (to whichever order) is based solely upon the historic succession in which the ordaining bishop stands, irrespective of their contemporary ecclesial context." He describes the circumstances of Archbishop Matthew Parker's consecration as one of the reasons why this theory is "generally held".[9] Parker was chosen by Queen Elizabeth I of England to be the first Church of England Archbishop of Canterbury after the death of the previous office holder, Cardinal Reginald Pole, the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury.[10] Buchanan notes the Roman Catholic Church also focuses on issues of intention and not just breaks in historical succession.[9] He does not explain whether intention has an ecclesiological role, for Anglicans, in conferring or receiving sacraments.


According to Buchanan, "the real rise of the problem" happened on the 19th century, in the "wake of the Anglo-Catholic movement", "through mischievous activities of a tiny number of independently acting bishops". They exist worldwide, he writes, "mostly without congregations", and "many in different stages of delusion and fantasy, not least in the Episcopal titles they confer on themselves"; "the distinguishing mark" to "specifically identif[y]" an episcopus vagans is "the lack of a true see or the lack of a real church life to oversee".[9] Paul Halsall, on the Internet History Sourcebooks Project, did not list a single church edifice of independent bishops, in a 1996–1998 New York City building architecture survey of religious communities, which maintain bishops claiming apostolic succession and claim cathedral status but noted there "are now literally hundreds of these 'episcopi vagantes', of lesser or greater spiritual probity. They seem to have a tendency to call living room sanctuaries 'cathedrals';" those buildings were not perceived as cultural symbols and did not meet the survey criteria.[11] David V. Barrett wrote, in A brief guide to secret religions, that "one hallmark of such bishops is that they often collect as many lineages as they can to strengthen their Episcopal legitimacy—at least in their own eyes" and their groups have more clergy than members.[12]

Many episcopi vagantes claim succession from the Old Catholic See of Utrecht, or from Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, or Eastern Catholic Churches. A few others derive their orders from Roman Catholic bishops who have consecrated their own bishops after disputes with the Holy See.

Barrett wrote that leaders "of some esoteric movements, are also priests or bishops in small non-mainstream Christian Churches"; he explains, this type of "independent or autocephalous" group has "little in common with the Church it developed from, the Old Catholic Church, and even less in common with the Roman Catholic Church" but still claims its authority from Apostolic succession.[12](p56)

Many, if not most, episcopi vagantes are associated with Independent Catholic Churches. They may be very liberal or very conservative. Episcopi vagantes may also include some conservative "Continuing Anglicans" who have broken with the Anglican Communion over various issues such as Prayer Book revision, the ordination of women and the ordination of unmarried, non-celibate individuals (including homosexuals).

Buchanan writes that based the criteria of having "a true see" or having "a real church life to oversee", the bishops of most forms of Continuing Anglican movement are not necessarily classified as vagantes, but "are always in danger of becoming such".[9]

Particular consecrations

Mathew, according to Buchanan, "lapsed into the vagaries of an episcopus vagans"[9](p335) Stephen Edmonds, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, wrote that in 1910 Mathew's wife separated from him; that same year, he declared himself and his church [2](p18) Colin Holden, in Ritualist on a Tricycle, places Mathew and his OCR into perspective, he wrote Mathew was an episcopus vagans, lived in a cottage provided for him, and performed his conditional OCR acts, sometimes called according to Holden "bedroom ordinations", in his cottage.[15] Mathew questioned the validity of Anglican ordinations and became involved with the OCR, in 1911 according to Edmonds, and he openly advertised his offer to reordain Anglican clergy who requested it. This angered the Church of England.[13] In 1912, D. J. Scannell O'Neill wrote in The Fortnightly Review that London "seems to have more than her due share of bishops" and enumerates what he refers to as "these hireling shepherds". He also announces that one of them, Mathew, revived the OCR and published The Torch, a monthly review, advocating the reconstruction of Western Christianity and reunion with Eastern Christianity. The Torch stated "that the ordinations of the Church of England are not recognized by any church claiming to be Catholic" so the promoters involved Mathew to conditionally ordain group members who are "clergy of the Established Church" and "sign a profession of the Catholic Faith". It stipulated Mathew's services were not a system of simony and given without simoniac expectations. The group sought to enroll "earnest-minded Catholics who sincerely desire to help forward the work of [c]orporate [r]eunion with the Holy See". Nigel Yates, in Anglican Ritualism in Victorian Britain, 1830-1910, described it as "an even more bizarre scheme to promote a Catholic Uniate Church in Britain" than Lee and Ambrose Lisle March Phillipps de Lisle's Association for the Promotion of the Unity of Christendom.[16] It was editorialized by O'Neill as the "most charitable construction to be placed on this latest move of Mathew is that he is not mentally sound. Being an Irishman, it is strange that he has not sufficient humor to see the absurdity of falling away from the Catholic Church in order to assist others to unite with the Holy See."[17][1] Edmonds reports that "anything between 4 and 265 was suggested" as to how many took up his offer of reordination.[13]

When it declared devoid of canonical effect the consecration ceremony conducted by Archbishop Pierre Martin Ngô Đình Thục for the Carmelite Order of the Holy Face group at midnight of 31 December 1975, the Holy See refrained from pronouncing on its validity. It made the same statement with regard also to later ordinations by those bishops, saying that, "as for those who have already thus unlawfully received ordination or any who may yet accept ordination from these, whatever may be the validity of the orders (quidquid sit de ordinum validitate), the Church does not and will not recognise their ordination (ipsorum ordinationem), and will consider them, for all legal effects, as still in the state in which they were before, except that the ... penalties remain until they repent".[19]

A similar declaration was issued with regard to Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo's conferring of episcopal ordination on four men - all of whom, by virtue of previous Independent Catholic consecrations, claimed already to be bishops - on 24 September 2006: the Holy See, as well as stating that, in accordance with Canon 1382 of the Code of Canon Law, all five men involved incurred automatic ("latae sententiae") excommunication through their actions, declared that "the Church does not recognise and does not intend in the future to recognise these ordinations or any ordinations derived from them, and she holds that the canonical state of the four alleged bishops is the same as it was prior to the ordination."[20]

In contrast, the Holy See has not questioned the validity of the consecrations that the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre performed in 1988 for the service of the relatively numerous followers of the Traditionalist Catholic Society of St. Pius X that he had founded, and of the bishops who, under pressure from the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, "have been ordained without the Pontifical mandate and who have not asked for, or have not yet obtained, the necessary legitimation", and who consequently, Pope Benedict XVI declared, "are to be considered illegitimate, but validly ordained".[21]

Use as cultural reference

Victor LaValle, in Big Machine, included three episcopi vagantes as part of his character's childhood involvement with an independent church:

Your church is broken! The Washerwomen are here to rebuild! The Washerwomen didn't proselytize to people of other religions, or those without beliefs. [...] Gina, Karen, and Rose called themselves "priests without a parish." Local clergy discussed the Washerwomen the way you discuss a calf born with two heads. [...] The cult on Colden Street. Once, a visiting Anglican priest even gave the sisters a nickname: episcopi vagantes, the "wandering bishops." It was a title the sisters liked (the English, not the Latin). They embraced it, [...] Even had fun with it. [...] They seemed to shine like beasts of prophecy, their vitality more persuasive than any words. That's why we believed.[22]

Calvin Baker, in Dominion, includes an episcopus vagans as one of his characters:

The tent was silent as they listened, for he spoke with intense care for his words, but also with a strange accent. "I am what is known as an Episcopi Vagantes, which means I have been fully invested with the sacraments of the one original church. I received my ordination first as a priest, while still in my youth, and raised still young to bishop—I was twenty-six at the time—by no less a vassal of God than the Pope of Antioch." "None can undo [...] so I remain now a high bishop but have had an argument with the other bishops on your behalf." [...] The residents of the town were baffled by much that the preacher was saying, but he put up such a show with that great purple robe [...], that they decided to let him finish his sermon before making up their minds. "Today I wish to read to you from one of the Hidden Books of Christ, which the popes and high bishops have all conspired [...] to keep you from knowing, [...]"[23]
Intertextuality of episcopi vagantes language. Jim Higgins saw, in More Years for the Locust, "similarities between Marxist obscurantism and an addiction to Christian arcana" and used episcopi vagantes pejoratively as his example of "the ever-growing proliferation of sects, sectlets and insects claiming direct descent from the master" with "fissiparous tendencies". He saw humor in the ludicrous characters and farce in their titles.[24]
No sooner had the apostolic hands graced druidism. He conducted baptism, weather permitting, in the sea off the Normandy coast. This splendid chap styled himself, "His Whiteness the Humble Tugdual the Second".[2] May his God preserve him from pneumonia. The most recent count, in 1961, of the number of such "Bishops" was over 200 and I sincerely hope that Tugdual II, who was one of them, is still with us.[3]

Notes and references


  1. ^ The Torch, no date or page cited by O'Neill.[17][18]
  2. ^ He is identified as Jean-Pierre (Clodoald) Danyel.[25](pp51–52)
  3. ^ Higgins' humorous perspective of episcopi vagantes is completely contained in the first three paragraphs of chapter 14. No page numbers from the print copy are provided on the website transcription.[24]


  1. ^ a b Cross, Frank L.; Livingstone, Elizabeth A., eds. (2005). "episcopi vagantes". Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd rev. ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.  
  2. ^ a b Brandreth, Henry R. T (1987) [First published in 1947]. Episcopi Vagantes and the Anglican Church. San Bernardino, CA: Borgo Press.  
  3. ^ Barrett, David V. (2006). "Independent episcopal churches". In Clarke, Peter. Encyclopedia of new religious movements. p. 301.  
  4. ^ (BRILL 2011 ISBN 978-90-0420647-2), p. 197Old Catholic and Philippine Independent Ecclesiologies in HistoryPeter-Ben Smit,
  5. ^ CII (2010), p. 58Acta Apostolicae Sedis
  6. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 1382
  7. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 1331 §1
  8. ^ a b Pheidas, Vlassios. "Chapter I". The limits of the church in an orthodox perspective. Myriobiblos: The online library of the Church of Greece. Online Cultural Center of the Church of Greece. Archived from the original on 30 October 2005. Retrieved 14 May 2013.  "Chapter II". Archived from the original on 30 October 2005. Retrieved 14 May 2013. 
  9. ^ a b c d e  
  10. ^  
  11. ^ Halsall, Paul, ed. (2007) [building survey conducted 1996–1998]. "New York City Cathedrals". Medieval New York.  
  12. ^ a b Barrett, David V (2011). "Independent episcopal churches and the apostolic succession". A brief guide to secret religions. Philadelphia: Running Press. pp. 56, 63–64. ISBN . Retrieved 27 May 2013. 
  13. ^ a b c d Edmonds, Stephen (2013) [2012]. "Mathew, Arnold Harris (1852–1919)".   (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  14. ^  
  15. ^ Holden, Colin (1997). Ritualist on a Tricycle: Frederick Goldsmith, Church, Nationalism and Society in Western Australia, 1880-1920. Staples South West Region publication series. Nedlands, W.A.: University of Western Australia Press. p. 272.  
  16. ^  
  17. ^ a b O'Neill, D. J. Scannell (mid–September 1912).  
  18. ^ The Torch. Monthly review, advocating the reconstruction of the Church of the West and reunion with the Holy Orthodox Church of the East (London: [s.n.]).  
  19. ^ Sacra Congregatio pro doctrina Fidei (1976-09-17). "Decretum circa quasdam illegitimas ordinationes presbyterales et episcopales". Acta Apostolicae Sedis (in Latin) (1976-10-31) 68 (10): 623.  
  20. ^ Declaration of the Press Office of the Holy See on the present ecclesial situation of Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, 26.09.2006, 29 September 2006, retrieved 7 November 2007 
  21. ^ Letter of 27 May 2007 to the Catholics in the People's Republic of China
  22. ^  
  23. ^  
  24. ^ a b  
  25. ^ Pearson, Joanne (2007). Wicca and the Christian Heritage: Ritual, sex and magic. London; New York: Routledge.  


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