Book review by Dr Kersey

The Other Catholics: Remaking America’s Largest Religion
by Julie Byrne
Columbia University Press, New York, 2016. ISBN 9780231166768

Byrne - Other CatholicsThis book, despite the comprehensive title, is in fact a study of one particular denomination in the firmament of independent Catholicism, the Church of Antioch founded by Patriarch Herman Adrian Spruit. Those who want an honest, affectionate and illuminating account of that church, whose liberal embrace has given birth to a host of esoteric and modernist daughter churches up and down the United States, will find it here. Regarding its theology, which diverges substantially from our own while nevertheless maintaining certain important points of contact, it can certainly be said that it has always embraced the widest of viewpoints; regarding the mainstay of the book, Archbishop Richard Gundrey, formerly head of the Church of Antioch, we can only say that in our contact with him some years ago he was courtesy itself and gave every assistance in understanding what his church stood for and how it saw its mission.

This, then, is a book that is generally about interesting, good people whose interpretation of Christ’s mission, though it may not meet our definition of orthodoxy, nevertheless should give all of us pause to reexamine our own convictions and understand that where others see a different path to their experience of God, there can be much to gain from appreciating their perspective even when we do not share it. It is the story of a church that ultimately, at the end of this book, suffers a deeply damaging and, it seems at the time of writing, enduring split when a presiding bishop is elected who is out of sympathy with the prevailing currents of the church as it has been constituted in the past, resulting in the majority of the clergy leaving the church.

Here we recall the lesson expressed simply by Mar Georgius, who like myself had learned it from experience: without dogmatic agreement there can be no meaningful unity. There can be a temporary form of unity around a charismatic leader, but that unity will not outlast the leader in question. The only unity that counts; the only unity that will endure, is a steadfast witness to the Christian Faith. It is precisely because the Church of Antioch conceived its theology so widely that there was no unity of vision to call upon when personal conflicts and divergent views divided the community, and without that vision, its people suffered greatly, even if they did not entirely perish. Liberalism cannot be conceived purely as open-mindedness, for open minds can all too easily become empty heads. It must be a precisely articulated statement of positive values to which individuals can subscribe, and of signal importance is that such a vision must be sufficiently distinctive so that its followers do not simply find that there is little to choose between their communion and another.

Dr Byrne, who is Mgr. Thomas J. Hartman Chair in Catholic Studies at Hofstra University, a Roman Catholic institution, has worked assiduously to create a work worthy of its subjects. Her writing is intelligent and clear, and it is to her credit that it not merely stands scrutiny as an academic text, referenced with comprehensive footnotes, but is very readable for the generalist who wishes to approach the subject from the perspective of the interested layperson without necessarily engaging with the labyrinthine intricacies of the independent movement.

The problematic aspects of this book are not in its discussion of the contemporary Church of Antioch but in its chapters on historical matters that deal with the smaller independent churches. Here, it is impossible not to become acutely aware of the problems facing the modern scholar on such matters. The source material that is widely available gives an incomplete and far from impartial record of events. Indeed, its very preservation and destruction reflects agendas of support and suppression that in turn originate in personal and denominational rivalries generations deep. It is only by immersing oneself in a world of handwritten documentation and private publications so ephemeral that their rarity is now legion that one can gain any true picture. It may be reflected that this is an academic area where veracity and value are not to be judged simply by the ability of an author to attract a mainstream publisher and issue books for profit. The world of closed private archives and elusive long out-of-print pamphlets is certainly not for everyone, and it can at times seem as if its entry criteria (not limited to extreme persistence and deep pockets) are far removed from the lofty aims of dispassionate historical scholarship. But this is the nature of the beast, and those who would seriously engage with this subject must come to terms with it accordingly. To do otherwise is to cut the individuals concerned out of their own story.

Some scholars in this field have endeavoured to bring at least some of this material to a wider public so that it can aid in the search for truth; this is why, for example, several comprehensive examinations of the life of Archbishop Vilatte (by Archbishop Philippe de Coster and myself) have been released in open source full text through the internet publisher Scribd.

Moreover, the choice of sources in itself speaks of a selectivity of outlook that can result in bias, however unintentional. If the desire is to speak of the Church of Antioch, it must be acceptable to choose primarily sources from within that church and of its same liberal persuasion, unless the author wants to perform the dubious academic contortion of “writing against the subject” (which has been offered as a justification for traducing the independent churches before now). If the desire is to speak of Archbishop Vilatte and others of his ilk, it is as well to bear in mind that they were by no means liberal figures in their theology and neither can the same be said for the majority of their proper, jurisdictional successors. If contemporary scholarship seems to serve aspects of the liberal, progressive independent churches well, the same cannot be said of their conservative counterparts, which are justifiably unhappy at being indiscriminatingly lumped together with that which represents the antithesis of what they stand for, not merely in theology but in their concept of the church and of order and hierarchy within it. Indeed, conservative independents have always found few friends among mainstream scholars and, like their counterparts in Anglo-Catholicism, have acquired a marginal identity because of this. From these margins have come such figures as the late Bishop Karl Pruter, whose Old Catholic Sourcebook remains, though out of date and long out of print, the only reasonably reliable survey of the American independent churches and their histories. It is unfortunate that it does not figure greatly in the footnotes of this book.

Vilatte would certainly not have recognized or approved of the theology and approach of the Church of Antioch. That does not necessarily make that theology and approach wrong and Vilatte right, but it does mean that claims to the Vilatte legacy by prelates who in reality represent little of his beliefs and have inherited none of his jurisdictional authority are problematic.

Some of the errors are egregious, because they misrepresent the nature of clergy or organizations to the point where they are made to stand for something they in fact opposed. Page 158 tells us that “By 1955, independent bishop Hugh de Willmott Newman [Mar Georgius] in England was consecrating women as deacons”. The late Mar Georgius, who published a comprehensive work outlining with reference to all the significant theological arguments exactly why women could not be ordained to the major orders, would surely turn in his grave at this sentence. It would also be news to him that one could consecrate anybody to the diaconate rather than simply ordaining them, but the record shows that he certainly did not ordain women to any major order. What he did do was to set several women aside to the ancient office of Deaconess, which is a lay order quite different from the male diaconate. Unfortunately, Byrne here takes the work of Bishop Lewis Keizer “The Wandering Bishops: Apostles of a New Spirituality” on trust in supplying this information.

A far more serious problem is Byrne’s reliance on the now-discredited book of Serge Theriault concerning Vilatte, which contains numerous false statements and even false documents designed to support Theriault’s tendentious claims to jurisdiction and descent. Theriault was excommunicated by this church as a result of his behaviour. He has made much of claiming a lineal descent from Archbishop Vilatte, even though he is not even licitly in Archbishop Vilatte’s apostolic succession, but his denomination is purely and simply a work of modern reconstruction even by the open evidence of its own documents, and has no continuous traceable jurisdiction from the nineteenth-century origins he claims. Rather, Vilatte’s original jurisdiction was decreed in 1946 by Mar Georgius as Catholicos of the West to be inherent in the Ancient Christian Fellowship of the late Mar David (Maxey), and thus it passed into the Apostolic Episcopal Church upon the formal union of that church with the ACF in 1948.

Page 142 repeats the frequent error that “the inheritor of [Richard Duc de] Palatine’s church was Stephan Hoeller.” While Bishop Hoeller was certainly closely associated with Palatine for a time and received his Holy Orders from him, the two came to separate their work definitively some years before Palatine’s death in 1978, at which point Hoeller became independent. At Palatine’s death, his church, and the Sovereign Imperium of the Mysteries of which it was a part, was inherited by the Council of Three comprising, inter alia, the late John Martyn Baxter, who was Palatine’s life partner and closest associate, and the late George Boyer, who would subsequently receive episcopal status in the Apostolic Episcopal Church. It should be noted that an examination of the published and unpublished teachings of Palatine, preserved in our archives, shows them to be significantly different from those promoted by Dr Hoeller’s church.

Pages 112-113 suggest that it was Archbishop Vilatte who “revived…the Order of the Crown of Thorns”. It was the Patriarch of Antioch who was the revived Order’s chartering authority in 1891, though certainly at least partly at Vilatte’s prompting, but the Patriarch had previously received a petition in respect of the Order in 1880, over a decade before Vilatte came to his attention, from the Revd. Gaston Jean Fercken, and it was Fercken whom he appointed the Order’s Grand Master in preference to Vilatte, who only succeeded to that office on Fercken’s resignation a year later. What is particularly unfortunate, and could easily have been corrected by a simple reference to the website of the Order which contains copious historical materials, is Byrne’s assertion that the Order “harboured esoteric theology or incorporated Freemasonry”. This is another Theriault fantasy built upon fictitious documents, notably a Masonic text claimed by Theriault to be from the original prospectus of the Order but in fact completely absent from it (that prospectus has been published online in full by us). The theology of the Order from its foundation to today has always been entirely orthodox, and while freemasons may become members, the Order has never been Masonic in character and has never had any formal connection with any Masonic fraternity. Nor has it ever had any connection with Theriault, who has never been a member of the Order of the Crown of Thorns and simply usurped its name for his own ends by founding a schismatic body in the late 1990s.

The claim that Vilatte “permanently linked independent Catholicism to western esotericism” (p. 111) is also somewhat wide of the mark. By the time he met Vilatte, Joanny Bricaud was far more orthodox in his theology than he was esoteric. That is not to say that he had altogether ceased to engage with esoteric theology, but he certainly earned a rebuke from Vilatte when he sought to introduce anything to him that departed from traditional Catholicism. Vilatte was never an esotericist. He was orthodox throughout his life. His friendship with Bricaud was above all exactly that; a friendship between two men with common interests and in Bricaud’s case, a vital mission for ensuring the continuation of Vilatte’s work. Vilatte did not consecrate Bricaud, and he himself did nothing to encourage his esotericism or that of anyone else.

P. 111 also suggests that “relics of Vilatte occasionally surface for sale on eBay”. Such a statement cannot entirely be contradicted, of course, but it seems on the face of it most unlikely. The Vilatte archive was preserved with enormous care and attention during his final years in France, and at great cost to those doing the preserving. No items were separated from it until very recently when part of that archive came to its current home in the United Kingdom under my charge. The current archivists regard the continued preservation of these artefacts as a sacred trust. In this country, the Vilatte relics are owned by a charitable trust of which I am a trustee, and wherever possible are maintained in active liturgical use. Their terms of ownership do not permit them to be sold, and any person who is offered Vilatte relics for sale would be very well advised to establish beyond reasonable doubt that they are authentic before parting with any money.

We are told on page 122 that “when the African Orthodox Church branched to South Africa, its bishop, Daniel Alexander, communicated with Vilatte, who invited him to join the Order of the Crown of Thorns.” This is not the case. The invitation to Alexander to join the order was extended not by Vilatte, but by his successor as Grand Master of the Order, Prince-Abbot Edmond I de San Luigi (F.J.E. Barwell-Walker) in a letter of 10 March 1938, the original of which is preserved in the archive of the African Orthodox Church at the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University. Vilatte was well into his retirement among the Roman Catholics at the point of Alexander’s consecration in September 1927. We are not aware of any evidence that the two men were ever in contact.

Page 351 note 89 confuses the contemporary denomination called the Mexican National Catholic Church under Archbishop John Parnell with the original MNCC, a body founded by Archbishop Carfora which was in communion with our church and whose last bishop, the late Emile Rodriguez y Fairfield, was personally well-known to a number of our clergy. There is no connection whatsoever between these two bodies, nor is such a connection now claimed on Archbishop Parnell’s website.

Page 359 note 40: possibly pace J. Gordon Melton, Mar Georgius did not “found the Catholicate of the West”. The details of the foundation of the Catholicate are to be found elsewhere on this website. The practice of multiple consecrations meant something very different to Mar Georgius compared to what it meant to Spruit, as witnessed by their respective writings.

About johnkersey

Historian, musician and educationalist.
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