The Order of Corporate Reunion was established amid the developments in nineteenth-century Anglicanism that gave rise to the Oxford Movement and the consequent debate over the validity of Anglican orders, a debate that reached a head with the issuing of the Bull “Apostolicae Curae” by Pope Leo XIII in 1896. This Bull, which was the outcome of a petition by both Anglicans and Roman Catholics requesting an investigation of the issue, declared Anglican orders to be “absolutely null and utterly void”, an official position which remains that of the Vatican today.
Under these circumstances, some Anglicans resolved to ensure that their church had access to Holy Orders which were undoubtedly valid and that would remove the related obstacles to corporate reunion between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church.
A Pastoral Letter was published in “Reunion Magazine” of 1877 (reprinted in “The Tablet” of 23 January 1909). This letter was planned as early as 1875 and had been initially addressed to Henry, Cardinal Manning. The eventual letter read in part:
“Every faithful Christian must surely be distressed and bewildered at the spectacle afforded by the evil state into which the National Church of England has been brought by departure from ancient principles and by recent events. A long course of change, usurpation, and revolution has moved all her old land-marks. The evil is continually working; no man being able to foresee whereunto it will grow, or what will be the end thereof. Two things are certain, however: on the one hand, that all semblance of independent existence and corporate action has departed from the Established Church, so that she is given up, as it were, bound hand and foot, and blindfolded into the toils of her enemies; while, on the other hand, these enemies are waiting to rob her of her privileges and possessions, and are even now debating how to divide the spoil.
We affirm, that in the Providence of God, the evil itself has opened the door to a remedy. For the Bishops of the Church of England, having yielded up all canonical authority and jurisdiction in the spiritual order, can neither interfere with, nor restrain, Us in Our work of recovering from elsewhere that which has been forfeited or lost – securing three distinct and independent lines of a new Episcopal Succession, so as to labour corporately, and on no sandy foundation, for the healing of the breach which has been made. In thus associating ourselves together, we solemnly take as the basis of this Our Order the Catholic Faith as defined by the Seven General Councils, acknowledged as such by the whole Church of the East and the West before the great and deplorable schism, and as commonly received in the Apostles´ Creed, and the Creed of Nicaea, and the Creed of St. Athanasius. To all the sublime doctrines so laid down, We declare our unreserved adhesion, as well as to the principles of Church constitution and discipline, set forth and approved by the said Seven General Councils. Furthermore, until the whole Church shall speak on the subject, We accept all those dogmatic statements set forth in common by the Council of Trent and the Synod of Bethlehem respectively, with regard to the doctrine of the Sacraments…
Thanking Almighty God most humbly for the restoration of Brotherhoods, Sisterhoods, and Guilds, We solemnly affirm that the Monastic Life, duly regulated according to the laws of the Catholic Church, is a most salutary institution, in perfect harmony with the spirit of the Gospel; and is full of profit to those who, being carefully tried and examined, make full proof of their calling thereto. Our services will always be at the disposal of such – upon whom We invoke the Divine blessing.
As regards the chief aim of this new Order – Corporate Reunion – it is needful to remark finally, that, while We have to deplore the divisions existing amongst the churches, We cannot unchurch any having a true succession. Therefore, We pray for all, We remove all stumblingblocks in the way of union amongst the baptized, whom We hail and regard as brethren, while, on disputed points of Church opinion not yet defined by lawful Authority. We appeal to a free General Council, with earnest prayers to God for its speedy assembly and guidance by the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
Who were the men who lay behind this letter, and where did the new Episcopal Succession they referred to come from? John Thomas Seccombe (1835-95), a medical officer and magistrate, had been conditionally re-ordained priest and consecrated on 18-19 November 1866 by Jules Ferrette (1828-1904), who had been consecrated as Bishop of Iona on 2 June by Mutran Boutros (later Patriarch Ignatius Boutros IV) of the Syrian Orthodox Church. Dr Frederick George Lee (1832-1902) (pictured left), an Anglican priest, was consecrated in Venice in June 1877 by Abbot-General Ignas Guregh (Ignatius Ghiurekian) of the Ordo Mechitaristarum Venetiarum (“Mekhitarists”). Thomas Wimberly Mossman SSC (1826-89), Anglican rector of West Torrington, Lincs., was consecrated in June 1877 by Luigi Nazari di Calabiana, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Milan, who may have been assisted by others. It was the Archbishop of Milan who was instrumental in encouraging the creation of the OCR.
At the first Synod of the Order of Corporate Reunion on 3-4 July 1877, Lee took on the ecclesiastical style of Thomas, Bishop of Dorchester, Rector of the Order of Corporate Reunion and Pro-Provincial of Canterbury, Mossman became Joseph, Bishop of Selby and Provincial of York, and Seccombe became Laurence, Bishop and Provincial of Caerleon. The bishops also exchanged conditional consecrations so that each would have the same unified lineage. George Nugée (1819-92), also consecrated by Ferrette in 1866, was adopted as Provost.
The Pastoral Letter was formally read on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in London on 8 September 1877. In the following years, the bishops of the OCR consecrated and conditionally re-ordained other Anglicans, and it is said even the Archbishop of Canterbury, Frederick Temple. However, the OCR did not manage to gain the official support of the Church of England, and so with the death of its founders it entered a period of inactivity while the questions it had been set up to address continued to be matters of pressing disquiet for Anglicans.
Revival and continuation
In “The Torch” 19 June 1912 we read:
“Since the extinction of the O.C.R. by the death of its three Bishops, the Rt Rev. Fredk. George Lee, of All Saints´, Lambeth, the Rt Rev. Thomas W. Mossman of Torrington, and the Rt Rev. Dr Seccombe, who were all of them consecrated to the Episcopate by the Most Eminent Cardinal Archbishop of Milan in his domestic chapel, no definite step has been taken in the direction of Corporate Reunion with the Holy See. The letter of ‘Sacerdos Hibernicus’ in The Torch Monthly Review of May 15th, created a profound interest, and brought together a body of persons who decided to revive the O.C.R.
Facing the facts that the Roman Church has repeatedly denied the validity of Anglican Orders, and that the Ordinations of the Church of England are not recognized by any church claiming to be Catholic, the promoters of the Revived Order felt that all doubt must be set at rest so far as the Orders of its clerical members were concerned, and they appealed to Archbishop Mathew of the Old Roman Catholic Church, asking if he would accept the position of Honorary Prelate of the Order, and in that capacity give conditional ordination to such members as had received Anglican Ordination. His Grace has replied expressing his willingness… and to conditionally ordain such members as are Clergy of the Established Church and who, having received conditional Baptism and the Sacrament of Confirmation, sign a Profession of the Catholic Faith.
The Archbishop stipulated that it must be made perfectly clear to all concerned, that his services, in connection with this delicate and important matter will be given on the express condition that no fee or reward of any description shall be offered to or will be accepted by him.
The Order has now started on its way and seeks to enrol members. Mere Ritualists are not invited, but earnest minded Catholics who sincerely desire to help forward the work of Corporate Reunion with the Holy See will be cordially welcomed.”
Although Lee, Mossman and Seccombe had died, their episcopal lineage was far from extinct, and indeed had been carefully preserved. All three had consecrated Henry Arthur Stanton SSC (1839-1913), (who succeeded as Primate of the Order after the death of the founders), Percy Dearmer (1867-1936) (pictured right) and Frederick Cornwallis Conybeare (1856-1924). Dearmer and Stanton continued as Anglican priests throughout. On 1 November, 1909, Conybeare assisted by Stanton and Dearmer consecrated Arnold Harris Mathew, the Old Catholic Regionary Bishop of Great Britain, and on the death of Stanton on 3 January 1911 the Primacy of the OCR passed to Mathew. It is important to recognise that Mathew’s involvement was in the context of the continuation of the original OCR (by virtue of the transmission of its Apostolic Succession and its unbroken jurisdictional succession from Stanton) and not the promotion of a new order that merely bore the same name. Archbishop Mathew subsequently entered into agreements of intercommunion with the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch (1911) and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria (1912).
On 22 February 1916, Mathew created a church to encompass the revived Order of Corporate Reunion, which appeared under several names: The Uniate Western Catholic Church, The Uniate Western Catholic and Apostolic Church, The Western Catholic and Apostolic Church, and The Old Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church. Today this church exists as an ‘inner operational circle’ of The Order of Corporate Reunion.
Mathew’s promulgation of the OCR bore fruit in that a large number of Anglican clergymen sought him out in order to re-ordain them conditionally. Such ordinations occurred in secret, but enough of them became known to the authorities of the Church of England, who already regarded Mathew as a threat, to cause a permanent souring of relations with him.
Following the death of Mathew, the OCR became active in the United States from 1933 onwards under its first Pro-Provincial for the USA, Archbishop William Albert Nichols, and Archbishop Brooks of the Apostolic Episcopal Church was appointed Prelate and Rector Provincial for the State of New York. It was Archbishop Brooks who re-introduced the OCR to its original home in 1941 when he appointed the future Mar Georgius (de Willmott Newman) as a Superior-General in the Order with responsibility for its members in Great Britain. Brooks succeeded Nichols in 1947 and was in turn succeeded by Wallace de Ortega Maxey (also Primate of the AEC) on his death the following year. Every Primate of the AEC from its foundation has also held senior office in the OCR.
A further development in the United States was provided by Mathew’s descendant Carmel Henry Carfora (1878-1958) of the North American Old Roman Catholic Church, who instructed his bishops to ordain and consecrate any Anglican/Episcopalian clergy who applied to them. They had to maintain separate registers of these conditional ordinations and these were to be kept confidentially. When Carfora introduced The Order of Corporate Reunion to his bishop James Christian Crummey, this inspired Crummey to found The Universal Christian Communion/The Universal Episcopal Communion in 1930. This church is also absorbed in the present OCR.
Continuing the tradition from its earliest days, much of the activity of the OCR has been clandestine and not openly acknowledged.
The present day
“The main task for the order is that in an interchurch, interreligious and interdisciplinary way we continue to contribute to bring God to life and by this realize the words of Jesus ‘that all may be one.’”
In the light of the ongoing debates concerning Anglican validity, the Order continues to fulfil its original role. However, it also exercises a broader ecumenical ministry, conscious of the fact that with the advent of the Personal Ordinariates, the aim of Corporate Reunion has moved closer than was the case at its foundation. It observes the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and prays not only for the union of Rome and Canterbury, but for the healing of the Great Schism.
In order to combat false representation, the Order has sought and obtained a judgement from the State of Missouri, USA, that the current representation under Archbishop Peter Paul Brennan and his successor Archbishop Michael Kline as Universal Primate is the sole and exclusive successor of the 1874 foundation.
We note that certain individuals who are not counted among the Order’s membership have, for reasons best known to themselves, published some curious and ill-informed statements that seek to cast doubt upon the Order’s Apostolic Succession and historicity. The Anglican writer the Revd. Henry R.T. Brandreth was in general highly critical in such matters, and was, of course, the biographer of Dr Lee, having had access to much primary source material not available to others. Brandreth took the view that, “There seems to be no reason to doubt that the Orders were accepted as valid at the Vatican, and Lee preserved a document, which has been seen by many persons still living, giving some sort of recognition to their validity.” (Episcopi Vagantes and the Anglican Church, London, S.P.C.K., 1961, p. 106).