Among the churches and related groups that trace their origins to historic roots in Old (Roman) Catholicism, the majority assert descent through either Arnold Harris Mathew (1852-1919) (pictured left), who was in 1908 consecrated as Old Catholic Regionary Bishop of Great Britain and Ireland by bishops of the Union of Utrecht of the Old Catholic Churches, or through Joseph René Vilatte (1854-1929), who was in 1892 consecrated as Archbishop Metropolitan of the Old Catholic Church of America by bishops of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate. The latter have already been dealt with by way of an organisational summary in the work “Joseph René Vilatte (1854-1929): Some Aspects of his Life, Work and Succession“.
The role of an organisational summary is important in tracing the jurisdictional authority of given churches. Both Archbishops Mathew and Vilatte believed in the regional or specialized church as an organized and hierarchical unit within the wider context of the undivided One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. They were not ecclesiastical anarchists, who believed in or condoned bishops embracing independence for its own sake. In the case of Vilatte, whose work was that of church planting on several continents, and the giving of Apostolic commission to missions that had been without a bishop of their own, it is clear that his intention was to establish structured and duly constituted communions of an Orthodox and Catholic character. Mathew’s intention was less widespread and more locally centred, and of necessity involved a much smaller group of adherents, but was nonetheless concerned with establishing a church that would offer an alternative home for those drawn to Western Orthodoxy and a Catholic viewpoint within the Anglican Communion.
Previous attempts to trace the jurisdictional ramifications of the missions established by these two forefathers have included Karl Pruter’s “Old Catholic Sourcebook” (Garland, 1983) and the various directories of American religious groups compiled by J. Gordon Melton which have included brief narrative histories. These publications have concentrated on the United States, and the present offering is the first to include a number of the British and Continental groups in question. Such a task is made complex by the repeated division of the communions in question through schism, and yet it is an important way to understand these groups. It has become modish to disregard the importance of jurisdiction and point only to Apostolic Succession, claiming either along the lines of the Society of Pius X that in the absence of explicit jurisdiction ecclesia supplet, or indeed that jurisdiction is an outdated concept altogether. These arguments would have been rejected outright not only by Mathew and Vilatte but also by several generations of bishops who succeeded them, who would have pointed out that to abandon jurisdiction is to abandon any claim to be Orthodox or Catholic. The erroneous assumption that the original missions established by these prelates are long since extinct has also been encountered. In fact, jurisdictional succession is one of the few aspects that provides a reliable basis for the study of the movement as a distinct response to the First Vatican Council and thereby part of Old Catholicism as a distinct phenomenon, rather than as part of the “new religious movements” categorisation, which is an unhappy fit with the predominantly conservative majority of Old Catholic churches outside the Utrecht Union.
None of this is to deny that individuals, whether or not they hold Holy Orders that can be traced back to any specific prelate, might not found new communions and declare them to be Old Catholic in practice. Indeed, such new churches may, in substance and mission, not only be the equal but the superior of those with valid jurisdictional claims to Old Catholicism. It does not appear that the Union of Utrecht requires as a condition of churches that enter discussion seeking affiliation that they should be able to prove jurisdictional continuity from a given Catholic or any other parent body. And of course it is possible for new groups to be validated jurisdictionally by established jurisdictions, which may extend them a charter or otherwise incorporate them. Where these matters are treated with indifference, however, it is clear that the mark of the authentic church is absent. And where proven jurisdictional descent is present, it not only indicates a valid claim to ecclesiastical authority but merits a greater degree of serious attention by the scholar since it will generally indicate the repository of both oral history and archival materials.
This work is not the last in this series, and it is hoped that others will follow at a later stage that will deal with the remaining groups of jurisdictions that trace their origins to a single bishop.
>>Organisational summary of groups descending from Arnold Harris Mathew, by John Kersey (pdf file)