Episcopus vagans

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In Christianity, an episcopus vagans (plural episcopi vagantes; Latin for 'wandering bishops' or 'stray bishops') is a person consecrated, in a "clandestine or irregular way", as a bishop outside the structures and canon law of the established churches; a person regularly consecrated but later excommunicated, and not in communion with any generally recognized diocese; or a person who has in communion with them small groups that appear to exist solely for the bishop's sake. [1] [2] :1–2


David V. Barrett, in the 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, Paolo Miraglia-Gulotti, Emmanuel Milingo, Pierre Martin Ngô Đình Thục and Richard Williamson.


According to Buchanan, "the real rise of the problem" happened in 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". [4]

Paul Halsall, on the Internet History Sourcebooks Project, did not list a single church edifice of independent bishops, in a 19961998 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. [5] 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 legitimacyat least in their own eyes" and their groups have more clergy than members. [6]

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. [6] :56

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 the Continuing Anglican movement are not necessarily classified as vagantes, but "are always in danger of becoming such". [4]

Theological issues

A Roman or Eastern Catholic ordained to the episcopacy without a mandate from the Pope is automatically excommunicated and is thereby forbidden to celebrate the sacraments, [7] according to canon law. [8] Through the concept of "valid but illicit" ordinations however, and the dogma of sacramental character, though excommunicated and forbidden to celebrate sacraments within any church in communion with the Holy See, the person still holds a valid episcopacy though unrecognized at large. [9]

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. [10] 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 toward Peter Paul Brennan and others, that the Roman 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", [11] thereby recognizing their previous stance as "illicit but valid" clergy prior to Milingo.

Eastern Orthodox

Vlassios Pheidas, on an official Church of Greece site, uses the canonical language of the Eastern 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. [12] :ch. 1

If [...] divine grace is granted to all, [...] then it stands to reason that it is bestowed also in those believers outside the Orthodox Church, even if such persons belong to a heresy of schism. Thus, the sacraments performed outside the Church are not only real (υποστατά), but also valid (έγκυρα), because they only lack the efficacy (ενέργεια) of the bestowed divine grace, which is operative through the Holy Spirit only within the Orthodox Church.


Through such a teaching [...] one finds himself face to face with the [...] principle of " extra Ecclesia nulla salus ", which strictly determines the canonical limits of the Church. Thus, the Orthodox Church, while accepting the canonical possibility of recognising the existence (υποστατόν) of sacraments performed outside herself, it questions their validity (έγκυρον) and certainly rejects their efficacy (ενεργόν). It is already well-known that in the ecclesial praxis, the Orthodox Church moves, according to the specific circumstances, between canonical "acribeia" and ecclesial economy, recognising by economy the validity (κύρος) of the sacraments of those ecclesiastical bodies. Yet, such a practice of economy does not overthrow the canonical "acribeia", which also remains in force and expresses the exclusive character of orthodox ecclesiology.

This observation is really important, because it reveals that the canonical recognition (αναγνώρισις) of the validity of sacraments performed outside the Orthodox Church: (a) is done by economy, (b) covers only specific cases in certain given instances, and (c) refers to the validity of the sacraments only of those who join the Orthodox Church, and not of the ecclesiastical bodies to which belong those who join the Orthodox Church. There is, [...] a variety of opinions or reservations concerning this question. No one, [...] could propose or support the view that the mutual recognition of the validity of sacraments among the Churches is an ecclesiastical act consistent with orthodox ecclesiology, or an act which is not rejected by the orthodox canonical tradition. [...]


[...] the mutual recognition of the validity of certain sacraments, [...] is for an Orthodox an act of inconsistency, when it is assessed with orthodox ecclesiological principles. These ecclesiological principles manifest in a strict fashion the organic unity of the orthodox ecclesial body and differentiate those who do not belong to its body as either schismatics or heretics.

The relation of schismatics or heretics to the body of the Orthodox Church is strictly defined by the canonical tradition. However, orthodox canonical tradition and praxis appraises and classifies these ecclesiastical bodies into various categories, [...] in which some form of ecclesiality is recognised. This type of ecclesiality is not easily determined, because the orthodox tradition [...] does not recognise the efficacy of the divine grace outside the canonical boundaries of the Orthodox Church. [12] :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 the 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". [4] 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. [13] Buchanan notes the Roman Catholic Church also focuses on issues of intention and not just breaks in historical succession. [4] He does not explain whether intention has an ecclesiological role, for Anglicans, in conferring or receiving sacraments.

Particular consecrations

Arnold Mathew, according to Buchanan, "lapsed into the vagaries of an episcopus vagans" [4] :335 Stephen Edmonds, in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, wrote that in 1910 Mathew's wife separated from him; that same year, he declared himself and his church seceded from the Union of Utrecht. [14] Within a few months, on 2 November 1911, he was excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church. [15] He later sued The Times for libel based on the words "pseudo-bishop" used to describe him in the newspaper's translation from the Latin text "pseudo-episcopus", and, lost his case in 1913. [14]

Henry R.T. Brandreth wrote, in Episcopi Vagantes and the Anglican Church, "[o]ne of the most regrettable features of Mathew's episcopate was the founding of the Order of Corporate Reunion (OCR) in 1908. This claimed to be a revival of Frederick George Lee's movement, but was in fact unconnected with it." Brandreth thought it "seems still to exist in a shadowy underground way" in 1947, but disconnected. [2] :18 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. [16] 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. [14]

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. [17] It was editorialized by O'Neill that 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." [18] [lower-alpha 1] Edmonds reports that "anything between 4 and 265 was suggested" as to how many took up his offer of reordination. [14]

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 also made the same statement with regard 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". [21]

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." [22]

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 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". [23]

Marxist analysis

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 Arnold Mathew's head than he was off forming his own church. There is nothing like a Bishop's mitre and crozier to make a chap look posh and become the object of envious glances from other would-be Bishops. Where one man has ventured others will surely follow, if not always by the same route. JR Vilatte and [Ulric] Vernon Herford were made Bishops by the Nestorian Church of the Malabar Coast. Thus it was that the good work continued: the new bishops built their churches and, in time, felt the need for additional bishops. Need being father to the deed, they laid their hands on suitable candidates, who often, in their turn, developed doctrinal differences which necessitated them breaking away to form their own church. With each split there was a new accretion of theological exotica. One vagrant bishop blended Catholicism with theosophy and built his cathedral around a massive brass funnel through which God sent down beneficent rays to the faithful, who stood underneath the blessed metal conduit to receive them. Another, perhaps unsure of the effectiveness of one ceremony, was consecrated on numerous occasions in various vagrant churches and when last heard of was styled Mar Georgius, Patriarch of Glastonbury, the Episcopate of the West, and his subsidiary titles covered ten full lines of 12 point type. Among this small but sparky firmament, one with real star quality was the French "Bishop" who combined catholicism with 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". [lower-alpha 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. [lower-alpha 3]

Notes and references


  1. The Torch, no date or page cited by O'Neill. [18] Date given as 19 June 1912 by Persson, but cited without page number or article title. [19] [20]
  2. He is identified as Jean-Pierre (Clodoald) Danyel  [ fr ]. See Celtic Orthodox Church. [25] :51–52
  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]

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