Mother church is often more like a grandma, and one of my pastimes is rummaging around in her attic.
I enjoy investigating religious oddities and curiosities. I’ll pay the admission price to see the ecclesiastical equivalent of Ripley’s Believe it or Not. I’ll go out of my way to see the incorrupt body of a saint, peer at a Eucharistic miracle, or poke a dubious relic. I like to hear about levitating saints, the stigmata, weeping Madonnas and pancakes that bear the image of Mother Teresa.
One area of eccentricity that never ceases to interest and delight are the “episcopi vagantes” or wandering bishops. These schismatics are often quaintly bizarre. On the fringes of lunacy, they set themselves up as bishops, archbishops, popes, patriarchs, eparchs, and abbots.
The first wandering bishop I met was the late Right Rev. James Parker Dees. A former Episcopal priest, Dees established the Anglican Orthodox Church which had a parish in Greenville, South Carolina. We students at Bob Jones University were allowed to attend Evensong there on Sunday nights.
Bishop Dees was like a character out of Tennessee Williams play. An ecclesiastical Big Daddy, Dees drove a lumbering Lincoln Continental and collected wealthy Southern Episcopal ladies who were disenchanted with the liberal drift of the Episcopal Church. On his visits to the little church he would try to recruit starry-eyed young men to attend his seminary in North Carolina like me. For a fee.
The Anglicans are especially prone to schism and have accumulated a full basket of alternative churches and wandering bishops. For those who are interested in a pleasant afternoon rummaging through grandma church’s attic, they might like to go to this website which lists about eighty Anglican breakaway churches with their wandering bishops. Some are ultra conservative. Some are ultra liberal. All are ultra unusual.
Wandering bishops not only come complete with their copes, miters, croziers, gloves, rings, cathedrals, and calling cards (usually printed in Gothic typeface) but they also establish an alternative hierarchy and a statement of faith, and always publish the record of their episcopal authority. They are very insistent on showing how their orders are descended from the apostles and are as proud of their pedigree as the owner of a prize poodle.
In addition to all the clobber and clothes, the wandering bishops usually have their own cathedral in a room over their garage. They also have their version of church history which proves that their small church is the authentic one. They take pride in being the remnant, one of the “few the faithful few.” “Many are called and few are chosen” don’t you know, and “narrow is the gate and few there be who find it….”
When I was living in England I came across one of the more unusual strands of alternative church history. I was visiting the ancient town of Glastonbury. It’s a mystical place, full of legendary lore and genuine historical interest. Not only is it supposed to be the burial-place of King Arthur, but ancient tales have it that during the silent years, Jesus Christ himself visited Glastonbury with his wealthy relative Joseph of Arimathea.
So Blake wrote,
“And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
As I walked up the main street, I was pleased to see a Christian bookshop and discovered that it was Eastern Orthodox. The fellow at the desk had the obligatory black robe, stovepipe hat, long beard and holy expression. I asked him what branch of Orthodoxy he belonged to.
He replied in a solemn English accent, ‘The Celtic Orthodox Church.’
I’d never heard of such an outfit, but happy to acknowledge my ignorance of the complexities of Eastern Orthodoxy, I asked him where his patriarch was based.
He gazed on me with a lugubrious expression, stroked his beard and said, ‘Alas, we have not had a patriarch for thousands of years.’
And so I was introduced to the alternative reality of Celtic Orthodoxy. The basic idea is that the church in Britain was founded by Coptic Christians from Egypt before the turn of the first century. This ancient Celtic Church existed in sublime isolation from the Roman Church for six hundred years before St Augustine was sent by Pope St. Gregory the Great to evangelize the Anglo Saxons in 597 AD.
This website will outline the supposed links between Ireland and Egypt. You can learn all about the Holy Celtic Church and her venerable history here. The most important aspects of ‘Celtic Orthodoxy’ seem to be its British-ness, its antiquity, and its historic independence of Rome. As the Holy Celtic Church’s website claims “Because of its autonomy and geographical isolation, the Celtic Church remained uniquely uncorrupted by Hellenistic Greek philosophy or Roman jurisprudence.”
It seems harsh to refer to the Catholic schismatic bishops of the Society of St. Pius X (the Lefebvrists) as episcopi vagantes but many would deem them so. If we’re looking for Catholic wandering bishops we can do no better than Pope Michael, a resident of Kansas who was elected Pope in 1990 by six lay people. A collection of contemporary anti-popes can be viewed here. They include other American Popes: Earl Pulvermacher, known as Pope Pius XIII, Chester Olszewski of Pennsylvania—Pope Peter II—and Francis Konrad Schuckardt of Spokane, Washington, who declared himself Hadrian VII in 1984.
Not to be outdone by the traditionalists, Catholic progressives also have their set of schisms and wandering bishops. In addition to the Roman Catholic Women Priests and the Women’s Ordination Conference, there is the Worldwide Ecumenical Catholic Church of Christ with Archbishop Karl Rodig and the Ecumenical Catholic Church not forgetting the Ecumenical Catholic Communion. In a quick search I discovered nearly twenty “independent” Catholic Churches.
The two strangest things about the phenomenon of the wandering bishops is not their grandiose titles, their ornate robes, or their pro-cathedrals in their Aunt Pat’s basement, but firstly their utter conviction that they and their faithful band of pilgrims are the true church, and secondly, that they want to be bishops at all, for the bishop is a living sign of communion with the apostles and the successor of Peter.
Being a renegade bishop is therefore not only a contradiction in terms, it’s as ridiculously bogus as a cowboy at a dude ranch.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.