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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]


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 1996–1998 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 legitimacy—at least in their own eyes", and adds that 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[edit]


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, according to Catholic canon law.[7][8] Through the concept of "valid but illicit" ordinations however,[9] and the dogma of sacramental character,[10] 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.[11]

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.[12] 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".[13]

Eastern Orthodox[edit]

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.[14]: ch. 1 

If […] divine grace is granted to all, […] then it stands to reason that it is bestowed also in those believers outside the [Eastern] 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 [Eastern] 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 [Eastern] 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 [Eastern] 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 [Eastern] Orthodox Church, and not of the ecclesiastical bodies to which belong those who join the [Eastern] 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 [Eastern] 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 [Eastern] 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 [Eastern] Orthodox Church.[14]: 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. However, although strict adherence to law supersedes economy by their Cyprian understanding, some mainstream Eastern Orthodox bodies recognize Roman Catholic orders and don't conditionally ordain clergy as each autocephalous church determines the validity of another's ordination.[14][15][16] The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople likewise teaches that through "extreme oikonomia [economy]", those who are baptized in the Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Old Catholic, Moravian, Anglican, Methodist, Reformed, Presbyterian, Church of the Brethren, Assemblies of God, or Baptist traditions can be received into the Eastern Orthodox Church through the sacrament of Chrismation and not through re-baptism.[17]


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.[18] 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[edit]

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.[19] Within a few months, on 2 November 1911, he was excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church.[20] 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.[19]

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.[21] 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.[19]

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.[22] 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".[23][a] Edmonds reports that "anything between 4 and 265 was suggested" as to how many took up his offer of reordination.[19]

Notes and references[edit]


  1. ^ The Torch, no date or page cited by O'Neill.[23] Date given as 19 June 1912 by Persson, but cited without page number or article title.[24][25]


  1. ^ a b Cross, Frank L.; Livingstone, Elizabeth A., eds. (2005). "episcopi vagantes". Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd rev. ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-280290-3.
  2. ^ a b Brandreth, Henry R. T. (1987) [First published in 1947]. Episcopi Vagantes and the Anglican Church. San Bernardino, CA: Borgo Press. ISBN 0893705586. OCLC 17258289.
  3. ^ Barrett, David V. (2006). "Independent episcopal churches". In Clarke, Peter (ed.). Encyclopedia of New Religious Movements. p. 301. ISBN 9780415267076.
  4. ^ a b c d e Buchanan, Colin O (2006). "Episcopus Vagans". Historical Dictionary of Anglicanism. Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements. Vol. 62. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press. pp. 166–167. ISBN 0810853272. Retrieved 24 May 2013. Buchanan, Colin (27 February 2006). Old Catholics. Scarecrow Press. p. 335. ISBN 9780810865068. Retrieved 24 May 2013.
  5. ^ Halsall, Paul, ed. (2007) [building survey conducted 1996–1998]. "New York City Cathedrals". Medieval New York. Internet History Sourcebooks Project. New York: Fordham University. Archived from the original on 7 October 2011. Retrieved 2022-12-25. A number of Old Catholic bishops ordained 'independent' bishops. 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'.
  6. ^ a b Barrett, David V (2011). "Independent episcopal churches and the apostolic succession". A Brief Guide to Secret Religions. Philadelphia: Running Press. pp. 56, 63–64. ISBN 9780762441037. Retrieved 27 May 2013.
  7. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 1382 Archived 27 March 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 1331 §1 Archived 29 March 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 1952, p. 456. "Every validly consecrated bishop, including heretical, schismatic, simonistic, or excommunicated bishops, can validly dispense the Sacrament of Order, provided that he has the requisite intention, and follows the essential external rite (set. Certa). Cf. D 855, 860; CIC 2372."
  10. ^ "The "Indelible Character" of Holy Orders". The Catholic Layman. 7 (76): 38–39. 1858. ISSN 0791-5640. JSTOR 30066826. The Council of Trent decrees, that "in the Sacrament of Order . . . a 'character' is impressed which can neither be blotter out nor taken away:" and condemns all who affirm that "persons once rightly ordained can again be laics." (Sess. xxiii., ch. 4) "If any one shall have said, that by sacred ordination . . . . a character is not impressed or that he who was once a priest can again become a laic, let him be accursed." (Sess. xxiii., ch. 4) . . . . Where the mark is stamped on the soul, there there is "order;" and where that mark is not stamped on the soul, there is not order (according to the Church of Rome). And the Council of Trent declares that mark or "character" to be "indelible;" that is to say, once impressed on the soul, it can never be rubbed out or lost, or taken away.
  11. ^ "If a priest leaves the priesthood, is he still able to perform the sacraments?". Catholic Straight Answers. 21 May 2013. Retrieved 18 August 2022. So what happens when a priest leaves the priesthood? Since Holy Orders is a character sacrament, once it has been validly received, it never is invalidated for any reason whatsoever. Granted, a cleric– deacon, priest, or bishop– may be freed from the clerical state and dispensed from the promise of celibacy by the proper authority. He may no longer have the obligations or the privileges to function as a cleric, but nevertheless he remains a cleric. Commonly, this practice is called laicization, meaning "returned to the state of the laity." (Code of Canon Law, #290-293.) Even though the cleric has been laicized and no longer functions as a deacon, priest, or bishop, he still has the sacramental character of Holy Orders. Technically, if he were to perform a sacrament in accord with the norms of the Church, that sacrament would indeed be valid. However, the sacrament would be illicit, meaning he violated Church law and would be culpable for this infraction since he no longer has the faculties to function as a priest.
  12. ^ Peter-Ben Smit, Old Catholic and Philippine Independent Ecclesiologies in History (BRILL 2011 ISBN 978-90-0420647-2), p. 197
  13. ^ "Acta Apostolicae Sedis CII (2010), p. 58" (PDF).
  14. ^ a b c Pheidas, Vlassios. "Chapter I". The limits of the church in an orthodox perspective. Myriobiblos: The online library of the Church of Greece. Online Cultural Center of the Church of Greece. Archived from the original on 30 October 2005. Retrieved 14 May 2013. "Chapter II". Archived from the original on 30 October 2005. Retrieved 14 May 2013.
  15. ^ "Validity of Roman Catholic Orders - Questions & Answers". Orthodox Church in America. Retrieved 11 August 2023.
  16. ^ "Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs | Ordination Joint Committee of Orthodox and Catholic Bishops, 1988". 23 July 2011. Archived from the original on 23 July 2011.
  17. ^ Metropolitan Isaiah (9 May 2000). "Protocols 2000". Orthodox Research Institute. Archived from the original on 27 November 2010.
  18. ^  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSmith, Sydney (1907). "Anglican Orders". In Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  19. ^ a b c d Edmonds, Stephen (2013) [2012]. "Mathew, Arnold Harris (1852–1919)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/103378. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  20. ^ Pope Pius X (11 February 1911). "Sacerdotes Arnoldus Harris Mathew, Herbertus Ignatius Beale et Arthurus Guilelmus Howarth nominatim excommunicantur" (PDF). Acta Apostolicae Sedis (motu proprio type apostolic letter) (in Latin). 3 (2). Rome: Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis (published 15 February 1911): 53–54. Archived (PDF) from the original on 3 March 2013. Retrieved 11 May 2013.
  21. ^ Holden, Colin (1997). Ritualist on a Tricycle: Frederick Goldsmith, Church, Nationalism and Society in Western Australia, 1880-1920. Staples South West Region publication series. Nedlands, W.A.: University of Western Australia Press. p. 272. ISBN 187556098X. ISSN 1030-3359. Retrieved 10 May 2013.
  22. ^ Yates, Nigel (1999). Anglican Ritualism in Victorian Britain, 1830-1910. Oxford University Press. pp. 298–300. ISBN 0198269897. OCLC 185544754. Retrieved 10 May 2013.
  23. ^ a b O'Neill, D. J. Scannell (September 1912). Preuss, Arthur (ed.). "The Revised Order of Corporate Re-Union". The Fortnightly Review. 19 (18). Techny, IL: Arthur Preuss: 515–516. hdl:2027/nyp.33433068283641. LCCN 15001974. Retrieved 12 May 2013.
  24. ^ Persson, Bertil (2000). The order of corporate reunion. Solna, Sweden: St. Ephrem's Institute. pp. 24–25. ISBN 91-85734-07-1.
  25. ^ "The Revived Order of Corporate Reunion [constructed title]". The Torch, A Monthly Review, Advocating the Reconstruction of the Church of the West and Reunion with the Holy Orthodox Church of the East. London: [s.n.] 19 June 1912. OCLC 504100502.

Further reading[edit]