Open Episcopal Church
The Open Episcopal Church (OEC) is a growing liberal Catholic denomination that calls itself "the small church with a big heart". It has bishops in England and Wales and clergy throughout the United Kingdom, in Thailand and the United States. It has ministered to hundreds of thousands of people and has over 29,000 members.
The church is a vocal and active champion of religious equality and was the first in Britain to ordain a woman as bishop and to perform religious wedding ceremonies for gay couples.
Founding of the Society for Independent Christian Ministry
In 1994 the Jonathan Blake, who had been a priest in the Church of England for over 12 years, effected a Deed of Relinquishment, severing his denominational ties. He felt he had encountered the limitations of institutional ministry and left the Church of England in order to pursue his priestly vocation independently.
As an independent priest he offers sacramental ministry to all. In 1997 he wrote about these experiences in his book, For God's Sake Don't Go To Church. The same year he nailed 95 theses  to the door of Canterbury Cathedral, for which he was arrested but not charged.
A lesbian from the north of England arranged to meet Blake after reading his book. She felt a call to the ministry but had been rebuffed by the church over her sexuality and was interested in independent ministry. Following the meeting Blake placed an advert in the Church Times inviting all those interested in such a ministry to a conference the following March. Over 100 people contacted him, among them Richard Palmer, who had been consecrated as a bishop of the Liberal Catholic Church in 1997 but had resigned in April 1999. Together they explored the need for a new simple but authentic ecclesiastical structure which could serve those deprived access to ordination by traditional denominations. This structure would enshrine the principles of unconditional love and inclusivity.
Blake wrote the Founding Principles of the Society for Independent Christian Ministry (SICM), which was inaugurated by a group of Christians reciting the Lord’s Prayer in the Sanctum of the Holy Circle Trust near Ryarsh in Kent at sunrise on 1 January 2000. It paved the way for a conference held in Dartford three months later and the first ordinations into the society, which took place at Hall Place in Bexleyheath. These first ordinations were simple, involving all the members present laying hands on each other. However, because a bishop was present, the question arose of whether these were episcopal or congregational ordinations. It proved to become a difficult question, as did the issue of homosexuality.
When the society gathered in Preston the following November, for the second gathering, its numbers had been increased by two groups. The first were from more Catholic backgrounds and seeking episcopal ordination. The second group were from more evangelical backgrounds and some of them found the presence of homosexual clergy unsettling. At Preston the society affirmed its belief that sexual identity was not an obstacle to ordination and this caused some to leave. The debate about ordination proved more complex. It became clear that there was a need for an ecclesial structure that mirrored the principles of SICM but followed the apostolic threefold order of ministry. Palmer elected Blake to the episcopate and he was consecrated in December 2000, a bishop in the Province for Open Episcopal Ministry and Jurisdiction.
In February 2001, Blake conducted the first gay wedding blessing on Richard and Judy's prime time TV programme This Morning. It was cited as one of the 20 most controversial TV moments. The Daily Mail published articles referring to Blake as a 'self-styled' bishop. Blake issued a writ for defamation against Associated Newspapers International in response. The litigation lasted over two years.
A preliminary hearing found that the articles could be deemed to be defamatory, and the defendant's appeal was rejected. Lord Justice Sedley judged, "In brief, the legal fact that it is not for a court to say who is or who is not a true bishop does not necessarily mean the person can freely be called a false bishop. It may well mean the converse, namely that a person who has been consecrated a bishop, albeit not by the rites of an established church, is entitled at least to have that fact stated if a newspaper is to exercise its freedom to disparage him. Further, the newspaper takes the risk that if it does not do so, a jury may consider what it has published is neither justified in point of fact nor, so far as it is comment, fair or honest" and that "There may be no obligation to publish the facts on which a comment is founded so long as...these can eventually be proved; but neglecting to do so creates the risk that the comment will be taken for fact."  The court concluded that the issue was non-justiciable as it could not rule on the validity of a bishop. Associated Newspapers International had to pay a proportion of Blake's costs ( which were minimal, as he had represented himself ) and their own, which were considerable.
By the time SICM met for the third time in Bournemouth, the discussions around ordination became heated, with Palmer requiring those who had been ordained simply in Dartford to be ordained sub conditione at this gathering in a full rite of ordination. This happened, but it set in motion a disquiet among some who feared that the simplicity of SICM was being lost. Blake realised that, as well as the society, a new denomination had to be founded and he set about writing the necessary canons.
At Hazlewood Castle, Michael Wilson was consecrated a bishop by Palmer and Blake. Wilson had an evangelical background and had worked as an independent minister, founding the Order of On Call Clergy. A mandate to found the Open Episcopal Church was granted by the Reformed Liberal Catholic Church (Old Catholic), a Liberal Catholic jurisdiction founded by Palmer following his resignation from the Liberal Catholic Church at that time under the primacy of Johannes van Alphen. Subsequently the three bishops then issued the "Hazlewood Declaration" on 10 November 2001, which created the Open Episcopal Church. The OEC was to be "Open to all without exception, loving, serving, accessible and relevant to our age." The church was rooted in the Old Catholic Church, which had been established in England in 1908 by Arnold Mathew from the ancient archiepiscopal See of Utrecht and continued through the Liberal Catholic Church founded in 1916.
Split between SICM and OEC and the primacy debate
For the next year SICM and OEC co-existed, but the differences between them made this untenable. At Liverpool in October 2002 it was decided that they should separate, following similar paths and containing many of the same people, but with two distinct approaches.
The first significant meeting of the College of Bishops of the Open Episcopal Church had taken place at Newman House, London in July 2002, prior to the separation. The most contentious issue concerned primacy in the church. The canons did not provide for singular leadership, but rather for governance by a College of Bishops. When 12 bishops had been consecrated they would elect three Archbishops, who would form the Provincial Episcopal Synod and bear the ultimate responsibility for the Church. This was to emulate a trinitarian model of governance. Likewise in a diocese, three diocesan bishops would be appointed, so that power and authority would not be invested in one person but rather in a community. However, while this had been agreed upon in 2002, Palmer wanted it changed after the split from SICM into a single primate structure.
Blake was adamant that a single primacy would prove problematic, but his concerns were accommodated in part by a carefully worded proposal presented by bishop-elect and professor Elizabeth Stuart. This compromise allowed for the election of a primate (the Archbishop), but the executive power of the Church would be vested in the College of Bishops and not the Archbishop. The College would not be bound to submit to the Archbishop if they believed him or her to be in error and the Archbishop would only have a single five-year turn, without the option of re-election. Palmer was elected as Archbishop.
The next major event for the OEC was the consecration of Stuart at the Royal Holloway Chapel, the college chapel of the Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, the University of London, Egham in Surrey, in April 2003. This was to be the first consecration of a woman as an independent Catholic bishop in the UK and this news provoked controversy. The university was approached by several denominations to deny the church use of the chapel, and one denomination even threatened to withdraw funding from the chaplaincy should the service go ahead, though the threat was not carried out.
The first congress of the church was held at the All Saints Pastoral Centre in June 2004. It was notable that Elizabeth Stuart concluded a Mass in the chapel while Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, watched from the pews awaiting the start of the Mass he was taking afterwards. The congress also attended the graveyard of the Church at South Mimms, where the Old Catholic Church founder-bishop, Arnold Mathew, is buried.
The church's college of bishops met at Weston Manor in Oxfordshire in January 2005. By then the church had received a number of requests from abroad to provide oversight to fledgling churches. A college of cardinals was inaugurated, made up of the four existing bishops, to whom the vision of the Open Episcopal Church was entrusted. This was to safeguard the church from new bishops, appointed from abroad, being able to vote within the College of Bishops and influence the church away from its core vision. However, other problems emerged. The first was that newly ordained clerics sometimes left for other jurisdictions. The second was the increasing focus on a Catholic cultural approach in the church, promoted by Palmer. Wilson, an evangelical, resigned from the Church to continue his missionary work.
In May 2005, M. Graham Blyth, an Anglican incumbent, devoted his sabbatical to writing Beyond the Fringe - a study of radicals who are remaking the Church, which included an interview with Blake about the Open Episcopal Church. Blyth wrote, "One thing emerges clearly. That from the fringes or 'beyond the fringe' of the Church of England there is a great deal of lively and imaginative thinking going on about genuinely creative spirituality. This is a great untapped resource still - provided the exciting thinkers in or just beyond our midst are not alienated or driven away."
The next crisis arose when Palmer approached the end of his five-year term. He wished to continue as Archbishop, but the church was becoming less eclectic despite its origins, focusing more on issues of catholic rectitude and reliant upon concepts of authoritarian leadership. Therefore, the archiepiscopate expected obedience. In addition, Palmer was dealing with personal pressures. The Liberal Catholic Church Corporation had taken action in the High Court against him and he had taken action against Wale and the Liberal Catholic Church Corporation in the Portsmouth County Court. Neither action was to prove effective, but the litigation caused personal strain.
The College of Bishops met at the Parish Church of Southampton in January 2006. Palmer’s proposal to remove the requirement for him to stand down after his five-year term was not agreed upon. He then sought to gain control of the Church away from the College of Cardinals as Archbishop, and threatened to withdraw Holy Orders from those who resisted him. He issued an Interdict of Impaired Communion against Blake and sought to gain the support of the clergy to disassociate from Blake. Stuart, on behalf of the College of Cardinals, issued an Ad Clerum stating that Palmer had no authority to issue the Interdict and called on the clergy to reject it. It became clear that the majority of clerics supported the College of Cardinals, recognising that they were acting within the Canons of the Church. On 7 February 2006, Palmer withdrew the Interdict of Impaired Communion against Blake and left the OEC. Some clergy, including Whatley, joined him to found the United Episcopal Church, but it fragmented shortly afterwards.
Elizabeth Stuart became the new Archbishop and the church gathered for Congress at the Abbey Community at Sutton Scotney in June. One issue remained a problem—how could the more catholic members accommodate the OEC’s more ecumenical approach to worship and church life? Stuart and a few others decided that this was an irreconcilable matter and left on good terms. Stuart was appointed the Archbishop of the Province of Great Britain and Ireland of the Liberal Catholic Church International. The OEC had reached a watershed as a stable church with a distinct identity.
As of 2006[update], Blake was the only remaining bishop in the OEC.
Blake revised the church canons, seeking to craft a model of authority that combined a singular and communal approach. As such the revised canons allowed for the role of an archbishop, but the archbishop would remain answerable to the bishops and clerics of the church who, in extreme situations, could take action to unseat the occupant. On 5 September 2006 the revised canons were promulgated and Blake was elected as archbishop unanimously by the clerics of the church. The clerics were required to sign a three-year loyalty pledge, all new priests and deacons to sign a five-year pledge and all bishops a 10-year pledge. This proved a successful approach and the church has since been stable and consolidated its growth.
Over the next six months, Blake travelled to Scotland to consecrate David Gillham at Falkirk United Reformed Church, to Southampton to consecrate Sheila Wharmby at the oldest parish church of St Julian, Southampton and to the chapel at Ammerdown, to consecrate Stewart Harrison. At all of these consecrations Roger Whatley assisted and at some Stuart attended. Shelley Harstad-Smith was consecrated at Caerphilly Castle.
In 2008 the Open Episcopal Church became a member of the International Council of Community Churches and through them, a member of the World Council of Churches and Churches Uniting in Christ.
The church received national and international attention due to the wedding blessing Blake conducted for Jade Goody and Jack Tweed, through interviews broadcast after Jade Goody's tragic death, through the prayer released before Jade Goody's funeral, through Blake's response to Michael Parkinson's criticism of Goody, through the launch of Post the Host (an outreach provision to distribute the consecrated Hosts by post) and through Gillham leading the prayers in the Scottish Parliament.
Following Jade Goody's wedding, Christopher Woods, Chaplain and Director of Studies in Theology at Christ's College, Cambridge, called upon the Church of England to speak out against Blake and the OEC. The Church of England declined to comment.
In 2009 the church also received international coverage when Blake was arrested for photographing his sons reading on the roof of his house for a school competition. He was later released without charge, although he alleged police violence and malpractice during his detention and later established When No One's Watching and was appointed an independent custody visitor.
Blake contributed to the book A strange Vocation - Independent Bishops tell their stories in 2009 and contributed liturgical material to Geoffrey Duncan's anthology Courage to Love and Leanne Tigert and Maren Tirabassi's compilation All Whom God has Joined 
In 2014 a disagreement arose about the blogs of the Presiding Archbishop and his behaviour in dealing with people who disagreed with his comments. As a result a significant number of people resigned from the OEC. This included one bishop (Rt Rev Helen Hamilton) and several priests, deacons and ordinands, and the chief Lay Herald. In addition, some organisations in communion with the OEC severed ties with the church.  Since 2014 several other priests have resigned from the OEC and its number of active ministers and members is significantly reduced.
In 2011, Mark Townsend became the second Church of England priest to join the church and Christopher Morgan became the third.
The church, having consecrated the first woman as a bishop for England in 2003 and for Wales in 2007, consecrated Helen Hamilton as the first woman as a bishop for Scotland in June 2012.
The core vision of the church is encapsulated in the scripture: "There is no Jew or Greek, servant or free, male or female: because you are all one in Jesus Christ." Unity, equality and diversity are core principles of church life. Holy orders are open to all irrespective of gender or sexual identity. The church blesses alike the unions of heterosexual couples and those of other sexual identities. All are offered the sacrament of the Eucharist whatever their age or belief or philosophy.
- The Independent - on 'Country's first freelance vicar'.
- For God's Sake Don't Go To Church ISBN 0-85305-446-0 Published by Arthur James.
- 95 Theses
- Richard Palmer
- The Founding Principles
- The Holy Circle Trust. Charity Number 1066062
- BBC News - Gay Wedding on Richard and Judy
- 20 Most controversial TV moments
- March 1st 2002 His Honour Judge Previte - The High Court JS/01/0206
- July 9th 2002 Lord Justice Sedley - The Court of Appeal A2/2002/0552
- The validity of a bishop
- Michael Wilson
- Roger Whatley
- Revised Canons
- Jade Goody's Wedding
- Daily Mail - Goody's wedding
- Damian Thompson's blog
- Talk Talk News Interview
- Prayer for Jade
- Sky News - criticism of Jade
- Daily Telegraph - criticism of Jade
- Daily Mirror - criticism of Jade
- Post the Host
- Guardian article on Post the Host
- Guardian comment on Post the Host
- Daily telegraph on Post the Host
- Ship of Fools
- Washington re Post the Host
- Diocese of Pittsburgh - Post the Host
- Religious News Service blog
- Off my Chest - blog
- Prayers at the Scottish Parliament
- Revd Woods criticism
- Daily Mail - Arrest
- Reuters - arrest
- Ferrari Press Agency Photographs
- Sky/Global News - arrest
- The Namibian
- Sunday Times - alleged violence
- Newsshopper - alleged violence
- When No One's Watching
- Sky News When No One's Watching
- A strange Vocation - Independent bishops tell their stories ISBN 1-933993-75-8 Published by Apocryphile Press
- Courage to Love ISBN 0-8298-1468-X Published by The Pilgrim Press
- All Whom God has Joined ISBN 0-8298-1838-3 Published by The Pilgrim Press
- UK Christian Resources Handbook
- The blog - Pluralist Speaks
- Catholic News India
- The Shropshire Star, "Priest abandons Church of England".
- Glasgow Herald.
- Bible - Galatians 3:28 ]