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Episcopi Vagantes

In the second century a.d. all concepts of episcopacy seem to have related the person of the bishop closely to the structure of the church. In the third century Cyprian held this so strongly that he denounced as not being bishops at all those who, although they had been duly consecrated, were not “in communion” with him. On this view, a bishop who was excommunicated ceased to be a bishop. Cyprian was opposed by Stephen of Rome, and in the fourth and fifth centuries Stephen's view prevailed, being adopted by Augustine in his dealings with the Donatists.* Augustine held that, although from the Catholic standpoint the Donatists were no church (there being only one church, and it fully in communion with itself), yet their orders were validly transmitted and their ministers did not need to be ordained if they were received into the Catholic Church. In some sense they remained true ministers, able to perform true ministerial actions (such as bishops ordaining), even though outside the fold of the church.

Augustine's doctrine paved the way in time for bishops to take actions contrary to the discipline of Rome, and it is on the basis of Augustine's doctrine that Anglicans have always claimed that even from the Roman Catholic standpoint the consecrations and ordinations performed by Cranmer and Parker and their successors ought to be recognized as true ministerial actions, though outside the communion of Rome. The Roman reply has always conceded the Augustinian doctrine, but declared Anglican orders null and void on the grounds that the rites used did not have the intention of conferring true orders.

In the case of the Old Catholics,* originating in a hostility of Rome toward the see of Utrecht in the early eighteenth century, not only were orders initially conveyed by a Roman bishop using the Roman rite, but even with a century-and-a-half of “single-bishop” consecrations true orders have been conferred, and recognized as such by the Church of Rome. The Church of England had a similar case with the Nonjurors* in the eighteenth century, and the Scottish succession springs from bishops who were simply a “college” without dioceses or parishes to oversee in the days of the repressing of Jacobites.

It is but a short step from these cases to the thoroughgoing “Episcopi Vagantes.” Once validity is suspended solely upon pedigree, without regard to ecclesial context, then a line of bishops may arise without any real church connections at all. In the twentieth century such lines of succession have in fact sprung from clandestine or ill-advised consecrations, the most famous, that of A.H. Mathew, being by the Old Catholic bishops in Holland; and others, notably of J.R. Vilatte and Vernon Herford, being by schismatic bishops of the East in Ceylon. In each instance the recipient of episcopal orders seems to have deceived his consecrators to greater or lesser degree.

The final states are both tragic and comic. The recipients of episcopal orders of this sort have suffered from megalomania, due to the validity of their orders even in the eyes of Rome. They have themselves conferred “valid” orders recklessly. Very often the recipients have in turn quarreled with the donors of orders, and have started new lines of succession. Congregations, or other reasons for being pastors, have been absent. The “valid” orders have been their own justification. Some such “bishops” have clandestinely given “valid” orders to Anglican clergy doubtful of their own. Others have lapsed into infidelity (without giving up ordaining and consecrating). Most have adopted grandiose titles (e.g., Mar Georgius, patriarch of Glastonbury, whose titles run to ten lines of print in Anson's book). Brandreth reckoned there were 200 or more alive in 1961.

See H.R.T. Brandreth, Episcopi Vagantes and the Anglican Church (1961); and P.F. Anson, Bishops at Large (1964).