The Ancient Catholic Church was placed under the primacy of Archbishop John Kersey of the Apostolic Episcopal Church in 2008 (subsequently to become Prince-Abbot of San Luigi and Catholicos of the West), and the legacy of its founder, Archbishop Harold Percival Nicholson, remains active today. These pages give a detailed account of its history and address a number of issues of interest.
The late Victorian era and the early twentieth-century was a time of great upheaval in Christian affairs. For Anglicans, the Oxford Movement caused a renewed focus on Rome and on questions of the validity of Holy Orders and of the Mass which refused to go away, and to which the official answers were often unsatisfactory. The Anglican response to the 1896 declaration by the Holy See that Anglican orders were “absolutely null and utterly void” (which remains the position of the Holy See today) left many unconvinced. For Roman Catholics, meanwhile, aside from the greater visibility of their faith caused by the restoration of the hierarchy to England in 1850, the First Vatican Council of 1868-70 brought about difficulties in the wake of the formal definition of the infallibility of the Pope, and marked both the triumph of the Ultramontanists and the separation of the Old Catholics, who could not accept the Ultramontanist position and in due course formed the Union of Utrecht.
All of this brought about the position in the first half of the twentieth-century where a number of men sought to pursue Christian ministry in a setting that could accept their beliefs and conscience, and in which their stance would not simply be seen as heretical and condemned outright. They took the view that they would rather worship in a small and Apostolically valid communion than in a larger communion that either lacked Apostolic orders or whose dogmatic approach had broken with their understanding of the faith of the Church.
These men were ordained and often consecrated in valid Holy Orders by bishops of the Eastern Orthodox, and Old Catholic churches, and attempted to establish communities that enjoyed the freedom of the earliest pre-Constantinian Christians. Many of these fledgling communities did not survive, or amalgamated with other bodies after a time. However, some took root and became the foundation for a new Free Catholicism independent of the Vatican that expressed itself in diversity rather than centralised conformity. These communities were led and strongly patterned after the character and policy of their bishops, and grew from the grass roots with notable working-class involvement. By the 1940s, a number of distinct lines of Apostolic Succession originating from various foreign prelates were in existence within the small independent churches.
MAR GEORGIUS UNIFIES THE FREE CATHOLIC MOVEMENT AND CHARTERS THE ANCIENT CATHOLIC CHURCH
Fr. Hugh George de Willmott-Newman (1905-79) was born into the Catholic Apostolic Church (sometimes called “Irvingites”) and as a result of that church’s decision not to ordain further clergy became a priest of the Old Catholic Orthodox Church, one of the small Free Catholic denominations. He had a vision of uniting the various small churches that stood in the Apostolic Succession within a single church structured on an Orthodox polity in conformity with Catholic Apostolic teachings and prophesies, and, believing that the continued existence of these tiny churches and the survival of their lines of succession very much “against the odds” were part of a Divine plan, aimed to create an Oecumenical Apostolic Succession by uniting the various successions concerned. In so doing, he believed that he was working to overcome the obstacles caused by any church not recognising a particular succession as being Apostolically valid. If a church could unite all of the extant successions, it could act as a centre for Christian unity, and in so doing, could restore an indigenous Western Orthodoxy to the British Isles.
In 1941, Fr. de Willmott-Newman had placed the Old Catholic Orthodox Church under the Primacy of Mar John Emmanuel (Arthur Wolfort Brooks) (1889-1948), the Primate of the Apostolic Episcopal Church, and he consequently served as priest and Abbot Nullius of St Albans under Mar John Emmanuel. In 1943, Mar John Emmanuel provided a mandate for the consecration of Fr. de Willmott-Newman, and in the following year he was duly consecrated as Mar Georgius, Patriarch of Glastonbury and Prince-Catholicos of the West, to lead the Catholic Apostolic Church (Catholicate of the West), a church that had formed from the amalgamation of several smaller bodies in the previous year. This church then entered into union with the Apostolic Episcopal Church.
Mar Georgius thus became the preeminent figure in the British Free Catholic movement of his time, and eventually, through repeated subconditional consecrations by other bishops, united all of the major lines of Apostolic Succession within his person.
Harold Nicholson (1905-68) was born in Guernsey of humble origins. His early career found him working as a valet on board the steamer “Orduna” in 1932, and in the following years, during which he worked as a waiter at the Savoy Hotel, he rose to become Head Waiter, no mean achievement for a man from the working class in those days.
It has been said that Nicholson became drawn to the Wisdom Traditions after the tragic death in infancy of his son, Noël, as a result of hospital negligence. He contacted a medium who was able to reassure him that Noël was at peace with God. This inspired Nicholson to begin to pursue his ministry. He conceived of a church in which the charismatic gifts of the Spirit known to the earliest Christians could find a special place, and where dogmatic Romanism would be replaced with an all-embracing church based on the love of God.
Nicholson began a Christian house church movement in Clapton, north London, during the 1930s, and this then moved to a former Baptist chapel in Wallington (20, Belmont Road), which was designated the Church of the Good Shepherd. Here on 13 October 1946 he was ordained priest by Mar Georgius, taking the name Father John in religion, and became a member of clergy of the Catholic Apostolic Church (Catholicate of the West). His abilities in Divine Healing and in prophesy were reported in the press and became known to many, including several wealthy patrons who supported his work. After World War II Nicholson’s community acquired the former Baptist chapel in Lower Sloane Street, Chelsea, which had been damaged in the Blitz. They restored the crypt of this neo-Byzantine-Romanesque building in the highest Catholic tradition, and it opened as the Church of the Good Shepherd in Autumn 1947, while a license was sought from the authorities for the repair of the rest of the building. The photograph of Nicholson above was taken there as, it is believed, was that of Mar Georgius.
Mar Georgius described the church as: “devoted especially to the work of Divine Healing, wherein Father Nicholson was greatly experienced, having many authenticated cures to his credit under God…its activities were oftimes reported in The West London Press and The Battersea Star…at that time there were Healing Services being held in the Church on Tuesday afternoons, and on Wednesday and Friday evenings, in addition to the usual Sunday morning and evening services.” [Mar Georgius: The Sad Case of George Forster (1963)]
From the latter half of 1948, Nicholson began to offer ministry to members of the Free Church tradition under the name The New Pentecostal Church of Christ, and was installed for this ministry by Mar Georgius on 11 September 1948.
Mar Georgius, as General Moderator of the Fellowship of Free Churches (an organ of the Catholicate of the West) installs the Very Revd. Harold P. Nicholson (left) as Moderator of the New Pentecostal Church of Christ, Church of the Good Shepherd, Chelsea, 11 September 1948.
In 1949, Nicholson requested and was granted leave to resign from the ministry of the Catholic Apostolic Church. Mar Georgius reports as follows:
“At the beginning of April , The Reverend H.P. Nicholson made formal application to me for his release from my jurisdiction, and, at a subsequent interview, discussed with me his reasons for making this request. It appeared that his congregation at the Church of the Good Shepherd, most of whom had been previously of one or other of the Nonconformist bodies, had objected to Catholic teaching and ceremonial, urging him to “get rid of the trappings”, and to provide them with plain and simple services of a type to which they had been previously accustomed. He felt that he had to make a choice between agreeing to their demands or losing the majority of his followers. He felt that his duty lay in keeping the congregation together, but at the same time realised that to do so would be incompatible both with the duties of the Catholic priesthood, and also with his obligations toward THE CATHOLIC APOSTOLIC CHURCH (Catholicate of the West). Under the title of The New Pentecostal Church of Christ, he was already catering for Free Church people, and he thought that his best solution would be to ask me for release, so that he could turn the whole of his work over on to a Free Church basis. In view of the position stated, I felt that I had no alternative but to consent to his release, and told him that I would issue the necessary document.”[Ibid.]
On April 29 that year, Nicholson’s former deacon, George Forster, who had become estranged from him through Forster’s jealousy and ambition, caused a libel to be published in the Spiritualist paper “The Two Worlds” concerning this release from Mar Georgius’ jurisdiction. Nicholson was instigated by Forster wrongly to blame Mar Georgius for this incident.
Somehow, a most unlikely reconciliation then occurred between Nicholson and Forster, who had meanwhile been consecrated (most probably invalidly) as Mar David and was leading a new denomination called the English Orthodox Church. On 10 September 1949, Forster consecrated Nicholson as his Missionary Bishop, an event concerning which Mar Georgius wrote “certainly the ceremony took place, and the whole matter has remained a mystery to me from that time to this.” [ibid.] Nicholson obtained a full release from Forster’s jurisdiction, which never extended to the Church of the Good Shepherd, on 26 December 1949.
The following year, the now Bishop Nicholson re-established relations with Mar Georgius through the intermediation of the Revd. Christopher Moore of the Evangelical Catholic Communion. Mar Georgius offered the opinion that “he had been released at his own request, and all that had happened between us was a stormy interview, after which I had just refrained from keeping in touch with him, though had he at any time approached me, my feelings were not of such a nature that I would not have been [glad]…On the day appointed, we duly met, and for the first time I beheld the recently finished Church of the Good Shepherd in all its glory, and stood amazed. It suddenly occurred to me that, when Dr. Nicholson had asked for his release, he had done so in order to turn over to a Free Church basis, as his congregation objected to ritual and ceremonial, and wanted this plain. When I enquired as to this, Dr. Nicholson recounted with amusement what had happened. He had stripped his altar of cross, candlesticks, etc., and had worn a plain black gown. After a week or two, his people had come to him, saying: “What have you done with all the beauty; it does not seem to be the same place.” When he had pointed out that he had done this because of their previous complaints, they had said that they had not realised how they would miss these things, and would like him to put them back, and this he had done.”
In a splendid ceremony at Chelsea on 27 May 1950, Mar Georgius issued a charter to Nicholson’s body, now called the Ancient Catholic Church, constituting it as an independent and autocephalous tropus of the Catholicate of the West, and consecrating Nicholson sub conditione according to the Byzantine Rite as its first Primate. Nicholson took the Primatial title of Mar Joannes, Archbishop of Karim, and Mar Georgius conferred upon him the degrees of Doctor of Divinity of the Western Orthodox University and Doctor of Spiritual Therapeutics of the Université Philotechnique Internationale.
The Orthodox Catholic Review of June 1950 reported that:
“the congregation enjoyed themselves in a convivial atmosphere of love and brotherhood…those colourful ceremonies performed in the beautiful surroundings of a Cathedral Church, built up by the devoted labours of Archbishop Nicholson over a period of years, are very seldom to be witnessed in England, and that those present felt very happy to be privileged to attend. The Church is well-known for the wonderful work of Divine Healing carried on there, for which the Archbishop trains his own workers, and has received world-wide publicity for the innumerable cures effected through the laying-on of hands.”
Writing in the 1960s, Nicholson summed the position up as follows:
“The work in its present form started some years prior to the 1939-45 War, and progressed in various parts of the country, the Headquarters eventually being located at The Church of the Good Shepherd, Lower Sloane Street, London, where it attracted very favourable world-wide attention. On 27 May, 1950, Dr. Harold Percival Nicholson, the Founder and Leader, was consecrated to the Sacred Order of the Episcopate in that Church at the hands of His Sacred Beatitude Mar Georgius I, Patriarch of Glastonbury and Prince-Catholicos, the Head-at-Line of the Syrian-Orthodox Mission established in Britain and Western Europe in 1866 on authority of the Patriarchate of Antioch, he being assisted by his Auxiliary Mar Benignus, Titular Bishop of Mere. A large congregation was present, and the ceremony was officially witnessed by Mr. J.D.V. Hinde, Solicitor, who attended to the legal side, and the Instrument of Consecration legalised before Mr. John Newton, Notary Public, Whitehall, London. The consecration was a recognition by the Patriarch and his Hierarchy throughout the world of the good work done by Dr. Nicholson before, during, and after the War, and especially during the London “blitz.” At the same time His Beatitude granted canonical status to the Movement under the title at present in use of THE ANCIENT CATHOLIC CHURCH by bestowing upon it a Charter as an Autocephalous Church, by virtue of which it is completely independent and autonomous. Prior to this, Dr. Nicholson had received training and ordination to the Priesthood and work under the auspices of THE CATHOLIC APOSTOLIC CHURCH over which the Patriarch presides. For the benefit of any who may have encountered false and misguided statements to the contrary, the Orders conferred upon Dr. Nicholson are recognised as valid by the Church of Rome, as will be seen from an article entitled THE EAST-WEST BRIDGE appearing in the R.C. paper “The Universe” on 19th August, 1949 [A copy of this article was framed and hung on a wall of the cathedral at Clapton].
The Lines of Apostolic Succession wherein Dr. Nicholson stands are: (1) Syrian-Orthodox, (2) Syrian-Malabar, (3) Syrian-Gallican, (4) Syro-Chaldean, (5) Chaldean-Uniate, (6) Coptic-Orthodox, (7) Armenian Uniate, (8) Order of Corporate Reunion, (9) Old Catholic, (10) Mariavite, (11) Greek–Orthodox, (12) Russian-Orthodox. He also has the Liberal Catholic, Anglican, and Nonjuring lines. The full data as to this is contained in a booklet called “Validation of the Orders of the Ancient Catholic Church” which is obtainable at the Cathedral upon application.”
Between 1950 and 1953 the Ancient Catholic Church functioned as an autocephalous tropus of the Catholicate of the West. Having incorporated the Catholicate of the West together with the Western Orthodox University and the International College of Arms and Noblesse under the Indian Societies Act on 5 February 1950, Mar Georgius subsequently concluded that he wished to work in a smaller communion and to voluntarily abandon his ecclesiastical connection with a number of the clergy of the Catholicate. He accordingly moved to surrender the corporation on 29 November 1953 and issued an Encyclical Letter “concerning the Dissolution of the Catholicate of the West”, also citing difficulties that had arisen in his relations with his Exarch-Elect of the Indies, Mar Petros (J.G. Peters). However, the effectiveness of this action was not accepted by American members of the Catholicate of the West, who held that the Catholicate had continued to exist independently of Mar Georgius, and whose senior prelate, Mar David (Maxey), proceeded to unite its administration with that of the Apostolic Episcopal Church in 1977. This would have important implications for the revival of the ACC in the post-2008 era.
This then marked the effective end of Mar Georgius’s movement so far as any vision of a unified Free Catholic church was concerned, and in the ensuing years, it would adopt a more stringently dogmatic approach. Notwithstanding these developments, and the need on several occasions for Mar Georgius to make public statements that his jurisdiction and that of Mar Joannes I were no longer in communion, Mar Georgius and Mar Joannes I continued to enjoy a good personal relationship, and were to work together on a number of occasions in future years as Mar Georgius presided at certain services of ordination and consecration at the Ancient Catholic Cathedral.
During the latter part of the 1950s, Mar Georgius established the United Orthodox Catholic Church as the vehicle for his ministry and adopted the former title of Catholicate of the West for this body in 1959. His jurisdiction was for some years without its own buildings in London suitable for public services, and it was for this reason that ecumenical connexions such as that with Mar Joannes I (and later with Primus Charles Dennis Boltwood (1889-1985) of the Free Protestant Episcopal Church in nearby Tottenham, who was conditionally consecrated by Mar Georgius in 1956) were particularly valuable to it during this period. For a period until 1967, Mar Georgius also maintained a relationship of open communion between his jurisdiction and other Free Catholic clergy.
THE CHELSEA YEARS
Mar Joannes I was highly progressive and esoteric in his theology. He supported the ministry of women through the establishment of religious Orders in which women held the lay offices of Abbess and Sister, and as with the Catholicate of the West upheld the ancient lay office of Deaconess. He allowed some services (though not the Eucharist) to be led by the laity. Although Orthodox in his heritage and affiliation, he was effectively a Liberal Catholic in all but name. He believed in the Ascended Masters, and that elements of Truth existed in every religion. As a believer in Reincarnation he denied that Death existed. He was interested in the Aquarian Gospel and used extracts from it in services. He had the gift of healing that was said to be effective for almost any condition, and his cathedral in Chelsea became known as the Miracle Cathedral. He was strongly drawn to minister to animals and introduced a popular series of animal blessings at the Cathedral Church. The national press featured his work.
Mar Joannes I’s “Services of Love and Blessing” is a model of positive and loving Christianity. Drawn from ancient and modern Eastern and Western sources, but most particularly from the Liberal Catholic Church, this was prefaced with the lines, “although fully Catholic, all these services are essentially bright and modern in outlook, embracing as they do the great truth of survival, and the nearness of those who are able to aid us from a higher life.”
This followed on “The Seven Principles governing Divine-Human Relations” (1950) which sets out the beliefs of the Ancient Catholic Church based on those familiar to Spiritualists, although Nicholson made clear that the ACC was separate from other bodies professing Spiritualism. Nicholson also devised musical settings for the liturgy, using existing compositions.
On 19 February 1951, Mar Joannes I and Mar Georgius were consecrated subconditionally by Mar Lukos (Davison Quartey Arthur), who was appointed Archbishop of the West Indies in the Ancient Catholic Church. Mar Lukos had been born in Ethiopia, but travelled to the United States as a young man, where he worked with Bishop St-John-the-Divine Hickerson (sometimes rendered Hickersayon) of the Vilatte succession in a mission called the Church of the Living God. In 1942, the two prelates established the Coptic Orthodox Church Apostolic in Manhattan, and Hickerson consecrated Mar Lukos as Bishop of Lagos, Accra and Trinidad. From 1950 onwards Mar Lukos was resident in London. Although the Coptic Orthodox Church Apostolic was not in communion with the larger and better-known Coptic Orthodox Church proper, in 1952 Mar Lukos had travelled to Ethiopia and had been received by Emperor Haile Selassie at the Imperial Palace in Addis Ababa. Later that decade he was not accepted in Guyana, however, where the magistrate ordered that he be deported, a situation for which he blamed Mar Joannes I and that resulted in the ending of relations between them.
Three religious Orders were instituted in 1951. The Order of S. Teresa – The Little Flower was erected in memory of St Therese of Lisieux, and was an order set up to support the work of the clergy through prayer. The Valiant Order of St. John the Baptist and the Order of Ave Maria were likewise founded, each of which had an inaugural hand-illuminated Charter entered into the registries of both the Ancient Catholic Church and the Catholicate of the West. The Orders of St John and of Ave Maria were open to both men and women, while the Order of S. Teresa was an order of women, and the Primate was established as the head of each.
By 1951, Mar Joannes I had five churches and several chapels under his guidance, and around 5,000 lay followers. On 8 September, he elevated Fr. Cecil Valentine Wainwright, M.A., D.D., a Welshman by birth, to the episcopate, assisted by Mar Georgius, with the style of Mar Valentine, titular Archbishop of Mount Carmel and Primate of the Ancient Catholic Church. Mar Valentine, however, soon separated from the Ancient Catholic Church and founded a new body called the Ancient Apostolic Catholic Church.
On 14 April 1952, Mar Joannes I consecrated Philip Charles Stuart Singer, L.Th. (Mar Philippus, titular Bishop of Hebron) (1910-71), and Melville Peregrine Knill-Samuel, Mus.Bac. (Mar Peter, titular Bishop of Naim) (1915-86). Singer separated from the jurisdiction in 1954, and repudiated the consecration he had received in a letter to the press. Following a brief association with Archbishop Charles Brearley of the Old Holy Catholic Church in Sheffield, he was again consecrated by Mar Georgius in 1960.
On 8 November 1952, Mar Joannes I consecrated Fr. John Brabazon Brabazon-Lowther (1883-1966), formerly of Shrigley Park, Cheshire, and an erstwhile Anglican, who was given the title of Bishop Francis Huntingford and later Archbishop ad personam. A man of some means, he was the founder of the Order of the Cloister of the Holy Presence (which died with him), a vegetarian and a defender of the rights of animals. Of his Order, which was open both to Christians and non-Christians, it was said that it was “an impersonal Order, which nevertheless unites in common purpose the Companions in individual endeavour to live in the understanding of the Eternal NOW of the Kingdom of Heaven.”
In 1953, upon the purported dissolution of the Catholicate of the West by Mar Georgius, the Ancient Catholic Church came to exercise a role of oversight concerning the small remnant of the Free Catholic Church that had been led by the Archbishop of Waltham (Victor Palmer-Hayman (1893-1960)). Such oversight was necessary given that Palmer-Hayman was to serve three separate terms of imprisonment from 1949 onwards, under circumstances which Mar Georgius (who had made a study of the law, and had formerly worked as a solicitor’s clerk), regarded quite justifiably as the outcome of unjust persecution by the Anglican Bishop of Chelmsford. He went so far as to state that the matter was “a frame-up on the part of certain of His Grace’s Anglican enemies”.
(Melville) Edgar John Barker (1891-1969), was by April 1947 an honorary curate of an Anglican church in West London and served as a presbyter and canon missioner of a body called the Christian Mission – The Devotion of the Wishing Well. On 6 August 1947, Barker went through a form of (non-Apostolic) consecration by Anthony Wilson, whose mission in Leeds had been established by Mariavite clergy in England. However, not long afterwards, Barker became associated with the Catholicate of the West; his signature appears as Secretarius ad hoc on the Instrument of Consecration of Mar Joannes I in 1950. Mar Joannes I ordained him priest that same year, but by 1951 he was leading a group called the Apostolic Catholic Church from a headquarters in Queen’s Park. After a short period, Barker united this work with Palmer-Hayman’s Free Catholic Church, and Palmer-Hayman consecrated Barker on 4 March 1956 as Bishop of Beulah.
Barker was in late 1960 appointed by Bishop Joseph Kelly (in religion Bernardino Sandonatto) as administrator for Great Britain of the body led by Archbishop Hubert Augustus Rogers (1887-1976) that was the canonical successor to the North American Old Roman Catholic Church formerly led by Archbishop Carmel Henry Carfora (1878-1958).
At some point towards the end of 1960, Barker was enthroned by Mar Joannes I at Clapton as second Primate of the Free Catholic Church following the death of Palmer-Hayman, on which occasion his position as regards the Old Roman Catholic Church was also recognised. On 14 July 1962, Barker incorporated the Free Catholic Church and the Old Roman Catholic Church as represented by him into a single corporation, called “The Willibrord Association (Old Roman Catholic)”. Previously, on 16 April of that year, Barker assisted by Mar Georgius and Mar Joannes I had consecrated Joseph David Overs (1922-85) as his auxiliary. Mar Georgius’ participation in this event is somewhat surprising, since he had previously expressed negative views as to Mgr. Kelly’s activities in his work “The Sad Case of George Forster” and himself asserted that he was the successor to the Old Roman Catholic Church so far as Britain was concerned. Both Barker and Kelly died during the 1960s. With the death of Overs at Worthing, Sussex, in 1985, this particular representation of the Old Roman Catholic movement in England seems to have come to an end.
On 18 September 1954, both Mar Joannes I and Mar Georgius were consecrated sub conditione by Clemente Alfio Sgroi Marchese, the Mariavite Bishop for Sicily. On 17 July 1955, Mar Joannes I was consecrated sub conditione by Odo Acheson Barry (Mar Columba) (d. 1968) of the Canadian Catholic Church, who had received the Vilatte and other successions of the American Catholic Church under Lowell Paul Wadle (1900-65).
A good insight into the work at Chelsea is provided by the Yearbook published by the Ancient Catholic Church in 1956-57.
THE MOVE BACK TO CLAPTON
In 1956, the leader of the Agapemonite sect, Ruth Preece (the “spiritual wife” of John Hugh Smyth-Pigott, one-time minister at the Church of the Ark of the Covenant at Clapton) was close to death and no clergyman could be found to conduct the funeral within the Established Church. Mar Joannes I’s initial contact with the Agapemonites had been through a member of his clergy, the Revd. John Traynor (Fr. Aidan) who was a journalist in secular life. Fr. Aidan’s father was a minister in Islington, and in his vestry there hung a photograph of the opening ceremony of the Church of the Ark of the Covenant. From this, Fr. Aidan had made contact with the Agapemonite community, which had settled at Spaxton in Somerset after the scandals that had beset their cult in the early twentieth-century. At Fr. Aidan’s behest, Mar Joannes I visited Ruth Preece on her deathbed and promised that he would conduct her funeral. A picture of the funeral at Spaxton is reproduced above.
In return for this, the dying Ruth Preece agreed with Mar Joannes I that the trust that owned the former Agapemonite Church of the Ark of the Covenant would lease the building to the Ancient Catholic Church, starting in 1956. The building had not been used for religious purposes since 1905, and indeed the certificate authorizing its use as such had been cancelled and it was recorded as a store in 1953 (“The Guardian”, 16 December 1953). That year, a bequest of some £11,000 to the three children of Smyth-Pigott for the general religious purposes of the building had been held to be invalid in the Court of Chancery, with Mr Justice Harman noting that the three Smyth-Pigott children, who declined to supply any evidence, “had done nothing to help the Court. He had been unable to find out who built the church or who owned it. Since 1905, it did not appear to have been used, although it had been well maintained. A gardener had been employed and slates on the roof were never found out of place. Money had been and was being spent on it…It was monumental to something but to what nobody would tell him.” Ruth Preece had for some years had an arrangement with a man to maintain the church, paying him by mail from Somerset.
Most of the church furnishings at Clapton were transported from the original cathedral in Chelsea. The Clapton cathedral officially opened on December 2, 1956.
John Montgomery writes in his “Abodes of Love” (1962),
“It was not until April 6th, 1956 that “Sister Ruth”, Mrs. Ruth Annie Smyth, died at Spaxton, believing until the last that her “husband” would return from the dead. Was not death an admission of sin? About fifty people attended the funeral service in the lofty, oak-panelled chapel which, at “Sister Ruth’s” request, had been consecrated. The three children attended, and the service was conducted by the Most Rev. H.P. Nicholson, self-styled Archbishop of the Ancient Catholic Church of the Good Shepherd, Sloane Street, Chelsea. He described the chapel in which they knelt as “a mighty temple which to the world is not known.”
In May 1956, Archbishop Nicholson announced that he would lease the Church of the Ark of the Covenant at Clapton as the new home of the Ancient Catholic Church of the Good Shepherd. Before Sister Ruth died she had said, “I want you to have the church.”
Later, he said to a reporter: “There will be no spiritual brides for me. I have a lady wife who has her hands full looking after our family.” The church would be devoted to faith-healing and to services for animals. Lady Munnings, the wife of Sir Alfred Munnings, the painter, had her own special corner seat.”
“The Times” of May 12, 1956, reported,
“Clapton Church to be Re-opened: The church of the Ark of the Covenant in Rookwood Road, Clapton. E., which has been shut for many years, has been leased by the body known as the Church Council and Synod of the Ancient Catholic Church of the Good Shepherd. It is planned to hold the first services in July. The Church of the Good Shepherd, which has 11 churches in this country has its headquarters in Sloane Street, Chelsea, where in addition to normal services an animal service is held monthly. The church at Clapton was built in 1895-96 to the designs of J. Morris of Reading. It was erected by the Supporters and followers of the Rev. J. H. Smyth-Pigott, who in September, 1902, proclaimed his divinity there. Later he withdrew to the village of Spaxton, Somerset, where, as successor to Henry Prince, he became head of the Agapemone, or Abode of Love.”
Initially, it seems to have been planned that both Cathedrals in Clapton and Chelsea would continue in parallel. However, “The Observer” of 31 May 1959 reported that the Chelsea cathedral had been badly damaged by a fire, suspected to be arson, the previous day. Thereafter, the ACC appears to have moved entirely to Clapton, and the Chelsea cathedral was demolished.
Despite the unique spiritual atmosphere and historic importance of the new Cathedral, its location was less than ideal compared to the central nature of the Chelsea building. The Clapton cathedral stands in the middle of an Orthodox Jewish area, and within a few hundred yards of the magnificent Roman Catholic Church of St Ignatius, and this was to mean that those who found their way to the ACC tended to do so as a result of conscious effort rather than simply considering it their local church. Problems of low attendance were to be compounded in later years by a policy of keeping things deliberately low-key.
There was some success in forming links with some small churches in the Catholic tradition within Europe and North America. These were embraced as part of what was known as the United Hierarchy of the Ancient Catholic Church.
Mar Joannes I continued to work in secular employment throughout his time as Primate, and did not believe in making money from his spiritual work. He worked in a soft furnishings store located between Tottenham’s Royal Dance Hall and Palace Theatre for some years, before acquiring his own haberdashery shop in Dalston Kingsland which he called “Harold’s”.
His first wife was Emily H. Jackson, whose signature appears on several of the Charters of the Religious Orders of the ACC in 1951-52, and it is presumably to her that the Montgomery quotation above refers. His second wife was called Mavis. Mar Joannes I and Mavis lodged with Monica Daviel, a Trustee of the ACC, at her home in Glebe Place, Chelsea. He and Mavis separated in the late 1950s, at which point Mavis went to live in Nottingham, and for a time after this, Mar Joannes I’s partner was a German woman whom he had met through the ACC.
Mar Joannes I lived life to its fullest, smoked tobacco, drank alcohol and was a member of a casino, and saw no contradiction between this approach and his faith. In addition, like the Catholicate of the West, the Ancient Catholic Church was administered hierarchically, not democratically, and he had personal oversight and control of all areas of the church. During his lifetime there were significant discontented elements within his church, particularly those who favoured a more overt Spiritualism, who reacted strongly against his robust attitude to life.
Mar Joannes I’s abilities in spiritual healing were renowned, and he took on the responsibility for training other healing ministers of the church in various different styles. He described the work of Healing thus:
“The wonderful healing work of The Ancient Catholic Church is renowned throughout the world, many references having been made to it in the British and Foreign Press and our work has been filmed and televised after careful investigation as to its bona fides. The Metropolitan Police “B” Division have been good enough from time to time to give plays in the theatre in the basement of the Cathedral to enable the good work of this Church to continue. Our healing is not psychic healing, spiritualist healing, and has no connection with Christian Science, but is DIVINE HEALING, proceeding from God our Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit, upon the vibration of the Divine Love. All the work is done in the power of Love, and our Clergy and Healers, who are properly trained, are but humble instruments in the hand of God for this purpose. Over the past 20 years, some hundreds of thousands of cases have been treated, and many complete cures have been effected, covering a wide range of diseases, of times known as incurable. In addition to physical complaints, many mental and psychological complaints have been dealt with.”
According to the Sunday Pictorial of 10 September 1948,
“One follower who for five years had been unable to walk or talk was, it is said, completely restored to health after attending the services for eight weeks. Most spectacular claim was to restore the sight of sixteen-year-old Bernard Gifford, who was blind from birth. Three-year-old Peter Blomfield, of Lockington Road, Battersea, who was suffering the effects of infantile paralysis, had been treated by Father Nicholson for three months. That night, he was considered well enough to dispense with his surgical shoe. Then I talked to James McGreig and his wife Mary, whose three-year-old son Ian, had been almost blind at birth despite attention by the best surgeons. The parents were convinced Ian had grown better under Mr Nicholson’s healing hands, and it was obvious to me that he could see a little though his eyes were still upturned.”
A photograph of Dr Nicholson opening the eyes of the above-mentioned Bernard Gifford, with full account of same, was published in the Italian newspaper “Omnibus,” of 30th September, 1948. Bernard Gifford’s father Michael also took Holy Orders and for some time led St Bernard’s Church of Divine Healing.
The role of Deaconess in the ACC carried with it special responsibilities for healing ministry.
MINISTRY TO ANIMALS
From the outset, the Ancient Catholic Church had a special ministry to animals. Mar Joannes I established a popular series of animal blessing services at the Cathedral in Chelsea and these continued at Clapton. At Chelsea, the animal services attracted the attention of the newspapers. On 27 June 1952, the West London Press reported as follows:
“Sir Alfred and Lady Munnings have presented to a local church an oil painting of the Virgin Mary. Recipients are The Church of the Good Shepherd, Lower Sloane Street, “The Miracle Church.” Gift is for benefits both have received from the Ancient Catholic Church, an announcement states. Also for the help afforded “Black Knight,” Lady Munnings’ famous dog, and her other dog, “Toby” during its last illness. It is at this church that services for animals are held.”
At least one such service was televised in the early 1950s, though it can hardly be expected that the broadcast would have survived today given that little television of those days was preserved. The Daily Mail of 4 September 1950 gave a full report of an animal blessing service. The West London Press of 2nd January 1953 reported,
“As for the Cathedral Church of the Good Shepherd, it may be observed that orthodoxy has no monopoly on Christian goodwill. There is no denying the happiness radiated by the services of this unusual church, apparent to even the most sceptical visitor. Considering particularly the church’s concern for our dumb friends, it is as well to deal with facts. At the recent animal service filmed for television, over 300 people with their pets made their way to the church through dense fog. After the singing of hymns and songs each individual animal was blessed. The Church’s Archbishop…hopes that by example, children will grow to love animals and cruelty disappear.”
Mar Joannes I believed strongly that animals were of great importance and that they were beloved of God. In the Daily Mail he stated “All doggies go to heaven…Children must not cry when their doggies die, because they have a greater life hereafter.” This emphasis continued with monthly blessings at the Clapton cathedral, where there was an Animal Chapel adorned with miniature animals of all kinds (see photograph above).
THE YEARS 1967-2008
In 1967, Mar Joannes I learned that he was suffering from terminal cancer. He appointed the Dean of his Cathedral, Fr. Clive Schroder (1928-85) (pictured right), as co-adjutor bishop, and it was he who succeeded as Mar Joannes II in February of the following year. During the 1970s, Mar Joannes II co-operated with other Free Catholic clergy as a Frater Coadjutor of the Vilatte Guild Extension Academy under the future Archbishop Francis Spataro of the Apostolic Episcopal Church.
Mar Joannes I had previously expressed grave concerns and reservations about the suitability and appointment of his successor. Indeed, in the early 1960s he had at one point formally removed Fr. Clive by letter from his position as Dean, to Fr. Clive’s considerable anguish. Yet Mar Joannes I quickly reinstated him, and he felt that there was unfortunately no-one else available who could reasonably continue the life of the church after his own passing.
The post-1968 era was marked by an open rejection of the Nicholson years. His estranged wife Mavis joined others in an extraordinary series of personal attacks and libels against Mar Joannes I that were published in a national tabloid newspaper in July 1970, two years after his death. Concerning this, one who knew Mar Joannes I has said, “the articles are a complete nonsense – a deliberate and vicious attempt to discredit everything that he stood for.” It is interesting, however, to consider who might have stood to gain from doing Mar Joannes I down. It was probably not a coincidence that at this point in time not only the Ancient Catholic Church but also the newly-created Orthodox Church of the British Isles under Mar Georgius were seeking to pursue narrower and more circumscribed paths that would take them in quite different directions from the broader viewpoint of their earlier years.
Although the traditions of worship that Mar Joannes I had established were continued on a nominal basis, his successor had an aversion for the elaborate worship of the Catholic tradition, and the Pontifical High Mass on the last Sunday of the month was dropped at an early stage. The spiritualist principles of Mar Joannes II came to the fore to the exclusion of the full nature of the Church he had inherited. At his death in 1985, although there were several bishops alive who were in the Apostolic Succession from Mar Joannes I, there was no election to the Primatial See of the Ancient Catholic Church and the church therefore entered a period of canonical uncertainty.
After 1985, the widow of Mar Joannes II, Deaconess Pamela Schroder (1930-2008) (pictured right), continued the work of the Cathedral Church as a personal ministry. She ensured that the service schedule (six services in most weeks) was maintained and that the building and grounds were well kept. A number of weddings also took place at the Cathedral Church. She was gifted in Divine Healing and it was in that context that Archbishop John Kersey of the Apostolic Episcopal Church first came to know her, when she worked successfully on an injury he had suffered. She had also been responsible, together with the late Margaret Stubbington, for the Thursday evening Address and Clairvoyance sessions with a medium since their inception in 1956 (Mar Joannes I took no part in this activity, it being organized by the two women throughout), which attracted the greatest numbers of adherents. This direction became more pronounced in latter years, such that the church then took to openly describing itself as Spiritualist.
The last valid celebrations of the Nicholson Liturgy at Clapton took place under Canon Dr. Paul Faunch (1913-95) (pictured left). Canon Faunch was both a priest of the Church of England and a Canon of the Apostolic Episcopal Church, the church whose Primate had been responsible for the consecration of Mar Georgius in 1944 and which was from 1977 formally united with the continuing Catholicate of the West. Canon Faunch said Mass at Clapton from the death of Mar Joannes II in 1985 until his own passing ten years later. After this point, Mrs Schroder celebrated a version of the Eucharist each Sunday, but as she was a layperson, such celebrations were invalid sacramentally.
 Encyclical Letter of His Sacred Beatitude Mar Georgius I, Patriarch of Glastonbury, Prince-Catholicos of the West, concerning the Dissolution of the Catholicate of the West, Glastonbury, 1953.
 Encyclical Letter of His Sacred Beatitude Mar Georgius I, Patriarch of Glastonbury, Prince-Catholicos of the West, regarding the Re-Adoption of the Title Catholicate of the West by the Catholic Apostolic Church (United Orthodox Catholicate), Bristol, 1959.
 A photograph reproduced above shows Mar Georgius with Mar Joannes I and female servers in the Sanctuary.
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>>Services of Love and Blessing – the official Ancient Catholic Church liturgy
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