The Ancient Catholic Church: events of 2008 and their aftermath

The Revd. Deaconess Pamela Schroder died on 2 January 2008 at the age of 77 following a short illness. Shortly afterwards, Archbishop John Kersey, who had last seen Mrs Schroder the previous October, was contacted by members of the congregation. At an initial stage, he was requested to provide an obituary for Mrs Schroder, which he did, and then to establish the circumstances of her death for their benefit. The contents of Mrs Schroder’s will would not be known until mid-2010, but at that point it emerged that she had intended to leave the majority of her substantial estate to the Ancient Catholic Church with the intention that it should continue after her death.

For some time before Mrs Schroder’s death, Archbishop Kersey had been in contact with Mr Richard Hadingham, who was a close friend of Mar Joannes I and, having been involved with the Ancient Catholic Church since 1958, was now the church’s senior lay member. Mr Hadingham wrote to Archbishop Kersey following Mrs Schroder’s death, “Can I ask you to deal with things and do whatever is necessary as a matter of extreme urgency. It is imperative that everything possible is done to safeguard the archive and ensure the continuance of the Cathedral and tradition of the Ancient Catholic Church. You can be assured of my full support, both now and in the future.” In a subsequent communication, Mr Hadingham affirmed that “as the now senior and longest-serving member of the ACC and +Nicholson’s former close friend and confidant, it is my desire to see the continuation of his ministry and that of his successors in accordance with his wishes as made known to me…you have my unreserved confidence, approval and support.” This was followed by a further request from Mr Hadingham and two other members of the congregation that Archbishop Kersey should act as Administrator pro tempore of the jurisdiction, which he agreed to do in the absence of any other person who had undertaken to act as such. A memorial service was organized for Mrs Schroder by members of the congregation and kindly hosted by the nearby Walthamstow Spiritualist Church on 1 March, and at this service a tribute from Archbishop Kersey was read. The service was attended by 85 people and raised £200 in donations for Great Ormond Street Hospital.

The Cathedral noticeboard – formerly filled with service details and a picture – in December 2008

There were members of the Church who wished to continue to worship at the Cathedral, which had been locked by the Trustees of the building since the death of Mrs Schroder. Since 1970 the Trustees (who were the descendants of the Agapemonites who had originally built it) had established a form of license or tenancy at will in favour of Mar Joannes II and Mrs Schroder, which was perpetuated by the payment of rent ad hoc. It was hoped that this arrangement might be continued, and accordingly, Archbishop Kersey with the support of other members of the Church drew up a detailed document entitled Proposals for the Continuation of the Ministry of the Ancient Catholic Church at the Cathedral Church of the Good Shepherd on 21 January. These proposals provided for the continuation of worship and for the registration of the Ancient Catholic Church as a charity. This document was presented to the Trustees of the Cathedral Church. However, no acknowledgement of it was received from them, and instead the Trustees decided to dissolve the Trust and sell the Cathedral to a foreign group, the Georgian Orthodox Church, which sale was completed in 2011. In 2016, the six former Trustees applied to the High Court to distribute the £1 million proceeds of the sale among themselves. However, the judge ruled that the money must all go to charity and not be used for personal gain.

This situation left the congregation without a building for worship, and reduced the Ancient Catholic Church from a cohesive, if numerically small, body centred on the Cathedral, to one that was scattered and geographically widespread.

Attention was also given to the canonical position of the Church. There had been no Primate since the death of Mar Joannes II in 1985, and the intervening years had marked a further distancing from the original principles and nature of the church as it had been constituted under Mar Joannes I. However, the succession of a church whose basis is the Apostolic Succession is perpetual by nature, and past examples from within the history of the church that had provided its Charter, the Catholicate of the West, provided evidence that a period of stasis would not necessarily make the work of revival impossible so long as the Apostolic Succession from Mar Joannes I, which constituted the lifeblood of the Church so far as its hierarchy was concerned, was still extant. Several of those now concerned with the continuation plans, notably Mr Hadingham and Archbishops Kersey and Andrew Linley (who both stood in the Nicholson succession), took the view that any opportunity to revive the Ancient Catholic Church as it had been in the Nicholson era should be embraced. Recalling that the original canonical position of the Ancient Catholic Church was that it had received its Charter in 1950 from another autocephalous church (the Catholicate of the West), a process now began that would seek to renew that authority in the same way. This began with an election of the existing lay and clerical members which established the uncontested candidacy of Archbishop Kersey to the Primacy of the ACC (as Mar Joannes III) (see Deed of Succession to the Primatial See, 1 February 2008).

A further reason for wanting to break with the immediate past of the ACC was provided by the reports of irregularities and items of concern that had occurred during Mrs Schroder’s tenure. These concerns included the allegedly unauthorized expenditure of significant church funds (which included reports of church funds being used to maintain several people in long term hotel accommodation and large sums of cash being disbursed ad hoc as gifts or indefinite loans to particular individuals), the alleged disappearance of key documents, and the alleged removal of valuable items of church property from the Cathedral. These matters demanded action, and accordingly Archbishop Kersey together with a member of the congregation made a full report to Stoke Newington Police on 11 March with a request that they should investigate. Initially, some surprise had been expressed that the ACC had not been registered as a charity; if any of these allegations were to prove to be true, there would have been an obvious explanation as to why this had not been done.

Archbishop Kersey felt that while there was a strong case for the preservation of the spiritual legacy of Mar Joannes I, it was highly inappropriate that there should be any continued involvement with the post-1985 era which had become tainted in a number of ways. This was not to deny Mrs Schroder’s evident ministerial gifts, charitable work and comprehensive dedication to the life of the Cathedral, but it was to take a realistic view of her time in office rather than one that was rose-tinted. If the ACC was to survive, it would require a fresh start.

It was clear by now that the matters concerning Mrs Schroder’s estate would require legal resolution, resulting eventually in a High Court case (Kings v. Bultitude & Anor EWHC 1795 (Ch) (15 July 2010)). Archbishop Kersey was prevailed strongly upon by members of his clergy not to be drawn into legal action, and instead to concentrate upon the work of the revival of the ACC as a church and living spiritual legacy. His Vicar-General wrote to him at this point, “My worry is that the tangle of human motives will strangle the more virtuous aspects at play here. In a previous conversation we spoke of ‘having the best part of the ACC, that which is living and growing’. This remains true. The value here, for us, is not any asset, not any church plate nor chattel, but the intent of the founder. The earthly things of the church are already long gone, making our involvement in any litigation unwise as there is absolutely nothing to gain.” A firm decision was therefore taken that Archbishop Kersey and his clergy would formally distance themselves from the ministry of Mrs Schroder, and would not contest her Will or engage in any other legal process to do with the assets of the Church, which appeared at this stage to be being treated as part of the resolution of Mrs Schroder’s personal estate.

Fortunately, the true legacy of Mar Joannes I – in the form of his Apostolic Succession, his theology, his liturgies and his writings, was very much alive, leaving only the dead weight of wrangling over possessions and money behind. There was no doubt that the Holy Spirit was still very much present in the work of revival that was being undertaken, and this knowledge impelled those concerned onwards even in the face of significant opposition.

In order to establish the break with the negative influence of the past, it was felt that absorption of the remnant of the ACC with Archbishop Kersey’s existing jurisdiction The Liberal Rite into a new body to be called the Liberal Catholic Apostolic Church – a name that at once commemorated the founding denomination, the Catholic Apostolic Church, and the church’s position of standing firmly in the liberal tradition with strong links to Liberal Catholicism – would be the best way forward, and the means whereby the Church might be set free from the burden of its troubled legacy of recent years. This work was accomplished by the end of March and the new body launched. In addition, renewed Charters were issued for the three religious Orders chartered by Mar Joannes I and new members appointed to them.

This church activity remained in need of canonical validation. In order to obtain this, an approach was made to the Apostolic Episcopal Church in New York. The AEC, in which Mar Georgius served as a bishop, was in intercommunion with the Ancient Catholic Church from its foundation, and since 1977 its administration had been united with that of the continuing Catholicate of the West independently of Mar Georgius. Since the Catholicate of the West had been the chartering body of the Ancient Catholic Church in 1950, it was entirely fitting that its remnant should also now be the instrument of its revival. Furthermore, it was a Canon of the Apostolic Episcopal Church, Dr Paul Faunch, who had provided the last valid celebrations of the Liturgy there at Mrs Schroder’s invitation until his death in 1995, thus providing a link with the recent as well as the distant past.

Accordingly, on the Feast of Christ the King, 23 November 2008, Archbishop Kersey was enthroned as Archbishop of Great Britain of the Apostolic Episcopal Church in a ceremony at a London church, and during the service received specific commissioning as Primate and successor to the Ancient Catholic Church and Metropolitan of the Liberal Catholic Apostolic Church. Mr Hadingham was among those present at the service. A further Charter established the canonical basis of the Ancient Catholic Church under Archbishop Kersey’s Primacy, both as a revived body and as a continuation of its ministry.

Archbishop Kersey and Richard Hadingham at the ceremony of enthronement on 23 November 2008

In accordance with the new Charter, after Archbishop Kersey retired as Metropolitan of the Liberal Catholic Apostolic Church in 2009, he retained the Primacy of the Ancient Catholic Church and exercised this as part of his other ministries in the Apostolic Episcopal Church. This step was particularly necessary since at this point the Liberal Catholic Apostolic Church was becoming increasingly distant from the ACC heritage as its clergy explored different approaches more closely tied to contemporary liberal theology.

Inevitably, the developments in the Ancient Catholic Church during this time occasioned strong emotions among those involved and imposed a great burden of time and energy upon both clergy and laity. Unfortunately, the commitment of Archbishop Kersey and other members of the Church who had supported the continuation plan to open discussion and constructive proposals for the future was not shared by all. Indeed, it became clear that there were some who wished to see the Ancient Catholic Church destroyed and its memory erased. Fortunately that agenda, together with the expected inter-church rivalries, financial greed and personal attacks upon those concerned, did not prevail.

In April 2008, Mr Hadingham executed a Deed of Attestation as to his position as senior lay member of the Church. This continues to stand as a summary of the issues concerned.

Some curious aspects of the whole affair remain. The same person who said in court that she had never seen Archbishop Kersey in the Cathedral had previously told a member of the congregation not only that she remembered him, but had also given an accurate description of him “with a green jacket and a bag”. Indeed, this information had been included in a statement made to the Police in March. In any case, ample documentation of Archbishop Kersey’s time at the Cathedral is provided by photographs of him there and those taken by him during the 2006-07 period, which are reproduced elsewhere on this website. These photographs were taken with the full permission of Mrs Schroder and now provide an invaluable historical record of the former life of the Ancient Catholic Church, since the interior had undergone minimal change from the inception of ministry there in 1956.

The visitor to the former Cathedral now will find that, for all its external grandeur, its interior has undergone significant remodelling and the exceptional Father Willis organ is now silent. Members of the Church continue to monitor the welfare of the building, however, the poor state of upkeep of the grounds observed during a visit in 2014 suggests that the high standards once observed by Mrs Schroder have not been honoured.

And yet a church is not merely a building, but the living work of people under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in our midst, striving to realize the Kingdom of God and to become worthy for it. That work, begun by Mar Joannes I, continues today with his memory kept very much alive and his church and religious orders revived and perpetuated.

Today, the Mass is offered each year to mark the anniversary of the passing to spirit of Mar Joannes I. The three Religious Orders founded by Archbishop Nicholson in 1951-52 are also active. They are The Valiant Order of St John the Baptist, The Order of Ave Maria and The Order of S. Teresa – The Little Flower.