Sep 15

Hard Questions About Indie Identity Not New: George Tyrrell writes Bp. Herford

I am close to having a complete first draft for my PhD Project Blog and his role in the emergence of Independent Catholicism. My current draft chapter is exploring Vilatte’s progressive streak. In my reading this morning I stumbled upon this letter from one of the more famous English Roman Catholic Modernists, George Tyrrell to Bp. Vernon Herford. It is, I think, a wonderful letter, its themes are as important to the Indie movement today as they were at the turn of the century: “Whom do you stand for?”

Jul 15

Indie Bishop Goes to Glastonbury

Glastonbury Tor

I am probably the only Indie cleric to come to England and not rush to Glastonbury. Indeed I have been in the country nearly twenty years and have not bothered to go until just last week. We were invited by friends. It is always good to go to new places with friends, especially when they are already familiar with the place. We were able to sit back, and enjoy being there, while our friends took us from one place of interest to the next.

We spent two days in Glastonbury. While we enjoyed ourselves, for me it did not have that special something that historic shrines and pilgrimage sites are supposed to have. The Abbey ruins were interesting, but Battle Abbey is more exciting by far. The historical and sacred importance – to me at least – seems to be a bit diffuse, and in some aspects unnaturally contrived. In short, it lacks that sense of organic cohesion I have experienced in other such sites, which makes me pause and go “Wow!”.

I did wonder if Abp. Vilatte happened to visit Glastonbury when he was in England in 1898. The timing of his visit would have been around the time of the pilgrimage events I attended, and it is the sort of thing I can see him going to see. Unfortunately, we don’t have much in the line of information on his visit here, other than his trip to Llanthony Abbey in Wales where he ordained Fr. Ignatius.

I would certainly go to Glastonbury again – it is a lovely place. But it is not for me the “sacred” or “spiritual” elements that draw, only that it is a pleasant place to visit, with some interesting historical artifacts, and some very curious expressions of New Religiosity.

Jun 15

130 Years Ago This Week . . .

This week, on the 7th, 130 years ago, Eduard Herzog ordained
Joseph Rene Vilatte a priest in Berne, Switzerland. In so doing he
initiated Old Catholicism in the United States, and set Vilatte on a
trajectory that would eventually establish what we know now as
Independent Catholicism.

Vilatte’s formal separation from the Old Catholics of Europe rose out of a conflict on two continents. At the time the Dutch Old Catholics were of a different mind about the propriety of communion with the Anglicans than were the Swiss/German Old Catholics. While the Swiss in particular were strengthening their ties to the Anglicans, the more conservative Dutch were taking a step back, to reevaluate the situation, dubious about Anglican catholicity, and concerned that it was too Protestant. They pressed Vilatte to sever his relationship with the Episcopalians, which he did, and promised to back the need for an Old Catholic bishop in the U.S.

Things did not go according to plan, and by 1890 it was clear that Vilatte and his community had been caught between camps. Vilatte was a pragmatist, he knew he needed to free his people from the no mans land they now found themselves in. This is when he made contact with Mar Alvares, who would consecrate him in 1892.

The desire to not be caught between factional tensions, to be “independent” is an element of the origins of the Indie movement. But we must not forget that throughout his Archiepiscopal career, Vilatte remained in communion with, and in regular contact with his Indian Syrian Orthodox colleagues. Independence, was not to be cut off from the rest of orthodoxy, rather it was about the freedom to “be” church, and, more importantly for Vilatte, it was about Christian liberty.

Vilatte objected to the heavy handed “institutionalism” of the 19th century Roman Catholics and those who would imitate them like Bishop Charles Grafton. A lesson for all contemporary Indie bishops to be sure!

Our history is far more complex than is so often reported. We owe it to ourselves to dig deeper than the standard sources (Brandreth & Anson). It is in a re-examination of the careers and thinking of individual Indie activists that we better understand ourselves now, and to ask better questions about where we ought to be going next.

Feb 15

Lent 2015: In the Beginning . . .

Lent, for me, is more a time of reflection than is New Year. I tend to undertake activities that inspire or hold my own sense of reflection. One of those is a complete read of Scripture. In previous years I have started with Genesis and worked my way through. This year, however, I decided to start with the Gospels, while wondering why I’d not done it before! Lent for me is not about sitting still, rather it is all about engaging with things in a new way, and thinking about how I might do that. This year, I undertook a pottery class, timed to coincide with Lent. Building, moulding, getting “stuck in” (literally), these are things worth reflecting on. And it is these actions that Lent, indeed the period before all of our major feasts, is all about.

Dec 14

Christmas! I am so not ready.

Yesterday was the feast of St. Nicholas. The traditional signpost telling us that Christmas is coming. All day I reflected on how I am not ready for Christmas. The house is not ready for decorating. I have not even begun baking and cooking. My calendar is filling up fast and I am not ready for that either. Yes these are the plesant (or stressful) distractions from the substance of the feast, but they are real, and we all experience them. And, on this occasion, thinking about these very distractions made me ask a question I’d never really considered before: Can we ever be ready for God?

My honest response to this year’s arrival of St. Nicholas day is: “I’m not ready”. If the inhabitants of Bethleham had been ready for the arrival of Emmanuel I doubt Jesus would have been born in a cave. He would have been born in the centre of a stadium packed with crowds wearing T-shirts declaring that they were there at the moment of God’s coming! O.K. Maybe not so much with the T-Shirts, but you get the idea. If we are “ready” for God’s activity, we change the story, and perhaps because of that, we radically alter the effect of the key elements.

Not being ready, not being able to “plan” all of our interactions with Christ, means that we have less control, and more opportunities to experience and celebrate alterations of our own narrative arc.

Sep 14

This Is Vilatte? No, Not So Much.


This photo has been circulating in Independent Catholic sources for as long as I can remember. It is traditionally labelled as a photo taken in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) after Vilatte’s consecration in 1892. While such a photo might exist – and indeed if it does I would very much like to get my hands on a copy – this is not it. Indeed, Vilatte is nowhere in this photo. Exploring why this is not what many of us have long thought it is, raises more questions than answers. Most of them about the nature of Indie source material. Few photos of Independent Catholic historical figures circulate with relevant data that situates the image, and fills in the story. Knowing where the image comes from, when it was taken, and who is who can sometimes lead to very interesting lines of thought, relevant to a research project. I think that part of the problem in the case of the Indie movement is that there are too few of us doing research, and so not enough of us are raising the issue.


Knowing the source of an image can prevent embarrassing mistakes like that of the uppermost photo, which is often attributed as an image of Vilatte, including in an article in the Church Times in 2000. Compared with the photo below it, depicting bishops Kaminski (left), Vilatte (centre), and Miraglia-Gulotti (right), it is easy to see that there has been an error. Like the supposed consecration photo, one wonders, how the error occurred, and what that might tell us about how the source material we have lands on our desks.

Back to the supposed consecration photo (above). The figure on the far right is correctly identified as Mar St. Alvares, Vilatte’s principle consecrator. The figure in question, however, is the large, heavy set, thickly bearded man on the far left. I have always been suspicious of this identification. Of all the photos I have seen of Vilatte, he has always been clean shaven.That impressive beard took many years to grow, so even if, Vilatte chose to grow a beard for his consecration, it would not have been anywhere near as long and bushy as that shown on the man in the photo.

The photo apppears to have been originally published in W. J. Richards’ 1908 edition of The Indian Christians of St. Thomas (see page 63). Here, the mystery figure is identified as Mar Abd’Esa. In modern transliteration Mar Abdisho (Thondanat), the Chaldean Metropolitan; consecrated in 1862 and died in 1900. The book was published in 1908, Richards’ source material mostly pre-dates Vilatte’s consecration in 1892. Of other photos in the book Richards comments when they are “more recent” and gives a date.

While it is easy to see that the mystery figure is not Vilatte – though on comparison alone one might reserve a degree of skepticism to be safe. The question remains, when was this picture taken? Richards notes on the sub title to the photo that priests wore black cassocks ever since the visit of the Patriarch. I think I’m right that this refers to Patriarch Ignatius Bedros IV visit to India in 1875. Beyond this, Richards does not help. Unless you know that Abdisho was consecrated in 1862, and that Mar St. Alvares (far right) was not consecrated until 1889. 

The photo was therefore taken sometime between 1889 and 1900. However, M. Kurien Thomas has argued that the photo dates to 1882 before Alvares was consecrated. I doubt that this is the case. Mar Alvares is shown wearing a metropolitan’s pectoral cross, which suggests that the picture dates to sometime after his consecration. Furthermore, he is seated in the front row with the other metropolitans – rather than in the (two?) back rows with lower ranking clergy. I therefore, believe that the photo must have been taken sometime after 1889.  Alone this does not rule out the occasion of Vilatte’s consecration either (if one wishes to question the identity of the heavy set bearded Metropolitan).

Richards identifies the figure, third from the right, as Mar Dionysios V, a Metropolitan. Comparing this with other photos of him I think that Richards is correct. If this is a picture of Vilatte’s consecration, why was Mar Dionysios not one of Vilatte’s consecrators – if not his principle consecrator, given Dionysios’ relationship with, and his seniority over Alvares? It seems to me that this raises a significant doubt as to the authenticity of identifying this photo with Vilatte, and his consecration in 1892. But it does not mean that the photo can not be dated to 1892 – commemorating another occasion.

Somewhere between 1908 and a date unknown within the last forty years the picture became an image of Vilatte’s consecration. Though Brandreth notes that he too doubts the attribution. When, and why this happened can only be answered if we can trace the original source making the claim. This picture still has value, even though it is not of Vilatte. It is, I think, one of the few commonly circulated photographs of Mar Alvares, whose influence on and relationship with Vilatte has yet to be fully explored.

*This post has also been cross posted to my thesis blog Project Vilatte.