You may have seen an article in your news feed about Ralph Napierski crashing the party at the Vatican as Cardinals arrive for the conclave to elect the next Pope. If not, have a look at the entry over at Get Religion, it includes a number of links to various takes on the story. When I first saw the story about a week ago – I wondered how long it would be before someone made the link between Napierski and the “infamous” Episcopi Vagantes. It took longer than I thought. It must be a slow news cycle.
Over the past three weeks I’ve been working on a section of my thesis looking at the history and development of the label “episcopi vagantes”. It has been an eye opener. It turns out that Church of England officials coined the term around 1910 to describe Abp. Mathew and his successors. Brandreth, and later Anson then popularised the term and “filled in” the picture for their readers. The result of course has been that Independent Catholics have all been “tarrred” as vile, scheming “fake” bishops ever since – as the collection of articles in the above link demonstrate. Not everyone is buying it however, some people are asking more probing questions – such as the author of the Get Religion piece.
The fact is that the exercise in what we would now call “branding” was effective. Now all Independent Catholics are percieved to be scheming nutters, not just in popular media, but in published scholarship as well. A journal article published in 2009, describes Abp. Vilatte as “the notorius French schismatic”, and Bp. Henry Carmel Carfora as “a notorious Italian schismatic”. Another, published in 1988, describes Abp. Vilatte as “a schismatic priest masquerading as a bishop in good standing”. The reality of what is now commonly referrred to as “episcopi vagantes” is much more complicated – and therefore, more interesting than is the “branding”.
Sadly, Napierski represents the very thing that many of us in the Indie movement find offensive. He’s a “wanna-be”, investing huge amounts of effort asserting his link to the Independent Catholic movement, while in the same breath arguing that he is in union with the Bishop of Rome. My less than charitable response to this is, if that were true, then there would not have been a media storm over his recent gate-crashing. My other less than charatible response is – “Go Home!” You want to be Roman Catholic, then BE a Roman Catholic.
The important thing here is that the branding fromt he early 20th century is still settled in the popular mindset. We cannot deny that there are nutters in the movement. Likewise the Big-Tent Churches have more than their fair share. What we can do, is to speak up, to challenge the popular branding. We can do this by blogging, by writing letters to media outlets, and more importantly, by researching the history of the movement, and publishing our findings – so that when scholars come across an Indie historical figure they are not forced to rely solely on Brandreth, Anson, and ill-informed editorials such as this.