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‘Gathered Under Apostles’A Study of the Catholic Apostolic Church$

Columba Graham Flegg

Print publication date: 1992

Print ISBN-13: 9780198263357

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198263357.001.0001

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(p.442) VI Conclusion
‘Gathered Under Apostles’

Columba Graham Flegg

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This concluding chapter sums up the key findings of this study on the history of the Catholic Apostolic Church. It describes the Catholic Apostolic Church in its historical, social, and religious contexts, its strengths and weaknesses, and its ethos and tradition. It also discusses the significance of the Catholic Apostolic apocalyptic philosophy for the modern charismatic movement and its ecumenism for the uniqueness and the comprehensiveness of Catholic Apostolic's witness.

Keywords:   Catholic Apostolic Church, ethos, religious tradition, charismatic movement, ecumenism

1. The Catholic Apostolic Church in its Historical, Social, and Religious Context

IN many respects, though not in all, it must be said that the Catholic Apostolic Church was a product of the age in which it came into being—born of the changes in religious thought and the general spiritual movement of the nineteenth century. It was an age in which the settled order of society in Britain was beginning to be challenged, not merely on account of the revolutionary upheavals on the Continent but increasingly by an industrial revolution and by processes of social reform. Yet at the same time it was an age of romanticism, of Gothic revival, of turning towards things ancient and venerable, and of religious fervour—partly, no doubt, as an antidote to the ‘wind of change’ which was being felt throughout the land.

The last of these, the revival of interest in religion, especially amongst the (mainly Tory) upper classes, was largely stimulated by the association of social disorder with religious doubt and revolutionary change with atheism. Those who had most to lose from what they saw as the increasing instability of society, and hence wished to justify the maintenance of the existing order, turned away from the theism and rationalism of the preceding century, together with the concept of ‘natural religion’, directing themselves to the Bible and traditional Christian doctrines in seeking assurance for the future.

The approach to Scripture centred upon the prophetic works, since it was thought that unfulfilled prophecy was the key through which intimations about the future would be revealed. Although such studies were undertaken mainly by educated individuals rather than by the academic community, social conditions and the improved means of communication made it easier for gatherings of those with mutual interests to be organized and for societies and (p.443) other bodies to be set up, and the managerial capabilities needed for organizing such groups lay with precisely the classes who had begun to feel themselves threatened by social upheaval.

In earlier periods, the prophetic Scriptures had aroused millenarian views amongst those who felt themselves threatened or oppressed; they had been espoused by the very poor and the outcast—now it was members of the landed ruling class who saw themselves threatened and were therefore seeking reassurance. They fell back also on a genuine belief that the established social order was of divine making, and on this basis opposed all, whether individuals or bodies, who promoted political or social change.

The Catholic Apostolic Church thus owed its existence in some measure to the old ‘high Tory’ reaction to the exigencies of the age, though it would be entirely wrong to brand those who participated in its formation as ‘selfish reactionaries’. They were men of the highest principles, with a strong sense of the need to care for the poorest members of society, but, at the same time, they believed in a social structure where both privilege and poverty had their appointed and permanent place. They therefore saw reforming movements—Catholic emancipation, the 1832 Reform Bill, Chartism, and the rise of democratic ideas—as evidence of the activity of the powers of evil, and their biblical studies led them to the conclusion that these, together with the French Revolution in particular, were the signs of the near fulfilment of apocalyptic prophecy: the coming of Antichrist and the ‘great tribulation’ from which an elect would be saved at the Parousia.

All this must be contrasted with other nineteenth-century religious movements having their origins in Britain and elsewhere, a number of which had much greater appeal for the common people because they were clearly concerned with social issues and tended to reject the established hierarchies in religion, seeing them as part of that very social order which was in need of reform. The Mormon Mission in England, for example, had a strong appeal for the lower classes, because it preached a classless society, and had the added incentive of the possibility of emigration to the New World. Methodism had (and still has) social concern as one of its fundamental principles, and therefore had a wide appeal to the industrialized classes. Further, it preached holiness of life rather than divine intervention as the Christian solution to contemporary problems—though it would be unfair to suggest that the Catholic (p.444) Apostolics were any less insistent upon holy living. The Chris tadelphians likewise had a firm belief in the transformation of the social order, and had highly radical views about existing Church structures; much the same can be said of the Plymouth Brethren, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Salvation Army was essentially a mission to the poor and underprivileged, and rejected traditional Church order and ordinances, though it did not seek the overthrow of the British social system.

It was the movements which were primarily based in America that tended to stress the possibilities of social experimentation rather than their British counterparts. The Catholic Apostolics differed fundamentally from all these movements, millenarian or otherwise, not merely because of their lack of social concern (for which they had special reasons), but also and more especially because they were a movement solely directed towards bringing existing ecclesiastical structures to perfection. They were totally unworldly in their objectives, the millennium which they offered being, unlike that of some other bodies, an exclusively spiritual one.

It would be wrong to suggest, however, that those ‘high Tories’ who became involved with the Catholic Apostolic Church were unconcerned about the view of labour taken by industrial and commercial employers. They had a good record of care for those who worked for them on their estates or within their professions, and they objected to any view of the working man which saw him as a mere ‘pair of hands’. For them, though men were not equal within society, they were equal before God: it was precisely on this ground that Drummond and others had objected to the high proportion of pew rents in the Established Church. Such evidence as there is indicates that pew rents in the Catholic Apostolic Church were kept to a minimum—to at most some 10 per cent of the sittings in certain well-to-do urban areas. It was the apostles’ conviction of the nearness of the Second Advent which led them to the conclusion that the urgent task was the preparation of the Church—not the world—for the imminent return of the Lord. For them there was no time for social reform, which they saw as irrelevant and possibly dangerous; they believed themselves called not to be reformers of society but restorers of the Church to her ancient purity as the Bride of Christ. Equally there was no time for further missionary effort: missionary societies, along with societies having specific moral concerns, were seen as too much involved in worldly matters—as attempting to do (p.445) God’s work in man’s way. The societies had been created with the presumption that England was divinely chosen for Christian mission because of its freedom from Roman Catholic influence. Such an attitude had been particularly strong in the eighteenth century, and had strengthened resolve to defeat the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745—a rebellion seen as essentially papalist. The religious as well as the political future of the country was thought to be tied to its Protestantism. Such an attitude had to be abandoned later in the nineteenth century, however, by those evangelicals who saw the country as having become ‘chained to Babylon’ by Catholic emancipation and tractarianism, the latter being described by one prominent evangelical as one of the ‘three frogs’ of Apocalypse 16: 13 (that ‘out of the mouth of the false prophet’).

Inevitably, the question must be asked: to what extent was self-interest in maintaining their existing social status an underlying motive for those who brought the Catholic Apostolic Church into being? This is a difficult matter, since it is not possible to search into men’s hearts. The evidence would appear to suggest that it played little or no direct role. Two facts in particular support this. First, the concern was for man in every station of life—Catholic Apostolics genuinely believed that the existing state of society, for so long as it was permitted by God to exist and so long as it was administered justly, was of divine ordinance for the general good of all. Secondly, they also genuinely believed that the structures of both State and Church were shortly to be cast down by the forces of Antichrist in a vast act of judgement upon an apostate Christendom. They thus had no expectation of retaining their privileged position in a society which would shortly be overturned.

The Great Testimony clearly shows that the apostles had a spiritual and cosmic concern, not a narrow or selfish worldly one. That they failed to attract the lower classes was due in considerable measure to the nature of the message: it was too unworldly, too exclusively concerned with spiritual and ecclesiastical matters, and too much directed to the upper stratum of Church and State. Those who delivered the public lectures during the early stages of the work did achieve limited success in evangelizing the wider public, but they tended to assume a level of education and religious sophistication on the part of their audiences that few members of the lower classes could have been expected to achieve.

These public lectures (which largely ceased after the period of the (p.446) apostles’ seclusion at Albury) were, however, given mainly in urban areas, and the urban lower classes in particular were at that time suffering from depressed wages together with a dramatically inflated price of bread. Wages had become depressed following the introduction of the dole principle in 1795, and there was extensive interference with the supply of corn from the Continent as a result of two decades of war with revolutionary and Napoleonic France, which had left Britain in increasing political and economic isolation. The protective Corn Law of 1815—not repealed until 1846—had its most serious ill-effects in urban areas. Any potential lower-class urban audience was therefore likely to have its concerns directed towards the practical problems of living in a seemingly hostile world: the poor and the poorly paid looked only for words which would indicate an imminent improvement in their condition of living—for such people, a message (based upon detailed Scriptural exegesis) to the effect that society as a whole was shortly to come to an apocalyptic end had little appeal.

The radical movements of the eighteenth century had lost their momentum in Britain as a result of the general revulsion at the atrocities of the French revolutionaries, and the war with the French had allied Protestant patriotism with anti-liberalism. Evangelicals had thus become strongly ‘anti-Jacobin’, and it was not until the second quarter of the nineteenth century that a number of evangelicals—principally the dissenting clergy—began increasingly again to befriend the poor, bringing them a message which combined evangelical religion with radical politics. Even the Wesley an movement started with a political conservatism, and Irving was at one with the majority of evangelicals of his day when he declared in Edinburgh:

The one thing which I have laboured at is to resist liberalism by opening the word of God.

Socialism, Chartism, the forming of unions, Catholic emancipation (associated in many minds with Irish labourers), Reform Bill agitation (at its peak around 1830), and the anti-Corn Law league were all seen as having been inspired by an atheistic revolutionary spirit. All attempts by working-class men to associate together to promote their own welfare tended to be regarded as seditious. That the Catholic Apostolics for the most part adopted conservative politics, accepting the social conditions of the day, is not therefore (p.447) surprising: in this they were largely at one during their formative years with both Church and Dissent. At the individual level, however, they showed much concern for those whom they considered to be the ‘deserving poor’, giving generously to the relief of individuals in distressed circumstances and expending both time and effort in organizing groups who would be prepared to visit the hungry and homeless who were brought to their notice.

The Catholic Apostolic Church was not, however, by any means solely a product of the historical and religious circumstances of its day. In a number of ways it broke from the immediate past religious scene, in some cases anticipating ideas which were to come into being later elsewhere. The religious milieu of the age in Britain at the time of the ‘separation’ of the apostles was still for the most part deeply evangelical, optimistic, missionary-orientated, and firm in its conviction that only significant moral decline could be the precursor of any judgement. The supporting eschatology had remained firmly post-millennialist. In general, man’s faith in his own potential for the creation of utopias—the result of Renaissance, Reformation, and the Age of Enlightenment—had been stimulated by the eighteenth-century growth of belief in democracy, and the results of this stimulation remained despite the shock of the French Revolution. Initially, it was only in certain circles that it all came to be interpreted, not as promise for a better future, but as the sign of Godlessness, disintegration, and impending judgement. The founders of the Catholic Apostolic body set their faces firmly against what had been the popular evangelical tide. They totally rejected any suggestion that man could improve his future by his own efforts, and they saw divine intervention as the only possible salvation from an inevitable approaching devastation of the world.

The base upon which the apostles built their apocalyptic beliefs was biblical prophecy, the approach being primarily literalist, though this literalism was relieved by a spiritual interpretation of eschatological time, a profound typological understanding of the Old Testament, and a sense of the importance of scriptural symbolism. These provided an escape from absolute literalism without any abandoning of the principle of the infallibility of Scripture. Their approach was thus no more and indeed was sometimes less literalist than that of their contemporaries, and it must be judged according to the standards of its day. They did not develop a doctrine of the Church which could escape the biblicist dilemma as Newman and (p.448) Keble did, and the biblical methods of scholars such as Lightfoot and Westcott would have seemed too radical for them. The so-called ‘higher criticism’ did not come into being until the restored apostles had passed away and the ultimate disappearance of the body had become assured.

It would thus be wrong to condemn the Catholic Apostolics for a naive approach to Scripture, and it should be remembered that typology—the fundamental principle of their exegesis—has had a long and respectable history in the Church. For them it became the method by which Scripture underpinned and cemented together the whole of their theology and worship. This was to give it a prominence which it had not enjoyed before, but it was not the introduction of any new or foreign principle. Even their eschatology was firmly based upon the Scriptures, and they saw themselves merely as proclaiming with a revived urgency an eschatological message which had been an essential part of the Gospel preached by the early Church. Modern research has confirmed how deep-rooted apocalyptic and millenarian views were in early Christianity.

Relationship to the Tractarians

Because of certain similar developments of theology and worship, it is tempting to seek for direct links between the Catholic Apostolics and the Tractarians. Thus, both wished to restore the fullness of the ‘catholic’ faith and the beauty of catholic worship, and both looked to ancient sources as providing evidence of what had been universally accepted by the undivided Church. Both were theologically conservative, and both had a tendency towards authoritarianism. For both, conferences had provided an important stimulus: Drummond’s Albury Conferences might be compared with the Hadleigh Conference hosted by Hugh Rose, though the former were attended by evangelicals of several Churches whilst the latter was confined to Anglicans of the ‘high church’ party. A further significant difference was the considerable lay participation at Albury and the non-academic nature of the clergy participants, which contrasted with the almost exclusively clerical and academic assembly at Hadleigh.

Both movements had important individuals as prime catalysts: though Irving’s apocalyptic preaching had little in common with Keble’s Assize Sermon except for the general theme of ‘apostasy’. There were, however, very important differences. The Tractarians (p.449) were concerned with the defence of the received doctrine of ‘apostolic succession’ and a catholic interpretation of the Book of Common Prayer—they were a movement within one Church, the Church of England, though they were eventually to have considerably wider influence. By contrast, the Catholic Apostolics claimed to have received a divine message relevant to all the baptized—Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant alike. They too were concerned with ‘apostolic succession’, but gave it a specific overriding interpretation contrary to that generally accepted in the Church Catholic throughout eighteen centuries. Though in their eyes this was restoration rather than revolution, in the eyes of their critics it was a new and unacceptable departure from traditional Christian belief and practice, undermining or debasing authority within the traditional Churches. Together with the charismatic origin of its orders, this was perhaps the principal feature of the Catholic Apostolic Church guaranteeing its rejection by precisely those whom it wished to convince, and leading to its eventual isolation and lack of any significant widespread influence.

Debate between the Catholic Apostolics and the Tractarians was almost exclusively concentrated upon the charismatic origins and the apostolic claims of the former. Sadly, this seems to have entirely precluded debate in other areas where there might have been wider agreement and mutual stimulation and benefit—as, for example, in the field of liturgy and sacramental theology, where Cardale’s work preceded that of the Tractarians. The two movements were also widely separated in the matter of millenarian beliefs: most Tractarians regarded such beliefs with grave suspicion and those who did have an interest in eschatology shared the Roman Catholic futurist viewpoint.

By having an eschatology which would appeal only to certain evangelicals and orders which were bound to be questioned by traditionalists whilst, at the same time, developing a theology and liturgy which were perceived to be respectively ‘catholic’ and ritualistic, they ensured that their appeal would be limited to a relatively few like-minded persons—they thus never had the potential to become a mass movement. In their blending of evangelical eschatology, sacramental theology, and ritualistic liturgy they stand in contrast with other contemporary religious movements, which were more clearly identified with certain individual aspects of Christianity. Had they taken the decision to perpetuate their (p.450) apostles, no doubt they would have survived until the present day (as has the New Apostolic Church), but there seems to be no evidence that this survival could have been other than as the comparatively small and somewhat isolated body which they remained even in their brief heyday.

The Appeal of the Catholic Apostolic Church

It is right to consider precisely what it was that attracted those who became members of the Catholic Apostolic Church or were associated with it through apostolic sealing. In the earliest days of the body it seems clear that the charismatic element had considerable influence in gaining adherents, though many so attracted were either never to join formally or soon to fall away from membership of the body. The eschatological message also had considerable appeal in that it provided answers to widely asked questions and spiritual comfort for those alarmed by threatening trends and events which seemed beyond human control.

As the body developed, for some—and especially for certain Anglican clergy—it offered an opportunity to develop and practise forms of worship free from control of the state and of the Protestant-minded Anglican hierarchy who were using the courts to restrict such freedom in the Established Church. Those clergy and others who were sealed, but remained in their respective Churches, clearly accepted the restoration of apostles and the teaching of the body on the apostolic basis of the Church. The appeal here may have been in part the unanimity of the Catholic Apostolic witness compared with the many voices which were speaking from within the Churches, though such evidence as there is—and there is very little—suggests that the two main attractions were the restoration of the Christian hope in the return of the Lord and the beauty and dignity of the liturgical worship. It is to these two things that sympathizers most commonly referred.

There seems to be no evidence that the Catholic Apostolic Church had the same kind of attraction which is a feature of charismatic movements today. Indeed, apart perhaps from the prophetic activity in the early years, they have little in common; surviving Catholic Apostolics have expressed great concern about modern charismatic activity, with which they feel no sympathy whatever, contrasting (p.451) what they see as the emotional excesses of charismatic worship with the dignity of the liturgy of the restored apostles.

Christology and Pneumatology

Turning aside from the more usual aspects of the Catholic Apostolic Church to its Christology and pneumatology, it is entirely fair to suggest that there was little that was new and even less, if anything, that was heretical in the teaching. Indeed, in many respects the teaching was an attempt to restore a balance felt to have been lost in the mainstream Churches. Unfortunately, the necessary emphases on certain aspects of Christian theology intended to restore that balance were often misinterpreted as distortions of catholic truth rather than re-statements of it.

Irving’s Christology, which the Catholic Apostolics inherited (though without his hyperbole of speech), was not heretical. It was misrepresented and distorted at his trial—a trial of which the outcome had manifestly been determined by his judges before it began. In restating it, the restored apostles were careful to point particularly to two things (both of which are explicitly stated in Irving’s works): first, Christ was born into a humanity which was subject to the consequences of the Fall, and, secondly, no sin of any kind could be attributed to Him. The former was considered essential if fallen humanity was truly to be redeemed; the second was linked to the pneumatological teaching in that it was through the indwelling Spirit in the man Jesus that no sin could be imputed to Him.

The Roman doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Theotokos was rejected precisely because it undermined the concept of the redemption of man achieved within the circumstances of the Fall. The details of the spasmodic attacks made on Catholic Apostolic Christology reveal a failure to understand its precise content—they almost invariably refer back to Irving’s preaching, taking out of context his occasional use of unwise expressions and assuming that these represent the considered teaching of the restored apostles.

The pneumatological doctrine of the Catholic Apostolics, which was closely associated with their Christology and which envisaged the Spirit as a crucial participating agent in all divine acts, was no more than a re-emphasis of a then somewhat neglected catholic (p.452) doctrine. The emphasis upon the gifts of the Spirit is more difficult to assess, because it arose out of circumstances of which we have only written reports and which cannot therefore be practically investigated. In principle, these gifts are entirely Scriptural and have never been totally lost to the Church, but have manifested themselves in various ways throughout the centuries. Here, it can be argued that the Catholic Apostolics took too rigid a line in denying this undoubted fact, and also in assuming that the immediate post-Pentecostal phenomena were intended by divine will to be the norm for all time.

The manifestations in Scotland which Cardale and others investigated certainly convinced them, as trained observers, that they were genuine examples of the Spirit’s gifts, but, not having the benefit of recent psychological and psychical studies (which do give credence to spiritual phenomena), they may have allowed themselves to be overinfluenced by ideas of the miraculous. When prophetic utterances appeared elsewhere, their acceptance of a new Pentecost poured out upon the Church seems to have occurred with little further serious study. As is evidenced by the charismatic movements of today, spiritual ‘enthusiasm’ is highly contagious and engenders an atmosphere which is not sufficiently critical.

It is not possible to pass any final judgement upon the ‘latter rain’ today—for the Spirit, like the wind, ‘blows where it wills’ (John 2: 8). The interpretation placed upon that ‘rain’ may well be open to challenge, because it must be measured against the experience of the Church over the centuries. That the apostles came to recognize the dangers of unbridled charismatic activity is clear from the restrictions imposed upon it within the Church which they ruled. Yet there remains a seeming contradiction in that, in so doing, they were at the same time raising questions about precisely the prophetic activity upon which they based their whole apostolic authority.

It is this question of the nature of the authority by which Cardale and his fellow apostles acted which lies at the heart of the Catholic Apostolic dilemma. It is not a matter of whether or not they were good and sincere men with a genuine belief in their divine calling: upon this judgement must be given in their favour; neither should it be a matter of comparison with the first Apostles, for there seems little reason to assume that they should necessarily act in comparable ways. It is a question of whether or not their call to apostleship was what they claimed it to be: to answer this with any confidence it is (p.453) necessary to ‘test the spirits’ (1 John 4: 1)—now an impossible task. It is therefore better to leave final judgement on this matter to God.

Theology of the Incarnation, Atonement, and Resurrection

The Catholic Apostolics attempted to redress the balance in certain other areas of theology also. Their theology of atonement moved away from the contemporary (mainly Protestant) idea that Christ, as the voluntary inheritor of man’s guilt, paid the penalty for that guilt demanded by an unbending judge. In Catholic Apostolic writings there is to be found much more emphasis upon the restoration of man’s divine image and his preparation for the sharing in Christ’s rule in the coming kingdom. The Incarnation was seen, not primarily as a response to the Fall, but as part of the eternal purpose of God—a continuation of His revelation of Himself in creation.

Further, the Catholic Apostolics developed the witness, revived in the West of Scotland, that salvation was available to all, not just to a predestined elect, and it seems clear that adherents to the body in Scotland were considerably influenced by this aspect of their witness, which contrasted with the Calvinism of the Established Church there. The millenarian teaching was of less significance north of the Border because the majority of Presbyterian millenarians joined the secession of 1843, when nearly one third of the ministry of the Established Church left to form the Free Church of Scotland.

The Catholic Apostolics also attempted to counteract the prevailing views of resurrection, which were heavily biased towards the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Their writings emphasized the bodily resurrection of Christ as the key to the understanding of the resurrection of all men as complete human persons—body, soul, and spirit. Death was for them not ‘natural’ but ‘unnatural’—the spirit separated from the body was seen as being in an unnatural state which would be ended by resurrection. They had a reverence for the wonder of the human body, strengthened by the significance given in their theology to the teaching that at the Ascension the resurrected human flesh of Christ had been elevated to the throne of God. It was this reverence that led them to oppose so strongly the advocates of cremation.

(p.454) The Attitude to ‘Mission’

On the question of mission to the Jews the Catholic Apostolics took a further line which was not in accord with contemporary views. Although Drummond and others had been associated with such missionary activity at one time, the study of the prophetic Scriptures convinced them that the conversion of the Jewish people—a people who they believed had a divinely prepared role in apocalyptic events—would take place only at the Parousia. Missions to convert the Jews as a people were therefore considered to be not only useless but contrary to divine will, though individual Christianized Jews did join the body. Indeed, the attitude to missionary activity of any kind, apart from mission within the Church, was one of the significant aspects distinguishing it from most contemporary Christian bodies. Even mission within the Church was largely abandoned when it became clear that the apostolic witness was rejected, not only by heads of Churches and states, but also by the mass of the people.

The reasons why this abandonment of mission should have occurred well before the decline of the Catholic Apostolic Church are difficult to ascertain. After the death of the last apostle in 1901, they become quite clear however—apostolic witness had been withdrawn from the world and hence the message which it contained should no longer be publicly proclaimed. Two reasons for the gradual cessation of active mission before 1901 do, however, suggest themselves.

First, the whole ethos had become inward-looking as the failure of the apostles to gather in the 144,000 became manifest, thus suggesting more and more that the return of Christ might be a matter of future hope rather than immediate expectation. The Second Advent was seen as having been postponed before on account of the Bride’s unreadiness—was this not perhaps happening again? This not only removed something of the urgency of the earlier days, but it also suggested that new prophetic guidance was required in what were, for the members, unforeseen circumstances. The pastoral care and religious education of members of the Church would have become more of an imperative if the existence of the body was conceived to be more permanent than originally envisaged.

Secondly, there was the possibility of psychological compensation for apparent failure provided by membership of a closely knit community which was tending in practice to exclusiveness and (p.455) secrecy, though without changing its formal ecumenical and catholic principles. Members saw themselves increasingly as the elect taken out of Babylon by divine providence—effort on external mission seemed increasingly inappropriate. Thus, those who approached of their own volition were welcomed with courtesy: Holy Communion was offered to non-members who attended Catholic Apostolic Eucharists as serious enquirers ‘as an act of hospitality’. Occasionally members of other Churches would receive the Sealing, and (less frequently) outsiders would be received into full membership—more often than not through marriage. Successful active recruitment would have brought the danger of dilution; the members had become sole guardians of inherited truths whose preservation rather than proclamation was now paramount. There was perhaps an unconscious acceptance that the body was now a product of an age which had largely ceased to exist. Yet they remained and still remain above all else ‘the people of a hope’.

2. The Strengths and Weaknesses of the Catholic Apostolic Church

In attempting to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the Catholic Apostolic body, it is all too easy to judge it according to standards which it would not itself accept. Clearly, there is a place for such disinterested judgement, but there must also be a place for judgement based upon their own principles. This becomes abundantly clear if the obvious superficial conclusion is reached that, since the Catholic Apostolic Church attracted comparatively few adherents when measured against the mainstream Churches and since its initial apocalyptic expectations were not fulfilled, it must simply be regarded as a somewhat eccentric failure—a small and largely irrelevant backwater outside the main stream of Church history. This is surely a far too facile judgement of a body that certainly had its eccentricities, but which attracted many sincere and well-educated Christians, which produced much writing of a high spiritual character, and which developed liturgical rites which a number of commentators have described as unsurpassed in the English language. The dismissal of the body as an irrelevant failure (p.456) does not do justice to its many strengths, but concentrates only on areas of apparent weakness and on interpretations of them which Catholic Apostolics would strongly challenge. It is also most important neither to satirize nor to romanticize the Catholic Apostolic Church in any attempt to come to an assessment of it.


Certain aspects of the Catholic Apostolic Church can be regarded as strengths in that they gave the body a singleness of purpose and a cohesiveness which ensured its continuing existence until, by its own choice, it decided that it was not able to perpetuate its ministry. Amongst these the following can be numbered:

the concentration of rule in an apostolic college;

the strictly ordered and comprehensive ministry;

the focusing upon the one specific objective of preparing the Church for the Second Advent;

the biblical basis of doctrine with a unifying method of interpretation;

the development of a liturgy attuned to the underlying theology and having a breadth of intercession;

the strong sacramental emphasis;

the ultimate balance between the charismatic witness and the formal ecclesiological structure (see comment below);

the thorough teaching of the laity by means of both the spoken and the written word;

the clear insistence upon holiness of life;

the freedom from financial worries provided by tithing;

the tailoring of the ministry to the spiritual and psychological make-up of man;

the combination of a spirit of eschatological urgency which nevertheless avoided any apocalyptic time-table;

absence of deliberate and open proselytism;

the care taken to adopt a restoring rather than a reforming or

innovating stance in respect of the Churches.

(p.457) The Catholic Apostolics offered to all who would listen a perfection of fullness, for the most part without the tearing down of what had already been built up over the centuries. These things contributed to a sense of purpose and of divine mission, to a close spirit of fellowship amongst the members, to a feeling of continuity with the received Christian tradition, to a sense of comprehensive pastoral care, and to identification with a body whose purpose and witness were thoroughly understood. Earlier charismatic eschatological movements had always proved to be transitory, because they had set themselves against the organized Christian Church and had lacked a structured body of their own. By having been forced to establish an ecclesiastical structure, the Catholic Apostolics gave their eschatological witness a permanence which would have continued to this day had they not taken the decision not to perpetuate their apostleship.

The typological understanding of the Scriptures, together with the belief that forms of worship had been divinely given, provided a unifying basis for their theology, liturgy, and pastoral care which was quite remarkable. This cohesion in their beliefs and practices gave the whole structure a strength which was to begin to crumble only when the last member of the Apostolic College passed away in 1901. It remained a source of spiritual strength and comfort for members even in the period when most had to turn elsewhere for their worship and sacraments.


Yet there were inherent weaknesses in the Catholic Apostolic body which have been and must again be pointed out. The most obvious one relates to the precise basis of the claims of the restored apostles to universal authority (a difficulty to which reference has been made above). For the vast majority of Christians these claims remained unconvincing. Anglican critics were right to point to the ‘circularity’ of the situation: apostles were called by prophets who were then subsequently ordained or authenticated by those whom they had called. (Specifically, Cardale’s call was by Drummond who was then himself consecrated by Cardale.) The only way out of this circularity was that taken by the Catholic Apostolics themselves, namely to break it by claiming a direct action by the Holy Spirit. In theory, this must always be a possibility, but alternative interpretations of events (p.458) have first to be considered. (Specifically, Cardale’s call was regarded as a call by the Holy Spirit speaking through Drummond, whose subsequent consecration by Cardale was in response to the Spirit speaking through a third party.)

The events of Irving’s congregation, allied to his supposedly heretical Christology, were not such as to inspire confidence in the validity of claims that it was indeed the Spirit who was speaking—it is significant that the Catholic Apostolics did much to expunge Irving’s name from their records. Baxter’s defection and claim that he had been inspired by evil spirits, admissions by some individuals that they had faked prophetic utterances, and the eventual restrictions put upon the prophets by the apostles, all reinforced the natural scepticism of outside observers and ensured that the apostolic claims would be accepted by but few.

Other arguments supporting the claims of the body were seen by outside observers as weak, for example:

the historical analysis of the early Church was seriously open to question;

the idea of Church structure was seen as archaic, failing to take into account the development of tradition or the changing circumstances over eighteen centuries;

the attitude to matters of social concern (already referred to) resulted in isolation from the general mass of the people;

the aspects of Christianity which were combined in the body were, for the majority of contemporary Christians, uncomfortable ‘bedfellows’;

the rigidity of the hierarchical structure and the insistence upon the acceptance of the finest points of typology appeared as a practical denial of the teaching that God was unity in diversity, and that man, made in God’s image, himself reflected a diversity of spiritual and intellectual gifts.

Later on, the increasing self-chosen isolation of the body and the tendency to secrecy meant that its witness was mostly misunderstood, and the highly restricted circulation of the largely anonymous spiritual and doctrinal writings ensured that their potential contribution to the Church at large was never appreciated. It came to be through occasional witnessing of their liturgy only, that a small number of Christians of other Churches obtained some idea of the (p.459) richness of their theology and worship. As the liturgy gradually ceased to be celebrated, even this witness was silenced. All that has remained is the personal witness of members within the other Churches within which they have been forced to seek a temporary spiritual home—a witness which has been widely commended for its firm faith and holiness.

The 1901 Decision to Suspend Ordinations

Conventional attitudes would suggest that the decision not to perpetuate the apostolic office with its implications for the future of the Catholic Apostolic Church was evidence of weakness, weariness, and a sense of failure. The refusal to continue ordinations to any of the three major orders after 1901, despite the continuing existence of apostolic coadjutors, would seem for some outsiders only to underline that weakness. It is interesting to note that prophetic direction was accepted here without it being possible to validate it apostolically.

For the Catholic Apostolics themselves these crucial decisions were regarded as evidence of strength: firmness in obeying the direct guidance of the spirit; absolute trust in the mercy of God; and total faithfulness to the particular tradition which they had inherited from their forebears. These they have maintained without questioning God’s providence or any diminishing of their eschatological hope throughout the period of their Church’s gradual disappearance from the world’s sight. They are content to wait upon the Spirit. This is surely remarkable in an age of rapidly changing beliefs and allegiances; it is deserving of admiration and great respect, rather than the somewhat derisive attitude which some have adopted. In the confusions of the present century, it is easy to mistake strength for weakness and weakness for strength. This is an age of quick and superficial judgements—the Catholic Apostolics deserve better of those who choose to study them.

3. The Catholic Apostolic Body: Church or Sect?

Before attempting to determine the status of the Catholic Apostolic body, it is important to state specifically the precise meanings given (p.460) to the terms ‘church’ and ‘sect’. It is also important to disregard titles by which the body is or has been known, since these can themselves prejudice the outcome of any discussion: thus the titles, ‘Catholic Apostolic Church’ and ‘Irvingites’, each have their own particular implication—both were disliked by members of the body, who preferred to be known by titles such as ‘apostles’ fellowship’, ‘members gathered under apostles’, or simply ‘the Lord’s work’. With regard to the definitions of terms, it is easier to proceed first to the definition of ‘sect’ as a body of Christians, united by doctrines or practices which are distinct from the traditional doctrines and practices of the Church Catholic. A member of a sect has thus specifically chosen a separate path from ‘mainstream’ Christianity—often one which has arisen out of the life and witness of one individual or a small group of individuals claiming a special revelation from God. By contrast, a ‘church’ is a community of Christians professing to uphold the ecumenical faith as found in Scripture and Holy Tradition and expressed in a ‘catholic’ creed, who are united through acceptance of the same ministry and sacraments.

The Catholic Apostolics’ View of Themselves

The Catholic Apostolics themselves totally repudiated any suggestion of sectarianism on their part: indeed, what were generally recognized as sects were severely criticized by them. It was for this reason that they objected to the title ‘Irvingite’, since to associate any Christian body in such a way with the name of any individual other than Christ was regarded by them as a sure sign of sectarianism. Indeed, they avoided any title which would associate them in any way with anything other than the ‘One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church’, regarding even national titles, such as ‘the Church of England’, as having sectarian overtones and the exclusive claims of Rome as betraying a sectarian spirit. They also rejected the suggestion that they were a ‘Church within the Church’ or indeed a Church as such at all. Their claim was to be a work of the Lord within the Church Universal. Any estimate of that claim must consider carefully the arguments which they put forward in support of it, including their repudiation of the name by which they were for some while popularly denoted.

First, they pointed to their acceptance of Scripture, the catholic (p.461) creeds and sacraments, their many references to Patristic tradition, and their comprehensiveness generally, including their acceptance of all the baptized as Christians, the breadth of their ministry, their existence in all continents, and the inclusiveness of their liturgical intercessions. If the traditional aspects of catholicity were authority, tradition, and comprehensiveness, they claimed to display all these. Further, they claimed not to be introducing new doctrine, but to be restoring the orthodox teaching of the early Church in a way which they saw as entirely within the received catholic tradition.

The Catholic Apostolics did not see themselves as reformers, but as faithful Christians inspired by the Spirit to react to unacceptable innovations and distortions, and to draw the attention of all the baptized to the imminent realization of the ancient Christian hope in the promised return of Christ. The appearance of the prophetic ministry was evidence of the nearness of that return, but it was a restoration of neglected gifts, not the introduction of strange novelties. They contrasted all this with the usual features of sectarianism: hostility to the institutional Churches; exaggerated and partial theology; untraditional forms of worship; acceptance of the theories of individuals claiming special revelations; exclusivity; disorderly enthusiasm; instability; resistance to ordered rule; a tendency towards social anarchy; and so on.

All these features of sectarianism were regarded as contrary to God’s revealed purposes for mankind, and were condemned accordingly. Certainly it would appear that, on these terms, the charge of sectarianism against them was an entirely unjust one. They were certainly not sectarian by intent. Did they, however, adopt teachings which belonged peculiarly to Irving rather than to the catholic tradition or which were unique to themselves? Also, can they be said to have evidenced sectarian trends after the rejection of their witness by the great majority of their fellow-Christians?

The Place of Irving

Irving was not the founder of the Catholic Apostolic Church, though a number of otherwise reputable articles and books allege precisely this. As has been shown, Irving’s death preceded the ‘separation’ of the restored apostles, the event which most closely approximates the ‘birth’ of an organized body. Irving had participated in events which were to lead to the restored apostolate, and was himself ordained by (p.462) the first of the new apostles, but it is clear that that apostolate developed in ways which he had not envisaged and with which he was by no means sympathetic. Much of the theological and liturgical development of the body would have seemed strange to him had he lived to see it.

Irving’s role was therefore at most that of a catalyst, providing an initial acceptance of the validity of the tongues—though he himself never prophesied. His brief period as an ordained angel was in a role clearly subordinated to a superior apostolic authority. Certainly, the Catholic Apostolics drew to some extent upon teachings already to be found in Irving’s writings: the importance of Christ’s humanity; aspects of baptismal regeneration; anti-liberalism; and pre-millen-arianism in particular. But these were not unique to Irving though at that time they had become closely associated with him. Even the emphasis on Christ’s humanity, particularly associated with Irving and for which he had been deprived of his Presbyterian orders, was founded upon Patristic writings. Any accusation of sectarianism based upon alleged dependence upon peculiarities of unorthodox theology taken exclusively from Irving cannot reasonably be justified.

‘Peculiar’ Teachings

In the matter of teachings peculiar to themselves, the question is more open. The specific teaching on apostolic authority, though based upon an interpretation of Scripture extended to contemporary charismatic experiences, was certainly not generally accepted. The millenarian teaching, though certainly found in early Christian writings, was open to challenge—Lacunza’s analysis of precisely what was condemned at Constantinople I satisfied the concern of the restored apostles that they should conform to traditional teaching, but was not subjected to scrutiny by other Christian authorities. The urgency of the apocalyptic message was not confirmed by the occurrence of the events prophesied—always a problem for millenarian movements—though here the Catholic Apostolics would suggest a postponement due to the failure of the Church to accept their witness.

The fourfold structure of the Catholic Apostolic ministry was unique to the body, though its justification of it was based upon largely acceptable premisses—it could be seen as a development of (p.463) traditional ministry rather than a departure from it. The liturgical developments and their typological basis again could be seen as developments rather than contradictions of catholic tradition—there was nothing fundamentally unacceptable, for example, in unique liturgical features such as the proposition of the Holy Gifts during the Intercessions at the Offices.

Taken overall, the peculiar witness of the body does provide some ammunition for those who would put forward the charge of sectarianism, but these must be taken in their overall context and balanced against many of the major features of the body which were clearly within orthodox and catholic tradition, or acceptable extensions of it. It is the opinion of the writer that, on balance, the very considerable extent of the Catholic Apostolic adherence to traditional ‘mainstream’ Christian theology, taken with the ‘catholic’ nature of their liturgical worship, outweighs their ‘peculiar’ beliefs and practices (which were to a considerable extent peculiarities of emphasis), and that on these grounds the Catholic Apostolic body was a Church rather than a sect.

The Later Period

Notwithstanding the above, it must be admitted that in its later stages sectarian symptoms seem to become more apparent. Although the Catholic Apostolic witness was originally delivered within existing Churches with no thought of forming any separate organization, its rejection and the expulsion from the various Churches of those who accepted it forced upon the body precisely what it wished to avoid, namely the outward appearance of separation from the traditional mainstream Christian bodies. It is important to appreciate, however, that such separation was not by their own choice. The apostles set up an organizational structure with a comprehensive system of pastoral care because they had become responsible for congregations expelled from their previous Church membership.

In the later stages of the body’s existence, its unsought isolation undoubtedly turned its ‘soul’ inwards, and it was then that the tendency to secrecy (due to the fear of being misunderstood) and some feeling of exclusiveness inevitably manifested themselves. In more recent years, there has been great resistance to any opening of debate upon either the history or the theology of the body (though (p.464) for reasons which are entirely understandable if accepted on their terms). Without apostolic rule and guidance there has grown up a Congregationalism which has sometimes involved the severe criticism of one congregation’s actions by another.

Not all surviving Catholic Apostolics have followed the instructions of their last clergy and joined in the worship of other (usually episcopal) Churches. A few have developed highly localized traditions, such as a total Eucharistic fast; others have strayed within the influence of modern Protestant ‘prophetic’ bodies. Some oppose marriages outside the dwindling company of members. It must be stressed, however, that those who have abandoned the breadth of the original ecclesiological vision number very few. Symptoms of sectarianism are certainly to be found, but they are most noticeable precisely amongst those who have departed from the catholic dimension which the body displayed in its prime. It would be unjust to condemn the many because of the few.

The Absence of Sectarian Spirit

It would be equally unjust to condemn the original formation of an organized body as evidence of any sectarian spirit: it was effectively forced upon the apostles by expulsions from other Churches over which they had no control—they did not initially intend that any distinct body should emerge. Certainly, in some cases there were groups of members who welcomed the setting up of an independent body as giving cohesion to their witness and eventually providing forms of worship more acceptable than those in the Churches to which they had formerly belonged. It remains true, however, that it was the rigidity of attitude of others which largely brought the Catholic Apostolic Church into being as a structured entity. It is doubtful if such rigidity would be so much in evidence today.

The original message of the apostles had been a universal one addressed to the whole Christian Church, and one sincerely believed to be the work of the Holy Spirit. There is no trace of any sectarian intention in their writings or in the writings of those who followed them. The withdrawal of the message was the result of its rejection by the Church at large. Any sectarian tendencies which may be perceived during the later years of the body were the result of the unsought isolation of a community of Christians who had never themselves sought separation from the Church Catholic—indeed the (p.465) very opposite—and who, after the demise of the apostles, had finally been forced into a form of Congregationalism which inevitably invited the growth of individual opinions and inter-congregational disagreements. It is a tribute to the teaching disseminated within the body that these have occurred so rarely.

4. Ethos and Tradition: Eastern or Western?

It may at first seem strange that the question of Eastern Orthodoxy should be raised at all in connection with a Church which was so much a product of the Western Christian milieu of the early nineteenth century. It must be remembered, however, that the Catholic Apostolic apostles claimed jurisdiction over the whole Church—Eastern as well as Western—and that they travelled throughout Christendom, observing the various Christian traditions, in order that nothing which they considered true and good should be omitted from the body which they were in the process of establishing. Having accepted the shortcomings of the Churches with which they were familiar, they were prepared to go out with open minds to learn from others. This should be contrasted with the attitude of some Anglicans of the time who believed that it was the duty of the Church of England to correct the corruptions of both Rome and Constantinople. The basic Catholic Apostolic concept of the conciliar nature of rule in the Church (though expressed in terms of a college of apostles) was in principle in accord with Eastern Orthodoxy, and the reasons given for rejecting the claims of Rome were precisely those of the Eastern Churches. Further, there were manifest Eastern borrowings in their liturgy which clearly prove that the apostles did not return from their travels to Orthodox countries empty-handed.

The aborted visit made to Russia—when attempting to present The Great Testimony to the Tsar—meant, however, that their experience of Eastern Orthodoxy was largely gained from the Greek Churches, and indeed the many references to the Eastern Orthodox Churches in Catholic Apostolic writings, with one notable exception, relate to the Greek and not the Slav tradition. The exception, a work of the present century—Herman Thiersch’s Unsere russischen Bruder (p.466) (Meier, 1932)—is devoted extensively to Russian Orthodoxy and is a most interesting study, though, on account of its late date, it is not of concern here. Of special interest is the typological assessment of the three main strands of Christianity, which sees Protestantism as the type of the diaconate, Roman Catholicism as the type of the priesthood, and Eastern Orthodoxy as the type of the episcopate.

Inevitably, much that is to be found in Catholic Apostolic theology and liturgy is common to both East and West. It is not surprising, however, that the apostles’ desire for a non-papal Catholicism together with recourse to Patristic sources should have involved what can be interpreted as moves in an Eastward direction. What is interesting is that extensive study of Catholic Apostolic writings repeatedly prompts the feeling that, even in the presentation of teaching which would be widely accepted in the West, there are undercurrents of emphasis on mystery, of the overriding significance of Easter and the Resurrection, of the acceptance that holy things transcend intellectual understanding, of the sense of the essential spiritual content of material objects, of the ultimate transfiguration of all creation rather than its destruction, of the fundamental importance of symbols, and so on—all of which are especially characteristic of Eastern Christianity, though by no means absent in the West. To develop the argument for any significant Eastern ethos it is necessary to clothe such feeling with specifics.


Eastern influence within Catholic Apostolic liturgy went far beyond the borrowing of prayers, as reference to Cardale’s Readings upon the Liturgy alone clearly shows. The theology of Eucharistic sacrifice and the real presence was precisely that of Eastern Orthodoxy, and thus avoided the controversies which had proved so divisive in the West. The insistence upon the need for the inclusion of the Epiclesis, the emphasis upon the role of the Holy Spirit, the refusal to accept the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation, the reluctance to speak of a ‘moment’ of consecration, the emphasis upon the spiritual ascent to the heavenly altar and upon Christ as Offerer and Offered, the understanding that it is the ‘spiritual’ that is truly ‘real’, all these things are equally emphasized in Eastern Orthodox writings. The incarnational basis of the sacramental theology in general, and the concept of the material world as essentially ‘spirit-bearing’, received (p.467) an emphasis corresponding to that given in Eastern Orthodoxy. The ‘sealing’, though not administered with baptism as in the East, had an underlying Eastern theological basis.

Much further liturgical convergence can be found, for example:

the insistence upon one Eucharist, one altar, and one principal celebrant on any one day;

the focus of Eucharistic worship upon Sunday and the Resurrection;

the absence of a ‘low’ eucharistic rite on Western lines;

the linking of the two major Offices with the Eucharist;

the two liturgical entrances during the Eucharist;

the inclusiveness of the Anaphora;

the breadth of the Intercessions (compare the Litanies of the Eastern Churches);

the restrictions upon what may be appropriately placed upon the altar (for example, not alms);

the form of the Commemoration of the Departed;

the Eucharistic interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer (though the location of it in the apostles’ rite was unique);

the admission of children to Holy Communion;

the use of a Presanctified rite on occasions other than Good Friday;

the Easter Eve Eucharist with its commemoration of the ‘hallowing of Hell’;

the theological basis of an Eastward-facing celebrant;

the form of priestly absolution following private confession (though the Russian Church has adopted a Western form).

All these things, amongst others, gave the Catholic Apostolic liturgical rites an Eastern ethos.

Man and Creation

The Catholic Apostolic perspective on Creation, man, and the Fall was also reminiscent of Eastern Christianity, displaying strong reservations about aspects of Augustine’s teaching, and, more particularly, about Protestant developments of it. Augustine, along (p.468) with Origen, was criticized for his over-allegorizing of Scripture also. Creation was seen as the first stage of God’s revelation of Himself and part of a revelationary plan of which the Incarnation was always to be a natural continuation, and of which the Parousia would be a culminating act.

The interpretation of ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ and the Trinitarian image within man (body, soul, and spirit) echoed the writings of Orthodox theologians, as did the warnings about the dangers of attempting to reach the truth through intellect alone or of ministering to the human person in only one of its threefold aspects: objections to psychology and hypnotism were examples of this. In studying Catholic Apostolic works, it is important to note that ψυχή (soul) was generally used in the Greek sense, and that ‘natural’ tended to mean ‘spiritual’, ‘ideal’, or ‘eternal’—thus the death of the body was said to be an ‘unnatural’ event, man’s ‘natural’ state not then being restored until his resurrection. Protestant emphasis upon personal salvation was rejected in favour of a cosmic viewpoint: man would be saved not merely within a community of the faithful (the Church) but as part of the totality of God’s creation.

The Catholic Apostolic emphasis upon the humanity of Christ—a ‘restoring of the balance’ rather than any new or revived Christological distortion—led them to a reverence for the human body, which (as with the Eastern Orthodox) made cremation abhorrent to them. Their theology of sexuality, and particularly their emphasis of man as the type of Christ and woman as the type of the Church, was in accord with Eastern views and would have made any proposal for the ordination of women seem a totally unacceptable departure from both Scripture and Christian tradition. The visible participation of women in the public ministry of the Church is today a reason for members to leave some Anglican parishes in which they have become accustomed to worship.

Divergences from Eastern Orthodoxy

Contrasting with the many aspects of convergence with Eastern Christianity detailed above, there were a number of points where traditional Eastern views and those of the Catholic Apostolics conflicted, and it is only right that these should also be noted.

Cardale included the filioque in the Eucharistic Creed, not accepting the arguments for its omission, though with a note stating (p.469) that its inclusion and its omission were not necessarily theologically incompatible. Indeed, while underwriting the original reason for its inclusion (protecting the divinity of Christ), he also gave it an interpretation which would be acceptable to most Eastern theologians by, at the same time, stressing that the Father is the unique source of the Godhead and emphasizing the role of the person of the Holy Spirit in all divine activity, thus removing some of the theological though not the historical ground of Eastern objections. Thus, it should be noted that the inclusion of the filioque was by no means entirely a ‘divergence’ from Eastern Orthodoxy.

The most significant divergence, however, is to be found in the Catholic Apostolic absolute rejection of prayer being addressed to the Saints. They saw such prayers as implying a rejection of Christ as the one mediator between God and man—this was only one of a number of points upon which the Catholic Apostolics exhibited great fear lest the unique role of the risen Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King should be in any way encroached upon. Nevertheless, they had a profound feeling for the Communion of Saints and a view of the state of the departed as those ‘asleep in Christ’ (with whom they remained spiritually united within the Church) much in accord with that of Eastern Christianity—for example, repudiating the Roman doctrine of purgatory. They accepted prayer for the departed (a matter of contention in the West), and also Veneration’ of the memory of the Theotokos and the Saints of both the Old and New dispensations (though without specific feasts dedicated to Saints other than All Saints’ Day). The Theotokos was commemorated at every Eucharist as a type of the Church. However, they did not accept that there could or should be direct access to the Saints through prayer, and they repudiated any doctrine of relics.

Although murals representing the history of the divine economy were permitted in Catholic Apostolic churches (as, for example, a visit to the former Edinburgh church will illustrate), there was a tendency towards iconoclasm and austerity in the adornment of their church buildings, and the erection of any form of screen, whether or not including icons, would have been contrary to their understanding of the architectural symbolism of places of worship—it was a fundamental principle that the arrangement of church buildings should include nothing which could be interpreted as restricting the laity’s access to the heavenly mysteries.

Also of significance is the Catholic Apostolic interpretation of the (p.470) Constantinian settlement as a sign of the Church’s adultery with the world—not a view with which Eastern orthodoxy would agree, since it holds Constantine as ‘equal to the Apostles’ and a great protector of the Church from heresy and schism. However, some Orthodox are tending to admit more openly that the settlement was something of a ‘mixed blessing’ and did indeed cause serious problems for the Church in that a ‘dilution’ of the faithful inevitably took place and worldly ambitions were more readily introduced amongst the hierarchy and other clergy. It is not possible, however, that the East should ever indict the settlement as totally as did the Catholic Apostolics.

Two further points of difference deserve mention here. First, the Catholic Apostolics followed Rome in understanding the Eucharistic bread of the Last Supper to have been unleavened Passover bread—for them leaven was considered to be symbolic of evil, as in ι Corinthians 5:8. (Despite their frequent references to the Greek text of the New Testament in other matters, no comment was made on the relevant word άρτος, universally used in the Synoptic Gospels and by St Paul in connection with the Last Supper.) Secondly, they were extremely rigid in the application of their ‘canons’, having no concept of οικονομία. Thus, for example, whilst they would (albeit reluctantly) countenance formal separation after marriage, in no circumstances whatever would they countenance divorce—those who availed themselves of the laws of the state in such matters were removed from the list of communicants. Such rigidity in pastoral matters was much more an inheritance from the West than from the East.

An Overview

It is obviously ridiculous to claim that the Catholic Apostolic Church was a ‘child’ of the East rather than the West. It is, however, equally ridiculous to see it solely as a Western body. As with the Eucharistic rite there were a number of things that were specifically Eastern and an underlying ethos which might well have made members of the body feel at home with much of the Byzantine rite of Orthodoxy, so in the theological works there was much specifically Eastern teaching together with an underlying approach which was by no means derived from Western principles alone. What can be said is that there was a blend of East and West, which, by avoiding the Western (p.471) proclivity to exhaustive definition and explanation, enabled doctrines which were often also to be found in both Roman and Anglican (especially Tractarian) traditions to be presented in a way which retained the Eastern sense of mystery and transcendence whilst avoiding the pitfalls of over-detailed formulation.

All this was in no small measure due to the considerable reference to Patristic writings and to a genuine openness to the breadth of Christian traditions. Catholic Apostolics would claim that, in seeking under divine guidance to perfect the Church, their apostles had been led by the Spirit to discern and bring together all that was good and true in the Churches of West and East—on this claim it is perhaps better not to attempt to pass final judgement. Nevertheless, study in depth of both their theology and liturgy does reveal much that is clearly derived from Eastern Orthodoxy and much more that is either specifically in accord with it or can be derived by extension from it.

5. Catholic Apostolic Witness Today

It would be easy simply to dismiss the whole short existence of the Catholic Apostolic Church as a temporary aberration in Church history, irrelevant now that the body has ceased to exist. This would be to accept, however, that it raised no matters of contemporary interest today and left behind no written legacy of any current spiritual or theological worth. Since neither of these last is the case, the question of its significance for Christians at the end of the twentieth century should be considered.


As the end of the second millennium since Christ is approached, it is virtually certain that eschatological and apocalyptic debate will again take on a heightened significance. There is much in the history of the Catholic Apostolic body and the development of its eschatology from which useful lessons may be drawn. The inevitable prophets of various (though mainly fundamentalist) backgrounds will now have (p.472) at their disposal the power of the mass-media, and apocalyptic debate will not be limited to sincere enquiring Christians as it was in the early nineteenth century—it may well become a dangerous tool in the hands of exploiters. No doubt, much that was investigated by the earlier students of prophecy will be represented, and it is important that Christians generally should be aware of the significance of the debates of the past as well as being armed with the insights provided by more recent biblical scholarship.

The Charismatic Movement

There is much in the Catholic Apostolic experience from an understanding of which the present-day charismatics could benefit, not least that man is so made that he needs more than a free and emotional approach to worship, that he can be deceived by what appear to be divine spiritual manifestations, and that the permanent ordinances and ministries of the Church are as important as charismatic experiences—they are neglected only at great spiritual peril. The gifts of the Spirit should be accepted if granted, not sought. It is important to appreciate also that ‘enthusiasms’ alone are no sound basis for Christian witness: Christian experience must involve the whole person, and not be directed disproportionately towards one aspect rather than another—least of all the emotions. It was the clear implications of the Catholic Apostolic experience for present-day charismatics that led L. Christenson to write his book, A Message to the Charismatic Movement (Minneapolis: Dimension Books, 1972).


There are several matters of value for the formal ecumenical movement, though much has already been learned from the dialogue between participating Churches. The Catholic Apostolics anticipated some of the current programme, whilst at the same time raising issues which do not yet seem to have been adequately aired if aired at all. Their acceptance that the Church in its widest sense comprises all the baptized remains an important starting point for ecumenical dialogue; doubters would gain much from a study of the theological and practical reasons which were given for this acceptance, since it is important that it should have a sound theological basis.

(p.473) Those specifically concerned with problems associated with Eucharistic doctrine—which are largely of Western origin—should study Catholic Apostolic solutions, remembering that these were acceptable within a body of almost exclusively Protestant origins. Those concerned with liturgy should search through the riches of that of the restored apostles, noting the wide commendation which it has received from the few who have studied it; in particular, the need for an eschatological dimension and a sense of mystery should be recognized. The Catholic Apostolic Eucharist and its underlying theology represented a fusion of East and West that has not been realized in the same way elsewhere.

Those concerned with the recognition of ministries might consider abandoning the traditional somewhat negative and formal concept of ‘validity’ and make a study of the Catholic Apostolic rite of Confirmation of Orders and the positive theological approach underlying it. It provides a middle way between total acceptance of all ministries and the rejection of many, neither of which alternatives is ever likely to prove acceptable to the Churches—it has not been seriously considered since the time of the reception of Arian clergy into the Church.

It might well be wise to consider whether the present quest for unity is not too much based upon the efforts of man. The Catholic Apostolics were led to the conclusion that this kind of unity requires divine intervention—that it cannot be achieved this side of the Parousia. It can be argued also that too much time and effort is currently spent on ecumenical effort focused on ‘this world’, and therefore encouragement is needed to focus attention on man’s spiritual rather than on his material needs. Man’s hope needs to be directed more towards the Parousia, as an event to be truly hoped for, and as an event which must always be regarded as spiritually near. The Catholic Apostolic witness to the importance of the Parousia, and their examination of its scriptural background, should not be entirely lost to the Churches.

The Catholic Apostolic arguments in favour of comprehensiveness—of attempting to bring together what is true and good from every Christian tradition—provide a better starting principle than attempts to find a lowest common denominator of faith and practice upon which the greatest majority can agree. The apostles realized the need to experience the different Christian traditions of worship and to search in patristic writings for an understanding of the tradition of (p.474) the early Church. They approached both with open minds, seeking to move towards perfecting the Church and, in so doing, were prepared to abandon much of their own previous personal ecclesiastical experience.

The history of the Catholic Apostolic body raises the whole question of the nature and role of the prophetic ministry within the Church—this needs extensive ecumenical debate; it is not a peripheral matter but one of fundamental importance. Its experience throws light upon many of the problems which can be raised by the presence of prophets within the Church.

The Catholic Apostolic understanding of man and the need to ensure the availability of comprehensive pastoral care should be considered. Whilst their fourfold ministry may well not be appropriate today, there is significance in the belief that no one person can or should attempt to exercise the whole ministry of Christ. The recognition of the bishop as the head of the local Church and the ‘normal’ celebrant of the Eucharist is also a matter which should be re-examined and its implications considered, especially by episcopal Churches, as is the question of the role and significance of deacons and how they should be selected.

The Catholic Apostolic doctrine of sexuality and their view of the role of women in the Church, though obviously likely to be most unpopular in many quarters today, was nevertheless grounded in an understanding of the importance of symbolism in the Church which should not be disregarded.

In the matter of Church economics, the question of tithing as a Christian obligation should be given serious consideration. This was extensively investigated and carefully argued by the Catholic Apostolics, and their writings on it should be studied.

The Catholic Apostolic view of the divine calling of the Jewish people and the concerns about Islam may well have a contribution to make to the current debate on inter-faith relations. In particular, Christian-Jewish dialogue is continually affected by the existence of Christian missionary activity directed specifically at Jewish conversions. The arguments put forward for regarding such activity as inappropriate—be they valid or not—at least deserve study. Should they prove acceptable, a difficult problem would be resolved.

Although much modern biblical exegesis has little in common with that of the Catholic Apostolics, it is nevertheless important that typology should not be entirely neglected, for it provides not only an (p.475) important link between the Old and New Testaments but also insights into early patristic understanding of the Jewish Scriptures. Nowhere has typology been more profoundly discussed and ultimately presented than at the prophetic conferences held at Albury and in the writings of the apostles and their adherents. Much can be learned from an ecumenical study of these works.

Finally, the question of the restoration of apostles throws into prominence the nature of ultimate authority in the Church under Christ—probably the most difficult area of debate for the whole ecumenical movement. The solution presented by the Catholic Apostolic apostles is not one likely to find general favour, especially as it runs contrary to today’s democratic trends. Nevertheless, the fact that such a solution was seriously initiated by educated and sincere Christians suggests that there may well be aspects of the restored apostolate of relevance today—not least that it represented the principle that those in authority in the Church need to be recognized by the Church as being inspired by the Holy Spirit. The only authority which can find universal acceptance within the Church is one which clearly reflects the authority of Christ as Head, and which at the same time does not represent any usurpation of that authority.

The Uniqueness and the Comprehensiveness of the Apostles’ Witness

The various matters raised above by no means exhaust the ways in which a study of the Catholic Apostolic witness might have relevance for today, though it is not suggested that it is necessarily the only or even the principal source related to them. It is true, however, that the combination of theological ideas to be found in Catholic Apostolic writings is unique, and that their fusion into a comprehensive body of theology is in itself an achievement deserving of note.

Catholic Apostolic works cover the whole spectrum of Christian theology and worship from a viewpoint which can be described as thoroughly theocentric, anthropocentric, and geocentric. Their scholarship may be dated in many ways and the method of biblical interpretation currently out of favour, but there is a wealth of fundamental Christian teaching to be found in their works, often expressed in terms and from principles of great value which are in danger of being forgotten. Again there is a wealth of spiritual writing (p.476) of great beauty and deep understanding, which, even today, can shed light upon questions with which mankind must always be faced.

There is also much material deserving of serious research—theological, historical, sociological, and perhaps psychological. It is therefore much to be regretted that Catholic Apostolic primary sources are so scarce and difficult of access, and becoming increasingly so. It is to be hoped that, while there is yet time, further work will be undertaken to open up this quite remarkable chapter of Church history, now concluded, in which there came into existence a body which claimed to be neither a Church nor a sect, but which (against its principles) became an organized Church and which, throughout its existence and its eventual decline, exhibited a faithfulness and a holiness which compels great admiration.