The Liberal Catholic Church came into existence as a result of a complete re-organisation of the British Province of the Old Catholic Church, See of Utrecht, by its then Presiding Bishop, Bishop James Ingall Wedgwood and his associates in 1916. The Old Catholic movement was a result of the refusal by several Church communities in Europe to accept the authoritarian decrees of the Vatican Council of 1870, including the doctrine of Papal Infallibility. Independent Dutch Catholics, in conflict with Rome, who refused them Bishops, were helped by Bishop Dominique Marie Varlet who had left Paris to take up a new post in Babylon. On his way through Holland he confirmed 604 Catholics before moving on. Deposed by Rome for this act of insubordination he returned to Holland and consecrated several Bishops, thereby establishing what is called the Old Catholic Church of Holland.
James Wedgwood, who was deeply interested in the Catholic presentation of Christian doctrine and worship, contacted Archbishop Arnold Matthew, head of the Old Catholic Church for Great Britain and Ireland, in 1913 and after being re-baptized sub conditione and given the Minor Orders, and those of Subdeacon and Deacon, was ordained as priest on 22 July 1913. Wedgwood made it known to Archbishop Matthew that he was a member of the Theosophical Society. Following this development, several other TS members were also ordained to the priesthood, thus forming a congregation of the Old Catholic Church in London. Archbishop Matthew, before he severed his connection with the Old Catholic Church, consecrated a new bishop, Frederick Samuel Willoughby, on 28 October 1914. In the following year Bishop Willoughby consecrated to the episcopate Robert King and Rupert Gauntlett on 25 September 1915. James Wedgwood was subsequently consecrated on 13 February 1916 by Bishop F. S. Willoughby, assisted by Bishops King and Gauntlett.
The Apostolic Succession, derived from the Old Catholic Church by Bishop Wedgwood at his consecration to the Episcopate, has been preserved with the utmost care. The Church has since developed as a completely new Christian denomination, having its own distinctive Liturgy and doctrine. Today, though numerically small, it exists in over thirty countries.
Sometime after his consecration Bishop Wedgwood travelled to Sydney, Australia, to take counsel with C. W. Leadbeater, a well-known clairvoyant, author and leading member of the Theosophical Society, who had resigned his position as an Anglican priest to go with Madame Blavatsky to India in 1884. Bishop Wedgwood reported that Mr Leadbeater ‘saw great possibility for usefulness in the movement and placed his services unreservedly at our disposal.’
Bishop Wedgwood consecrated C. W. Leadbeater to the Episcopate in Sydney, Australia, on 22 July 1916, and soon after that both Bishops started working on a revised Liturgy. Bishop Wedgwood explained that he was responsible for the wording of most of the forms of service in the revised Liturgy and that Bishop Leadbeater and he collaborated in the writing of the Collects, although the former was mainly responsible for them. Bishop Leadbeater selected the verses for the psalms and canticles as well as the passages serving for epistles and gospels.
Bishop Wedgwood added: ‘We agreed that in the work of revision of the Liturgy there should be no question of departing from the general outline of Christian thought and worship. Ours was a Christian church and we intended to keep it such. And we followed the general plan of the Roman Liturgy which had been in use in our Church and which we found to be the most suitable as a basis for our work.’
Their work of revising the Liturgy in the Old Catholic Missal and Ritual occupied much of the two Bishops’ time and effort during the following two years. In 1918 a small volume was published in London, containing:
The book was published under the name of The Old Catholic Church ‘for the use of English-speaking congregations of Old Catholics’.
The complete edition of the Liturgy was published in 1919, wherein the word Mass was replaced with Holy Eucharist. The structure used for the Holy Eucharist in the revised Liturgy followed the pattern of Tridentine Mass contained in the Roman Catholic Missal from 1570 to 1962.
A former Presiding Bishop of the Liberal Catholic Church, the Rt. Rev. Sten H. P. von Krusenstierna, writing about this important formative moment of the Church, said:
As in the case of the Liturgy and the other documents of the Church, the basic teachings of the new branch of the Catholic Church had by this time (1920) been given a definite foundation. In the space of about three years the two Bishops [Wedgwood and Leadbeater], between them, had accomplished what now seems an almost impossible task. For that reason they have not only earned the right to be called “founders” of the Liberal Catholic Church, but they have earned the deep gratitude of our own and all future generations of Liberal Catholics.
During that work Bishop Leadbeater wrote a letter to his co-worker and well-known writer and orator, Annie Besant:
We wish for your presence every day while we are working at the reconstruction of the Catholic Ritual. Your splendid gift of language, your wonderful power at putting things poetically would be invaluable to us. This thing ought to be done well – the Ritual of His Church, the only one combining the power of the ancient Church with a true theosophical expression of the real relation between God and man; all the great poets of the age ought to be working on it. . . .
Although a number of early members of the Church were also members of the Theosophical Society, it is important to note that there is no corporate or administrative connection between the two organizations which are completely independent bodies, pursuing their own work along their own unique line.
The new movement quickly spread to other countries thanks to several travels of Bishop Wedgwood. The name of the Church came under consideration at two different meetings of the Episcopate. Early in December 1917 Bishop Wedgwood called together a joint Clerical and Episcopal Synod in London. At this meeting recent criticisms of the English movement by the Archdiocese of Utrecht were considered. It was provisionally agreed that subject to the views of the Churches in Australia and America the official title of the church should be altered to the Liberal Christian Church (Old Catholic).
The matter of name of the Church came up again at a meeting of the members in Sydney, Australia, in 1918. Several suggestions were made and finally the name The Liberal Catholic Church, which Bishop Wedgwood preferred, was agreed upon. Hereby the new Church was officially detached from its parent body, while continuing through its Apostolic Succession to be a part of the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church of Christ.
In his Open Letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury (1920), Bishop Wedgwood presents the unique position of the Liberal Catholic Church in relation to other Churches. He says: ‘The Liberal Catholic Church has no wish to proselytise from among the adherents of any Church, and as an earnest of this welcomes all to regular and full participation in its services without asking or expecting them to leave their original Church. Its chief appeal is addressed to the thousands who, in these days of materialism and religious ineptitude, stand outside the existing Church organisations and religious societies, and are bereft of the help they could otherwise receive. Its congregations are mainly composed of men and women who had ceased to attend Church.’
The First General Episcopal Synod of the new Church was held in Sydney in 1924 and confirmed the election of Bishop Leadbeater as Presiding Bishop. Following the resignation of Bishop Wedgwood in 1922, who had experienced a health setback, the Synod approved the Constitution of the Church and the basic structure of the Church was thus completed, with the following official documents:
The Liberal Catholic Church has had a continuous presence in Australia since the consecration of C. W. Leadbeater to the episcopate in 1916.
The international monthly magazine of the Church, The Liberal Catholic, was started in October 1924 and the Australian national magazine is called Communion.