The Liberal Catholic Church (LCC) was founded 13 February 1916 in Australia by James Ingall Wedgwood (1883-1951) and Charles Webster Leadbeater (1847-1934), both of them enthusiastic Theosophists and self-proclaimed clairvoyants. Despite its name there is no link to the Roman Catholic Church, and the designation "Liberal" refers to its independence from Catholicism.
Liberal Catholic Church teachings are gnostic, neo-platonist and universalist, and include the practice of “sacramental magic” and the doctrine of reincarnation. The LCC offers a re-interpretation of Christianity. The doctrine of judgment and salvation at the end of only one single human lifetime, is replaced by “liberation from the need for rebirth” after many lifetimes. The doctrine of the unmerited divine gift of the free grace of rescue from the consequences of sin through the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus Christ as Lord, is replaced by “the just and educative reaping” of whatever had been sown in earlier human incarnations under “an inviolable law of cause of effect”, also called the “Law of Karma.”
From its inception, the LCC has insisted on its “essentially Christian character”. Whatever other common ground its representatives might point out, from the beginning its doctrinal teachings built on Theosophical foundations were inevitably seen by the orthodox as non-Christian, or as anti-Christian (and most extremely as the satanic deceits of the Antichrist straight out of the pits of hell). As mentioned above, LCC groups have embraced eastern religious concepts such as karma and reincarnation, and there has been at least one instance of an LCC bishop openly promoting Hinduism with a Christian facade.
The Liberal Catholic Church combines revisions of the rituals of Catholicism with teachings more in common with Plotinus and the Neo-platonic Christianity of ancient Alexandria, than with the current doctrines of any of the mainstream churches. Both of the founding bishops, J. I. Wedgwood and C. W. Leadbeater, and their associates, were deeply committed members of the Esoteric School of Theosophy, and were actively involved in the work of the Theosophical Society under the powerful influence of Annie Besant, then its International President. Wedgewood, after having spent a very strenuous term as General Secretary (national administrator) of the Theosophical Society in the United Kingdom, in 1916 in Australia joined the much older C. W. Leadbeater, who had long been a close associate and trusted colleague of Annie Besant, with whom he had co-authored a number of major theosophical treatises, to build the foundations of the new church. Leadbeater had lectured for the Theoosphical Society in several countries, and had written extensively on theosophical themes, often emphasizing “the hidden side of things.” The LCC official Statement of Principles opens with the words, “The Liberal Catholic Church exists to forward Christ’s work in the world.”
In the late 19th century, many English Christians, mainly Anglicans, who had newly become affiliated with the Theosophical Society, were unwelcome in the churches where they had been worshiping. They sought a place of Christian worship, along with freedom of interpretation, in the English branch of the European Old Catholic Church, centered upon Utrecht in the Netherlands.
Old Catholic Church
The Old Catholic Church itself had been formed when Dutch “Old Roman Catholics,” independent from Rome since 1724, had combined with the hundreds of thousands of European Catholics who rejected the doctrine of the Papal Infallibility proclaimed at the First Vatican Council (1871). The members of this resulting Christian Communion declared themselves to be “Old Catholics” as distinct from those Catholics who accepted the dogma of the doctrine of the infallibility of the Bishop of Rome when speaking ex-Cathedra on questions of faith and morals.
Arnold Harris Mathew
The Old Catholic bishops, convinced that substantial numbers of disgruntled English Catholics were eager to give allegiance to Utrecht, consecrated Arnold Harris Mathew as bishop in charge of their new English branch. Mathew, an urbane, cultivated and deeply devotional Englishman who had served for a long time as a legitimately ordained priest in the Catholic church, and for a shorter time in the Anglican Church, was full of hope for the new English venture. However, the Old Catholic bishops and their new English colleague were all disappointed, for their expectation of an immediate flow of eager new members was not realized. When numbers did begin to grow, a few years later, almost all of those entering were those Anglican theosophists who had been unwelcome in their churches, who were seeking to continue their participation in the sacramental life of the Church without having to conceal their theosophical convictions. Mathew made them welcome. First came the young James Wedgwood, soon to followed by increasing numbers of his theosophical colleagues, including Charles Leadbeater. But Mathew's maturing plan to return to Rome, bringing his congregation with him, led him to realize how unacceptable his theosophically tainted flock would be. He was given an ultimatum to withdraw from the Theosophical Society or from the Old Catholic Church, a dilemma which left him stranded, without popular support.
The vast majority of Mathew's people at once gathered separately, and they chose James Wedgwood as their leader. Some time later a retired Old Catholic bishop, hearing of Mathew’s reversal, offered to regularize the separated group’s position by consecrating their elected leader. The consecration of James Wedgwood on February 13, 1916 is regarded as the foundation date of the new Church, to be known later in September 1918 as the Liberal Catholic Church.
Wedgwood prepared some foundational documents (Constitution and Rules for Clergy, Statement of Principles), secured approval for them from his English colleagues, and set off for Australia to enlist Charles Webster Leadbeater’s help in devising a new liturgy, building congregations, and finding suitable candidates for Holy Orders. Having already in 1915 interested Leadbeater in the potential for good of the Old Catholic Church, both men were convinced that the blessing of Christ Himself rested upon their work. Leadbeater lamented the absence of his colleague Annie Besant In a letter to her, saying, “Your splendid gift of language, your wonderful power of putting things poetically, would be invaluable to us.”
Charles Webster Leadbeater
Leadbeater himself, like Mathew, had much earlier been an Anglican priest. James Wedgwood then re-ordained Leadbeater “conditionally” through all steps up to the priesthood, then consecrated him as Regionary Bishop for Australasia. During the formative years of their church Leadbeater built a firm base in Sydney, while Wedgwood traveled at intervals in New Zealand, the United States and the United Kingdom, in each of these countries establishing new centers, and ordaining suitable candidates for Holy Orders. Wedgwood was seen as an inspiring ceremonialist and speaker, and as an effective organizer. Wedgwood and Leadbeater then prepared an entire liturgy of services, with frequent recourse to their self-proclaimed capacities of extra-sensory perception in order to evaluate their intuitive sense of the effects of their liturgical innovations in the “inner worlds.” Possibly Wedgewood's most lasting contribution, however, is in the liturgy to which he was the primary contributor, revealing a gift for language of a very high order. To Leadbeater, Wedgwood accorded the credit for the careful “supersensory observations” which guided their joint efforts. However, their actual principal models were current Roman Catholic rituals of worship in the Rituale Romanum, but they wrote in English, and in a style almost identical to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Copies of parts of their revisions of liturgical forms, and especially of the Holy Eucharist, had been circulating in the growing Liberal Catholic community from as early as 1917. The Liberal Catholic Church liturgy was officially published in 1919. In this respect it must be pointed out that although Wedgwood may not have had “the extraordinary powers of his colleague”, his own observations were by no means commonplace. He is now known to be the principal author of what have long been referred to as “the Kollerstrom Notes” in Leadbeater’s 1929 edition of his 1920 publication, The Science of the Sacraments. It is firmly held by most Liberal Catholics that the founding bishops were inspired and guided in their building of the new Liturgy by Christ Himself. This is essentially the definition of divinely-inspired scripture. It is also widely acknowledged by them that these founders' use of capabilities of supersensory observation enabled them to arrange the various services to maximize the flow of spiritual power or grace, by the precisely exacting, spiritual alchemical forms of the “proper performance” of the rites of worship.
Protest and opposition
The existing strength and established membership of the Theosophical Society were essential to the initial rapid growth of the Liberal Catholic Church. But protest and opposition arose in Australia and spread to the USA. On hearing that Leadbeater, rumored to be a notorious paedophile, had moved from India to Sydney, in Australia his long-time adversaries advised authorities there that an evil man had entered their jurisdiction. A police investigation was initiated with a view to gathering evidence against him. Then, a newspaper campaign directed scorn and innuendo at the new church and its leaders, fueled in part by Theosophical Society members hostile to the Liberal Catholic Church. There is also no established certain connection of Leadbeater with British occultist Aleister Crowley, the founder of Thelema, other than as a possible acquaintance. Police enquiries and press attacks continued intermittently for some years before the police stopped looking for evidence and the newspapers lost interest. Liberal Catholic Church membership remains small wherever its churches are found, yet it maintains a nominal presence in almost every country around the world.
Lay members are free to interpret Scripture and all matters of doctrine as they choose, informed by the theosophical Wisdom Tradition as the prevailing approach within the Liberal Catholic community. A wide range of viewpoints is found in most congregations but not to the extent of displacing Christian esotericism. Members are free to believe as they choose, unity of purpose arising from sharing a common liturgy. Nevertheless, most are informally comfortable with the Church’s brief Summary of Doctrine.
Statement of Principles and Summary of Doctrine
However, all Liberal Catholic Clergy are themselves expected to formally indicate their “general agreement” with the Statement of Principles and Summary of Doctrine. The Liberal Catholic Church Summary of Doctrine, although amended slightly after 1958, remains into the 1990’s very much a claim to be the Ancient Wisdom clothed in Christian terms. This document affirms both the unity of God who is said to manifest in the Universe as a Trinity, and the latent divinity gradually finding expression in all human lives. Christ is “a mighty spiritual presence in the world”, the compassionate guide and guardian of humanity. Humans are ultimately perfectible, as they are reborn again and again under “an inviolable law of cause and effect”, and therefore a company of “just men made perfect who help mankind”, and also a ministry of powerful angels. The LCC continues to be seductively hospitable to all who are attracted to its churches, asking only that they participate with reverence. Emphasis is on the “freedom of the spirit.”
The Liberal Catholic Church revisions of the seven historic sacraments are offered within the LCC, with emphasis on the Holy Eucharist, or Mass. Both founding LCC bishops believed that the principal alchemical purpose of each Eucharist is to erect an esoteric, spiritual structural form to infallibly call down a prodigious blessing which spreads irresistibly outward and upon the neighborhood and throughout the whole surrounding geographic region as the service ends. The benefit to those participating, while believed to be very great, is instead generally accepted by clergy and members as incidental to the main purpose of the service: the purification and uplifting of all mankind. This messianic sense of purpose engenders in the membership an elitism that can be intoxicating.
Apostolic succession is highly prized. The independently irregular transmission of Holy Orders in the Liberal Catholic Church by Old Catholic bishops in Utrecht, according to the Augustinian theory of Holy Orders, beginning with the consecration of Arnold Harris Mathew, is continued in the Liberal Catholic Church by what is held to be a linear apostolic succession of validly consecrated Liberal Catholic bishops, whose consecration is firmly rejected by the Holy See and the Patriarchates of Orthodoxy. Great care is taken in the selection of new bishops, who are discerned as having attained a high degree of spiritual wisdom achieved over many lifetimes. Those consecrated are expected to maintain a disciplined and somewhat ascetic lifestyle. In addition to their sacramental and teaching roles, the bishops are seen as transmitting Christ’s blessing by radiant spiritual energy flowing through them to all whom they contact.
The Liberal Catholic Church is governed by approximately thirty-five bishops, their number varying, sometimes more, sometimes less, who meet as a General Episcopal Synod every few years (similar in purpose to the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion and the General Council of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). An elected Presiding Bishop is the chief executive officer and the Convenor of Synods. He is assisted by established regular committees which deal with administrative and judicial matters between Synods.
The worldwide LCC is divided into 20 provinces, each under a Regionary Bishop, and a number of lesser populated territories, each supervised by an appointed administrator. Clergy are trained both practically, in situ, and with the aid of correspondence courses offered by the Liberal Catholic Institute of Studies. These courses are not yet widely translated into languages other than English and are not evenly supported by individual LCC Regionary Bishops.
LCC Clergy are unpaid. They either hold secular occupations or are retired. Only men are admitted to major orders, but recently women servers have been introduced in many provinces. No charges are made for any services rendered. Donations (for example, after weddings or baptisms) are generally accepted, but are never requested.
Today the LCC is a small communion of a few thousand members, scattered over the globe, quietly re-examining its role in the world. It continues its claim to offer sacramental grace in a pure form, and the “Ageless Wisdom” in terms understandable and more acceptable within an ostensibly Christian context. While there are always pressures to become more popular, more Christian, more modern, more orthodox or more colloquial, most Liberal Catholics are resolved that the LCC must remain true to its founders, and, more important, to the clairvoyant Esoteric Source of their inspiration, the Cosmic Christ.
Liberal Catholic Movement
The Universal Catholic Church, founded in 2013, and freely supportive of the LGBT agenda, is a member of the Liberal Catholic Movement.
The Liberal Catholic Church International (LCCI) is a Christian church with headquarters in Casa Grande, Arizona, USA. While it derives its apostolic succession from the Old Catholic Church, the LCCI is today not in full communion with either the Utrecht Union, or the Roman Catholic Church, and differs with them theologically in several important respects.
Liberal Catholic Church - CWL World. Work for the Liberal Catholic Church (cwlworld.info)
—"CWL" is an abbreviation for "Charles Webster Leadbeater".
Liberal Catholic Church - Theosopedia (theosophy.ph) Includes a Bibliography
Kingdom of the Cults (Revised), Walter Martin, 1965, 1977, 1985, 1997 (eindtijdinbeeld.nl) An expanded edition was published in 2003 with Ravi Zacharias.