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Old Roman Catholic Church: The Middle Years

Revised:  18 January, A.D. 2002
St. Peter's Chair at Rome
St. Prisca, Virgin & Martyr


    The death of Archbishop Arnold Harris Mathew on December 20th, 1919 left the bishops of the Old Roman Catholic Church to reexamine the way in which they had been hoping to facilitate the return of High Church Anglicans to the Catholic Church.  Notably, Bishops Francis Bacon and  W.N. Lambert felt that they would be more successful re-establishing the Order of Corporate Reunion within the Church of England.  The two served as curate and vicar, respectively, at Saint Gabriel's Anglican church in South Bromley, and were available for the ordination of Anglican ministers with doubts about the validity of their Anglican Orders.

    On the other hand, Archbishop Bernard M. Williams, who remained at the head of the Old Roman Catholic Church, held that any hope of returning Anglo-Catholics to the Faith could not come to fruition in a church that was becoming more and more polarized into doctrinal factions, some of which were positively Protestant in character.  In Advent 1920, Archbishop Williams issued a pastoral letter suspending the late Archbishop Mathew's policy of validating the Orders of  ministers who wished to remain in the Anglican church.

    To further confirm that the Old Roman Catholic Church existed as a uniate rite, not desiring to be separated from the Holy See, at Easter of 1925, Archbishop Williams newly repudiated the errors of the Old Catholics, and committed his followers to accepting the decrees of the Council of Trent, the infallible pronouncement of the Immaculate Conception, as well as the decrees of the First Vatican Council.

    In 1939, Williams would further declare "We disclaim all pretensions to being in any sense 'a Church.'  We are simply a Rite within the Catholic Church.... the lineal descendant of the ancient Church of Britain."  The Catholic Church that sent missionaries like Saint Willibrord from the British Isles to the Netherlands and the low countries -- from whence the Faith would return after more than a millennium.  It was Williams who associated the titular See of Caer-Glow with the primate bishop of the Old Roman Catholic Church.1  Before his death on June 9th, 1952, Archbishop Williams, on several, occasions repeated the protestations of his forebears in the Netherlands, professing loyalty to the Catholic Faith and the Holy See, as did his successor, Archbishop Gerard G. Shelley, OSJ.

    As a priest and later a bishop, Archbishop Shelley had spent some time in America, where the Old Catholic influence was much stronger, for the missionary activities in the States had gone largely without the supervision of Archbishops Mathew and Williams.  Shelley was careful to distance himself from many of the myriad denominations that had sprung from the mission begun in America in 1915.  At least up until the time of Vatican II, Shelley was of the mind that the Old Roman Catholic Church had ceased to have a purpose separate from Rome and ought to fade away gracefully.

    During and after the time of Vatican II, Archbishop Shelley began to see a continued purpose in resisting the runaway changes of Catholic liberalism.  A linguist, a translator by profession, he insisted on the exclusive use of the liturgical books of Catholic tradition, and on their faithful translation where the vernacular was to be employed.  The current Constitution of the Old Roman Catholic Church reflects this concern, as well as the Archbishop's insistence on maintaining the tradition of  a Communion loyal to the authentic teachings of the Holy See:

    This ecclesiastical Communion constitutes the historic, canonical and unbroken Apostolic Succession emanating from the ancient Archdiocesan See of Utrecht, translated to other parts of the world and is known by the historic name first used in Utrecht, Old Roman Catholic.

    This Old Roman Catholic Communion is one in matters of Faith and Morals, de fide, with the Church established by Jesus Christ.  It embraces all such doctrine of the Apostolic See of Rome, and it condemns all heresies and other errors condemned by that same See.  {It accepts as Catholics those who share this doctrine and conduct their affairs accordingly.}2

    Archbishop Shelley died on August 24th, 1980, living almost long enough to see something of Archbishop Mathew's dream fulfilled, albeit under circumstances he deplored.  It was over fifty years from the time of Archbishop Mathew that the Holy See accepted and acted upon the principle of a "uniate rite," receiving married Anglican ministers and their congregations into the Catholic Church, ordaining the ministers, and allowing them the use of a quasi-Anglican liturgy "wrapped" around the core of Pope Paul VI's Novus Ordo.  Ironic indeed, in that these poor converts from Anglicanism now have a new set of questionable validities with which to deal. 


    1. Caer-Glow is the Roman place name, equivalent to the modern Gloucester.  Peter F. Anson suggests an ancestral connection of the city to the Williams family.
    2.  +Gerard G. Shelley, Constitution of the Historic and Canonical Old Roman Catholic Church, 8 September 1976, articles I and II.  The sentence in brackets was added in the 17 May 1986 revision as an attempt to promote unity with other traditional Catholics.


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