Founders of Free Catholicism

We are seeing a patchwork quilt of liberal groups grow around the country, sometimes in response to the dogmatic stance of some Churches. Some of these groups are for discussion only, and allow a liberty of thought that is missing in the churches and so allows an individual to carry on church involvement yet talking to others about what they really think. For others these groups are their last, or their only, religious involvement.
Some people move to the Quakers of Unitarians. This can be successful, or the Quakers practise near silence and the Unitarians produce a spirituality that seems for many to be thin. It is a stark Protestantism, a Puritan shadow, when this is again the age of the image and the eclectic via the postmodern. In worship the imprecise sign, a sense of mystery, is wanted, without the clutter of literalism. At the same time, thought needs to be free, from using biblical criticism to the active use of critical insights in other faiths.
Somehow we need to combine the pathway of a faith with free thought. It does mean that liturgy and theology are not the same. Liturgy does involve a spiritual path and has a consistency to it, but whilst it deals in received traditions it does not deal in contemporary thought. It can shape the debate of thought, or provide topics of thought, but whilst it has a theology is not theology in full. In the other direction, whilst contemporary thought can be placed into worship, the nature of religion as old, traditional, repetitive, recognised, comforting and of a mystical world view means that it is bound to retain the museum of forms of the past in terminology at least to some extent. This is as much true of the Unitarian language of worship as it is of the trinitarian.
These issues have been understood before now. They are issues of attempting to incorporate the disenchantment of thought and the re-enchantment of religion. Two contemporary to one another Unitarian community figures tackled this problem at the beginning of the twentieth century. Arguably they are the Founders of Free Catholicism.
This was at the time of the triumph of biblical criticism and the development of an invented tradition of English Presbyterianism, a once "parish" orientated Presbyterianism without the Puritanism of its past, an evolved faith of believed simple core Christianity yet with a use of more elaborate, symbolic and conservative liturgies. Free Christianity was a sort of mystic Unitarianism, coming after romanticism and was a recovery and development of rich spirituality away from the coldness of the chapel and the denominationalist's rationalism. It was ecumenical in character.
The centre of this approach was Oxford. This was the Oxford of James Martineau and then L. P. Jacks, both Principals of Manchester College. This was the Unitarianism that was anti-denominational, and enjoyed good relations with some radicals of the Anglican Broad Church. One person in Oxford developed this much further, and another in Wales, Nottingham and then Birmingham carried out the same policy as Manchester College Oxford, refusing to be part of the merger of the (say non-denominational English Presbyterian) National Conference of Unitarian, Liberal Christian, Free Christian, Presbyterian and Other Non-subscribing or Kindred Congregations with the denominationalist British and Foreign Unitarian Association.
Two men bridged the Protestant and the Catholic. The first, Ulric Vernon Herford, produced one strand of Liberal Catholicism that was different from the later Theosophical connected strain that developed out of Old Catholicism. The second, Joseph Morgan Lloyd Thomas, produced a Free Catholicism but, unlike W. E. Orchard, his congregationalist colleague, never crossed over to Roman Catholicism. J. M. Lloyd Thomas did declare himself a trinitarian even if he rejected Orchard's move into Roman Catholicism. J. M. Lloyd Thomas also did not become episcopally ordained (yet called himself a priest), whereas Ulric Vernon Herford was consecrated bishop and it was he who went on to ordain W. E. Orchard.
These two can be called the fathers of Free Catholicism - if one wants to make a distinction between what they produced and the Liberal Catholicism that came from the encounter with Theosophy.
Ulric Vernon Herford came from a family of Unitarian ministers. Father was William Henry Herford born 20 October 1820 in Coventry who ministered between 1848 and 1854. He died on 27 April 1908 at Paignton. Brooke Herford was born 21 February 1830 at Altrincham and ministered from 1851 to 1901. Robert Travers Herford was born 13 March 1860 at Manchester and ministered between 1885 and 1925 and died in 1950. It can be said that theology died with him: George Chryssides mentions no one afterwards (1998). The third and youngest brother Ulric Vernon Herford himself was born 16 November 1866 in Manchester and died 15 August 1938.
He went to the Unitarian founded Owen's College, Manchester (it became the University of Manchester), from 1886 to 1889. This was the city of the denominationalist strain, but Ulric Vernon Herford then went to Manchester College, Oxford (moved in 1889 from London), which was of the broader Free Christian tradition. He clearly went further than this, because he spent a year from 1891 at St Stephen's House, the Anglo-Catholic theological college in Oxford.
He was obviously comfortable with both Unitarian and trinitarian forms because his The Hymnal in 1892 contained unitarian and trinitarian hymns.
His theology, however, subverted strict trinitarian forms of liturgy. In 1915 he produced this doxology: "through the Only-begotten, Jesus Christ in holy spirit, through whom to Thee be glory and power...", Divine Service of the Lord's Supper According to Saint Sarapion Scholasticus, Oxford: 1915 (Plummer, 2005, 61, and Note 184, 180).
Then he took up standard Unitarian ministries from 1893, first at Kings Lynn for three years and then at Whitchurch. Clearly though he had the need to return to the academic and broader scene at Oxford in 1897. Manchester College had its own congregation (as it does today). He expanded out in 1898 when he founded the Ecumenical Order of Charity and opened a Unitarian Church in Percy Street about Magdalen Bridge on Oxford's east side called Church of Divine Love. He made it a monastic church and started the Order of the Christian Faith, but the Order could not sustain itself financially and folded within a year. However, the worship went increasinlgy up the candle. The church carried that Order name plus "- Liberal Christian Church" after he was made a bishop. From 1900 it published The Christian Churchman.
He argued in front of Unitarians that he had been developing a Church for all for the future, embracing all spiritual needs, with "sacraments of grace for the heart and will, and sermons for the intellect" (Stouder, 2004, 108). He wanted to grasp the core of Christianity, and thus he contacted what he regarded as the purest and most primitive branch of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, the Syro-Chaldean Church, writing often to Luis Mariano Suares or Mar Basilius, of Brahmin extraction, he noting a similarity between Unitarianism as he understood it and the Nestorian Church as he understood it, due to the Archbishop of Canterbury's Mission to the Assyrian Christians in 1886 four decades after the last massacre of them by Kurds. The key phrase attracting Ulric Vernon Herford was "the manhood is the face of the Godhead and the Godhead is the face of the manhood" (Stouder, 2004, 108). Herford sent his catechism to Mar Basilius, and wondered if he would come to England to consecrate two people to create a Church in England united with this Nestorian Church. Instead, Mar Basilius offered the episcopacy to Herford in India, and Herford recited the East Syrian Creed that he regarded as the only ecumenical creed in India and was ordained from Deacon to Bishop within a month.
On 21 November 1902 he was ordained Deacon, two days later was ordained priest, and on 30 November was consecrated bishop all by Luis Mariano Suares (Mar Basilius) - the first two at The Church of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, Dindigal, India, and then bishoped in The church of the Epiphany, Palithanam. Madura, India.  He was appointed Regionary Bishop of Mercia and Middlesex in what was made a missionary diocese of the Church of the East. This see later became known as the Evangelical Catholic Church.
He married Alice Matilda Skerritt (1854-1928) on 14 January 1907 who supported his work with the Anti-Vivisection Society in Oxford, but queried his religious affiliation and bishop status. She was an Anglican with some Free Church sympathies.
By 1907 his church had become simply the Liberal Christian Church. In 1913 it was purchased to be a Roman Catholic church and manse, and Herford was a wandering bishop.
Herford was often seen cycling around Oxford and pursued interests of animal welfare, social causes and pacifism. He and his wife had many cats. (Plummer, 2005, 30). He argued for the right to vote for women, called for investigations into child labour abuses in London, and opposed the Boer War in the teeth of mass support. He was a pacifist in the First World War and joined with the Society of Friends as well as the Fellowship of Reconciliation (a life member) and the Anti-Conscription Committee in Oxford. He worshipped in the cause of peace.
He became the ongoing source of many episcopi vagantes of many ideological varieties and shades, and the Evangelical Catholic Communion was adopted by a pro-gay Church in the United States that also took the Syro-Chaldean episcopal line, the Community of the Love of Christ, later a conservative split from this in 1968 taking the Communion name.
The developments of Herford and Joseph Morgan Lloyd Thomas were separate, but followed the spirit of the age at the time when the Victorian Gothic and Oxford movements were affecting non-conformist spirituality and having an impact of this form of Free Cahtolicism. Nevertheless paths did cross: Herford ordained Orchard in 1916. Orchard was a fully blown Catholic that led him from the Society of Free Catholics to Rome (the Church of England would not take him and his chapel in) whereas J. M. Lloyd Thomas retained a connection with his English Presbyterian past, regarding Richard Baxter (on whom he wrote heavily) as a moderate episcopalian. Extremities led to the Free Catholic Society collapsing, and Lloyd Thomas resigned from Birmingham New Meeting in 1932 to himself wander - but wander home to Wales.
Herford also met and befriended Arnold Harris Mathew, the Old Catholic bishop, and Herford approved of the Old Catholics and visited the Netherlands. He also supported French Catholic Modernism as expressed by George Tyrrell.
After the war he produced a Confession of Faith for the Evangelical Catholic Church. He wrote on Jesus Christ is the Sacrament of God. He became known at the Anglican Benedictine Community at Pershore Abbey, Worcestershire, and the Society of Jesus (even though it had a history of persecuting the Syro-Chaldean Church in India). He mixed with many. The Evangelical Catholic Church grew, with a mission at Burton-on-Trent in the 1920s, founded first by a layman, Ernest Cope, and called St. John's Christan Mission at Stapenhill. He consecrated W. S. McBean Knight as Bishop of Kent in 1925. Knight consecrated Hedley Coward Barlett in 1931.
His ecumenical stress continued until his death in 1938. The Catechism of Evangelical Catholic Doctrine for Christians who Refuse to Recognise Any Real Division in the One Great Church of Jesus Christ was published. This involved 173 questions and answers, and four creeds, the earliest being the Apology of Aristides (c. 150 CE). In 1934 he wrote an essay The Modern Value of Franciscanism in an hopeful attempt to revive the Order of Christian Fellowship, advocating worship, Christian communism, and real brotherhood among unmarried men as a means of evangelising by example.
Joseph Morgan (Lloyd - mother's maiden name) Thomas was born in 1868 (one of eight) and was brought up in Blaenwern, Llanarth, South Wales, going to school in New Quay and college in Brecon and becoming an articled solicitor in Pontypridd.  He died on 2 July 1955. He was one of three people who started Unitarianism in Pontypridd in 1892 and was its first secretary. He went to Manchester College, Oxford (the non-denominational Unitarian college) between 1894 and 1898, and went to minister at Liscard Memorial Church (Free Christian) in Chester and married the headmistress of Pontypridd Girls' School a year later. Then he went to the steepled High Pavement Unitarian Church, Nottingham, now the Lace Museum, between 1900 and 1912. In 1906 his direction was clear when he wrote a pamphlet Dogma or Doctrine?. Then he went to the Old Meeting House, Birmingham, from 1912, staying until 1932. Laurence Percival Jacks agreed with his open non-denominational Free Catholicism and W. E. Orchard developed Catholic stances, both leading him towards higher liturgical worship and views. In 1912 in a Pontypridd lecture he expanded ideas on a Free Catholic Church that he had published in 1907 influenced by Catholic Modernism but in which he wrote that religion should be "widely Catholic" but not even limited to Christianity (Short, 1968, 133). He wanted common worship but not agreement in belief, symbols to devotionally unite rather than creeds that theologically divide. In 1914 he was more specific and detailed, publishing Administration of the Lords Supper or The Holy Communion. In 1916 came Free Catholic? A Comment of the Rev. R.J. Campbell's 'Spiritual Pilgrimage', which allied him to New Theology, and he published and edited The Free Catholic up until 1927. Lloyd Thomas studied and wrote Reliquiae Baxterianae (his life's most significant work) on the Presbyterian Richard Baxter, regarding him as a moderate episcopalian and adopted and adapted his belief in a simple broad Church; in 1925 he published an abridged version adding an introductory essay, notes and appendix. He was further inspired by James Martineau, F. D. Maurice and Catholic Modernism. After keeping The Old Meeting House outside of the new merged General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, which involved an announcement that he was a trinitarian, he described himself as a Free Catholic priest with his Society of Free Catholics. There was even a Free Catholic habit and sandals-wearing Brother Douglas! Politically, the Society was socialist leaning and even Conrad Noel (of Thaxted) showed an interest. L. P. Jacks, the Principal of Manchester College Oxford, was a strong sympathiser with this movement and he kept the college outside the General Assembly. Lloyd Thomas put together A Free Church Book of Common Prayer (1929) that included the Nicene Creed, Psalms and canticles (from the Authorised English Version) and, for the first time, complete notation for intoning the Psalms and canticles, and included James Martineau's prayers. Unfortunately he had to fall out with W. E. Orchard when Orchard went to Roman Catholicism. He left Birmingham and returned to Llanarth, which meant reduced religious activity - he became more active in local affairs and in education including the importance of craft skills as well as academia, worried about the dehumanising of work (on a Weberian basis) and seeing the value of the rural.
He lectured on Toleration and Church-Unity at the Dr. Williams Lecture at Carmarthen Presbyterian College in 1941 and, if on a lesser scale than Herford, he had always wanted to unify the denominations. He was also as socially progressive as Herford. Although Lloyd Thomas became a Free Catholic he always held to a Free Christian background, via his understanding of the English Presbyterian inheritance, whereas Herford operated on a grander scale.
In looking for role models for a future for non-dogmatic but symbolic religion, I suggest that these two are of the highest calibre. They are rather overlooked and ignored by contemporary Unitarianism, because they were somewhat anti-institutional and thought outside the box, and went in the direction their views took them. They were both very socially progressive but also symbolic, and they were instinctively unifiers even if, because of the nature of institutions, they added to difference rather than reduced difference. In the Internet age the patchwork of liberalism can be woven with their influence.

Main Bibliography

Also see Free Catholicism and Liberal Catholicism

Stouder, Donald Bruce (2004), Along the Thomasine Path: Rituals, Readings and Resources for the Post Christian, Post-Denominational Follower of Jesus, Appendix D, Herford and Itkin Biographies, 107-111, iUniverse, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL:,M1, Google Books (selections of pages) [Accessed: Monday January 28 2008, 02:18]

Davies, D. E. J. (1926-1997) (2007) 'J. M. Lloyd Thomas', Welsh Biography Online, LlGC

Plummer, J. P. (2005), The Many Paths of the Independent Sacramental Movement, Independent Catholic Heritage Series, Berkeley, California: Apocrophyle Books.

Short, H. L. (1968), 'The Later History of the English Presbyterians - 9', The Hibbert Journal, Vol. 66, 263, July 1968, Oxford: Manchester College, 131-136.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful