Open Episcopal Church

Open Episcopal Church

The Open Episcopal Church is a growing liberal Catholic denomination that calls itself "the small church with a big heart". It has bishops in England, Scotland and Wales and clergy across the country. It has ministered to hundreds of thousands of people and has over 20,000 members.

The church is a vocal and active champion of religious equality and was the first in Britain to ordain a woman bishop and to perform religious wedding ceremonies for gay couples.

The OEC is a member of the International Council of Community Churches which in turn is a member of The World Council of Churches and Churches Uniting with Christ.


In 1994, Revd Jonathan Blake, having been a priest within the Church of England for over 12 years, effected a Deed of Relinquishment, which severed his denominational ties. As an incumbent, he felt he had encountered the limitations of institutional ministry, and he left the Church of England in order to pursue his priestly vocation independently.

As an independent priest,[1] he offers sacramental ministry to all. In 1997, he wrote about these experiences in his book, For God's Sake Don't Go To Church.[2] The same year he nailed 95 theses [3] to the door of Canterbury Cathedral, for which he was arrested but not charged.

A lesbian woman from the North, who had read his book, arranged to meet him. She felt a call to ministry but had been rebuffed by the church over her sexuality and was interested in independent ministry. Following the meeting, Revd Blake placed an advert in the Church Times, inviting all those interested in such ministry to a conference the following March. Over 100 people contacted him, among them Bishop Richard Palmer,[4] who had been consecrated as a bishop of the Liberal Catholic Church in 1997 but who had resigned in April 1999. Together, they explored the need for a new ecclesiastical structure, simple, yet authentic, that could facilitate those deprived access to ordination by the traditional denominations. This structure would enshrine the principles of unconditional love and inclusivity.

Revd Blake wrote the Founding Principles[5] of the Society for Independent Christian Ministry (SICM), which was inaugurated by a group of Christians, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, in the Sanctum of the Holy Circle Trust,[6] near Ryarsh in Kent, at sunrise on 1 January 2000. It paved the way for a conference that was held in Dartford three months later, and the first ordinations into the Society which took place at the historic Hall Place in Bexleyheath. These first ordinations were simple, involving all the members present laying hands on each other. However, because a bishop was present, the question arose of whether these were episcopal or congregational ordinations. It proved to become a vexed question, as did the issue of homosexuality.

When the Society gathered in Preston, the following November, for the second gathering, the numbers attending had been swelled by two groups. Those from more catholic backgrounds, who were looking for Episcopal ordination and those from more evangelical backgrounds, some of whom found the presence of homosexual clergy unsettling. At Preston, the Society affirmed its belief that sexual identity was not an obstacle to ordination, and this caused some to leave. The debate about ordination proved more complex. It became clear that there was a need for an ecclesial structure, that mirrored the same principles of the Society for Independent Christian Ministry, but followed the apostolic threefold order of ministry. Bishop Palmer elected Revd Blake to the episcopate and he was consecrated in December 2000, a Bishop in the Province for Open Episcopal Ministry and Jurisdiction.

In February 2001, Bishop Blake conducted the first gay wedding blessing on Richard and Judy's prime time TV programme 'This Morning'.[7] It was cited as one of the 20 most controversial TV moments.[8] The Daily Mail published articles in which they referred to him as a 'self-styled' bishop. Bishop Blake issued a writ for defamation against Associated Newspapers International. The litigation lasted over two years. A preliminary hearing found that the articles could be deemed to be defamatory.[9] The defendant's appeal was rejected. Lord Justice Sedley judged "In brief, the legal fact that it is not for a court to say who is or who is not a true bishop does not necessarily mean the person can freely be called a false bishop. It may well mean the converse, namely that a person who has been consecrated a bishop, albeit not by the rites of an established church, is entitled at least to have that fact stated if a newspaper is to exercise its freedom to disparage him. Further, the newspaper takes the risk that if it does not do so, a jury may consider what it has published is neither justified in point of fact nor, so far as it is comment, fair or honest" and that 'There may be no obligation to publish the facts on which a comment is founded so long as..these can eventually be proved; but neglecting to do so creates the risk that the comment will be taken for fact.' [10] The court concluded finally that the issue was non justiciable as it could not rule on the validity of a bishop.[11] Associated Newspapers International had to pay a proportion of Bishop Blake's costs ( which were minimal, as he had represented himself ) and their own, which were considerable.

By the time the Society for Independent Christian Ministry met for the third time in Bournemouth, the discussions re ordination became vexed, with Bishop Palmer requiring those who had been ordained simply in Dartford to be ordained ‘sub conditione’ at this gathering in a full rite of ordination. This happened, but it set in motion a disquiet among some, that the simplicity of the Society for Independent Christian Ministry was being lost. Bishop Blake realised that, as well as the Society, a new denomination had to be founded and he set about writing the necessary Canons.

At Hazlewood Castle, Revd Michael Wilson [12] was consecrated a bishop by Bishop Palmer and Bishop Blake. Bishop Wilson had an evangelical background and had worked as an independent minister, founding the The Order of On Call Clergy. The three bishops then issued the Hazlewood Declaration on November 10, 2001 which facilitated the creation of The Open Episcopal Church ( which became known by the acronym OEC, which was to be, ‘Open to all without exception, loving, serving, accessible and relevant to our age.’ A church rooted in the Old Catholic Church, that was established in England In 1908 by Bishop Arnold Mathew from the ancient Archiepiscopal See of Utrecht and continued through the Liberal Catholic Church founded in 1916.

For the next year, the Society of Independent Christian Ministry and the Open Episcopal Church co-existed, but the differences between them made this untenable. At Liverpool, in October 2002, it was decided that they should separate, following similar paths, and containing many of the same people, but with two distinct approaches.

The first significant meeting of the College of Bishops of the Open Episcopal Church had taken place at Newman House in London in July 2002, prior to the above separation. The most contentious issue concerned primacy in the church. The canons did not provide for singular leadership. The church was to be governed by a College of Bishops. When 12 bishops had been consecrated they would elect three Archbishops who would form the Provincial Episcopal Synod and bear the ultimate responsibility for the Church. This was to emulate a trinitarian model of governance. Likewise in a diocese, three diocesan bishops would be appointed, so that power and authority would not be invested in one person, rather a community. However, while this had been agreed the previous year, Bishop Palmer wanted it changed to having a single primate.

The issue proved contentious. Bishop Blake was adamant a single primacy would prove problematic, but his concerns were accommodated in part, by a carefully worded proposal presented by Bishop Elect Revd Professor Elizabeth Stuart (theologian), based on an agreed compromise. This allowed for the election of a Primate. However it prescribed that the executive power of the Church was vested in the College of Bishops and not the Primate, that the College was not bound to submit to the Archbishop if they believed him or her to be in error and that the Primate was only elected for five years, after which they would not be able to stand again for re-election. Bishop Palmer was elected as Archbishop.

The next major event was the consecration of Bishop Stuart at the Royal Holloway Chapel of Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, The University of London, Egham in Surrey in April 2003. This was to be the first consecration of a Catholic woman bishop in the U.K. and news about it had provoked controversy. So much so that the University had been approached by various denominations to deny the church use of the chapel. One denomination had threatened to withdraw funding from the Chaplaincy, should the service go ahead, though the threat was not carried out.

The first Congress of the Church was held at the All saints Pastoral Centre in June 2004 when it experienced the significant juxtaposition of Bishop Elizabeth Stuart concluding a Mass in the chapel with Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor the Archbishop of Westminster, watching from the pews, awaiting the start of the Mass he was taking afterwards. The Congress attended also the graveyard of the Parish Church at South Mimms where Archbishop Arnold Harris Mathew is buried.

The College of Bishops met at Weston Manor in Oxfordshire the following January. By then the church had received a number of requests from abroad, to provide oversight to fledgling churches. A College of Cardinals was inaugurated, made up of the four existing bishops, to whom the vision of the Open Episcopal Church was entrusted. This was to safeguard the church from new bishops, appointed from abroad, being able to vote within the College of Bishops, to influence the church away from its core vision, However, other problems were emerging. The first involved the newly ordained, leaving for other jurisdictions. The second, the increasing focus of a catholic cultural approach to the churches life, promoted by Archbishop Palmer. Bishop Wilson resigned from the Church. He came from an evangelical perspective and felt he had to leave to continue his own missionary work.

In May, 2005, Revd Dr M Graham Blyth, an Anglican Incumbent, devoted his Sabbatical to writing Beyond the Fringe - a study of radicals who are remaking the Church which included an interview with Bishop Blake about the Open Episcopal Church.

The second Congress was held at Whaley Hall in Whaley Bridge in the summer of 2005 and in the October, Revd Roger Whatley [13] was consecrated a Bishop, in the Chapel of the Ammerdown Conference Centre.

The next crisis arose as Archbishop Palmer approached the end of his five year term as Archbishop. He wished to continue, but the church, at variance to its origins was becoming less eclectic, more focused on issues of catholic rectitude and reliant upon concepts of authoritarian leadership and expected obedience. In addition, Archbishop Palmer had other personal pressures with which he was dealing. The Liberal Catholic Church Corporation had taken out action in the High Court against him and he had taken out an action against Bishop Wale and the Liberal Catholic Church Corporation in the Portsmouth County Court. Neither action was to prove effective, but the litigation placed strain upon him.

The College of Bishops met at the Parish Church of Southampton in January 2006. Archbishop Palmer’s proposal to remove the requirement for him to stand down after his five year term was not agreed. He sought to usurp control of the Church as Archbishop, away from the College of Cardinals, and threatened to withdraw Holy Orders from those who resisted him. He issued an Interdict of Impaired Communion against Bishop Blake and sought to gain the support of the clergy to disassociate from him. Bishop Elizabeth Stuart, on behalf of the College of Cardinals, issued an Ad Clerum stating that Archbishop Palmer had no authority to issue the Interdict and called on the clergy to reject it. It became clear that the majority of clerics supported the College of Cardinals, recognising that they were acting within the Canons of the Church. On February 7, 2006 Archbishop Palmer withdrew the Interdict of Impaired Communion against Bishop Blake and left the Open Episcopal Church. Some clergy went with him, including Bishop Whatley, to found a new church, the Reformed Liberal Catholic Church, which fragmented shortly afterwards.

Bishop Stuart became the new Archbishop and the church gathered for Congress at the Abbey Community at Sutton Scotney in June. One issue remained a problem. How could the more catholic members accommodate the Open Episcopal Church’s more ecumenical approach to worship and church life generally? Bishop Stewart and a few others, decided that this was something they could not reconcile and left on good terms. Bishop Stuart was appointed the Archbishop of the Province of Great Britain and Ireland of the Liberal Catholic Church International. The Open Episcopal Church had reached a watershed. It had a distinct identity and it had to stabilise. Bishop Blake was the remaining Bishop in the church.

He revised the canons [14] seeking to craft a model of authority that combined a singular and communal approach. As such the revised canons allowed for the role of Archbishop, but one that remained answerable to the Bishops and clerics of the church who, in extreme situations, could take action to unseat the occupant. On September 5, 2006 the revised Canons were promulgated and Bishop Blake was elected Archbishop unanimously by the clerics of the church. The clerics were required to sign a three year loyalty pledge, all new priests and deacons to sign a 5 year pledge and all bishops a 10 year pledge. This proved a successful approach and the church since has been stable and consolidated its growth.

Over the next six months, Bishop Blake travelled to Scotland to consecrate Bishop David Gillham at Falkirk United Reformed Church, to Southampton to consecrate Bishop Sheila Wharmby at the oldest parish church of St Julian, Southampton and to the chapel at Ammerdown, to consecrate Bishop Stewart Harrison. At all of these consecrations Bishop Roger Whatley assisted and at some Bishop Elizabeth Stuart attended. Bishop Shelley Harstad-Smith was consecrated at Caerphilly Castle.

In 2008, the Open Episcopal Church became a member of the International Council of Community Churches and through them, a member of the World Council of Churches and Churches Uniting in Christ.

The Church came to national and international attention through the wedding blessing Bishop Blake conducted for Jade Goody and Jack Tweed,[15][16][17] through interviews broadcast after Jade Goody's tragic death,[18] through the prayer released before Jade Goody's funeral,[19] through Bishop Blake's response to Sir Michael Parkinson's criticism of Ms Goody,[20][21][22] through the launch of Post the Host,[23] an outreach provision of distributing the consecrated Hosts by post.[24][25][26][27][28][29][30][31] and through Bishop Gillham leading the prayers in the Scottish Parliament.[32]

Following Jade Goody's wedding, The Rev Christopher Woods, Chaplain and Director of Studies in Theology at Christ's College, Cambridge called upon the Church of England to speak out against Bishop Blake and the Open Episcopal Church. The Church of England declined to comment.[33]

In 2009, the church also gained international coverage when Archbishop Blake was arrested for photographing his sons,[34][35][36][37][38] reading on the roof of his house, for a school competition. He was later released without charge, although he alleged police violence and malpractice [39][40] during his detention and later established When No One's Watching [41][42] and has since been appointed an Independent custody visitor.

Bishop Blake contributed to the book A strange Vocation - Independent Bishops tell their stories [43] in 2009 as well as having contributed liturgical material to Geoffrey Duncan's anthology 'Courage to Love'[44] and Leanne Tigert & Maren Tirabassi's compilation All Whom God has Joined [45]

The church is detailed in the UK Christian Resources Handbook and their on line comprehensive directory of Christian resources.[46] The church is often profiled and provokes reaction.[47][48]

Revd Mark Townsend is the second Church of England cleric to join the Church.[49]

The core vision of the church is encapsulated in the scripture: ‘There is no Jew or Greek, servant or free, male or female: because you are all one in Jesus Christ.’ [50] Unity, equality and diversity sit at the heart of the life of the church. This inclusive principle governs the Open Episcopal Church. Holy orders are open to all irrespective of gender or sexual identity. The Church blesses alike the unions of heterosexual couples and those of other sexual identities. All are offered the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, whatever their age or belief or philosophy.

Some of the clerics are itinerant after the apostolic model, bringing the sacraments into people’s homes, gardens and community centres, baptising children and celebrating marriage in ways accessible to ordinary families. The church does not require adherence to a particular interpretation of the Christian tradition. It regards religious language as negotiating mystery, acknowledging that no story, doctrine or culture can adequately encompass the divine. Freedom in thought, in worship and in ministry is encouraged.

The social concern of the church prompts it to work with the homeless, support development projects, care for addicts, help rehabilitate offenders, run mental health projects, stop as ‘Good Samaritans’ to help those with roadside troubles. The Open Episcopal Church does not define the church just as a local worshipping community or as an organisation, but as the life of God abroad throughout society and within all people. It regards all as playing their part in the quest towards God and all who work for good are welcome as members. The Open Episcopal Church wishes to be open to the Holy Spirit’s ingenuity, to remodel form and structure, so that the vital inheritance of Christianity is not lost for this generation.


  1. ^ The Independent - on 'Country's first freelance vicar'.
  2. ^ For God's Sake Don't Go To Church ISBN 0 85305 446 0 Published by Arthur James.
  3. ^ 95 Theses
  4. ^ Bishop Richard Palmer
  5. ^ The Founding Principles
  6. ^ The Holy Circle Trust. Charity Number 1066062
  7. ^ BBC News - Gay Wedding on Richard and Judy
  8. ^ 20 Most controversial TV moments
  9. ^ March 1st 2002 His Honour Judge Previte - The High Court JS/01/0206
  10. ^ July 9th 2002 Lord Justice Sedley - The Court of Appeal A2/2002/0552
  11. ^ The validity of a bishop
  12. ^ Bishop Michael Wilson
  13. ^ Bishop Roger Whatley
  14. ^ Revised Canons
  15. ^ Jade Goody's Wedding
  16. ^ Daily Mail - Goody's wedding
  17. ^ Damian Thompson's blog
  18. ^ Talk Talk News Interview
  19. ^ Prayer for Jade
  20. ^ Sky News - criticism of Jade
  21. ^ Daily Telegraph - criticism of Jade
  22. ^ Daily Mirror - criticism of Jade
  23. ^ Post the Host
  24. ^ Guardian article on Post the Host
  25. ^ Guardian comment on Post the Host
  26. ^ Daily telegraph on Post the Host
  27. ^ Ship of Fools
  28. ^ Washington re Post the Host
  29. ^ Diocese of Pittsburgh - Post the Host
  30. ^ Religious News Service blog
  31. ^ Off my Chest - blog
  32. ^ Prayers at the Scottish Parliament
  33. ^ Revd Woods criticism
  34. ^ Daily Mail - Arrest
  35. ^ Reuters - arrest
  36. ^ Ferrari Press Agency Photographs
  37. ^ Sky/Global News - arrest
  38. ^ The Namibian
  39. ^ Sunday Times - alleged violence
  40. ^ Newsshopper - alleged violence
  41. ^ When No One's Watching
  42. ^ Sky News When No Ones Watching
  43. ^ A strange Vocation - Independent bishops tell their stories ISBN 1933993758 Published by Apocryphile Press
  44. ^ Courage to Love ISBN 082981468X Published by The Pilgrim Press
  45. ^ All Whom God has Joined ISBN 0829818383 Published by The Pilgrim Press
  46. ^ UK Christian Resources Handbook
  47. ^ The blog - Pluralist Speaks
  48. ^ Catholic News India
  49. ^ The Shropshire Star - on 'Priest abandons Church of England'.
  50. ^ Bible - Galatians 3:28 ]

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