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The Celtic Orthodox Church (COC) is a small autocephalous church which derives from the church formerly known as the Catholic Apostolic Church (Catholicate of the West) and, before that, as the Ancient British Church and the Orthodox Church of the British Isles (OCBI), which was constituted by the Syriac Orthodox Church to develop an Orthodox church in the Western (Celtic) tradition without recourse to its Oriental roots.
The Ancient British Church was canonically established with the consecration of Mar Julius (Jules Ferrette) in 1866 by Mar Boutros (Boutros ibn Salmo Mesko) who later became Patriarch Mar Ignatius Peter IV of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch.
However, as an autocephalous church, the Celtic Orthodox Church is not, and never has been, subject to the Syriac Orthodox Church nor is it in any way part of the Oriental Orthodox Church. It is Western Orthodox.
The Celtic Orthodox Church is neither Monophysite nor Miaphysite in theology. Its position with regard to the Ecumenical Councils might best be described as Pro-Chalcedonian, that is to say it accepts the teaching of all seven councils, but acknowledges that only the first three were truly ecumenical. The Celtic Orthodox Church, therefore, shares the Eastern Orthodox doctrine that Christ, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, is one Person with two Natures as defined at the Council of Chalcedon.
NB There are other groups who use the words 'Celtic' and 'Orthodox' in their titles. These are not the subject of this article.
In 1866, with the sanction of Patriarch Ignatius Ya'qub (Jacob) II of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch, Mar Julius (Jules Ferrette) was consecrated by Mar Boutros ibn Salmo Mesko) who later became Patriarch Mor Ignatius Peter IV of Antioch, and dispatched to form an indigenous Orthodox church in Western Europe, which was not in any way subject to the Syriac Orthodox Church or the Patriarch of Antioch. The consecration was witnessed by the British Consul at Damascus. Mar Julius was given the title of Bishop of Iona and its Dependencies.
An early leader was Richard Williams Morgan ("Mar Pelagius I") (1815-1899). The church adopted the name Ancient British Church and aimed at the restoration or re-creation of the form of Christianity that they believed existed in the British Isles) during the earliest centuries of the Christian era. Morgan was consecrated a bishop by Jules Ferrette (Mar Julius) on 6 March 1874. Morgan was designated as first patriarch of the newly formed church.
On 2 November 1897, three jurisdictions merged to form the Free Protestant Episcopal Church (full name: Free Protestant Episcopal Church of England). The three were the Ancient British Church (then led by its second patriarch, Charles Isaac Stevens), the Free Protestant Church (founded and led by Bishop Leon Chechemian) and the Nazarene Episcopal Church (founded and led by Bishop James Martin). Leon Chechemian was appointed first primus of the new church and he served in this capacity for three years until 30 December 1900, at which point he was succeeded by Patriarch Stevens.
The patriarch of the Ancient British Church and the primus of the Free Protestant Episcopal Church then coincided in Stevens and his successors until 18 May 1939 when Bishop Monzani-Heard appointed William Hall as primus of the Free Protestant Episcopal Church, but retained the role of patriarch.
On 23 March 1944, a deed of declaration under Monzani-Heard united the Ancient British Church, the Old Catholic Orthodox Church, the British Orthodox Catholic Church and the Independent Catholic Church into a single organization, to be called the "Catholicate of the West". On 28 March 1944, Hugh George de Willmott Newman was chosen as "Catholicos". He was consecrated and enthroned on 10 April 1944 as "Mar Georgius". Newman's family background had been within the Catholic Apostolic Church (the "Irvingites") and he was influenced by that movement.
At Christmas 1944, the newly formed Catholicate resolved to bring its ministry, organization, usages and worship into general agreement with the pattern and model of the Catholic Apostolic Church, and the catholicate adopted the new name "Catholic Apostolic Church (Catholicate of the West)" with a sub-title "Western Orthodox Catholic Church". The liturgy of the Catholic Apostolic Church was adopted, with a supplement. However, the Catholicate was fairly short-lived and was dissolved in 1953.
On 29 January 1945, Monzani-Heard resigned the office of British patriarch to Newman. An attempt was made in 1959 to revive the Catholicate of the West but this did not survive beyond January 1969.
The following are the patriarchs in succession:
In 1994, Abba (Mar) Seraphim, following negotiations with Pope Shenouda III, took the UK branch of the Catholic Apostolic Church into union with the Coptic (Oriental) Orthodox Church, taking the name British Orthodox Church.
The Breton members of the Catholic Apostolic Church, who, under Bishop-Abbot Mael, had been made party to the negotiations with the Coptic Church, decided against joining in the 1994 alliance with the Copts, considering that their mission to promote and develop Western Orthodoxy was better served in its independence.
Interestingly, BOC's alliance with the Coptic Church continued for 21 years until October 2015, at which time the BOC withdrew from the alliance, considering that in the light of changed circumstances its objective would now be better served by its independence.
Accordingly, the remaining bishops of the Holy Synod elected Mgr Mael (Paul-Eduard de Fournier de Brescia), consecrated in 1980 by Mar Seraphim, to be primate of the former French eparchy, assuming the name L'Église Orthodoxe Celtique (the Celtic Orthodox Church – officially the Celtic Apostolic Church) to indicate that its jurisdiction covered the area of the former Celtic missions.
In 2014, following the death of HB Metropolitan Mael, Mgr Marc (Jean-Claude Scheerens), consecrated in 1998 by Mgr Mael, was enthroned as primate of the Celtic Orthodox Church, having been elected by the Holy Synod.
When, in 1998, some of the UK clergy who had followed Abba Seraphim into the Coptic Patriarchate subsequently asked to join the Celtic Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Mael received them and the Celtic Orthodox Church in Britain was given the status of an eparchy or province.
In 1999, a new bishop/eparch, Stephen Robson, was elected and consecrated for Britain; he had been one of the British priests who had chosen to leave the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate.
In early 2007, the administration of the British eparchy came under the direct care of the primate when Bishop Stephen resigned.
The Celtic Orthodox Church has parishes in France, Switzerland and the United States, including a monastery (Our Lady of the Holy Presence) at Toms Brook, Virginia. Since the end of 2017 the Celtic Orthodox Church is now represented once more in Australia. In the United Kingdom, following deaths, retirements and secessions, the Celtic Orthodox Church now has one parish (St Gwenn's, Wessex).