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The name Liberal Catholic Church (LCC) is used by a number of separate Christian churches throughout the world which are open to esoteric beliefs and hold many ideas in common. Although the term Liberal Catholic might suggest otherwise, it does not refer to liberal groups within the Roman Catholic Church but to groups within the Independent Catholic movement, unrecognised by and not in communion with the Pope nor the rest of the Catholic Church.
There are essentially two groups of Liberal Catholic churches: those which espouse theosophical ideas and those which do not obey.
The founding bishops of the Liberal Catholic churches were J. I. Wedgwood of the Wedgwood China family and the Theosophist Charles Webster Leadbeater. Wedgwood was a former Anglican priest who left the Anglican church on becoming a theosophist in 1904. After serving in several high offices in the Theosophical Society, including being general secretary of the society in England and Wales from 1911 to 1913, he was ordained as a priest in the Old Catholic movement on July 22, 1913, by Arnold Harris Mathew. Mathew in turn was a former Roman Catholic priest who had left to be ordained as a bishop in the Old Catholic Church, which had separated from papal authority in 1873 over the issue of papal infallibility. The Old Catholics maintained that their ordinations were valid within the Catholic tradition, and the Liberal Catholic Church thus claims to trace its apostolic succession back to Rome through Old Catholicism.
In 1915 Wedgwood visited Australia in his capacity as Grand Secretary of the Order of Universal CoMasonry (Co-Freemasonry a branch of liberal or adogmatic Freemasonry consisting of mixed-sex lodges), another of the organisations in which he was prominent. On his return to England, he learned that Frederick Samuel Willoughby, a bishop of the Old Catholic Church of Britain, had become enmeshed in a homosexuality scandal and as a result had been suspended by Archbishop Mathew. He also learned that Mathew wanted all the clergy of the church to renounce Theosophy on the grounds that the beliefs of the Church and the Society were incompatible. Shortly afterwards Archbishop Mathew dissolved the Old Catholic Church in Great Britain and published a letter in The Times announcing his intention to return to the Roman Catholic Church.
Few bothered to reply to Archbishop Mathew. Willoughby offered to consecrate Wedgwood to the episcopate, but Wedgwood approached a number of other bishops seeking consecration, including the Old Catholic Archbishop of Utrecht Gerardus Gul (by whom Mathew had originally been consecrated), and Bishop Frederick James, a fellow Theosophist. Eventually, Wedgwood was consecrated as a bishop by Bishop Willoughby on 13 February 1916 with Bishop King and Bishop Gauntlett assisting.
With the Old Catholics continuing to disapprove of Mathew's creation in Britain, Wedgwood started the organisation that would later become the Liberal Catholic Church, of which he became the first Presiding Bishop. At the same time he maintained his close connections with the Theosophical movement, and many of Wedgwood's priests and bishops were simultaneously Theosophists.
In 1941 a schism occurred in the church due to breaches of canon law and the laws of the state of California on the part of the Presiding Bishop, which led to the church known abroad as the Liberal Catholic Church International earning the legal right to be known as the Liberal Catholic Church in the United States. In America, the entity originally known as the Liberal Catholic Church is known as "The Liberal Catholic Church, Province of the United States of America." The Liberal Catholic Church, Province of the United States of America is more Theosophical in belief while the Liberal Catholic Church International maintains freedom of belief and does not promote any singular philosophy or tradition.
In 2003 within the Liberal Catholic Church, the issue of the limitation of the right of a bishop to ordain candidates of his choice gave rise to a differences of opinions which resulted in two groups: a "traditional" and a more "liberal" one. The ordination of women was the primary point of conflict. Since both groups use the name "Liberal Catholic Church" distinguishing between the two may be confusing.
In 2006, former LCC Presiding Bishop Johannes van Alphen consecrated Markus van Alphen who, in turn, established the Young Rite. Bishop Johannes eventually joined the Young Rite, serving until his death. Among the tenets of the Young Rite was the belief that all possessed a path to the priesthood and anyone requesting ordination should receive it. This practice was abandoned in the United States after Markus van Alphen's retirement and with the establishment of the Community of St. George, a Young Rite jurisdiction and the only recognized Young Rite jurisdiction in the United States. Young Rite USA now requires a multi-year formation program for its clergy.. The Young Rite is incorporated in the United States as the Liberal Catholic Church - The Young Rite.
The Liberal Catholic Church is governed by three "General Episcopal Synods" of all bishops. The General Episcopal Synods are the assemblies of all bishops recognized as such by its members. The synods meet formally from time to time and they elect a presiding bishop from among themselves. The current Presiding Bishops of the Liberal Catholic Church are the Right Reverend Graham Wale, for the conservative branch and the Right Reverend James Zinzow for the progressive one. The Liberal Catholic Church International's Presiding Bishop is Most Reverend James P. Roberts. The General Episcopal Synods also elect priests to the episcopacy, with the approval of the parishes of their respective provinces. The bishops of the Liberal Catholic Church may hold office until the mandatory retirement age of 75. (There is no such rule for the Liberal Catholic Church International.)
Each province is governed by a regionary bishop who, in turn, may have one or more bishops functioning as assistants. A province may also have its own clerical synod of deacons, priests and bishops. These clergy are seldom financially compensated and hold secular jobs. They also may marry and hold property.
Training for the clergy varies from province to province. The Liberal Catholic Institute of Studies was created to standardise the program of studies for the development of future deacons and priests, but laypersons may follow the courses as well. The Liberal Catholic Church International's (LCCI) clergy training program is called the St. Alban Theological Seminary. The Universal Catholic Church's (an offshoot of the LCCI) is called the St. Clement (of Alexandria) Seminary.
The Liberal Catholic Church also has monasteries although they are not official.
According to church teaching, the Liberal Catholic Church draws its central inspiration from an earnest faith in a Christ who is eternal, being alive before, during, and after the events of the New Testament, to the present day.
Liberal Catholicism finds any form of Christian worship valid as long as it is earnest and true, and that individuals can experience the presence of Christ. But it also holds that Christ also appointed certain rites or sacraments, called "mysteries" in the Eastern Orthodox Church to be handed down in the church as special channels of power and blessing. Through these "means of grace" the Liberal Catholic Church believes that Christ is ever present within his church, in fellowship and communion, guiding and protecting them from birth to death. Many in the Liberal Catholic Church believe that there are many churches because there are many ways in which people want to worship God.
According to the Liberal Catholic Church's Statement of Principles, "The Liberal Catholic Church recognises seven fundamental sacraments, which it enumerates as follows: Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist, Absolution, Holy Unction, Holy Matrimony, and Holy Orders. It claims an unbroken apostolic succession through the Old Catholic Union of Utrecht and claims that its orders are 'acknowledged as valid throughout the whole of those churches of Christendom which maintain the apostolic succession of orders as a tenet of their faith." The LCC International has modified their Statement of Principles to read "it (the LCC) has preserved an episcopal succession that is valid, as understood throughout the whole of those churches in Christendom that maintain the apostolic succession as a tenet of their faith." The LCC International permits the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians.
The Liberal Catholic Church believes that there is a body of doctrine and mystical experience common to all the great religions of the world and which cannot be claimed as the exclusive possession of any. Moving within the orbit of Christianity and regarding itself as a distinctive Christian church it nevertheless holds that the other great religions of the world are also divinely inspired and that all proceed from a common source, though religions may stress different aspects of the various teachings and some aspects may even temporarily be ignored. These teachings, as facts in nature, rest on their own intrinsic merit. They form that true catholic faith which is catholic because it is the statement of universal principles. The LCC bases these beliefs on what St. Augustine said: "The identical thing that we now call the Christian religion existed among the ancients and has not been lacking from the beginnings of the human race until the coming of Christ in the flesh, from which moment on the true religion, which already existed, began to be called Christian." (Retract I. XIII,3).