The Arnold Harris Mathew Centre had its inception in 2007 as part of our sister institution European-American University. It was the first university centre anywhere in the world to be devoted to the study of the smaller sacramentally-based churches originating within Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Anglicanism and which are spread throughout the world today. The origins of the churches examined by the Centre are diverse; they vary from reactionary movements to those which see themselves as progressive, and in some cases are to be found in missions that have outgrown their original purpose or become stranded in their respective countries due to changes in their mother church or the political situation in their homeland. In its mission, the Centre takes inspiration from the work of the late Bishop Karl Pruter, who was the first to produce a genuinely comprehensive overview of this area with respect to the United States of America. The Old Catholic Sourcebook by Bishop Karl Pruter and J. Gordon Melton (Garland Publishing, New York, 1983), while long out of date, remains the best overall survey of its kind, covering both conservative and liberal groups.
Initially, the Centre used the phrase “independent sacramental movement” to describe the churches it studied. However, in 2017, a decision was taken to cease using this term. The reason was that it has come to be used as a descriptor mostly if not exclusively by progressive churches and therefore is seen as excluding those which are reactionary or conservative in their polity.
Over time, the Centre’s work has become increasingly diversified into particular branches. The archival aspects of this work are described elsewhere in this website. The J.S.M. Ward Society is concerned with the study and teachings of that bishop. Research in respect of the Apostolic Episcopal Church, the Catholicate of the West and the Abbey-Principality of San Luigi is now generally published via the websites of those bodies. This then leaves the Centre with a more general brief to consider organizational, theological and historical aspects of other churches, and as ever, to collect information and resources on them with a view to preserving in some permanent format that which is often ephemeral and easily lost.
The current work of the Centre therefore embraces the study of many independent Christian communities, most relatively small, which stand in the Apostolic Succession from the Roman Catholic Church and/or the Orthodox Churches and have, in the main, developed during the period from the mid-nineteenth-century onwards. In the entirety of their range, these communities vary in outlook from arch-conservative to highly liberal and embrace almost all possible shades of Christian belief and practice. The Centre maintains detailed historical records on communities and their clergy, and deals with requests for information on particular bishops and their churches from around the world.
The Centre’s study is necessarily broad from a taxonomic perspective. In general, the more conservative denominations tend to see themselves as either proto-Uniate Rites of Rome or indeed as representing a “traditional Catholic” standpoint in correction of Rome’s doctrinal errors. The many groups that represent a “Continuing Anglican” standpoint tend to take a similar view in respect of Canterbury. Both of these sectors tend to reject any concept of union or classification with more liberal groups, whereas those liberal groups are in turn less likely (but not invariably so) to object to being part of groupings that include conservatives. The most prominent contemporary image presented by the use of the term “independent sacramental movement” is one concerned more with those groups that represent a “progressive” and emerging theology and praxis, often characterized by esotericism and liberalism, albeit with those two words defined in each case along what may be starkly divergent boundaries.
To an outsider, this whole area often appears impossibly complex, and this complexity is increased by the wide degree of change and mutability of the groups concerned and the clergy within them. Yet there are common threads that unite even the most disparate of groups. In its diversity, the smaller churches offer a contemporary parallel to the pre-Constantinian Church, in that they are generally decentralized – even anarchic at times – and open to wide spiritual influence stemming from the leaders of each group and their spiritual influences in turn. Those leaders are also highly diverse in every respect; most notably in their gender, sexuality, ethnicity, educational backgrounds, theological standpoints and approaches to worship. This very diversity and specialization is argued by some on the progressive wing to be the whole point, since in their view it mirrors the diversity of creation itself and in a global sense promotes a far greater model of active inclusivity than do most of the major denominations. Equally, such issues raise important points about unity and the nature of Catholicity/Orthodoxy, particularly in those groups that take upon themselves an identity of radical separatism.
Scholarship concerning this area is extensive but has generally taken place outside the mainstream, not least because of hostility towards the smaller churches influenced by the vested interests of the major denominations, which have often seen smaller rivals as a threat to good order and as a potentially competing movement. This attitude continues to characterize material about this area on a number of websites today. Its study is important in order to establish a historical record for its own sake, in order to study the ecclesiology of recently founded and smaller churches, in order to examine their theologies, liturgies and teachings, and because these communities, being smaller and more free to innovate, may point the way to new means of becoming church, and of fulfilling ministry in the modern world.
Much publication from within these churches has been private, in the form of books, monographs and pamphlets which have seen limited circulation within the denominations concerned. Some of these have been works of high quality and historical significance. A number of more recent works have sought to establish a postmodern identity for the “progressive” elements of the independent sacramental movement as a development in their own right and in opposition to the traditionalism of the major denominations. All of this activity indicates that the smaller churches have an important part to play in the study of church history and church development in the modern era.
Arnold Harris Mathew (1852-1919) after whom the Centre is named, was the first (and last) Old Catholic regionary bishop for Great Britain, consecrated in 1908 by the Union of Utrecht of the Old Catholic Churches. Subsequently, he left the Union in protest against its growing liberalism, and worked on establishing a British Uniate church and furthering the work of the Order of Corporate Reunion. He is the subject of a detailed biography by the University’s Chancellor, the Most Revd. John Kersey (European-American University Press, 2010).