In the course of his life, the novelist Frederick Rolfe became involved in some truly bizarre shenanigans from time to time, but there was one occasion which stands out as what Donald Weeks described as "one of the wisest moves of his life" in which he managed to avoid entering into a world so ridden with baroque conspiracy and fantasy that it would make medieval Venice look uncomplicated: the world of the auto-cephalus Catholic churches, the world of the Episcopi Vagantes. If you are already mystified, prepare to be tortured with complexity...
Rolfe's best known novel is Hadrian the Seventh, and upon its publication it attracted the attention of two people who wrote to Rolfe expressing admiration for the novel and proposing friendship. The first was Robert Hugh Benson who did indeed become close to Rolfe for a time, but eventually attained near-nemesis status in Rolfe's eyes. The second was a chap whose given names were Ulric Vernon Herford (pictured above) but who introduced himself to Rolfe, by letter, as Mar Jacobus, Bishop of Mercia and Middlesex, Administrator of the Metropolitan See of India, Ceylon, Milapur etc., of the Syro-Chaldean Church, and of the Patriarchate of Babylon and the East, and Founder of the Evangelical Catholic Communion. And in this letter, attracted by the "Fr. Rolfe" on the title page of Hadrian, Mar Jacobus all but offered Rolfe a bishopric over 25,000 Christians and twenty churches.
This must have been something of a shock for Rolfe and probably more of a temptation than he would have liked to admit. Herford was one of a large number of "Bishops" at that time who claimed to be the heads of various independent Catholic churches not under the jurisdiction of Rome, (hence auto-cephalous: one's own boss). Rolfe's response was uncharacteristically measured and sensible, he wrote to his solicitors and asked them to make enquiries about the bona fides of Mar Jacobus's orders. Rolfe wrote: "he practically offers a bishoprick over the Christians of St Thomas on the Malabar coast! ! ! I am inquiring: for the validity of orders is all-important."
And the validity of orders is absolutely where this world becomes incomprehensible to the uninitiated. The catholic doctrine of Apostolic Succession is the cornerstone of the church's authority. That the church as it is constituted today has a firm continuity with the church at the time of the Apostles is not really in dispute and this is the source of the Catholic church's claim to be the One, True Church. But Apostolic Succession does not just require a kind of institutional continuity whereby the Pope can claim to be the successor of St Peter. Whenever the church has been split by disagreement (not an uncommon occurrence in the last 2000 years) the question of who is most in communion with those original Apostles became more and more important and so the doctrine of Apostolic Succession has been refined over the centuries to include an element of physical continuity. A priest ordained today in the Catholic Church has to be able to believe that the hands laid on his head at his ordination belong to a man who in turn had hands laid on him, who in turn, who in turn... and so on back to the earliest times and to the Apostles themselves. That is what Rolfe meant by 'validity of orders'. No matter what the administrative situation of the Syro-Chaldean Church and the Evangelical Catholic Communion, what was important was, "is this man a proper bishop".
Well, was he? Actually, Herford was a not insignificant figure in an interesting movement but was he proper and validly ordained? His answer, and this is par for the course with the such independent churches goes something like this:
"Luis Mariano Soares (or Suares) or Mar Basilius, was the Roman Catholic cleric of Goa, of Brahmin descent. He was ordained priest by Mar Julius (Alvares) of the Independent Catholics of Ceylon, who was consecrated by the (majority) Jacobite 'Thomas Christians'. Mgr. Soares was then elected by a body of Christians in the Madura district - who had revolted from the hard and exacting rule of the Jesuit Mission - to preside over them and was consecrated by Mar Abd-Tshu, who, in the words of the late Mar Benjamin Shimun, de jure Patriarch of the Historic Catholic Church of India (East Syrian of Syro-Chaldean) 'had full power and authority by the consecration which he received from the Patriarch, to bind and to loose, and to ordain and consecrate Bishops and priests and other clergy as he might find necessary for the work of the Church."
...and our Mar Jacobus claims he was ordained and consecrated by Mar Basilius. This kind of pedigree delineation is commonplace among this kind of church group but we can take it from more informed sources than ourselves that the answer, in amongst all that, to 'was he proper' was 'No!' In later life, Herford could only produce a three documents in English, sealed with an English rubber stamp as 'proof' of his orders. One of them is reproduced below. He admitted that he had, in others, written his own name in the blanks of certificates and signed Mar Basilius's name.
Rolfe turned him down. One can't help feeling that he really dodged a bullet there. With Rolfe's temperament and level of devotion, involvement with such a group could only have been disastrous in the extreme. This entire rambling excursion into this story has been occasioned by the fact that a poem was pointed out to me that, with both humour and insight, imaginatively extends the story into something which enables the poet, perhaps with his tongue firmly in cheek, to suggest that despite its ridiculousness, there was also something wonderful about the eccentricity and baroque curlicues of religion as it used to be and rarely is in 'this century'. I am particularly taken by the description of Rolfe's "panther-skinned gondola/diapered with crabs and ravens..." recalling Wilde's description of his dangerous sexual encounters as "feasting with panthers", and also by the "lagoon-eyed fauns" - wonderful stuff.