a contemporary seal of Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica
In my previous entry, I shared my recent experiences as a Thelemic gnostic and current member of Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica attending a Eucharistic service operating under the auspices of one of our sister traditions, Ecclesia Gnostica. In this particular appreciation, I mentioned some of the similarities I noticed, but not many of the differences on account of not wanting to distract myself from the experience of writing and sharing my experience. For individuals not particularly familiar with contemporary forms of Gnosticism, it might seem strange to suggest that there are many differences between different gnostic groups – after all, we’re all dirty, stinky, filthy heretics – but the truth is, as in other denominations or traditions with similar backgrounds, gnostics as individuals and as groups are very heterodox in particular viewpoints despite coming from a very similar background and even in praxis there are some strong ritual differences which may vary from sect to sect.
Episcopal seal of Jules Doinel, Eglise Gnostique Universelle Catholique
For the purposes of this essay, I’m not going to focus much on historical Gnosticism as practiced in the second and third centuries CE. This reason is twofold: first, despite having access to scriptures and first and second hand accounts of our religious forbears, early gnostic groups were widely varied and the information we have about their practices come primarily from heresiological sources which cannot be adequately trusted; secondly, contemporary Gnosticism does not represent an unbroken line of praxis or scriptural coherency from the early sects and, at best, can only be traced back to the gnostic revivals of 19th Century Europe. This notwithstanding, I must also mention that there are elements of historical Gnosticism which have been preserved culturally as well as theologically amongst mainline Christian churches – in particular amongst the Hesychastic practices in Eastern Orthodoxy and in some of the writings of the early Church Fathers and mystics, but this is deserving of a more thorough study for a later date.
As I mentioned, contemporary Gnosticism dates back no earlier than the 19th Century. It was during this period of European expansionism that modern Biblical archeology became a field of serious inquiry, leading to the discovery and subsequent translation of many texts that had a coherent connection to historical Gnosticism, early Christianity and late Greco-Egyptian pagan religious traditions. In 1769 the Bruce Codex was brought to England from Upper Egypt by the famous Scottish traveller Bruce, and subsequently bequeathed to the care of the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Sometime prior to 1785 The Askew Codex (aka Pistis Sophia) was bought by the British Museum from the heirs of Dr. Askew. Pistis Sophia text and Latin translation of the Askew Codex by M. G. Schwartze published in 1851. During this time as well, the formation of the Theosophical Society by Mme. Blavatsky as well as the existence of various strains of esoteric Freemasonry contributed to a strong countercultural interest in esoteric Christianity, in particular Gnosticism.
A contemporary episcopal crest of the Liberal Catholic Church
All of this came to a head in 1890 when, after a series of visions and impacted by the rediscovery of various Cathar (Albegensian) documents, a librarian named Jules-Benoît Stanislas Doinel du Val-Michel (aka Jules Doinel) established the Eglise Gnostique (French: Gnostic Church) and declared a “the era gnosis restored.” The establishment of Eglise Gnostique represented a major departure from the Christianities of its day in that its liturgy and theology represented the fullest extant understanding of Cathar liturgy and theology of the day and, secondly (arguably most importantly) allowed the ordination of men and women on an egalitarian basis. It is also important to note that, in a departure from apostolic Christianity, Doinel was “spiritually consecrated” in a spiritual experience in 1888 and not into a line of Apostolic Succession. Doinel subsequently consecrated a number of bishops for the Eglise Gnostique, notable among these was Gérard Encausse founder of the closely allied Martinist Order.
The importance of apostolicity as validating one’s abilities as clergy prior to this has been one of the defining characteristics of liturgical Christian traditions prior to the Protestant Reformation going back at least as far as the Donatist controversy of the fourth and fifth centuries. The importance is emphasized most in Western Christianity which teaches that any bishop can consecrate any other baptized man as a bishop provided that the bishop observes the minimum requirements for the sacramental validity of the ceremony. This means that the consecration is considered valid even if it flouts certain ecclesiastical laws, and even if the participants are schismatics or heretics. In certain historical periods where various regions lacked formal access to bishops or in which no formal Bishophoric Seat has been established, there has been a long line of episcopi vagantes (wandering bishops) whose job it was to travel and oversee particular jurisdictions. It is from these groups that modern Gnostic groups would obtain their apostolicity, in particular through two lines: Fabré-Palaprat’s l’Église Johannites des Chretiens Primitif (Johannite Church of the Primitive Christians) and Joseph René Vilatte whose participation with the Old Catholic Church of Utrecht would also pave the way toward the development of the Liberal Catholic Church which would be deeply involved from the onset with the Theosophical movement.
As a brief departure, I would like to present the following graphical illustration of contemporary gnostic churches for the purposes of better understanding the various streams which exist currently to show their development over time while avoiding the complexity of succession:
||l’Église Johannites des Chretiens Primitif
||Eliate Church of Carmel
||Eglise Gnostique Universelle
||The Liberal Catholic Church
||Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica
||Pre-Nicene Gnostic Catholic Church(Ecclesia Gnostica)
||Eglise Gnostique Apostolique
|Name of Founder
||James Wedgewood and Charles Leadbeater
||Duc du Palatine
These particular churches represent the primary streams of contemporary Gnosticism, however matters are somewhat complicated by individual churches such as Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica which, while founded upon the apostolic succession bestowed on Theodore Reuss through the Bricaud and Dionel successions, represents an interesting case-study in that Reuss’ successor, Aleister Crowley, doesn’t seem to indicate whether he obtained consecration from Reuss and, secondly that it makes a near complete break with other, Gnostic Christian churches in favor of Crowley’s religious philosophy of Thelema. Due to this, there is some debate some gnostic branches today which question the validity of considering Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica as part of the gnostic community. This is deserving of further study on many grounds. Important to note, however, is that the contemporary Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica does not itself rely on Apostolic Succession from Christian lineage and, instead, according to current United States Grand Lodge representative Sabazius X°, relies solely on the authority of Aleister Crowley as To Mega Therion DCLXVI. Despite this, many bishops in EGC do have consecrations from other gnostic lineages which can be adequately traced back to early sources.
An interesting point of difference can be made by comparing three of the four major streams of Gnosticism active in North America – Ecclesia Gnostica, Ecclesia Gnostica Mysteriorum, Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica and the Apostolic Johannite Church. While there are other churches that may represent varying degrees of “gnostic apostolicity”, I present these four as representative of the greater gnostic tradition due to their apostolic lines as well and the number of adherents.
|Name of Church
||Ecclesia Gnostica Mysteriorum
||Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica
||Apostolic Johannite Church
||1804 (original), 2000
|Name of Founder
||Rev. Richard Duc de Palatine
||Old Catholic and Leadbeater/Wedgwood
||Old Catholic, Liberal Catholic, Palatine, Marian (?)
||Palaprat, Doinel, Bricaud, Villate
||Old Catholic, Roman Catholic, Palaprat, Doinel, Vilatte
||Rev. Stephen Hoeller
||Hymanaeus Beta, XII°, T Apyrion (US)
||The Most Rev. Mar Iohannes IV, Ep.Gn. (CA), The Most Rev. Mar Thomas, AC, Ph.D, Ep.Gn. (US)
For now, I hope this exploration in the different traditions of modern Gnosticism provides an adequate example of the complexities involved in understanding the differences that may arise in understanding individual traditions. While historically it has been near to impossible to probe deep enough to look at this particular subgroup of the Western religious tradition, it is my hope to delve deeper into the individual schools of gnostic thought and, hopefully, be able to provide a comprehensive survey of modern Gnosticism and its relevance today.