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On the wings of the Dawn — the lure of the Occult

14 December 2018

Anglo-Catholic involvement in the occult is much broader and deeper than most would suspect, writes Richard Yoder


Tarot cards based on designs drawn for the Order of the Golden Dawn by Pamela Colman Smith, under the supervision of A.E. Waite, by the American Rosicrucian, L.W. de Laurence, and were published in his work, The Illustrated Key To the Tarot, 1918. See gallery for more images

Tarot cards based on designs drawn for the Order of the Golden Dawn by Pamela Colman Smith, under the supervision of A.E. Waite, by the American Rosic...

IN 1978, A. N. Wilson published Unguarded Hours, a satire of life in an Anglo-Catholic seminary. The book broke new ground in drawing attention to the strong current of homosexuality among the ranks of the Anglo-Catholic clergy. But it also commented on another feature of that particular Anglican sub-culture. At the book’s climax, a liberal dean visiting the seminary walks in on a few ordinands engaged in ritual magic.

Wilson knew what he was writing about. While scholars have since devoted important studies to the dynamics of gender and sexuality among Anglo-Catholics — most notably David Hilliard in his article “Unenglish and Unmanly” (1982) — the tendency towards occultism in certain Anglo-Catholic circles since the 19th century has gone almost unnoticed in scholarly literature. Only one study has attempted anything close to an overview of the phenomenon: Anthony Fuller’s dissertation on “Anglo-Catholic Clergy and the Golden Dawn” (2009). More research is needed.

This oversight may be the result of a tendency to trivialise individual foibles. Fr Hope Patten (1885-1958), and Fr Henry Joy Fynes-Clinton (1875-1959), significant Anglo-Papalists as well as romantics, both nursed a belief in ghosts which tended towards the over-credulous.

Dr Cosmo Gordon Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1928 to 1942, successfully cursed a hotel when a friend complained that it ruined the view at his lake house. The hotel burned down — twice. Thoroughly pleased with his success, the Archbishop went on to curse other minor items, such as ugly windows, when asked by his friends and fellow clergy. Anecdotes such as these might suggest that, if Anglicans were dabbling in the occult, it was all nothing more than the idiosyncrasies of strong personalities.


IN TRUTH, Anglo-Catholic involvement in the occult is much broader and deeper than most would suspect. Take, for instance, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, established in 1887. Devoted to the Western esoteric tradition, and practising various forms of initiatory ritual magic, the Golden Dawn recruited heavily from the clergy. Some of these men were, indeed, simple eccentrics.

The Revd William Alexander Ayton, Vicar of Chacombe, in Oxfordshire, was one such case. A Freemason of extraordinarily deep occult learning, he maintained a clandestine alchemical lab in his rectory basement, and declared that he had made the Elixir of Life. With an inveterate fear of Jesuits, his own bishop, and creatures he called “the gnomes”, it is no surprise that he was labelled by Yeats “the most panic-stricken person” he had met.

ALAMYEvelyn Underhill (1875 - 1941)

As Anthony Fuller has shown, however, clergy who would otherwise belong to the more respectable mainstream of Anglo-Catholicism were strongly involved in the Golden Dawn and its various successor bodies. The Revd A. H. Baverstock, twice Master of the Society of the Holy Cross (SSC) in the 1920s, was a member, as was the Very Revd Frank Selwyn Bennett, the Dean of Chester Cathedral, a formative influence on the culture of Anglican cathedrals in the 20th century.

The Revd Francis Heazell, secretary of the Church of England’s committee on ecumenical relations with the Eastern Orthodox from 1917 to 1929, was a Ruling Chief of the Order’s London Temple. His duties would have included teaching the Order’s hermetic doctrines to new initiates. The Rt Revd Timothy Rees, Bishop of Landaff from 1931 to 1939, was a significant figure in one of the Order’s successor groups.

So were some of his brothers at Mirfield. In fact, Rees, and a fellow monk of Mirfield, Fr Charles Fitzgerald CR, helped to found a Golden Dawn temple in New Zealand while on mission there in the 1910s. The chapter that they started eventually came to include several Anglican bishops from that country. Such Anglo-Catholic lay luminaries as Evelyn Underhill, Arthur Machen, and Charles Williams all dabbled in the Golden Dawn’s initiatory “mysticism”, forming their own ideas on the relationship between hermeticism and Christianity in conversation with their mutual friend A. E. Waite (1857-1942). Waite, although not personally faithful, maintained a healthy respect for ritual forms of Christianity — especially the Latin mass.

Although the Golden Dawn and its daughter organisations had a notable contingent of clergy and Anglican laity, the Order was necessarily restrictive. It remained, primarily, a phenomenon of a very select elite. Theosophy, by contrast, was more widely diffused within the Church of England. At the turn of the 20th century, there was a popular interest in “mysticism” which took various forms. The vaguely oriental mysteries of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and her protégée, Annie Besant, exerted a powerful influence.


ANGLICAN clergy were not immune to this wider cultural force. Sermons on Theosophical topics could be heard in some early Edwardian parishes. Many Anglo-Catholics of the era were able to blend beliefs in the astral body, reincarnation, and root races with Catholic doctrines and ritual practices. But the Anglican liaison with Theosophy was not to last. At the 1920 Lambeth Conference, Theosophy was formally condemned, alongside Spiritualism and Christian Science. Some Theosophical Anglicans, such as J. I. Wedgwood and C. W. Leadbeater, eventually decided to leave the Church of England and start their own Theosophical churches as  episcopi vagantes.

ALAMYArthur Machen (1863 –1947)

Others, such as Dom Aelred Carlyle, of Caldey Island, left for Rome, instead. But Carlyle nursed his occult interests while still an Anglo-Catholic. From his schooldays, Carlyle had demonstrated a marked tendency towards ritualism in both its esoteric and Catholic forms. While a boy at Blundell’s School, he was caught leading a secret society that would convene clandestinely, in the words of Peter Anson, “to recite offices and perform esoteric rites”.

As one of the leaders of the Anglican monastic revival, Carlyle continued his inquiries into the supernatural. He discussed Theosophy with Wedgwood. He maintained an unflagging belief in ghosts (and claimed to have had bad experiences with a few). On a trip to Jamaica, he studied the magical traditions of Voodoo and Obeah. Anson attests that Carlyle filled the monastery’s library with “a large miscellaneous selection of books and pamphlets dealing with Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, reincarnation, and similar forms of non-Christian mysticism”. In a Theosophical twist on the life of St Benedict, the Abbot said that he had seen his own sister’s astral body float away after her death.

Perhaps the most famous (and most overtly Anglo-Catholic) example of Carlyle’s occultism occurred in 1910. The Abbot and his monks received the relics of Richard Whyting, the last Abbot of Glastonbury, who had been martyred in the Reformation. Amid rich liturgical furnishings and a special Latin office and mass, the relics were translated to the chapel at Caldey.

The ceremony represented a triumph of high Tractarian principles. It combined Latin ritual, Gothic aesthetics, and a repudiation of the Reformation. Nevertheless, it was also a Spiritualist coup. Carlyle had accepted the bones only after they were located by an archaeologist friend who had used a séance to find them. This unusual — and, some would say, unorthodox — provenance made no difference to the Abbot of Caldey, who happily translated the “relics” without reservation.


MUCH could be said of that earlier experiment in Anglican monasticism, the Benedictines of Llanthony. Led by Fr Ignatius of Jesus, a lay monk who sought to combine classical Benedictine life with child oblation and mission preaching, the Benedictines of Llanthony were often beset by seemingly supernatural phenomena. They said that they were followed by the ghost of a lantern-bearing monk, and had connections among the Spiritualists. Most famously, their monastery in the Black Mountains was the site of an alleged Marian apparition. Even today, pilgrims gather each September at the ruins of the old abbey in devotion to Our Lady of Llanthony.

ALAMYCharles Williams (1886 – 1945)

Another tendency that grew alongside this subterranean culture of Anglican occultism was the Anglican turn towards deliverance ministry. Fr Gilbert Shaw and Dom Robert Petitpierre OSB led the Church of England in recovering older forms of exorcism based closely on Roman models.

Their work in the middle of the 20th century bore fruit in the Exeter report of 1972. Presenting the results of the first study ever commissioned by a Church of England bishop on the subject of exorcism, the Exeter report constituted a significant response to the new wave of popular occultism in 1960s Britain. Yet there are unusual elements to the report. Various “psychic phenomena” outside the mainstream of Christian doctrine are mentioned, including magic, poltergeists, and place-memories. These details are not merely incidental cases borrowed from public discourse: they suggest the influence of the two exorcists.

In addition to their reliance on established Catholic rituals and doctrine, both Shaw and Petitpierre developed a theory of the “psychic” which undergirded much of their work as exorcists. For instance, Shaw asserted that an entire immaterial and yet ultimately natural world of energy existed alongside perceptible reality. Some souls, for reasons that remained unknown, possessed a capacity to sense that world, and could even work within it.

Petitpierre goes much further in his book Exorcising Devils (1976), one of the first and most thorough Anglican treatments of deliverance ministry. Petitpierre describes a variety of psychic phenomena, including ones that appear only briefly in the Exeter report. Readers who pick up Exorcising Devils expecting tips on how to cast out demons will, indeed, find them there, but they will also discover chapters on “ley lines”, “poltergeist phenomena”, and “psychic awareness and place-memories”.

These disparate figures were united by two threads often thought to be mutually exclusive. First, they all shared a commitment to the Anglican Catholic tradition. They also took a deep interest in (and, in some cases, participated in) various occult practices and beliefs.

PUBLIC DOMAIN“Seeing” of music: a piece by Charles-François Gounod (from Thought-Forms, a a theosophical book compiled Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater)

The borders between the two tendencies proved permeable. Anglo-Catholicism and occultism both had a sense of ritual, an often Gothic romanticism, and a sacramental world-view. Both suggested that the supernatural could pervade the material world, and both offered their own paths of “mysticism” to penetrate beyond the material world.

Yet this connection remains critically understudied in the literature on both Anglicanism and esoteric history. Scholars who have looked at one or more facets of the Anglo-Catholic occult world have mostly missed the key that draws it all together: a defence of the supernatural in the face of modern materialism.

Anglo-Catholic occultism was, in the minds of many of its practitioners, a rebuke to the unbelieving world outside cloister and sanctum. And, sometimes, the occult represented another way of connecting with the Divine. Occultism could augment conventional religion, and it was by no means as marginal as might be expected. If nothing else, it was certainly far more than the pastime of a few satanic (and easily satirised) seminarians.

Richard Yoder is pursuing an M.Phil. in Theology (Ecclesiastical History) at St Stephen’s House, Oxford.

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