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An adventure in ecumenism

05 February 2021

Graham James reflects on Free Catholicism and its resonances for today


The former Con­grega­tional Church, King’s Weigh House, just off Oxford Street in London, is now the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral. Its architect was Alfred Waterhouse

The former Con­grega­tional Church, King’s Weigh House, just off Oxford Street in London, is now the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral. Its architect was A...

MARTYN ATKINS, when General Secretary of the Methodist Church, described Methodism as a discipleship movement shaped for mission. Much of the thinking behind Fresh Expressions, Pioneer Ministry, and the recent Vision and Strategy initiative regards the Church as a movement, too. I have yet to see a mission document characterising the Church favourably as an institution, although it is the institution that enables (and finances) many contemporary mission movements. We are selective in choosing what we do not like about the institutional Church. The Church of England Pensions Board is unlikely to be abolished soon.

Impatience with the Church as institution is nothing new, as an almost forgotten movement in English church life a hundred years ago may show. Free Catholicism combined the desire for deep personal faith (Christ-centred, Jesus-shaped) with a sense of spiritual adventure, unhindered by narrow institutional structures, but fed by the devotional and liturgical riches of the Catholic faith. It was part of a growing ecumenical movement (that word, again) in the second and third decades of the last century. Its centre was the King’s Weigh House Congregational Church, just off Oxford Street in London, now the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral.

There was once a King’s Weigh House in Little Eastcheap, where merchants had their goods assessed for customs duties. The congregation first met in a room above it in the time of Charles II. A later chapel in Fish Street was compulsorily purchased by the Metropolitan Railway. The new church in the West End was dedicated in 1891 — a distinguished Romanesque-revival building.

Congregationalism did not flourish in Mayfair. A congregation that, some years earlier, had been a thousand strong was, by 1900, reduced to a membership of only 119. The deacons then called John Hunter, a Scottish minister with a considerable reputation. Hunter, a fine preacher, was drawn to liturgical worship, reflected in his book Devotional Services for Public Worship, published in 1882. In accepting the King’s Weigh pastorate, he said that he hoped to build “a Catholic Christian community on free and independent lines”.

Membership increased, and the congregation grew to between 400 and 500, but Hunter stayed only three years. He disliked London, and found his colleagues uncongenial. He was inspired by a vision of the Holy Catholic Church, but was dissatisfied with the human failings found in every existing church. Hunter has many modern contemporaries.


THE best-known Congregational church in London at the time was the City Temple on Holborn Viaduct, where Reginald Campbell was drawing thousands as he expounded his New Theology. His book with that title, published in 1907, created a public theological storm comparable only, in 20th-century Britain, to Honest to God in 1963. Campbell believed that “Jesus was God, but so are we . . . all one in this eternal Christ.” The Church Catholic was a community of believers who would realise the Kingdom of God in this world rather than prepare the saved for the next.

While still the minister at the City Temple, Campbell lived in the manse at the King’s Weigh House, and was technically the minister there, too, from 1909 to 1912. He largely left his Mayfair charge to an ineffective assistant. But the tradition of a liberal theology, a desire for ordered liturgical worship, and a belief in a Catholic Church free of institutional shackles was built. Two months after the First World War broke out, a friend of Campbell’s was appointed as the new minister: William Edwin Orchard.

Orchard was a minister of the Presbyterian Church of England; so this was an ecumenical initiative ahead of its time. Even more far-sighted, however, was the 1917 ordination — at the King’s Weigh House — of Constance Cotman as Orchard’s assistant minister. She was the first woman to be ordained to the ministry of any mainstream church in England.

By then, Orchard was making waves for other reasons. He was a pacifist. To preach pacificism in Mayfair during the Great War was to court attention. The congregation grew rapidly. Orchard was also drawn to Catholic forms of worship. The eucharist became the central act of worship. High celebrations became very high indeed. In time, there was a daily eucharist, drawing up to 100 communicants. Benediction was given, as incense rose. All this was agreed with his deacons and the Church Meeting; so he was operating entirely within Congregational polity.

He was one of the key members of the Society of Free Catholics, and, eventually, its president. This ecumenical body, founded in 1914, brought together Anglicans, Congregationalists, Methodists, and Unitarians, too (mostly from the Free Christian tradition), and a smattering of Roman Catholic laity. It sought to realise a vision of a Catholic Church devoted to Jesus Christ but open to the world, in which distinctions of class, gender, nationality, or race had no place. It sought to be genuinely inclusive before that term was in common use.

Its membership peaked at 480; so it was never very large, but the introduction of Catholic usage into Nonconformist worship brought much media interest and vehement Protestant opposition. The movement became a battle. In the late 1920s, it looked as if the King’s Weigh House might become a bridge church between Nonconformity and Anglicanism. The Bishop of London even appointed an assistant curate to work there. But the Archbishop and his colleagues could not bring themselves to approve Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The King’s Weigh House was too Catholic for the Church of England.


EVENTUALLY, in 1936, Orchard became a Roman Catholic priest, and ministered quietly until his death in the mid-1950s. Others followed him. The Society of Free Catholics collapsed. Intriguingly, Campbell had much earlier left the City Temple for the Church of England, and served faithfully as a Canon of Chichester Cathedral.

Those who were once keenest to conceive the Church as a movement ended up ministering in Churches at their most institutional. Gradually, they came to see that movement and institution were not the antithesis that they thought. We may come to relearn that Catholic truth in our own generation.


The Rt Revd Graham James is a former Bishop of Norwich.

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