Episcopi Vagantes

I like reading obscure books.

One I recently came across is titled Episcopi Vagantes by Henry R.T. Brandreth, and was written way back in 1947. It makes for interesting, if not disturbing reading.

An Episcopus Vagans is a man who is ordained as a bishop by another bishop who is not a valid bishop. So, for example, if a bishop is excommunicated from his church, and then proceeds to ordain a man as a bishop, that new bishop is an Episcopus Vagans. Some of the characteristics of these men are that they are not recognised nor in communion with any of the mainline Christian Churches, they tend to have tiny flocks, and they tend to be ordained for their own sakes, rather than for any genuine pastoral need.

And Episcopi Vagantes breed Episcopi Vagantes! There are a number of “lines” now, where one of them ordains another, who then ordains another, who then ordains another, and so on. There is a succession which they love to point out, but it is built upon a non-existent foundation. It is quite possible that in some of these ordinations money is exchanged, or each bishop lends support and ‘legitimacy’ to the other bishop by writing a flowery and official looking letter of recognition, and signing, “His Most Reverend Holiness Bishop Pseudoclericus, High Exarch of Pontogalatia and Phyricorpopoulus” or some such high sounding ecclesiastic title and name.

What’s the point of all this ordaining? To my mind, it seems that all these men have something in common: they have a warped view of what it means to be a bishop, or indeed to be a servant of God at all. Their episcopacy is self-centred, and all they do is arranged for their personal convenience, rather than for the genuine welfare of others. This is first manifest in their desire, their lust we might say, for the episcopal dignity. They see only the respect such a vocation commands among others, and the power and authority it bestows. They see all the regalia and trappings that go with it: the crown, the staff of shepherdhood, the cross, the beard, the gown, and they enjoy the ‘play-acting’ at some subconscious level.

But being a bishop is not about yourself, nor is it about play-acting. I know that St Paul said that he who desires the position of a bishop desires a good work (1 Timothy 3:1). But to understand this as validating the lust for authority or self-aggrandisment in a person is a gross misinterpretation of the text. If we take this verse in context with the many criticisms St Paul makes elsewhere of those who abuse their leadership positions, we see that desiring the position is a highly dangerous thing. I suspect that only the very purest of hearts, the very simplest of souls could possibly desire being a bishop for the right reasons. And even they, if they thought about it, would flee from it, not seek it.

Our Church has been blessed through its history (although not always) with a philosophy of humility and an understanding of the graveness of pastoral responsibility that has produced a culture where no man in his right mind would desire ordination to the clergy. Thus, HH Pope Shenouda is famous for explaining the difficulty in finding men to ordain as priests thus: “Those who wish to be ordained are not suitable, and those who are suitable do not wish to be ordained”. Time and experience have borne out the truth of this maxim over and over. The difficulty is overcome, of course, by the grace of God who knows how to speak in the hearts of those who are nominated by others and make them submit.

But I find the Episcopi Vagantes disturbing because they bear all the outward marks of being a faithful bishop of God, yet their whole lives are based upon a selfish lie. Brandreth, with admirable though naive Christian charity, points out the genuine piety in some of these bishops he has met personally. I find myself wondering – could it be genuine? I suppose it is possible that a simple minded man might really believe that his mission is given by God, even though his ordination comes from a bishop that the vast majority of God’s people do not recognise as a valid bishop. But it is also possible that these men are very good at appearing pious, whether consciously or unconsciously. We have all met people who have mastered the art of the humbly downcast eyes and the soft and gentle voice, while all the time their thoughts are full of deceit and self-interest and hypocrisy. You discover the truth only over a prolonged period of time, when their behaviour sooner or later lets the truth of what’s inside them escape into the outer world. No one can maintain a false facade forever.

Surely then, these are the “wolves in sheep’s clothing” the Bible warns us about? And we have had our own Coptic version of an Episcopus Vagans recently in the person Max Michel, who was ordained by some invalid bishop as Patriarch of his own new Church. All the characteristics of an Episcopus Vagans fit him perfectly: the lust for clerical position, the self-interested motivation for ordination, the lack of recognition by any mainline Christian Church, the tiny flock. I saw him once in an interview on TV where the Muslim interviewer posed some pretty probing but valid questions. Sooner or later, the wolf emerges from beneath the sheepskin. His initial demure demeanour gave way to personal attacks, anger, childish pouting and whines of being persecuted. But he wasn’t being persecuted – the questions were pertinent and the interviewer was quite polite (and quite bemused by the end). He just had no answer for them.

The episcopate is a precious treasure given by God to shepherd His flock in this world. Those who abuse it and bring it into disrepute would be better off to “Have a stone tied around their neck and cast into the sea”, to paraphrase our Lord.

May God have mercy upon their souls … and ours.

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11 Replies to “Episcopi Vagantes”

  1. AMEN! Well put Abouna!

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  2. Although, I wonder if we, ourselves, “non-Priesthood” have this “lust” for recognition…in our own service??? Hmmm…food for thought.

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  3. Certainly the episcopate and the priesthood is a valuable treasure organized and given by our Lord which started in the early days by our Lord Jesus on earth to get his holy flock back and safely to the green paddocks of eternal life …our Lord Jesus in his earthly service started that as spiritual leader with his selected and i stress SELECTED and INVITED disciples for the service ….That was the first and important step for a successful holy service ….Jesus as a leader and his disciples as team subordinates formed a great team , well organized with a treasurer and regulated by some guidelines governed by love , share ,trust ,honesty , openness , forgiveness ,kindness ,mercy ,patience , humbleness,compassion , discretion , self control , democracy ,serving one another and the others needs …. they managed to attract a lot of Christian followers in that three years short period of service …… So the bottom line if the leader wants to be successful , he must have a great loyal invited and selected team based on all those essential selection criteria set by Jesus for the service , because the leader achieves things , and that happens only through his team members , and if the team members want to be successful too they have to achieve these through their followers …this must be the successful and blessed way of coordination of service of any bishop and priests and the congregation followers in any part of the world , not heavy structure, it must be a flat horizontal structure in which every body can see the other …….back to our migration countries of concern , could be this part of the world Australia or Canada or the states or UK etc , i believe the leader and his team must adapt first to the way of life of those countries and do things their way and must serve those communities followers according to their relevant way of life ….. back home way of life and doing things do not work on migration countries ???!!!!most of the communities of those migration countries are open type , trustful , like to share things , like to involve directly and indirectly in issues concern their community ,like feed back in communications” communication is very poor here ” , like to know where is their money of donations gone and how it is used and spent , like to be treated with respect themselves and their families , like to benefit spiritually from their local church , like to have a say in choosing their priests and bishop , like when needs the service and the support of the church to find it and to be treated with dignity , like to concentrate in needy people and issues in our backyard first , like our decisions to be moved from here etc ….???!!! Jesus as a leader and his disciples as subordinates set the great example of that efficient team which achieved that Christianity all over the world for more than two thousands years and now on daily basis we see a lot of more new followers of Christ through simple sermons by simple blessed aaaaaaaand simple people ..we thank God that we are in an ancient Coptic traditional culture , despite it is very small culture in comparison to the rest of other christian cultures but we are with strong foundation as we keep and stick to our traditions and we love and highly regard our bishops ,priests and our churches ,on the other hand we have got high expectation that the cultural gap of doing things will be closed one day and soon , everything is possible in God ….till then we pray to our Lord to keep the doors of our churches open all the time for us and our children and grandchildren , amen ……praise the name of God by your work …..may God have mercy on all his creatures every where …..

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  4. The sad thing is, for the majority of ‘mainstream Christianity’, the bishops of the Coptic sucession are Episcopi Vagantes.

    What is mainstream Cristianity anyway? There’s no such thing!!
    What ever happened to the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church?

    I guess that’s another thing all together…

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  5. oh mate it is really sad and i believe the situation will be deteriorating more and quicker than some thought ,however at the end of the day , i wonder where are we heading in our churches in this paaaaart of the world ????!!!the other day i heard about an incident that a priest in one of our churches had been exercising for a while “BACK HOME WAY OF LIFE IN DOING THINGS ” with the church congregation and no body from the top put him under control when the relevant church congregation complained , so the bottom line the new generation youth of the church ” as expected “moved him from the church by the assistant of one of those departments of the Government….i believe a lot of similar incidents are occurring around but i believe we do not come across it and issues are swept under the carpet … i believe communication is very poor in our churches , the other day just accidentally i came across a news letter or paper i believe called “Almanara “issued i believe by Sydney parish , oh mate not even one thing about our local news of our churches in Sydney or spiritual issue to read , all photos of the bishop and his news covered the whole news letter and news about Egypt , what do we have to do with Egypt or Sudan or whatever, we understand we are part of the church of Egypt and we respect and love that ,a couple of lines about the visit to Egypt more than enough with the bishop photo for those who are interesting to read ???????????!!!!!!!! i wonder what do we have with all these ???!!!! we are part of this world and we are part of the way of life here and we like to look after our own interest here ,i do not know what to say but i believe everything is possible in God , may God have mercy on all our souls , amen ……

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  6. Romani
    I was not referring to any problems which may or may not exist internally in our church.
    What I was referring to is the fact that the schism present in the church universal, and which has been present for the last 1557 years, has resulted in most of ‘mainstream christianity’ viewing the succession of coptic bishops from 451AD till today to be ‘Episcopi Vagantes’, illegitimately ordained.
    To most of ‘mainstream christianity’, legitimate coptic bishops cease at Cyril I. All successors of Cyril I to Shenouda III, are seen as illegitimate.
    I was using the phrase ‘Episcopi Vagantes’ (I’m assuming the term is derived from the words ‘vagrant bishops’) in the same context as Fr Antonios.

    This is the sad thing.

    Any perceived internal problems within the church, I believe, are blown right out of proportion, like comments and claims such as those made by yourself (I mean no insult or critisism by this comment, Egyptians are opinionated and critical by nature, especially when it comes to their church, and the problems they think exist within it. Everybody has an opinion and wants it heard and acted upon. However, this I think, is very unproductive and unnecessary. It is very dangerous, and causes most of the problems we encounter and are encountered by our bishop).

    One last comment, we are directly linked to the church in Egypt. We wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the struggle of the mother church, a struggle which has been fought for centuries, and continues to be fought today in the face of religious injustices.
    We have everything to do with the mother church, as much as the mother church has to do with us. We are THE Coptic Church, one church whether we are in Egypt, Australia, or elsewhere.
    To criticise this is to disrespect our church as a whole.
    Personally, I think we should be happy to hear about the mother church, as much as the mother church is happy to hear report of the churches outside of Egypt (as I am sure it is). In such case, we are joyful together in each others happy times, and sorrow together in each others tribulations.

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  7. Nathan mate i believe it is the beginning of the end of our churches if the way of doing things continue like that , i hope time will prove me wrong … i reckon a lot of work needs to be done at all levels …i mentioned we are part of the church of Egypt and that i believe all we love and respect that and i mentioned too that it would be enough a couple of lines about that issue or Egypt or whatever and it would be better put some news about our local churches here and some of those spiritual issues would be of benefit and interest to most of the local flock of Christ in this part of the world , mate look after own local affairs and fix our own house and backyard problems …. on the same token ,mate it would be a dangerous thought if one day if the churches in the migration countries including our church in Australia would only think to separate from the mother church of Egypt !!!??? we can not pull and throw away our roots , that is the real disaster …

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  8. ‘I believe it is the beginning of the end of our churches if the way of doing things continues like that’…

    Like what exactly?????

    Forgive me for completely disagreeing with this statement, it is a pretty big statement to make!

    Our church is in the best shape it has been in, in modern times.
    Our church has been pulled out of the chaos of the 1940s and 1950s.
    God saved our church out of the turmoil of the era of HH Yusab II. An era which could potentially have brought our whole church into ruin and disrepair.
    After the era of HH Yusab II our church was blessed with one of the most holy men of our time, one who I am sure in the near future, will be officially recognised as one of the blessed saints of our church.
    HH Kyrillos VI brought the church out of disrepair, and began the modern ‘spiritual revolution’ of the Coptic Church. His era saw the unrest within the church, cease. His era rebuilt the mutual respect and the relationship between the Egyptian government and the church. His era saw the re-opening of many of the monastaries in Egypt, and the beginning of the spread of the Coptic Church outside of the African continent.
    He was one of the most simple, most humble men of this time, and yet he was chosen, and succeeded to lead the church out of what could have been ‘it’s end’, to use your words.

    However, this spirtuality, built by HH Kyrillos VI, could have once again died out in the face of the 21st century.
    So God did not stop there. It was not enough to rebuild the sprituality of the church into its formal glory, it had to be rebuilt into the former intellectual church it once was; in the days of Athanasius I, Cyril I and Dioscorus I.
    So God chose another simple man to lead the church into an ‘intellectual revolution’. HH Shenouda III, who I am sure will be recognised by our grandchildren as one among the saints, built on the church that HH Kyrillos VI left behind. He has brought the church into the modern era, while still preserving his predecessors work. The ‘spiritual revolution’ is continuing, hand in hand with the ‘intellectual revolution’. The church has now spread to all continents, the liturgy translated into many languages. We have an 80 odd strong synod of bishops, hundreds of clergymen, and people are flocking to monsatries like never before, many chosing to stay. The children and the youth are flocking to church and enjoying it. The literature produced by the church is plentiful, its ecumenical work has brought the other churches around the world close to understanding what the coptic church is about, and has been about over the last 1550 or so years. Due to the work of HH Shenouda III we are closer than we have ever been in once again achieving and building the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church, something that all Christians around the would are looking forward to.

    So if you ask me, this is not ‘the beginning of the end for our churches’.
    I do not believe our church has been spoiled!
    Our church has pulled through one of the lowest places in its history.
    It has been blessed with two men who have led it with brilliance, and it continues to be blessed.

    So I think it is the beginning of the greatest era in the history of our church. I can only imagine what kind of church my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will inherit, but I am confident that it will be one which will be even greater than the one we live today.

    Those are my thoughts…

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  9. usually during Sundays mass and exactly during the time of the holy communion and after it till the end of the church , the church becomes very noisy and people chat with one another and a lot of strange and unnecessary movements all over the place including outside and inside the church !!! i believe , this is not a good attitude from the congregation and usually the priest stops for a while or talk in the mike and remind the congregation it is the holiest part of the mass and they should attend quietly in the fear of God ????!! it had been going on all the time and started to be a chronic problem ?????!!! do the priests and the rest of those congregation who try to do the right thing to live with that ????!!! it makes the person wonder why is this and why the priest has to address it all the time ????!!where is that committee of that church ????!!!why not to go and identify the problem and solve it with the approval of the priest or whatever relevant system of communication in place ??!! isn’t this part of their work ???!! do they expect the priest to solve all such sort of problems around the church ????!!! i believe the issue of concern is very simple , just needs somebody to act and that , they sell “GOURBAN ” in front of the door of the church and the man starts selling just at or before the holly communion , people panic and run not walk to get a bit of the catch before it finishes because i believe most of the congregations they do not like to share and take one only they go and buy two ,three , four and i saw some with five Gourbans in their hand , what is that ??? !!! they get inside the church they start to eat and invite one another so i believe once the problem is identified the solution is easy and needs the right people to act , may our lord Jesus Christ help us to start the new year with less problems in our plates and everybody to the right thing by the other , amen …..

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  10. I am one who like you gets really annoyed at the noise, the chaos and the moving around, and I do think that a little more respect needs to be shown. However the onus of this does not lie on the priests or the servants, it starts at home.

    And when you really think about it, doesn’t the absence of an eerie, ghostly silence and the presence of this sort of chaos indicate that the congregration are comfortable with being at church? And isn’t that really a good thing in a way?

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  11. Kissing your hand dear Abouna and asking for your blessing.

    Your Reverence may be interested in a balanced response to Brandreth’s Book written by one of the Metropolitans of the Coptic Holy Synod. Here is a quote from HE:

    “Such approaches are manifest in the two standard works dealing with the subject: Brandreth’s Episcopi Vagantes and the Anglican Church and Anson’s Bishops at Large. Brandreth’s book is further flawed by an enthusiastic and bitter hostility towards any Orthodox “invasion” of the West, and needs to be understood in the historical context of desperate, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempts by the Anglican authorities (in which Brandreth was involved) to gain approval from the Orthodox Churches as some sort of British equivalent to the Orthodox national churches. This necessitated the preservation of the ethnic mission model of Orthodoxy in the West, and opposition to any alternatives.” endquote.

    Here are some links which may be of interest in this topic:



    Please remember my weakness in your acceptable prayers.

    Fr James.

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