The British Patriarchate Restored After 24 Years In Commission

Origins of the British Patriarchate

          The British Orthodox Church is in direct historical continuity with the mission of Julius (Ferrette), Bishop of Iona (1825-1904), who came to the British Isles “as a bishop consecrated for a Western Mission by one of the Eastern Churches.”[1] Anciently the only Primates to be called Patriarchs were the bishops of the five historic sees of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, but in the course of time (and especially during the twentieth century the primates of the newly independent churches of Russia (1589-1720, revived in 1917), Roumania (1925), Serbia (1920) and Bulgaria (1946) assumed Patriarchal rank, whilst Britain did so towards the end of the nineteenth century.

          The first British Patriarch was a Welshman, Richards Williams Morgan (1815-1889), who adopted the ancient British see of Caerleon-upon Usk, and  who under the title of His Holiness Pelagius, Bishop & Hierarch of the British Church from c. 1874-1889, published the Altar Service of the British Church in 1878, in which he noted:

“1. The British Church was founded by the Apostles and Apostolic Missions A.D. 49 – four centuries before the Foreign Roman Papal Church was founded in Kent by Pope Gregory and St. Augustine – fifteen centuries before the present State Church was established by Henry VIII.

2. In accordance with its name, as the Primitive Apostolic Patriarchal Church of the British Isles, older and nobler as a National Church than any other Church in Europe, it rejects all foreign authority or jurisdiction whatever.”

          His successor, as second British Patriarch (1889-1917), was Charles Isaac Stevens (1835-1917), who was style Mar Theophilus “Archbishop of Caerleon, Caertroia, Verulam, &c.; and Patriarch ŒC in the Church of God” but was also referred to as “Abp. Stevens, Pat. British Church”. The third British Patriarch (1917-1919) was James Martin (1843-1919) who also held the see of Caerleon-on-Usk and was styled “Mar Jacobus Antipas, Archbishop and Patriarch”.  His successor, as fourth British Patriarch (1919-1922) was Andries Caarel Albertus McLaglen (1851-1928), who styled himself as “Archbishop and Patriarch of the Ancient British Church” but retained the see title of Claremont, to which he had been originally consecrated rather than adopting that of Caerleon. His successor, Herbert James Monzani-Heard (1867-1947), styled Mar Jacobus II, also retained his original see title of ‘Archbishop of Selsey’ when he became the fifth British Patriarch in 1922 upon the abdication of Mar Andries. It was Mar Jacobus II, in his capacity as Fifth British Patriarch, who was responsible for promulgating “The Statutes of the British Patriarchate”[2] on 9 September 1943, which have been one of the constitutional foundations of the British Orthodox Church for the past 75 years.

In 1943 Mar Jacobus II abdicated in favour of Mar Georgius I, Archbishop of Glastonbury (1905-1979), who upon succeeding attached his rank to his episcopal see by using the style “Patriarch of Glastonbury”, but in 1969 reverted to the style of ‘Metropolitan of the Holy City of Glastonbury, the Occidental Jerusalem, and Sixth British Patriarch’.[3]

In 1977, at the episcopal consecration of Mar Seraphim (as he was then styled) as coadjutor, in order to show continuity with his predecessors the former see of Caerleon-upon-Usk was revived. By virtue of having been consecrated as Mar Georgius’ Perpetual Coadjutor cum jure successionis Mar Seraphim, immediately succeeded his predecessor at his death on 28 February 1979 in all his titles and offices; and at his Solemn enthronement at Glastonbury on 11 August 1979 was publicly proclaimed as ‘Metropolitan of the Holy City of Glastonbury, the Occidental Jerusalem, and Seventh British Patriarch.”[4] 

On 6 April 1994 Abba Seraphim (as he was now styled) and the late Pope Shenouda III jointly signed a Protocol defining the relationship between the Orthodox Church of the British Isles (the former title of the British Orthodox Church) and the Coptic Orthodox Church.[5] On 16 June 1994 – three days before his formal consecration as Metropolitan in Cairo –– having ceased to exercise his Patriarchal office out of courtesy to Pope Shenouda, but desirous to make provision for the preservation of the British Patriarchate as an ecclesiastical and historical jurisdiction, and in order to prevent specious claimants asserting claims thereto; as well as providing for some future eventuality when it might be revived by due and canonical authority for the good of the British Orthodox Church, Abba Seraphim placed the office of British Patriarch into commission.[6]   

Having eventually resumed its independence, on 5 October 2015 the British Orthodox Church in a “Joint announcement from the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom and the British Orthodox Church”[7], at the time made no change to the status of the British Patriarchate.  However, with February 2019 marking the completion of forty years of Abba Seraphim’s pontificate, the time was deemed to be appropriate to restore the British Patriarchate to its pre-1994 status. At a meeting of the Commissioners held at Cusworth on 22 December 2018, it was resolved that the Office of British Patriarch currently held in commission should be restored to active exercise;  that Abba Seraphim should resume this with immediate effect; and that the Trust established in 1994 should be wound up and the Commissioners cease to hold office as such.[8] In a Decree dated 23 December 2018, Abba Seraphim announced that with effect from 1 January 2019 he would resume the public exercise of his Office as VIIth British Patriarch with the style and title under which he was duly enthroned at Glastonbury and would henceforth be known as ‘His Beatitude’ rather than ‘His Eminence’. [9]

[1] Vide Abba Seraphim, Flesh of Our Brethren. An historical examination of Western episcopal successions originating from the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch (British Orthodox Press, London: 2017).

[2] British Orthodox Church archives, Addit. Mss 7(i)/3.

[3] Mar Ignatius Peter, Ignorance is Bliss. The Historical Evidence for the British Patriarchate, (Metropolitical Press, Glastonbury: 1985).

[4] “An Act of the Holy Governing Synod proclaiming the Lawful & Canonical Succession of His Beatitude Mar Seraphim I to the Apostolic Throne of Glastonbury”, Glastonbury Chartulary, Vol. I, 1. (3 March 1979); “Memorial concerning the Solemn Enthronement of His Beatitude Mar Seraphim I as Metropolitan of Glastonbury & Seventh British Patriarch”, Glastonbury Chartulary, AS Vol. I, 14 (11 August 1979).

[5] “Protocol determining the relationship of the British Orthodox Church of the British Isles (BOCBI) to the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria”, Glastonbury Chartulary, AS Vol. XVI, 2 (6 April 1994).

[6] “Trust Deed for the Commissioners holding the office of British Patriarch”, Glastonbury Chartulary, Vol. AS XVI, 5A (16 June 1994)

[7] The Glastonbury Review, No. 127 (December 2017), p. 9.

[8] “Resolution of the Commissioners of the British Patriarchate”, Glastonbury Chartulary, AS Vol. XL, 24

[9] “Decree concerning the Restoration of the British Patriarchate”, Glastonbury Chartulary, AS Vol. XL, 25, 23 December 2018).