Episcopi vagantes (singular: episcopus vagans) are persons who have been consecrated as Christian bishops outside the structures and canon law of the established churches and are in communion with no generally recognized diocese. Also included are those who have in communion with them a group so small that it appears to exist solely for the bishop's sake.[1]

The term is Latin and means "wandering bishops" (or "stray bishops"). Those to whom it is applied see it as pejorative.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church mentions as the main streams of succession deriving from episcopi vagantes in the twentieth century those founded by Arnold Mathew, Joseph René Vilatte, and Leon Chechemian.[1] Others that could be added are those derived from Aftimios Ofiesh, Carlos Duarte Costa, and Pierre Martin Ngô Đình Thục

Theological issues

In Western Christianity it has traditionally been taught, since as far back as the time of the Donatist controversy, that any bishop can consecrate any other baptised man as a bishop provided that he 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.

Some theologians, within the Roman Catholic Church and elsewhere, question whether all such consecrations have effect, on the grounds that an ordination is for service within a specific Christian church. Therefore an ordination ceremony that concerns only the individual himself does not, they say, correspond to the definition of an ordination and is without effect. The Holy See has not commented on the correctness or erroneousness of this theory. Other theologians, notably those of the Eastern Orthodox Church, dispute this notion, but it can be seen how such an understanding opens up the possibility of valid but irregular consecrations proliferating outside the structures of the "official" denominations.

A distinction is also made in Catholic theology between the conferral of the sacramental powers associated with the episcopacy and the conferral of jurisdiction: the authority of a bishop to govern his people. In Roman Catholic canon law, a bishops's sacramental power is to some extent entwined with his jurisdiction (or lack of it): jurisdiction is required for valid celebration of the sacraments of Penance and Matrimony. Jurisdiction can be conferred only within the official structures of the church under the Pope. Catholic episcopi vagantes sometimes appeal to the principle that, in emergency situations, jurisdiction is automatically "supplied" even where it has not explicitly been conferred ("ecclesia supplet").

The Eastern Orthodox Church's position has been summarised as follows:

While accepting the canonical possibility of recognising the existence (υποστατόν) of sacraments performed outside herself, (the Eastern Orthodox Church) questions their validity (έγκυρον) and certainly rejects their efficacy (ενεργόν)."[2] It sees "the canonical recognition (αναγνώρισις) of the validity of sacraments performed outside the Orthodox Church (as referring) to the validity of the sacraments only of those who join the Orthodox Church (individually or as a body)."[2]

This applies to the validity and efficacy of the ordination of bishops and the other sacraments, not only of the Independent Catholic Churches, but also of all other Christian churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, Oriental Orthodoxy and the Assyrian Church of the East.


Many episcopi vagantes claim succession from the Old Catholic See of Utrecht, or from Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, or Eastern Catholic Churches. A few others derive their orders from Roman Catholic bishops who have consecrated their own bishops after disputes with the Holy See.

Many, if not most, episcopi vagantes are associated with Independent Catholic Churches. They may be very liberal or very conservative. Episcopi vagantes may also include some conservative "Continuing Anglicans" who have broken with the Anglican Communion over various issues such as Prayer Book revision, the ordination of women and the ordination of unmarried, non-celibate individuals (including homosexuals).

Particular consecrations of episcopi vagantes

When it declared devoid of canonical effect the consecration ceremony conducted by Archbishop Pierre Martin Ngô Đình Thục for the Carmelite Order of the Holy Face group at midnight of 31 December 1975, the Holy See refrained from pronouncing on its validity. It made the same statement with regard also to later ordinations by those bishops, saying that, "as for those who have already thus unlawfully received ordination or any who may yet accept ordination from these, whatever may be the validity of the orders (quidquid sit de ordinum validitate), the Church does not and will not recognise their ordination (ipsorum ordinationem), and will consider them, for all legal effects, as still in the state in which they were before, except that the ... penalties remain until they repent" (Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Decree Episcopi qui alios of 17 September 1976 - Acta Apostolicae Sedis 1976, page 623).

A similar declaration was issued with regard to Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo's conferring of episcopal ordination on four men - all of whom, by virtue of previous Independent Catholic consecrations, claimed already to be bishops - on 24 September 2006: the Holy See, as well as stating that, in accordance with Canon 1382 of the Code of Canon Law, all five men involved incurred automatic ("latae sententiae") excommunication through their actions, declared that "the Church does not recognise and does not intend in the future to recognise these ordinations or any ordinations derived from them, and she holds that the canonical state of the four alleged bishops is the same as it was prior to the ordination."[3]

In contrast, the Holy See has questioned neither the validity nor the canonical effect of the consecrations that the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre performed in 1988 for the service of the relatively numerous followers of the Traditionalist Catholic Society of St. Pius X that he had founded.

Some have questioned the mental capacity of Archbishop Ngô to form the requisite intention to consecrate. On this question it would be extremely difficult to obtain a definitive objective judgement. Ngô was advanced in age and was reportedly experiencing a dementia at the time of his actions in question.


See also


  • Episcopi Vagantes and the Anglican Church. Henry R.T. Brandreth. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1947.
  • Episcopi vagantes in Church History. A.J. Macdonald. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1945.
  • Bishops at Large. Peter F. Anson. New York City: October House Publishing, 1963.
  • The Wandering Bishops: Apostles of a New Spirituality by Lewis Keizer. 2000 edition. [1] pdf
  • Independent Bishops: An International Directory, edited by Gary L. Ward, Bertil Persson, and Alan Bain. Apogee Books, 1990
  • Episcopi Vagantes and the Challenge to Catholic Ministry, an MA thesis by James Ford, Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, California, 1991.
  • The Priesthood Renewed: The Personal Journey of a Married Priest, by Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, HSA Publications, New York, NY, 2005.

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