On 28th September 2023, members of the Old Brotherhood of the English Secular Clergy gathered at Westminster Cathedral to celebrate its 400th anniversary. This group of clergy, limited to 24 members who are elected by their peers, meets twice a year for ‘Consults’ and administers a small charitable fund.
In its early years, the Old Brotherhood had an important role in the leadership of English and Welsh Catholics. After the accession of Elizabeth I, there were no active Catholic bishops present on English soil. There was a leadership vacuum, and priests and laity were effectively left to their own devices. Various solutions were tried and finally in 1623 William Bishop was appointed as Vicar Apostolic of England and Scotland, the first resident Catholic bishop for over 60 years.
Bishop quickly introduced order where chaos had once reigned. On 10th September 1623 he established a Chapter, initially of 20 (later 24) canons. They were tasked with assisting the bishop and securing a smooth process of succession. Unfortunately, Bishop died the following year, before his Chapter could be canonically confirmed by the Holy See. Nevertheless, it was confirmed by the next Vicar Apostolic, Richard Smith, and after he went into self-imposed exile in France, the Chapter effectively governed the Catholic Church in England up until the 1680s. It maintained an agent in Rome, granted faculties and dispensations, and discussed candidates for episcopal appointment. Most famously, in 1662 it authorised the dispensation for the marriage of Charles II and the Catholic Catherine of Braganza.
It continued to meet, even after a new system of bishops (Vicars Apostolic) was introduced in the 1680s. The ‘Old Chapter’ included well-known leaders and scholars, including Richard Challoner, John Milner and John Lingard. In 1862 it was officially renamed the ‘Old Brotherhood of the English Secular Clergy.’ Twentieth century members included Mgr Ronald Knox, the famous Catholic convert, writer and preacher.
The ‘Old Brothers’ and their President, Mgr John Allen, were joined for this 400th anniversary celebration by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster who celebrated Mass for the brotherhood at the shrine of St John Southworth, one of the English Martyrs. A Reception for all was hosted by the Cardinal at Archbishop’s House.