BEGINNINGS TO 1922

As most church historians know, the first group of episcopal governed Anglicans to separate from the Church of England were the Non-jurors who existed from 1689 to 1805 when the last of their bishops died without a successor. These very devout people initially left the mother church over maintaining their allegiance to the Royal House of Stuart after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. They were traditional High Churchmen, but over time became interested in the Eastern Orthodox Churches and adopted several practices of those churches. Indeed, towards the end of the Non-jurors existence they had started to refer to themselves as ‘the remant of the Ancient British Church’ or ‘the Orthodox British Church’.

On 6 June 1866 a former French Roman Catholic missionary priest, Raymond Ferrette (1828 to 1904), was consecrated a bishop, with the religious name of ‘Mar Julius’, under the authority of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and was sent to England to initiate an indigenous and autonomous Orthodox Church as a step towards reunion between western and eastern Christians. On 6 March 1874 at Marholm, Northants, England he consecrated the Rev’d Richard Williams Morgan (1815 to 1899), a clergyman in the Church of England, as the native British bishop in this plan. Bishop Morgan, taking the religous name of ‘Mar Pelagius I’, re-established the Ancient British Church, while continuing his duties as an Anglican clergyman and as a historian of note. Exactly five years later, on 6 March 1879 he consecrated his successor as head of this church, the Rev’d Charles Isaac Stevens (1835 to 1917), a former presbyter of the Reformed Episcopal Church of the UK. Bishop Stevens took the religious name of ‘Mar Theophilus I’. It is interesting to note that Bishop Stevens’ co-consecrators were bishops in the Order of Corporate Reunion – a body of independent clergy who wanted the Church of England to reunite with the Roman Catholic Church! One of the co-consecrators was Dr. Frederick George Lee, who was a literal descendant of the Non-juroring bishop Dr. Timothy Newmarsh who had been consecrated in 1726. This Ancient British Church was to revive the high church and liturgical principles of the former Non-jurors in opposition to the Anglo-Catholicism that was sparked within the Church of England by the beginnings of the Oxford Movement in 1833.

Meantime, in 1888 the Nazarene Episcopal Church was founded by the Rev’d James Martin (1843 to 1919) who established his headquarters at Flaxman Road, Loughborough Junction, London, S.E.5. On 11 April 1888 it received episcopal succession when Bishop Alfred Spencer Richardson of the Reformed Episcopal Church of the UK consecrated Dr. Martin. In 1890 Bishop Martin founded Nazarene College to serve as the seminary of his jurisdiction.

In 1885, while he served as a priest for the Armenian Catholic Church community – a church body in union with the Roman Catholic Church – in Constantinople (from 1881 to 1885), Bishop Leon Checkemian (1848 to 1920) through contacts with Anglicans, converted to Reform Protestantism and resolved to emigrate to England. Dr. Checkemian had earlier served as an assistant bishop (from 1878 to 1881) for his ethnic group in Malatia (his birthplace), Asia Minor, having received consecration on 23 April 1878 from Armenian Catholic Archbishop Leon Korkorunian (1822 to 1897). As a newcomer he at first found work as a common labourer in order to survive and studied at New College, a Presbyterian seminary. By 1889 his command of English was such that he obtained employment in Belfast, Ireland through the Presbyterian Church and became a noted lecturer and preacher in the Protestant churches in that city. In order to bring his fellow British Armenian refugees into a non-papal church, Dr. Checkemian established the United Armenian Catholic Church in the British Isles on 15 August 1889.

The following year, Dr. Checkemian created the Free Protestant Church of England as a common meeting place for all types of Protestant christians – Anglicans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, etc. On 4 May 1890, in order to remove any doubts as to his episcopal status, he received consecration from the above mentioned Bishops Charles Isaac Stevens and Alfred Spencer Richardson.

Dr. Checkemian came to the attention of the Most Rev’d and the Rt. Honble Dr. William C. Plunket (1828 to 1897), the fourth Baron Plunket, Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of the Church of Ireland. Archbishop Plunket hated the creeping Anglo-Catholicism within the Anglican Communion which he viewed as an trojan horse for Papal re-establishment over the Church of England. He dreamt as a counter measure of establishing Reformed Episcopal churches in spheres of Roman Catholic influence. He saw Dr. Checkemian’s idea of the United Armenian Catholic Church as part of the above plan and endorsed it by giving Dr. Checkemian a license to officiate as an clergyman within the Church of Ireland. It was Lord Plunket’s hope that eventually this church would be established within the Armenian homeland as an replacement for the Armenian Uniate Church. In 1894 he was able to help establish the Spanish Reformed Episcopal Church by consecrating its founder, a former Roman Catholic priest, the Rev’d Juan Bautista Cabrera (1837 to 1916), as its first bishop. Unfortunately, on 1 April 1897 Lord Plunket died before he could help Dr. Checkemian expand the United Armenian Catholic Church back to Turkey.

In the meantime, Bishop Checkemian had moved to London, where he was in close contact with the above mentioned independent bishops. They realised that they could be a better witness for evangelical Anglicanism if they could merge their resources together as one church body. On 2 November 1897 the Free Protestant Episcopal Church of England was formed with the union of the Free Protestant Church, the Ancient British Church, and the Nazarene Episcopal Church, with Dr. Checkemian as its first Primus. Dr. Checkemian retained the headship of the United Armenian Catholic Church as an separate organisation from this union. The FPEC was inaugurated on the above date in St. Stephen’s Church, East Ham, London when Dr. Checkemian, Dr. Stevens, and Dr. James Martin first consecrated George W.L. Maeers (for the Spanish Reformed Episcopal Church) and Frederick W. Boucher to the episcopal bench. These five bishops in turn then consecrated Andrew Charles Albert McLaglen (1851 to 1928). The 1878 Constitution and Canons of the Reformed Episcopal Church of the UK was adopted for use in the new FPEC.

In December 1900 Dr. Checkemian retired as Primus of the FPEC and Archbishop of the United Armenian Catholic Church and was succeeded by Dr. Stevens as head of both church bodies. On 2 February 1917 Dr. Stevens died and Dr. Martin became the third head of the Church. Two years later on 20 October 1919 Dr. Martin died and was succeeded as Primus by Dr. McLaglen. On 3 December 1920 Dr. Checkemian died.

The high point of the FPEC was when it obtained recognition by the British Government as a legally constiuted denomination. This fact was established in early 1917 when the Venerable Ernest Albert Asquith, Ph.D. (1884 to 1942), 26 Speldhurst Rd., London, the Archdeacon of the Church, was a test case under the Military Service Act of 1916. Clergymen could obtain an exemption from military service under the terms of this Act. The officiating magistrate gave his decision that the Ven. Dr. Asquith was a lawfully ordained minister of a legally constituted Episcopal Church, and therefore a man in Holy Orders within the meaning of the Act. His Worship arrived at this conclusion after investigating the origin of the Orders of the Church and the services used for ordinations and consecrations which are based on the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

In early 1922 Primus McLaglen decided to appoint his successors as the head of the Free Protestant Episcopal Church, the Ancient British Church, and the United Armenian Catholic Church. On 4 June 1922 in St. Andrew’s Church, Retreat Place, London, he consecrated Francis George Widdows (1850 to 1936) and Herbert James Monzani Heard (1866 to 1947) to the episcopate. Bishop Widdows, a former Roman Catholic Franciscan monk, in 1886 had become a non-conformist minister at the Church of Martin Luther congregation at 26 Speldhurst Road, South Hackney. In 1909 this church became affiliated with the FPEC. +Widdows was given the title of Ignatius, Bishop of Hackney and was to become the new Primus of the FPEC at a later date. Bishop Monzani Heard, who was the then headmaster of Raleigh College in Brixton, South London, was immediately made the head of the Ancient British and United Armenian Catholic churches. By that time these three jurisdictions were “paper churches” as there were no formal congregations for any of them; however, the FPEC had canons to organise parishes (the hope) and to allow for independent congregations to be under its bishops oversight (the reality). +Widdows had a chequered history of being in prison on morals charges (he was a known homosexual in an age when it was illegal in the UK to be so) and on the other hand ministering for many years to his extremely loyal congregation. Primus McLaglen apparently had second thoughts about him being his successor as head of the FPEC and within the year had him removed from that succession and had any mention of +Widdows stricken from the official records of the Church. There is some dispute that +Widdows was ever consecrated, but the oral tradition amongst later FPEC bishops plus the writings of other historians state that it was so. FPEC clergy, rather than having explicit FPEC parishes, served as nonconformist ministers in other denominations and public institutions such as hospitals, gaols, and college chapels.