A recent dip into familiar sources about spirituality led me back to A. Elliott Peaston’s The Prayer Book Tradition in the Free Churches (1964; one-hour loan available from Internet Archive) and particularly to its chapter on the Free Catholics. Less than a tradition, but more than a whim, for about a decade after the Great War, the Society of Free Catholics stood against sectarianism, attempted to integrate the heritage of the Church with the contemporary world and in doing so elevated beauty. I’m all ears.
This is a counter-narrative that the war infected the liberal churches with a terminal malaise. Sure, it’s a shame it was a minority interest, but their books — especially the liturgies — remain. When I read about them, I want to know more, and so for a while most of my articles will be linked to this theme, at least tangentially.
There’s a temptation to put the Free Catholics in the Unitarian orbit, but this would be a mistake. While the leading voices had a Unitarian background, they rejected its sectarianism and in their own lives stayed outside (British) Unitarian institutions. Also, the Society of Free Catholics were a diverse bunch, even embracing some Roman Catholics, though admittedly on the Modernist end. All the same, even if liturgies the created Free Catholics — and those that inspired them — found their way into the Unitarian-Universalist Hymns of the Spirit and into the minority consciousness of what deep liberal Christian worship looks like.
- A decent article about the Free Catholics, from Church Times (February 5, 2021) Note: prayers from John Hunter’s service book is used in U.S. Unitarian service books.