What image do you have of an exclusive club? If asked to define the word "club", most would find it relatively easy. A group of people who belong for some special objective. That separates them already from the rest of mankind. But "exclusive" defines even further, and for most of us it implies something we would never aspire to.
The College of Cardinals is rather an exclusive club. In the imagination, the College of Cardinals would be seen against the background of Roman colonnades and fountains, and the image of cardinals at play is rather attractive, particularly when one thinks of the games they might play — hunt the Pope, or hide and seek among the Roman congregations.
The bishops' conference is a club, but not exclusive, because some are less equal than others. Auxiliary bishops do not count on a par with archbishops, because they have no vote on matters financial.
But there is one group of clergy who are little known and who are distinguished by the fact that you cannot join them, who have a very honoured place in the history of our Church, and that is the Old Chapter and Brotherhood, founded in 1623. They constitute a group of clerics who were initially appointed to maintain the continuity of authority within the Church. They were founded when the hierarchy of bishops ceased to be, with the death of the last of the bishops deposed by Elizabeth I for refusing the oath of royal supremacy. Dioceses ceased to be, with no bishop. This structure had been in the Church for 1,500 years, and the Chapter had always been there: a group of priests to advise the bishop, and to put forward names, three at a time, as possible bishops.
The martyrdoms of Catholics had started in 1535 in the early days of the English Reformation, and the English martyrs bear witness to the sporadic persecution that took place through the rest of that century and beyond. Cardinal William Allen had exercised authority as prefect of the English Mission from 1581 to 1594. The use of the name "the English Mission" denoted, as far as Rome was concerned, that England had become a missionary territory.
After Allen's death, there was to be a succession of archpriests (who were merely the senior priest, with no juridical powers). It was on 3rd March 1623 that Pope Gregory XV appointed a Vicar Apostolic with ordinary jurisdiction and the title of Bishop of Calcedon. William Bishop (for that was his name) was consecrated in Paris on 4th June 1623, landed in Dover on 31st July, and on 11th September, he appointed a Chapter of Canons. To Rome, he wrote to explain why: "The Dean and Chapter have many privileges and . . . one that we chiefly aim at, which is that episcopal jurisdiction doth remain among them until a new bishop be chosen and consecrated. We have but one bishop. If God should call him, then were all episcopal jurisdiction lost in our country unless there be Dean and Chapter to conserve it".
But the Curia in Rome made no attempt to confirm the Chapter in its jurisdiction, and the bishop was indeed to die. However, the Chapter sent up names for a new bishop, and Richard Smith was chosen. Sadly, conflict arose between the secular clergy and the regulars (the religious orders). It is a sad aspect of the history of this time, that when the Church at large was suffering persecution and deprivation of its liberties, sections of the Church could spend so much time and energy quarrelling among themselves.
Unfortunately Bishop Smith was forced into exile in France in 1631, for 24 years until his death in 1655. From France he continued to rule. He had confirmed the jurisdiction of his chapter, so that when he died in 1655, the Chapter ruled the Church in England for the next 30 years.
Rome was reluctant to appoint a bishop because the Pope felt that the office of Vicar Apostolic was more appropriate to the circumstances prevailing in England. The Vicar Apostolic was a bishop without a particular diocese. He could be in charge of vast areas of land, and this would be a tidy way of starting again. The Chapter could be a tiresome hindrance to a revamped missionary role. The end result of protracted discussions led Rome to pronounce that the authority of the Chapter itself was not established.
In 1865, Pope Innocent XI named John Leyburn, bishop (that is, Vicar Apostolic) for the whole country. Canon Gordon Albion, writing of this, says: "This seemed a provocative appointment, for John Leyburn had been a member of the Chapter since 1667, and was one of the Chapter's nominees for their bishop. Yet on the eve of his consecration as bishop, he had to take an oath not to recognise the Chapter!"
It was all a mess in terms of good order. The Chapter did not declare further jurisdiction but was determined not to disband, but to maintain their corporate existence by regular meetings. In 1688. Rome increased the Vicars Apostolic to four, and the jurisdiction was divided into the London, Midland, Western and Northern districts. Those appointed had all been members of the Chapter.
When the hierarchy was restored in 1850, a rule was made that a member of the Chapter, on becoming a bishop. would cease to be a member of the Chapter. Obviously the situation with the restoration of the hierarchy, changed the status of the Chapter. It no longer made any claims to jurisdiction; the leader was no longer called Dean, but President. It was proud of its historical lineage, from the Church of the Reformation, and indeed of its continuity with the Church of Augustine and Peter.
The name of the Old Chapter was gradually changed to the Old Brotherhood. This was to take it clear of any canonical problems that might occur. In 1840, Gregory XVI increased the four districts to eight, and many appointments were made, half of whom had been Chapter men. It is interesting to recall that among its members were 37 bishops, 25 of them Vicars Apostolic, and 62 heads of colleges. The presidents of Douay (15991792) and of Lisbon (1628-1782) were Chapter men. So too had been Rectors of Valladolid, St Omer, Old Hall, Ushaw, Sedgeley Park, Prior Park. Oscott, Upholland and Wonersh.
Those who belonged to this organisation did not advertise their membership. It was a quiet bonding between these men. Bishop Milner and John Lingaard, the great Catholic historian, were among the brothers. In more recent times, one of the invited clergy was Mgr Ronald Knox, and as Evelyn Waugh records in his biogra h of Knox "Ronald ri htl re arded his co-option to them as the rull recogni
tion of his status. He was no longer. as far as his English Brethren were concerned, a convert on trial, but one of themselves". As Ronald Knox was to say to himself, "the Old Brethren was a body only slightly less exclusive than the College of Cardinals".
The Old Brotherhood is limited to 245 members, elected from the four old districts. It was 11 for London, six for the Northern, five for the Midland, and two for the Western district. where, because of the fewness of Catholics, the Vicars Apostolic were generally Religious — Benedictines or Franciscans.
The Old Brotherhood, then. is a link with the Church of former years, a link to our martyrs and those who nurtured the faith. This is the heritage the Old Brotherhood wishes to pass on. Members meet twice a year to recall the past and toast the present or future, and at each of their meetings, they pass round the snuffbox of Cardinal Reginald Pole, cousin of Henry VIII and once candidate for the papacy. As Archbishop of Canterbury for such a short time, he reconciled England to the Holy See in the Marian reign.