For a hundred years this great church in Gordon Square has been the central church of the Catholic Apostolic Church and many visitors are, naturally, interested in the history of this body. This brief account is an attempt to satisfy such a need.
In the early part of the nineteenth century, particularly the period 1820-1830, the evangelical influence in England was the dominating one, and in the great clash of nations which we associate with the Napoleonic wars and in the resettlement of Europe after that time, a close attention to the literal meaning of scripture led to a vigorous interest in those scriptural prophecies which are apocalyptic, that is to say, concerned with the signs of the last times and the end of world history.
Close to Gordon Square is Regent Square, and at the corner it is still possible to see the Presbyterian Church in which the Scottish minister, Edward Irving (1792-1834), exercised his remarkable ministry. His fervent preaching on the subject of the Antichrist, and the imminent return of Christ in glory, brought together a remarkable congregation. In the early 1830's there were a number of reports of the healing of people apparently incurable, and above all, of instances of 'speaking with tongues'. Irving's own congregation in Regent Square began to experience some of these things.
Meanwhile, in Albury Park in Surrey, on the estate of the wealthy evangelical banker, Henry Drummond (1786-1860), a group of people had been meeting together to study the scriptures with a similar interest in prophecy and the revival of the spiritual gifts associated with the formative days of Christianity. The expulsion of Irving from the Presbyterian Church brought his group into association with that led by Drummond, and, at a prayer meeting held in the year 1833 (the year associated by most Anglicans with Keble's famous Assize Sermon, from which most of the early Tractarians deemed that their movement had begun), Drummond prophesied and, turning to a lawyer called John Cardale, said to him,'Are you not an apostle?'. So the new apostolate began, and the gradual evolution of a church order, based as faithfully as they knew how, upon a strict obedience to the scriptures, began.
The number of apostles soon grew to the obvious number of twelve, and by 1835 there were seven parishes in London. It was never the intention of the founders to establish another sect, but rather to be a purifying and regenerative force in what they believed to be a feeble and apostate christendom. Their first joint pastoral letter, two hundred pages long, was addressed to the 'Patriarchs, Archbishops, Bishops and other heads of Christ's Church on earth and other Regents ruling over all baptised nations'; one of the puzzled recipients of this Apostolic Testimony was the Pope himself.
In 1840 there was a crisis of authority between the Prophets, representing the initial impulse of the movement, and the Apostles, who managed to assert their authority over those who valued the charismatic gifts of the Spirit. Then followed a period during which an elaborate liturgy and traditionalist church order was developed. Out of the Roman Missal, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Greek Liturgy was compiled a rich and dignified service, and the leaders began rapidly to assimilate to themselves all those outward elements of catholic liturgical practice, vestments, Reservation of the Eucharist, incense, which their Anglican brethren were struggling to regain against the weight of the authority of the Queen in Parliament.
Converts to the Catholic Apostolic Church were not required to leave the church to which they already belonged, and in addition to England, the church gathered in many adherents in Germany and Scandinavia, where liturgical worship in a form which did not involve submission to the Papacy made a profound appeal to christians of Reformed background.
But one after another the original apostles died, the last in 1901. Since his death no ordinations have taken place, and now even the derivative ministries of priest and deacon are likewise passing away. Most of the members of the church are Anglican communicants, and we might be allowed to reflect with grateful thanksgiving upon the way in which these earnest and Bible-centred christians of over a hundred years ago have seen the ideals which were so dear to them then affirmed once more by the very churches which they pardonably described in the 1820's as 'apostate'. Their ecumenical spirit, their emphasis upon the scriptural sacraments, their strong sense of church discipline, are commonplaces today of all orthodox christianity as it struggles painfully towards spiritual renewal and unity in truth.