Johannesburg – A high mass of smells and bells, candles and swinging thuribles marked the centenary of a little-known church on the edge of Yeoville, close to Johannesburg’s inner city.
It was inside the St Alban’s, a sanctuary of the Liberal Catholic Church, an offshoot of an offshoot of the Roman Catholic Church that has two parishes in South Africa, the other being in nearby Pretoria.
Its ritual is as catholic as ever but its teachings are on its own tack.
The 100-year-old St Alban’ s Liberal Catholic Church on the Yeoville-Observatory border, in Johannesburg. Picture: Duncan GuyBrenda Lesar, 91, is the congregant who has been part of the 100-year-old St Alban’’s Liberal Catholic Church the longest. Picture: Duncan Guy
“The Liberal is the open mindedness that we have,” explained rector Rev Damon Urbani.
“We don’t believe in imposing dogmas on people. We believe that a closed mind can’t grow.
The 100-year-old St Alban’ s Liberal Catholic Church is one of only two in South Africa. Picture: Duncan Guy
So, interpretation of what we do here is up to them. We don’t tell people what to do. We suggest things.
“We don’t point fingers but we remind people that all actions have consequences.”
Rev Damon Urbani is the rector of St Alban’s Liberal Catholic Church in Johannesburg, which celebrated its centenary on Sunday. Picture: Duncan Guy
Urbani said the Liberal Catholic Church saw a place for other churches and religions and included things like “the raising of our consciousness so that we can break out of the constant cycle of life and death”, which were similar to the teaching of Hindu and Buddhism.
“What makes us different is that we are more mystical. We look deeper, beneath the surface.”
He also pointed out that “liberal” in the church’s name comes from the old meaning of the word: free of thought.
“Socially things are quite conservation,” he said, referring to today’s interpretation of liberal.
The Liberal Catholic Church, which internationally has its headquarters where the presiding archbishop lives – California at the moment – broke away from the Old Catholic Church in 1916 because the Old Catholic Church would not recognise some contributions by Theosophists. The Old Catholic Church had, in turn, broken away from the Roman Catholic Church.
“The Old Catholic Church of Holland, which we get our apostolic succession from, broke away from Rome at the first Vatican Council (1869–70), when the Roman Catholic Church claimed that pope ex-cathedra (with full authority of the office) was infallible.
“We don’t believe that and the Old Catholic Church broke away from the church at that time, with the full apostolic succession, the seven sacraments – everything else that we have in common with the Roman Catholic Church.
“Then we formed a breakaway in 1916 and we are still here today.”
On the ritual, he said it was not only tradition.
“There is a science in the way sacraments are performed. There is energy that you are dealing with. It’s to do with the manipulation of certain energies and working together with angelic hosts.
“That’s why we’ve kept the old way, because the energies flow.”
Church researchers battled to find the site in Johannesburg where the first services were held prior to the building of the present church, only to find it was the building next door in Observatory Avenue, which had served as the Adyar Theosophical Complex. A resident there, a Miss Knudsen, also donated the land that the present church is built on.
In its early days, most people travelled in a horse cart, a “Spider”, to church. Lion tracks were once seen on its boundary.
Among the worshippers at the centenary mass was 91-year-old Brenda Lesar, whose parents had attended it, who met and married her husband there.
“It’s very open and encourages everybody. It believes in these other qualities, such as reincarnation,” she said.
While mass is no longer in Latin, duet Dominique Deysel and Brendan Roche-Kelly sang “Anima Christ” while worshippers took communion.
Independent on Saturday