A brief history of the Neo-Gnostic Church is a useful resource for the anti-hierarchical occultist, given the importance it has in some quarters of Continental Occultism. The most familiar example being within the OTO mileau. In America too groups such as AMORC whose leading members were often Martinists have often been disproportionately influenced by members of this Church. It is an influential and little known body within Western Occultism. As an institution it has the potential to serve both a positive and negative role within the Occult community and history has demonstrated that it has done both.
There are four main reasons the Neo-Gnostic Church emerged, one was a not uncommon desire amongst 'Gnostic' Occultists (Rosicrucians, Martinists, Neo-Templars, Esoteric Freemasons and diverse Hermeticists) to recreate a modern Gnosticism for the West, and create an organised body of 'enlightened adepts' that would develop and preserve this (partly due to the confusion of ideas in this area following the popular Occult Revival and sometimes due to more social religious aspirations), as well as develop 'spiritual association' between allied Orders and like-minded individuals; another closely related desire was to study historical Gnosticism and often to reconnect with the original Gnostics, reforging links in a chain of initiation that stretched back in time to ages past (a Romantic aspiration for an 'authentic' heritage often found amongst occultists, as well as the notion that 'spiritually transformative power' could be passed on in some way); thirdly the mystical wing of the Rosicrucians, Neo-Templars and other Christian Hermeticist Orders, desired to take part in certain traditional rituals, such as the Gnostic Mass and Holy Communion, and some felt this required a body of 'ordained priests' to legitimately perform such rites; and finally some traditional Occultists, who did not identify with either Neo-Paganism or an agnostic Humanism, felt the need for the 'practical rituals of life', marriage, funerals, consecrations, absolutions etc, that were denied them as rejecters of orthodox Christianity (being often excommunicated in Catholic countries). This latter issue was particular influencial in France were the Church began. These factors, and some other more narrow motivations, would combine to manifest the Neo-Gnostic Church as we know it today. Which though now fragmented retains a common bond and history.
The idea that a Church was required for this has always been a controversial issue. The historically identifiable Gnostics had no Church in the main, rejecting the idea of a priesthood, though some elitist elect, such as some amongst the Cathars, maintained an authoritive body of Perfecti, and others, principally the Valentinians of Rome and Alexandria, considering themselves part of mainstream Christianity, merged their Gnosticism with what they considered the best of the Roman Church to create a short lived, community with its own Bishops, Deacons and Priests. The Neo-Gnostic Church, for some of the reasons given above, plus deeply embedded religious conditioning perhaps, particularly modelled itself on these later types.
Evidence for authentically surviving Gnostic tradition is rare, particularly in relation to the Neo-Gnostics. Claims and allegations exist of forgotten communities witin more liberal Eastern Churches, that traced their origins to a Gnostic Christianity of one form or another. The Sufis and Jewish Kabbalists were also sometimes said to preserve elements of Gnosticism. Closer to home some have claimed the Cistercians (the Catholic monastic order that ordained and protected the Knights Templars), and in particular their traditional Trappist branch, harboured a crypto-Gnosticism. There is slight evidence of Gnostic influence within factional elements of the Roman Catholic Church, and a little more in the breakaway Old and National Catholic Churches, though a much diluted form. While Catharism was supposed to have lingered in Southern France under local Church toleration. Similarly some branches of 'Scottish' Freemasonry claimed descent from the Templars, if not in their Order itself, then within traditional 'Masonic family lines'. All of these would be peripherally involved in recreating the Gnostic Church but all had tenuous links to genuine Gnosticism at best. Thus some would provide more sensational links with the past.
This Neo-Gnosticism was not cut from one cloth but emerged in different places in slightly different forms, forms destined to eventually merge into one before refragmenting in various schisms.
The five main descents within the Neo-Gnostic tradition are:
Founded in France in 1805 by the esoteric Freemason Fabre-Palaprat, who had recreated the Order of the Knights Templars, based on the bogus Larmenius Charter (a list of Templar Grandmasters, which claimed Hugh de Payen had been initiated in a lineage of adepts beginning with Jesus, and that a line of secret Grandmasters had continued, of which he of course was the latest). Palaprat claimed genuine Christianity was Gnostic and based on a secret Gospel of John. He subsequently produced the Levitikon, a heavily edited version of St John's Gospel, purged of all references to miracles and the ressurection, which included details of mortal Jesus's initiation into the Egyptian Mysteries, that strangely matched Palaprat's own Occult theories. Only one copy of this gospel has ever been found or reproduced and is believed to be in the hands of a well known Neo-Templar Order descended from the remnants of Palaprat's Order of the Temple. His Johannite Church was loosely organised but backed by the influencial Knights of the Cross, an aristocratic lodge of French Freemasons with Orleanist connections, who may have had links with the Templar Masonry of the Duke of Orleans, itself influencial during the French Revolution. Palaprat's Church and Templar Order was very popular in the Napoleanic and early Monarchist periods and performed several pro State, public rituals. It was also involved in clandestine international intrigue. However it's hiatus was brief and it soon shrank under Palaprat's successors following his death in 1838 and eventually fragmented. It seems to have been always consigned to esoteric Freemasonry and those Neo-Templar Orders based on the Larmenius Charter. Several manifestations of which are still active to some degree. The remainder of the Church was eventually absorbed into Synesius's Gnostic Church (EG) in 1895.
Founded in 1848 by the religious eccentric Eugene Vintras, a former factory foreman who in 1839 claimed to have recieved a letter from the Archangel Michael, and subsequently had visions of St Joseph, the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit. He was informed that he was the reincarnation of the prophet Elijah (the Elias of the Rosicrucians), destined to herald the New Age of the Holy Spirit, and that the rightful heir to the throne of France was about to come to power as a part of this era. He subsequently formed the Church of Carmel, whose doctrine was a mix of Gnosticism and the Rosicrucian adaption of Joachimite New Ageism, which predicted the utopian Gnostic Age of the Holy Spirit would follow the Christian Age of the Son and the Judaic Age of the Father. Ideas that would later be radically reformulated by Crowley. The central ritualism of this Church seems to have been outwardly conventionally Catholic, but in private allegedly practised a version of the Catholic Mass involving nudity, ritual masturbation and homosexual acts, which led to his denunciation by the Pope. This only increased his fame however and did much to popularise the Carmelite Church. Again he was heavily backed in the creation of this Church by a secret Monarchist society, the Saviours of Louis XVII, who were in turn supported by the Catholic Hapsburg Dynasty of Austria, and attracted many renegade Catholics to his cause. Amongst this support was his personal mentor a female member of the Johannite Church of aristocratic origins, who refered to herself as Sister Salome (odd as the faction was ostensibly fringe Absolutist - though split that faction weakening it - and the Johannites were allied to their rivals the Orleanists). The organisation of this Church was very informal, decentralised and non-hierarchical, with no official priesthood as such, apart from the Pontiffs appointed to be in charge of each local lay community, and preside over the rituals, liasing back to Vintras. This however led to a great deal of autonomy for each region that was sometimes misused. Sometimes by Orleanists, but more famously by an Occultist Abbe Boullon who was later accused of Satanism. Boullon, who claimed to be the reincarnation of John the Baptist and had a nun as his mistress, began as a close disciple of Vintras, starting his own chapter of the Church, but following the latter's death in 1875 he formed his own breakaway Church, the Society for the Reparation of Souls. Following the infiltration of this Church by Stanislas de Guaita, founder of the Kabbalistic Order of the Rose Cross, it was exposed as a 'Satanic coven', based on Celestification, the ritual use of sex with 'Celestial Beings', Saints and various forms of higher Incubi and Succubi, in order to achieve redemption from sin. This also included ritual sex with lower elementals, souls of the dead and living people in order to pass this redemption and empowerment on to them. More damningly Boullon was said to practise the 'Black Mass', complete with reversed prayers, inverted crosses, defilement of the Eucharist and final orgy. The latter perhaps refering to his use of an excremental Eucharist in unorthodox exorcisms and a 'collective celestification'. Boullon was exposed in de Guaita book the Temple of Satan and a scandal ensued, later de Boullon's friend, the writer J K Huysmans accused de Guaita of black magic and of sending demons against Boullon and himself, and when Boullon died of a heart attack soon after in 1893 he again blamed de Guaita's sorcery. The latter challenged him to a dual however and he withdrew the accusation. Later Boullon's rituals were the supposed inspiration for the Black Mass in Huysman's novel La-bas. Abbe Boullon always denied charges of Satanism however and regarded the Church and Rosicrucians as evil, considering himself a legitimate continuation of the Church of Carmel. The broader origins of the Church remain a mystery, with some regarding Vintras and Boullon as insane at one extreme and others regarding him as a dupe of an Orleanist conspiracy. There being some evidence that his mystical experiences were 'set up' somehow, an idea launching a range of obvious conspiracy theories. The main remnant of the Church of Carmel was absorbed into Bricaud's Universal Gnostic Church (EGU) in 1907.
Founded in 1890 by Jules Doinel, a Spiritualist, Freemason and devotee of Napolean Peyrat's psuedo-Catharism (a popular revival of Catharism from the 1870s, that was to a large extent based on Peyrat's imagination). Doinel had long hoped to create a Cathar Church and claimed to have found a secret Cathar charter empowering him to do so. In the 1880s he was a member of Lady Caithness' Occult Spiritualist circle in Paris, a group that also inspired the Golden Dawn and backed one of its early mediums, Helena Blavatsky, in her mission to create the Theosophical Society. Lady Caithness was the widow of Lord Sinclair of Rosslyn, hereditary Grandmaster of Scottish Freemasonry, inheriting his title and wealth, and had connections with many esoteric 'Scottish' Freemason's, including McGregor Mathers. Her circle had become the Continental centre of this mileau. It was in this period when Doinel (a great visionary according to some and an emotionally unstable schizophrenic according to others) claimed to have had a vision of the 'Aeon Jesus' attended by Bogomil bishops who commanded him to create the Church. In Caithness' circle he allegedly made contact with Cathar and Valentinian spirits and finally with the Helen (Sophia) of Simon Magus, and with the backing and guidance of these Parisian Occultists set about building the Gnostic Church, renaming himself Valentinus II. The doctrine of his Church was rooted in Valentinian Gnosticism, with a seasoning of Simonianism, and structured on Neo-Cathar rituals (an eclectic mix of historical Catharism, Peyratism, Catholic ritual and Doinel's own inventions, such as the Gnostic Mass, which he claimed was first celibrated by the Cathars during their last days in Montsegur!). All of which was passed off as historical Gnosticism. Doinel's Church was highly structured in comparison to its predecessors, having Bishops and Sophias (female clergy), designated with the Tau prefix, Deacons and Priests or Perfecti. Despite being a big hit with Continental Freemasons and Hermeticists (Papus GM of the Kabbalistic Rose Cross, Sedir GM of the Martinist Order and Chamuel GM of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Light being his first Bishops) his unstable nature caused many problems and he eventually converted to Roman Catholicism and resigned in 1895 (and then back to Gnosticism a short while later, assuming a minor role).
Doinel's successor Tau Synesius, the Symbolist poet Fabre des Essarts, was enthroned at a meeting at Lady Caithness' Oratory shortly before she died. He restructured the Gnostic Church in three important ways, firstly he opened it up to a more universal viewpoint, recruiting his close friends Theophane Champrenaud, the French Occultist and Sufism expert, and the Comte de Pourvourville, the esoteric Taoist, as Bishops to reform and 'deepen' the doctrine. Secondly he consecrated Mauveil, one of the last leaders of the Johannite Church into the new Church, effectively merging the two. Finally in search of 'legitimacy' he recieved ordination from his friend Mar Julian Houssye into two schismatic Catholic groups, the Gallican National Catholic Church, the Old Catholic Church, and most significantly into the Syrian Church of Antioch, which claimed various Gnostic lineages within it. Houssye and his friend Archbishop Louis Francois Giraud were both former Trappists, and dwelt in the crossover between the so called Catholic Mages (Occultists in the Roman Catholic and Schismatic Churches) and the Hermetic community. They had both been consecrated in the Villate Succession, the 'legitimising' consecrations just mentioned, brought to them by the renegade Archbishop Mar Villate, another Catholic Mage, with a free economy pack of Holy Oil consecrated by the Patriarch of Antioch himself, as a special gift. Despite the fact that the Antioch claims were tentative to say the least Tau Synesius declared that the Church was now the official heir of the Gnostics. The Gnostic Church was then renamed the Universal Gnostic Church.
In 1906 a schism emerges in the Church apparently orchestrated by an inner order of Occultists led by Papus and Sedir, known as the Knights of Montsegur, who use an ex Trappist called Jean Bricaud as their frontman. Bricaud, or Tau Jean II, was the new president of the Martinist Order, with the backing of Papus, and Grand Hierophant of the newly (re)formed Occult Masonic Rite of Memphis and Mizraim, who had also been consecrated in the Villate Succession by Archbishop Giraud. The schism was over the theology of the Church, with the schismatics accusing the Synod of Synesius of making the Church too mystical and philosophical, and particularly of bringing in 'incomprehensible' Oriental ideas, at the expense of the Western Mystery Tradition and practical Occultism. In turn the camp around Synesius - Chamuel, Champrenaud, Pouvourville, and a young Rene Guenon (who would later make the tradition his own) - derided the schismatics as shallow, superficial and dim. This came to a head in 1907 when Bricaud and his backers broke away to form the Gnostic Catholic Church, and the Synesian loyalists renamed their Church the Gnostic Church of France (perhaps given Bricaud's overseas support and Synesius' close ties with the French National Catholic Church and Gallic Traditionalism).
Bricaud had received the Rite of Memphis and Mizraim from Theodor Reuss, of the German OTO and so called Illuminati Order, after the latter had revived this supposedly ancient Rite of Cagliostro's Egyptian Masonry, with a charter from English Mason John Yarker. In turn Bricaud ordinated Reuss into his Gnostic Catholic Church, making him primate of Germany, and was himself initiated into the OTO as its French Grandmaster. This was quite remarkable given Bricaud's Christian sentiments and the fact that even then Reuss's OTO was a fusion of Hermetic Sex Magic, Tantra and Neo-Borborite Libertine Gnosticism. However Bricaud may have had a double life, as he was also a high ranking member of the remnant of the Church of Carmel, and may have taught Reuss a thing or two!
Subsequently Reuss came under the spell of Aleister Crowley whose Thelema was a mix of Crowley's radical take on Golden Dawn Hermeticism, Tantra and Taoism, a supposed 'Thelemic current' and material from Reuss' OTO and Gnostic Catholic Church. Reuss immediately reworked the OTO system under the guidance of Crowley, making it a channel for the Aeon of Horus. While the German Gnostic Catholic Church became a body for the celebration of Crowley's version of the Gnostic Mass, and later performed baptisms, confirmations, marriages, funerals and exorcisms for Thelemites. Initially intended to unite all future Thelemic Orders worldwide, in practise each subsequent Crowleyan Society and schismatic OTO has tended to maintain its own Church as an appendage. Though they often form the basis of a 'spiritual resonance' between Orders.
Initially Bricaud supported this and maintained good relations with Crowley, considering Thelema a new form of Christian Gnosticism! But as he learned more he broke away, disassociated the French Gnostic Catholic Church from the Germans and renamed his Church the Universal Gnostic Church.
The Liberal Catholic Church is an entirely independent English Gnostic Church that only recently amalgimated into the Neo-Gnostic Church movement. It was founded by Theosophist C W Leadbeater and Gnostic Christian J I Wedgewood of the English chapter of Old Catholic Church, when the latters Occult studies led to his censure. The two created a Theosophical version of Gnostic Christianity which would become very influencial within international Theosophy and sections of the Anglo-American Occult community. Liberal Catholic doctrine emphasizes free thought, and terms such as "fear and helplessness" have been reomoved from their liturgy, which is based on the Tridentine Mass. Despite their supposed free thought they still do not consecrate women unlike the Continental Church, leading to the latters increased popularity in English speaking countries, eventually outgrowing its rival.
The Universal Gnostic Church
Bricaud had earlier been a member of Vintras' Carmelite Church in Lyon and was a leading member of the Lyonese Martinists. Therefore when forming his Universal Gnostic Church he not only merged the two Gnostic Churches by consecrating Marius Breton, the last Primate of the Church of Carmel, but also laid plans to incorporate the Martinist Order as an appendage of the Church - achieved in 1911 - and make the Church the religion of his Memphis and Misraim Rite, the largest after Reuss had merged his with the OTO, and the other subsequent international chapters merged with the OTO or remained tiny. This was achieved in 1918. It was also Breton who some claim began the schism in the Church of Synesius, given his dislike of both orthodox Christianity and Orientalism, particularly Theosophy. Bricaud also consecrated Betrand Clement, a rival leader of the Johannite Church remnant, finally unifying the three original Churches.