Life & Soul

Heretic of the week: Charles Webster Leadbeater

CW Leadbeater (1854-1934) was a most remarkable – not to say bizarre – man. Of middle-class background, he was ordained an Anglican clergyman in 1879; three years later he was a curate at Bramshott in Hampshire. He might have remained there indefinitely, but a short time after moving there, the young cleric discovered first spiritualism and then Theosophy, joining the Theosophical Society in 1883, and meeting its foundress Helena Blavatsky the following year.

Convinced that he was in touch with an “Ascended Master”, he moved to the society’s headquarters in Adyar, India, shortly thereafter. From then on he became very involved in the affairs of the society, moving back and forth between Britain, India and Australia, where he finally settled.

Accepting not only the Ascended Masters but reincarnation and all sorts of unusual beliefs picked up through meditation, Leadbeater wrote scores of books detailing his insights. He became a close collaborator of Annie Besant, Blavatsky’s successor as head of the society. He was also the discoverer of the lad the society proclaimed a messiah, Krishnamurti, and was temporarily purged as a result of a 1906 sex scandal.

He attempted to bring all of this into a version of Catholicism, co-founding with James Ingall Wedgwood (1883–1951) the Liberal Catholic Church in 1916. Having secured the Apostolic Succession from the Dutch Old Catholics, this body – which attempted to combine traditional ritual with “the highest liberty of belief” – flourished in the 1920s, and spread throughout the Anglosphere, the Dutch-speaking world and wherever the Theosophical Society might be found.

Schisms in 1941 and 2003 reduced its numbers, and today at least four bodies claim to be the legitimate Church. Apparently, the appeal of a religion wherein one can receive the Eucharist and believe in karma has waned.