Episcopi vagantes (Latin for "wandering bishops") are persons who have been ordained as bishops in some irregular fashion, especially those claiming to have valid Roman Catholic orders although their ordinations were not authorized by the Roman Catholic Church.
The Vatican considers some such ordinations "valid" but "unlawful," but the Orthodox Church considers them simply not to be ordinations and thus also considers persons so ordained not to be bishops at all. This is because unlike the Vatican, it considers apostolic succession to exist only in bishops who are regularily ordained by bishops that are neither themselves defrocked, nor teach heretical teachings. Holy Orders are not regarded by the Orthodox as "indelible," thus if a bishop breaks from the Church, his episcopacy (and thus his ability to ordain) does not follow him.
Many of these claim succession from the see of Utrecht, or from Orthodox or Eastern Rite Catholic churches; others from Roman Catholic bishops that have ordained their own bishops after disputes with the Vatican. Such lines continue to persist because of the more mechanistic understanding of apostolic succession which the Roman Catholic Church has—that is, if a "valid" bishop ordains a man using the proper rituals, then he is "valid" as well, even if neither has any living connection to the Church. The Orthodox understanding, however, necessarily presupposes the impossibility of episcopi that are vagantes, for the ministry of the episcopacy resides only within the Church.
Many episcopi vagantes will style their churches variously as Orthodox, Catholic, Apostolic, or any of the other historical names used by the Church. Attempting to trace their roots, delineate one group from another, or easily identify them as being episcopi vagantes can be a difficult matter, especially because such groups seem to be subject to internal schisms and name changes. One indication often pointed out about the webpages of such groups is that they often have a list of their alleged apostolic succession displayed prominently up front and/or lengthy insistence on their legal ownership of various registered trademarks (usually the group's name).
In terms of their self-understanding, episcopi vagantes groups can vary from regarding themselves as the only legitimate church for a particular region or ethnicity to a sort of Protestant pluralist perspective in which all groups with "apostolic succession" (including themselves) are regarded as legitimately "Catholic," "Orthodox," "Christian," "Church," "Apostolic," etc. Usually, however, the mainstream claimants to these labels (e.g., the Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, or the Anglican Communion) do not regard these groups as legitimate claimants to such titles and are not in full communion with them. Occasionally, such a group will enter into communion with the Church, as the Society of Clerks Secular of St. Basil did with the Church of Antioch in 1961.
In modern times, some of the major lines of episcopi vagantes trace their succession to A. H. Mathew (deposed from the Old Catholics), J. R. Vilatte (variously Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, and with an alleged line from a non-Chalcedonian Syrian bishop), and Aftimios Ofiesh, a 20th century Syrian bishop serving under the auspices of the Church of Russia in America, who no longer served in the episcopacy (whether through deposition, retirement, or resignation) after marrying a woman under his pastoral care. An additional telltale sign for these groups is a presentation of extensive documents insisting on their "canonicity."
- Many people have claimed ordinations as bishops where it is questionable whether the ordination ever actually took place, which is a separate issue.
- Further, bishops belonging to groups which are in schism (i.e., out of full communion) from the Church or have suspended concelebrations are not episcopi vagantes inasmuch as their consecrations as bishops were clearly within the Church and the break in communion may well only be temporary.
- Wikipedia:Episcopi vagantes
- The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., pp. 555, 1054, 1698
- Ind-Movement.org, "Your Complete Guide to the World of Autocephalous ('Independent-Movement') Churches in the Apostolic Succession"