Introduction to Ecclesia Gnostica

The last few decades have brought to the fore a considerable number of organizations bearing the name “Gnostic.” The principal reason for this was the discovery in 1945 and the publication in fully translated form in 1977 of the Nag Hammadi Library of Coptic Gnostic scriptures—the largest collection of Gnostic writings ever discovered. The Nag Hammadi Library has not only brought the name “Gnostic” into prominence but has also convinced many persons in our culture that Gnosticism is more than a peculiar ancient heresy of mainly antiquarian interest. On the contrary, Gnosticism now stands revealed as a fascinating and creative early variant of Christianity that possesses many features of contemporary relevance.

To those of us who are committed to the Gnostic Tradition, these developments have brought both satisfaction and concern. Understandably, we are encouraged by the increase of interest in our tradition. It is also gratifying for us to note that today, unlike some years ago, the use of the name “Gnostic” is considered advantageous by many. At the same time we are compelled to recognize that many avail themselves of the name “Gnostic” without adequate justification. Just as not all is gold that glitters, so not all who call themselves “Gnostic” have a just claim to this name.

In order to promote authenticity and clarity in regard to matters Gnostic, the Ecclesia Gnostica and its affiliate lay organization, The Gnostic Society, issue this statement.

The Ecclesia Gnostica

The church bearing this name is the oldest public Gnostic sacramental body in the United States. It was organized as the Pre-Nicene Gnostic Catholic Church at first in England and since 1959 in the United States by the late Bishop Richard, Duc de Palatine. After the demise of the Duc de Palatine in the 1970’s, the Church he established in America continued its work under the name Ecclesia Gnostica.

The Regionary Bishop of our church is Dr. Stephan A. Hoeller, who was consecrated to that office by the Duc de Palatine in 1967. Dr. Hoeller is thus the senior holder of what is sometimes called the English Gnostic Transmission in America. (There are no other bishops living in the USA who were consecrated by the Duc de Palatine.)

The Ecclesia Gnostica exists for the purpose of upholding the Gnostic tradition and to administer the holy sacraments to those of God’s people who are attracted to the altars of the Gnosis. An active ministry of parish work is thus an essential feature of this church. The Los Angeles parish of the Ecclesia Gnostica holds weekly and monthly church services and lectures, in order to serve the spiritual needs of its congregation. The Regionary Bishop presides over most of these activities.

Ordination to the minor and major orders of the Ecclesia Gnostica is open to both men and women. Candidates for holy orders must possess a sincere commitment to the Gnostic tradition and must be determined to exercise a pastoral ministry. (The Ecclesia does not recognize a non-pastoral clergy. All persons in holy orders are expected to participate in administering the sacraments on a regular basis.)

Training for the various holy orders is both theoretical and practical. The Ecclesia offers no mail-order instruction for holy orders, but requires candidates to receive resident training at one of its established parishes. We ordain clergy for our own jurisdiction and not for their own “independent” activities. The Ecclesia has no interest in expansion for its own sake, rather it prefers to have a few parishes led by properly trained priests of true Gnostic commitment. The Ecclesia Gnostica has active parishes in Los Angeles, California, Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Washington and Austin, Texas.

The Gnostic Society

The Gnostic Society has existed in Los Angeles since 1928. It was founded by noted author James Morgan Pryse and his brother John Pryse for the purpose of studying Gnosticism and the Western Esoteric Tradition generally.

After the establishment of the Ecclesia Gnostica in the United States, the Gnostic Society has united with the Ecclesia and is now functioning as its affiliated lay organization. Neither the Ecclesia Gnostica nor The Gnostic Society have a formal, dues-paying membership. The activities of both are open to all. Free will offerings are accepted.

Relation to other Churches and Organizations

The Ecclesia Gnostica is in a state of fraternal alliance (concordat) with the Eglise Gnostique Catholique Apostolique of France, through the Diocese of the Midwest, (U.S.A.) of that Church and the Bishop of said Diocese, the Most Rev. Robert Michael Cokinis. The Ecclesia Gnostica and the E.G.C.A. fully recognize each other’s holy orders and respect the territorial jurisdiction exercised by each. This implies that neither of these churches by way of their bishops will ordain or commission clergy to function in territories administered by the other.

The Ecclesia Gnostica Mysteriorum of Palo Alto, California was initially a duly constituted parish of the Ecclesia Gnostica and is now an independent body. Its head, Bishop Rosamonde Miller, was ordained to the priesthood and subsequently consecrated to the episcopate of the Ecclesia Gnostica by Bishop Hoeller.

The aforementioned ecclesiastical bodies are the only ones with which the Ecclesia Gnostica has or has had any association. Concerning all other organizations styling themselves “Gnostic” we advise all inquirers to subject them to thorough scrutiny before accepting their claims to being Gnostic.

Scriptures and Literature

In upholding the Gnostic tradition, the Ecclesia Gnostica avails itself chiefly of the primary sources of Gnostic teachings. Among these are, first the Nag Hammadi Library, and second, the codices and treatises whose discovery precedes the Nag Hammadi find (such as the Askew, Bruce and Berlin Codices, the Acts of Thomas, Acts of John, and others). Somewhat less reliable, but still quite informative are the references and quotations of Gnostic content in the writings of the heresiologist Church Fathers.

Of the later Gnostic sources, we are particularly devoted to the writings of the Prophet Mani and to the teachings of such Medieval Gnostic movements as the Cathars and the Bogomils. Another valuable primary source is the literature of the Mandaeans, a still practicing Gnostic religion in Iraq. Primary sources such as the ones noted above are of the greatest value to contemporary Gnostics.

Items of Gnostic interest may be found in much other literature. The Hermetic writings, the writings of the Christian mystics, the Jewish Gnosticism of the Kabbalah are some of these. Some of the great poets of the culture, such as Dante, Blake and Goethe incorporated valuable Gnostic themes in their works, which are of interest. In modern times, the Nineteenth Century Occult Revival, pioneered by H. P. Blavatsky, bore a decidedly Gnostic character and thus produced some writings that are useful to present Gnostic concerns. The late Nineteenth Century also gave rise to the re-constituted Gnostic Church of France, whose leaders wrote some books worthy of serious consideration.

The Twentieth Century has been blessed with the figure of C. G. Jung, who contributed most significantly to the revival of interest in matters Gnostic. Jung and some of his scholarly associates (Quispel, Pulver, Joseph Campbell) have built powerful bridges between ancient Gnosticism and such modern disciplines as psychology, mythology and the arts. Their writings are most useful to modern Gnostics.

Teachings and Doctrinal Orientation

While the ancient Gnostic teachers were very pluralistic and creative regarding the details of their teachings and practices, at the same time they embraced a set of common assumptions which form the core of the Gnostic tradition. The model of reality shown forth in the Gnostic scriptures and in the Gnostic tradition may be very briefly (and therefore somewhat inadequately) outlined by way of the following points:

  1. There is an original and transcendental spiritual unity which came to emanate a vast manifestation of pluralities.
  2. The manifest universe of matter and mind (psyche) was not created by the original spiritual unity but by spiritual beings possessing inferior powers.
  3. These creators possessing inferior powers have as one of their objectives the perpetual separation of humans from the unity (God).
  4. The human being is a composite, the outer aspect being the handiwork of the inferior creators, while the “inner man” has the character of a fallen spark of the ultimate divine unity.
  5. The fallen sparks of transcendental holiness slumber in their material and mental prison, their self-awareness stupefied by forces of materiality and mind.
  6. The slumbering sparks have not been abandoned by the ultimate unity, rather there is a constant effort forthcoming from this unity that is directed toward their awakening and liberation.
  7. The awakening of the inmost divine essence in humans is effected by salvific knowledge, called Gnosis.
  8. Salvific knowledge, or Gnosis, is not brought about by belief, or the performance of virtuous deeds, or by obedience to commandments, for these can at best but serve as preparatory circumstances leading toward liberating knowledge.
  9. Among the helpers of the slumbering sparks a particular position of honor and importance belongs to a feminine emanation of the unity. The name of this emanation is Sophia (Wisdom). She was involved in the creation of the world and ever since remained the guide of her orphaned human children.
  10. From the earliest times of history, messengers of light have been sent forth from the ultimate unity. The task of these messengers has ever been the advancement of Gnosis in the souls of humans.
  11. The greatest of these messengers in our historical and geographical matrix was the descended Logos of God, manifesting in Jesus Christ.
  12. Jesus exercised a twofold ministry: He was a teacher, imparting instruction concerning the way of Gnosis, and he was a hierophant, imparting mysteries.
  13. The mysteries (sacraments) imparted by Jesus are mighty aids toward Gnosis and have been entrusted by him to his apostles and to their successors.
  14. By way of the spiritual practice of the sacraments and by a relentless and uncompromising striving for Gnosis, humans can steadily advance toward liberation from all confinement, material and otherwise. The ultimate objective of this process of liberation is the achievement of salvific knowledge and with it freedom from embodied existence and return to the ultimate unity.

The interpretation of teachings such as are contained in the above fourteen points appertains to the individual. Some of these teachings may lend themselves to a primarily metaphorical and mythic understanding, while others may be understood metaphysically. The Ecclesia Gnostica does not require its communicants to accept these teachings as a matter of belief. At the same time, it is obvious that these teachings represent the distinctive contribution of the Gnostic tradition to religious thought and persons functioning within the tradition would find themselves in general agreement with them.

Introductory Reading

A Gnostic Catechism

REVISED EDITION AVAILABLE NOW

by Stephan A. Hoeller

A compendium of instruction of the Gnostic framework, tenets and mythos, arranged in question and answer form. A Gnostic by definition is a knower, which carries no implication of dogmatism, as intuitive knowledge and direct experience supersede belief.

The Mystery and Magic of the Eucharist

REVISED EDITION AVAILABLE NOW

by Stephan A. Hoeller

Outlining and “explaining” the liturgy, the ritual phases and the mystic and symbolic elements of the Gnostic Holy Eucharist, a profoundly moving religious rite, the sacrament central to 2,000 years of Christian practice and worship.


Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing

by Stephan A. Hoeller

The history of Gnosticism as an unfolding drama of passion, intrigue, martyrdom, and mystery. Dr. Hoeller traces this fascinating story through time, showing how Gnosticism has inspired such great thinkers as Voltaire, William Blake, W. B. Yeats, Herman Hesse, Herman Melville, and C. G. Jung.

The Gnostic Gospels

by Elaine Pagels

Landmark study of the long-buried roots of Christianity, a work of luminous scholarship and wide popular appeal. First published in 1979 to critical acclaim, winning the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

A Gnostic Book of Hours: Keys to Inner Wisdom

by June Singer

A recasting of the wisdom found in these texts into a book of hours, the traditional framework for an ongoing meditative practice, inspiring an awareness of the presence of the divine mystery within the everyday world.

The Lectionary of the Ecclesia Gnostica

An Introduction

by Stephan A. Hoeller
Regionary Bishop, Ecclesia Gnostica

It is a time honored practice of sacramental Christendom to make available to its communicants selected passages of sacred scripture, marshalled in accordance with the holidays and seasons of the Church Year. The Roman Missal as well as the Roman Breviary (especially in their pre-Vatican II form) are eminent and admirable examples of such selections. While the Protestant emphasis on a non-selective reading of scripture has robbed some of Christendom of the use of Lectionaries (as such selections are often called) such books retain their value to this day. The Gnostic Church possesses a unique lectionary in the English language which is enjoying an increasing popularity. It is known officially mainly by its descriptive title: The Collects, Lessons and Gospels to be used throughout the Church Year and was issued under the authority of the bishop of the Ecclesia Gnostica in America in 1974.

The Gnostic Church [Ecclesia Gnostica] is a Christian church and considers itself as a part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Ecclesia founded by the Logos and His apostles. In view of this, it is evident that the canonical Christian scriptures would be well represented in its Lectionary. The availability of a fairly large number of Gnostic scriptures in our days makes it possible as well as desirable, however, that scriptures of the specifically Gnostic corpus should be included in fair numbers. In addition to the canonical Christian and the Gnostic scriptures, it seemed also desirable to include a certain number of gnostically related writings, such as the Hermetic, the Mandaean and the Cathar scriptures as well as the Chaldean Oracles. The Lectionary is not of a universalistic character and thus it does not include writings from traditions other than the Christian Gnostic, although the closest relatives of this tradition, i.e. the Manichaean, Mandaean and Hermetic documents are represented also. Contemporary scholarship recognizes that Hermeticism with its texts, such as the Corpus Hermeticum, the Poimandres, and others, is but a non-Christian variant of Gnosticism, as is the Mandaean religion. Manichaeanism is in fact more Christian than the former two schools of thought. The Prophet Mani considered himself a spiritual apostle of Jesus Christ, and the Manichaeans used several known Christian scriptures, such as the Gospel According to Thomas. There exists sufficient justification therefore, for the inclusion of all of these variants of the Gnostic tradition.

The various Sundays and Holidays of the Church Year have ascribed to them special intentions. The collects, lessons (sometimes known as epistles in other lectionaries and liturgies) and gospels have been carefully selected so as to express, as far as possible, the intentions of the Sundays and Holidays. Of the collects, 24 are taken from Manichaean sources. (A collect is a prayer manifesting a central keynote or point.) The break-down of the sources of the lessons is as follows: Manichaean: 14; Pistis Sophia: 3; other Pre-Nag Hammadi scriptures: 14; Hermetic Writings: 4; Mandaean Scriptures: 3; Cathar Scriptures: 1; Chaldean Oracles: 3; other miscellaneous Gnostic sources: 4; Canonical Scriptures (both Old and New Testament): 39. The gospels in the Lectionary are taken from the following scriptures: Manichaean: 1; Pistis Sophia: 3; other Pre-Nag Hammadi scriptures: 4; Gospel According to Thomas: 18; Gospel of Truth: 7; Gospel of Phillip: 19; Hermetic Writings: 2; Cathar Scriptures: 2; Canonical Scriptures (both Old and New Testament): 31. The Lectionary comprises 185 pages, including seven pages of occasional collects to be used at the discretion of clergy either within or outside of the context of the Eucharist.

Scriptures for Private Study

Gnostic clergy and communicants ought to be particularly aware of what may be called the primary sources of Gnostic teachings. A primary source is a scripture that comes to us directly from the ancient Gnostics themselves. Among these primary sources we find, first the Nag Hammadi Library, and second, the codices and treatises whose discovery precedes the Nag Hammadi find. The latter are: the Askew, Bruce and Berlin Codices, the Acts of Thomas, Acts of John, and a few others. Less reliable because of their anti-Gnostic bias, and no longer qualifying as primary sources, are the references and quotations of Gnostic content in the writings of certain Church Fathers, Epiphanius, Irenaeus and others, who, for the most part, acted as polemicists against the Gnostic teachers of the early Christian centuries. Although certainly biased and often distorted, the information in these sources is still often quite informative.

To address ourselves first to the most important primary source, we must turn now to the Nag Hammadi Library of Gnostic writings. There are six separate major categories of writings, when they are analyzed according to subject matter. They are as follows:

  1. Writings of creative and redemptive mythology, including Gnostic alternative versions of creation and salvation. These are: The Apocryphon of John (two versions); The Hypostasis of the Archons; On the Origin of the World; The Apocalypse of Adam; The Paraphrase of Shem.
  2. Observations and commentaries on diverse Gnostic themes, such as the nature of reality, the nature of the soul, the relationship of the soul to the world: The Gospel of Truth; The Treatise on the Resurrection; The Tripartite Tractate; The Tractate of Eugnostos the Blessed (two versions); The Second Treatise of the Great Seth; The Teachings of Sylvanus; The Testimony of Truth.
  3. Liturgical and initiatory texts. (These may be of special interest to persons of sacramental and initiatic interests): The Treatise on the Eighth and Ninth; The Prayer of Thanksgiving; The Valentinian Exposition; The Three Steles of Seth; The Prayer of the Apostle Paul. (The Gospel of Phillip, listed under category 6, does in part have great relevance to this category also, for it is in effect a treatise on Gnostic sacramental theology).
  4. Writings dealing primarily with the feminine deific and spiritual principle, particularly with the Divine Sophia: The Thunder: Perfect Mind; The Thought of Norea; The Sophia of Jesus Christ; The Exegesis of the Soul.
  5. Writings pertaining to the lives and experiences of some of the apostles: The Apocalypse of Peter; The Letter of Peter to Phillip; The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles; The First and Second Apocalypses of James; The Apocalypse of Paul.
  6. Last but certainly not least, the scriptures which contain sayings of Jesus as well as descriptions of incidents in His life: The Dialogue of the Saviour; The Book of Thomas the Contender; The Apocalypse of James; The Gospel of Phillip; The Gospel According to Thomas.

This leaves a small number of scriptures of the Nag Hammadi Library which may be called “unclassifiable.” It also must be kept in mind that the passage of time and translation into languages very different from the original have rendered many of these scriptures abstruse in style. Some of them are difficult reading, especially to those not familiar with Gnostic imagery, nomenclature and the like. Lacunae are also present in some of these scriptures. The most readily comprehensible of the Nag Hammadi scriptures is undoubtedly The Gospel According to Thomas, with The Gospel of Phillip and the Gospel of Truth as close seconds in order of easy comprehension. There are various translations of most of these scriptures available; the most complete being the one volume collection The Nag Hammadi Library in English, (edited by J. Robinson) which is readily available.

The Gnostic writings, whose discovery precedes that of the Nag Hammadi Library have been in large part accurately and sympathetically translated by the late scholarly Theosophist, G.R.S. Mead, in such works as Pistis Sophia, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, and his series of smaller books, entitled Echoes from the Gnosis. Mead’s works have been reprinted in recent, albeit probably small, editions. There is also an excellent selection of Gnostic writings of the pre Nag Hammadi variety, entitled The Gospel of the Gnostics, edited by another outstanding scholar and Theosophist, Duncan Greenlees. The same scholar has also edited and published a very fine selection of Manichaean writings under the title, The Gospel of the Prophet Mani. Both of these fine books are out of print, but may be obtained in Libraries of the Theosophical Society for study.

Nearly twenty years have elapsed since the complete translations of the Nag Hammadi Library was completed and published. The exegetical literature based on these writings is slowly growing. Curiously enough, one of the most useful books of this sort is still one which was published very soon after the Nag Hammadi Library: The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels. Some other useful authors in this field are: Bentley Layton, Giovanni Filoramo, Simone Petrement, Dan Merkur, Marvin Meyer and Ioan Couliano. An increasing number of books employing the name “Gnostic” in their titles are being sold. The usefulness and authenticity of such literature need to be evaluated and judged by individual students on a case by case basis.

Conclusion

It is important to remember that later varieties and recensions of Gnostic teachings are present in virtually all transmissions of the Occult tradition in the West. Some of these later variations resemble the original model more closely than others. Clergy, members and other persons interested in the Gnostic Church often possess Martinist, Masonic, Rosicrucian, Theosophical and similar affiliations and dedications. All of these schools of thought, whether they acknowledge it or not, are related not only to each other, but by way of historical and mystical descent also to the matrix of ancient Gnosticism. (Certainly some of the leading figures of these movements have acknowledged their relationship to Gnosticism, as H.P. Blavatsky’s numerous writings on the Gnostics exemplify.)

Whatever the other interests and dedications of all of us may be, we are Gnostics. We are Gnostics moreover, not only in the sense of pursuing, or possessing a quality of consciousness that might be called Gnosis, but we are members of a specific tradition. This tradition, the Gnostic tradition, is the one represented by the Gnostic Church. It may be true that the non Gnostic branches of Christendom have or claim a certain kind of Gnosis, which they may call at times “Apostolic” or by any other name. Aspects of the Gnosis have passed into many hands over the centuries. Yet, we must not be satisfied with that which is in part, for we are heirs of the fullness, the Pleroma itself. And this is the principal reason for our interest in and dedication to the Gnostic Scriptures. These scriptures are one of our chief links with our origins. (The other links are the seven mysteries, or Sacraments and the arcane, oral tradition). It is by way of these scriptures that we may in large measure join ourselves consciously with the Fathers of the Gnosis, great sages like Valentinus, Basilides and their company. It is also thus, that through them, we are joined to the Holy Apostles and through them to their and our Master, Jesus Christ, the most precious flower of the Pleroma, the Logos, the Pansother, the fountainhead of all true Gnosis.