The Episcopal Church and Old Catholics

Many Episcopalians have never heard of “Old Catholicism” and have no idea that they are our oldest Full Communion partner. Our two churches come from different cultures and have different histories yet both recognize in each other that attempt to hold to and live out the beliefs of the undivided early church.

What is the Episcopal Church?

The Episcopal Church is the American branch of the Anglican Communion and has it’s origins in the Church of England. However, during the American Revolution, the Church of England withdrew it’s bishops and the American church had to reorganize itself. It was able to maintain apostolic succession through the Scottish Episcopal Church’s consecration of Samuel Seabury and eventually through the Church of England’s consecration of William White and Samuel Provoost.

Thus the Episcopal Church embodies the Anglican ethos including a spirituality focused on the liturgies and prayers found in the Book of Common Prayer as well as articulating a theology in between that of the Protestant reformers and the Roman Catholic Church. This can be summed up in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral which defines the fundamentals of Anglican doctrine:

  1.  The Holy Scriptures, as containing all things necessary to salvation;
  2. The Creeds (specifically, the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds), as the sufficient statement of Christian faith;
  3. The Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion;
  4. The historic episcopate, locally adapted.

What is the Union of Utrecht Old Catholics?

The Union of Utrecht came about as the result of a number of churches in Northern Europe finding themselves excommunicated from Rome due to their rejection of the dogma of papal infallibility that was defined in the first Vatican Council. They took up the name ‘Old’ Catholics to identify themselves in contrast to Roman Catholics. This group of churches joined up with the older Church of Utrecht in what became known as the Union of Utrecht.

The Old Catholics view the Church as starting in the local Eucharistic community headed by the Bishop (that is, the diocese). These local Churches maintain continuity with the ancient Church through Word and Sacrament. While the catholicity of the Church is found in the intercommunion of the separate dioceses. The Union of Utrecht Old Catholics looks to the following elements in seeking unity:

  1.  The faith of the Church as it can be formulated in the liturgy, in creeds, or other binding declarations, and finding a certain expression in the practical life of the baptized;
  2. The liturgy of the Church, especially the Eucharist structured around  Word and Sacrament;
  3.  The ministry of the Church, especially the episcopacy in it’s structural unfolding and integration in both the local Church and the communion of local Churches.

Bonn Agreement of 1931

The Anglicans and Old Catholics immediately took an interest in one another with Anglican theologians observing and participating in the conferences that lead to the Union of Utrecht and the Old Catholic’s understanding of itself. Because of this, and the Old Catholic’s commitment to ecumenism the Anglican Old Catholic International Coordinating Council formed in order to explore the two churches similarities and explore the possibility of intercommunion. The result of this was the Bonn Agreement which states:

  1. Each communion recognizes the Catholicity and independence of the other, and maintains its own.
  2. Each communion agrees to admit members of the other communion to participate in the sacraments
  3. Intercommunion does not require from either communion the acceptance of all doctrinal opinion, sacramental devotion, or liturgical practice characteristic of the other, but implies that each believes the other to hold all the essentials of the Christian Faith.

So, this allowed the two churches to share in the sacramental life of one another on the basis of an agreed faith. That agreed faith was defined in an earlier conference where there was unanimous agreement on Scripture and it’s authority, liturgy, doctrine, the sacraments, Marian dogmas, commemoration of the dead, and the Eucharist. The Episcopal Church, as a member of the Anglican Communion entered into full communion with the Old Catholics in 1934 on the basis of the Bonn Agreement.

The Polish National Catholic Church

In 1897 polish immigrants to the United States formed a separate Catholic church as the result of conflicts with the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the US. In 1907 this church joined the Union of Utrecht and thus was the American branch of Old Catholicism (and the only branch outside of Europe). As a member of the Union of Utrecht they were also in full communion with the Episcopal Church.

However, they broke communion with the Episcopal Church and eventually left the Union of Utrecht over the issue of women’s ordination as well as the development of more progressive views towards sexuality developing in both church bodies. They no longer identify as Old Catholics and seek reunion with Rome.

Old Catholics in America Today

There are still a number of independent Catholic churches in the US that seek recognition by the Union of Utrecht. After the PNCC left, the Episcopal Church was asked to survey those groups and report what their theological positions were, their size, and their organization.

A few of the groups surveyed formed the Conference of North American Old Catholic Bishops in an attempt to unify themselves under the model used by the Union of Utrecht. However, agreement proved difficult and further fracturing occurred which lead to the determination that unity could not be achieved. Therefore, the Episcopal Church and the Union of Utrecht discontinued meeting with the Conference and the Union of Utrecht determined not to form an Old Catholic branch in the Episcopal Church’s jurisdiction in the US.

The Conference continued to  meet despite disagreements and the withdrawal of the Union of Utrecht and formed The Old Catholic Church Province of the United States. However, this province is not recognized by the Union of Utrecht.

There are also a handful of other independent Catholic groups that either trace their apostolic succession through episcopi vagantes in the Old Catholic tradition or broke off from Roman Catholicism and now identify as Old Catholics. The Union of Utrecht does not recognize any of these groups and when contacted will direct them to the Episcopal Church.

Work in Europe

One area of complication for the Old Catholics and Anglicans is the matter of overlapping jurisdictions in continental Europe. The Old Catholics obviously have a number of diocese throughout continental Europe but The Episcopal Church also has it’s own churches under the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe (things are further complicated by the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe as well as two other Anglican churches in Spain and Portugal).

Ideally, you have one Church community per area, headed by one bishop. That’s the way it was organized in the Early Church and so that’s how the Church today seeks to be organized.

This is recognized as a result of history due to the movements of populations following WWI and WWII. Issues of language and culture have at times stunted further cooperation between the two churches despite the official agreements made. Even though the situation in Europe is not ideal there are some exciting developments. Currently work is being done to further integrate ministries and worship between churches with the ultimate aim of eventually becoming one, unified church in Europe.

The United States of America

Following the Early Church model, the Old Catholics should be considered the “catholic” church in Europe, and the Episcopal Church the “catholic” church in the USA. Even with the differences in culture, language, and piety between the two churches the fullness of the faith can be found in each church. Because of this the Old Catholics have not attempted to develop a branch in the US and instead direct inquirers to the Episcopal Church. In Europe there are chapters of the St. Willibrord Society which seeks greater unity between the two churches but there currently is no such society in the US. Hopefully a chapter will be developed in the future to aid in the mutual work and understanding of the two churches.


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