‘One church in Europe’

Old Catholics, Episcopalians commit to deeper communion

By Matthew Davies
Posted Oct 23, 2013

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[Episcopal News Service] Old Catholics and Episcopalians in Europe have agreed to enter into deeper communion, seeking new ways to collaborate, preparing a common structure, and leading the way towards the ultimate goal of becoming one church in Europe.

The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe passed two resolutions during its Oct. 17-20 convention in Rome following a charge delivered by Old Catholic Archbishop Joris Vercammen, in which he encouraged the churches to “overcome our borders” and become “agents of transformation.”

One resolution commits the congregations of the convocation to seek to collaborate with their neighboring Old Catholic congregations by developing mutual ministries in worship, program and outreach, and by increasing knowledge and awareness of each other’s traditions.

Another resolution supports the bishop-in-charge of the convocation and the archbishop of Utrecht “in their joint efforts to foster and develop our common life in Christ.”

The Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht is the Episcopal Church’s longest-standing full communion partner, dating back to the Bonn Agreement of 1931.

“The work of full communion is meant for fuller communion than we can envision,” Vercammen told the delegates Oct. 18 at the convocation’s convention. “I hope I am able to seduce you to the freedom for which the Holy Spirit wants to open our minds.”

The Rt. Rev. Pierre Whalon, bishop-in-charge of the convocation, said that Vercammen had planted a seed “for us to pray about who we are together … [and to] determine that we no longer consider ourselves separate churches … We need to think outside ourselves.”

Whalon told ENS that there is a strong desire to form “a communion of churches that can have a common witness in continental Europe” and that such a communion would bring the Old Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church “as close as possible to full visible unity without giving up local autonomy of individual jurisdictions.” The deepening of relationships between Old Catholics and Episcopalians, he said, might encourage other Anglican churches and full communion partners in Europe to work more intentionally towards unity.

The Church of England’s Diocese in Europe also includes parishes throughout the continent. The Reformed Episcopal Church of Spain and the Lusitanian Church of Portugal are the two other Anglican jurisdictions in Europe.

“On the very long term it could be the aim to have only one ecclesiastical structure that would be really both Old Catholic and Episcopal,” Vercammen said. “For the time being we have to organize the steps we have to take in order to realize this long term goal.”

“I’m guessing the Old Catholics might help us to become new Episcopalians,” President of the House of Deputies the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings said in her address to the convention, meeting at St. Paul’s Within-the-Walls, an Episcopal church in the center of Rome. She described Vercammen’s proposal as “a radical form of community, a new way to be church, the church we’re called to be.”

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, after hearing news about Vercammen’s appeal and the convocation’s response, told ENS that she is “deeply grateful for the growing awareness of the possibilities of full communion in Europe, and the increasing commitment to make it a greater reality.

“Imagine the missional witness and possibility of a seamless Anglican-Episcopal-Old Catholic-Lutheran Christian community!” she added. “The strong and deepening relationship between Old Catholics and Episcopalians in Europe is the forerunner, which just might lead other parts of the Body of Christ into greater partnership.”

Jefferts Schori was a guest of the Old Catholic Church in 2011 when she visited Utrecht and delivered the Quasimodo Lecture, an annual event that explores issues of faith in contemporary society.

Vercammen, during his remarks to the convocation’s convention, quoted from that lecture, during which Jefferts Schori said that ecumenism “is basically housekeeping work – cleaning up the household, setting it in order, so that it can be a home … Ecumenical work begins in the baptismal vision of a restored body of Christ, but it cannot stop at any limited version of what God’s body includes. We are here to help the whole, and that’s the future I want to point toward in being catholic beyond borders.”

Following that lecture, Vercammen told ENS that more creativity is needed in dealing with overlapping jurisdictions.

“We need more concrete initiatives,” such as common searches for church leadership to serve across jurisdictions, he said, “and then we can really build a nucleus of church where Christians of all origins can come together. We have a unique opportunity and it would be a pity if we were not to use it.”

The Episcopal Church entered into full communion with the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht in 1934 on the basis of the Bonn Agreement three years earlier. The Old Catholic Church includes about 200,000 members in several national churches in Europe, located in the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, France and Italy. They separated from the Roman Catholic Church because they could not accept the definition of papal infallibility presented by the first Vatican Council in 1870.

The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe serves a culturally diverse demographic of Christians in 20 parishes and missions throughout Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland.

In addition to the Old Catholics, the Episcopal Church is in full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, India, the Moravian Church in North America and the Philippine Independent Church.

Churches in full communion formally recognize that they share essential doctrines, including Baptism and Eucharist; agree to accept the service of each other’s clergy; and pledge to work together in evangelism and mission. The churches become interdependent while remaining autonomous.

— Matthew Davies is an editor/reporter of the Episcopal News Service.


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Comments (18)

  1. Tony Price says:

    Go! Go! Go!

    1. Define “full” communion please.. Can priest be exchanged? Women priest? “Unity in diversity” must
      acknowledge clearly the differences or elsewise the concept of “full” is simply a term. The concept
      does remain a term and that will take a lot and perhaps even a miracle.

  2. Barbara Harris says:

    God’s grace continues to work miracles. May it come to pass in my lifetime, Amen!

  3. Walt Kindergan says:

    I have heard that we are NOT in full communion with the Old Catholics in the United States because they are affiliated with the Polish National Catholic Church and have withdrawn from the Union of Utrecht. Is that true? I think many do not know this.

    1. This is true Walt. There are many independent catholic churches in the US claiming to be “Old Catholic” but who have no connection to Utrecht at all. Sadly, some of these groups are very much on the fringe theologically and are trying to claim legitimacy by claiming to be “Old Catholics.”

      1. There are also many Independent Catholic jurisdictions in the United States which do not claim to be “Old Catholic” that do, however, possess valid apostolic succession and whose theology is certainly not “on the fringe”. We, in The National Catholic Church of America, are part of the apostolic heritage of the late Bishop Carlos Duarte Costa, former Roman Catholic Ordinary of the Diocese of Botucatu, Brazil who broke with Rome in 1945 and began the establishment of national catholic churches.

        The NCCA has, from its inception, ordained men and women without the obligation of celibacy, married same sex and opposite sex couples, invited all baptized Christians (including those divorced and remarried) to receive the Body and Blood of Christ at our Eucharistic Table as well as encouraged individuals to make responsible moral decisions in the light of the gospel. We share the same statements of belief (The Apostles Creed and The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed) share by most churches of apostolic derivation.

  4. Joyce Ann Edmondson says:

    I pray that the Holy Spirit will continue to work in the world’s churches for unity! The Body of Christ cannot be separated. It is one; each part has a different function in the body, but they work together for the good of the whole.

  5. Father Les Singleton says:

    What happens in America. In 1946 the Episcopal Church and the National Catholic Polish church had full communion…. that lasted until the Episcopal church had women priests.

    Are there women priests in the Old Catholic church? could there be???

    1. David Cornell says:

      Yes, the Old Catholic churches of the Union of Utrecht already ordain women to the priesthood. The Polish National Catholic Church is no longer a member of the Union of Utrecht, having left it precisely over the issue of its sister churches’ decisions to ordain women (and their general liberalization).

  6. David L. Veal says:

    I lived in Germany 1960-63 and often attended Old Catholic services, met Bishop Steinwachs – a marvelous old apostle – and attended an Old Catholic retreat. In spirit and letter, both these communities seemed virtually identical, although they come out of different experiences, vis a vis the Papacy. I thought we were in full communion then? It’s wonderful to see the two developing closer ecclesiastical ties. We’ve been soul-mates for a long, long time.

  7. An interesting idea, but are either of these jurisdictions actually growing?

  8. Joyce Ann Edmondson says:

    People grow spiritually if they grow at all. Numbers don’t matter. All churches today are losing membership. No one really knows the reason except we live in a modern world of technology that enables people to communicate through technology, not always with one another face to face. Christ’s goal for the “church” is that all will become one as the Father and I are one. Every step towards unity wherever it happens and to whom is a step forward, not backward. That is my belief.

    1. john neir says:

      Perfectly stated !

  9. Rt Rev Peter J Sterling says:

    I have been an Old Catholic Priest since 1977 and a Bishiop since 1979. I am presently pastoring a Lutheran Church in Canada and am looking to get involved with the Church in Europe. I am of Jewish parentage, ergo Jewish born, and would on behalf of the Church get preaching assignments throughout Europe preaching against the Nazi movement that is proliferating throughout Europe. Please answer

  10. Fr. Gaylord Hitchcock says:

    What wonderful news! The overlapping Anglican jurisdictions in Europe are a source of confusion, especially to the numerous visitors to the Continent. Even a common directory, or computer listing someplace would be a help. When I’m on the Continent, I usually stick to the Convocation of American Churches, or the Church of England parishes. (When I’m really stuck, I go to a Roman Catholic church where, lamentably, I can’t receive Communion.) Keep up the momentum and the good work!

    Now, if only we could lure the Church of England’s Diocese of Europe into this partnership…

  11. Daniel McKenney says:

    So when they state Full communion are they meaning that all Old Catholics even the ones in the United states will be in Communion?

  12. The Rev. Linda Baker Pineo says:

    I was privileged to work with Old Catholic churches, Convocation churches and the Bishop for the Armed Forces both in 1981-83 while living in Germany and 1992-94 while living in the Netherlands. There were some shared activities then, but I have been praying for this for a long time. I was invited to celebrate the Eucharist in German in Wurzburg in June 1994 for the Old Catholic congregation there.

  13. For those who would like to be more about the Old Catholics in Europe, there’s a summer school on offer: http://www.utrechtsummerschool.nl/courses/culture/old-catholic-theology-in-its-ecumenical-context

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