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Old Catholics consider their catholic, ecumenical vocation


The International Old Catholic Theologians’ Conference has issued a communiqué urging Old Catholics to explore what it means to be truly catholic and ecumenical in a time of globalization.

“The ecumenical vocation of the Union of Utrecht and its member churches is firstly to apply and deepen, in the context of the local Church at the level of parish communities, that which has been theologically clarified and achieved together with the Anglican and Orthodox Churches,” the theologians said.

The Union of Utrecht is a federation of Old Catholic Churches in full communion with the Anglican Communion.

The conference participants called upon the Union of Utrecht’s International Bishops’ Conference (IBC) “to pass a resolution that each national Church develops a concept to encourage selected Old Catholic parishes to establish contacts with Orthodox and Anglican parishes or deepen existing relations and so form Places of Encounter and Co-operation.”

The theologians issued their communiqué at the end of their conference, which addressed the theme of the tasks and contributions of Old Catholics in ecumenical dialogue. About 30 theologians from the Old Catholic Churches in the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Poland, and Croatia participated in the conference held August 27 through September 1 in Gwatt, Switzerland.

Diocese of West Virginia Bishop W. Michie Klusmeyer, the Presiding Bishop’s representative to the Union of Utrecht, and Dr. Thomas Ferguson, the Episcopal Church’s associate deputy for ecumenical and interfaith relations, represented the Epsicopal Church at the conference.

The Episcopal Church has been in full communion with the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht since 1934. The Union includes the Old Catholic Churches in the Netherlands, Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, and Germany, and the Polish National Catholic Church, which also has members in the United States. The Old Catholics split from the Roman Catholic Church in 1871 over issues of papal authority.

“Our full communion relationship with the Old Catholic Churches of the Utrecht Union is our oldest such partnership, but in a way we are only really beginning to explore the potential,” Ferguson said. “Both of our communions are working to deal with what it means to be a catholic church in an increasingly globalized world. This opens the doors to new partnerships and possibilities, but also presents its own shares of challenges.”

Conference participants heard and discussed three papers, which “raised a series of questions and very different views as to the future ecumenical approach of the Union of Utrecht” and led to the proposal in the communiqué.

“The proposal recognizes that, compared to earlier times, there now exists, in those countries where there is an Old Catholic presence, permanent Orthodox, as well as Anglican, parishes who have become our neighbors,” the communiqué says. “Parishes of other denominations who would like to participate in such a project are, of course, very welcome.”

The theologians noted that each national Old Catholic Church “would take up appropriate contact with the episcopal leadership of the respective Orthodox and Anglican parishes” in order to form the partnerships.

There was mixed response among the theologians about a proposal that the Union of Utrecht take the initiative to establish a “Forum of independent Catholic Churches” to which all episcopal churches that are not part of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Anglican Churches -- such as the Philippine Independent Church, the Southern Indian Mar Thoma Church, and the Church of Sweden -- would belong, according to the communiqué.

“It was recognized that the proposal contained opportunities for exchange in relation to theological education and for a strengthening of the aspect of diakonia, which the Churches of the Union of Utrecht could facilitate. Furthermore it would strengthen witness to a commonly held Catholicism worldwide,” the theologians wrote in the communiqué. “On the other hand, there was a fear that the Forum could develop into nothing more than a form of ecumenical tourism for bishops and theologians, as well as standing in competition to the Anglican Communion, especially as a number of the provinces are already in church communion with the aforementioned episcopal churches.”

The communiqué also said that the conference wishes that the International Bishops’ Conference remains “the single voice of the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht in relation to ecumenical partners and the wider society,” adding that this single voice is especially important for those Old Catholic Churches such as those in Poland and Croatia who “can only really express their Old Catholic identity in relation to the IBC.”


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