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Old Catholics

In an effort to strengthen unity among Christians, Pope Francis welcomed a delegation of the Bishops Conference of the Union of Utrecht, also known as ‘Old Catholics.’

The division between the two came about in 1870 during the First Vatican Council, when a group of bishops rejected the notion of papal infallibility. Today, there are more theological and ecclesiological differences between the two, but the Pope said, they must focus on moving forward.

The Old Catholic Church starting in 1870 is an oversimplification about as correct as the Church of England starting in 1534 when randy King Henry VIII wanted a divorce.

In fact Saint Willibrord (c. 658 – 7 November 739), a Church of England Benedictine monk, came from Northumbria to evangelise the Netherlands, and became Bishop of Utrecht. Since at least the 12th century the chapter of the cathedral elected their bishop, a right confirmed by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.

As in other places, during the Reformation the Catholic Church had to go ‘underground’, and in the Netherlands you can still visit the hidden church buildings from this period. When that tension with the state lessened, conflict arose between local Dutch Catholicism and clergy sent from beyond the area by Rome.

The parallels to what happened in England continued. Rome’s hierarchy was established in England in 1850. Similarly, Rome’s hierarchy was established in the Netherlands in 1853 – with a difference. Rome did not establish a parallel Archbishop of Canterbury. But in the Netherlands Rome did place an Archbishop in Utrecht. So now there were two – two Archbishops of Utrecht; two hierarchies; two ‘catholic churches’, an Old one and a Roman one.

Whereas Willem Eijk is the 72nd Archbishop of Utrecht in RC counting, Joris Vercammen is the 83rd Archbishop of Utrecht following the Old Catholic counting. [Of interest to some is that Archbishop Joris was a Roman Catholic priest who joined the Old Catholics because of, amongst other things, his conviction that celibacy should be an individual’s decision, not a requirement for ordination, and also his rejection of the centralised power of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope.]

In 1870, when Vatican I defined the pope as being infallible, a number of people disagreeing with this expanded the Old Catholic Church from just being in the Netherlands to a communion of churches called the Union of Utrecht.

Old Catholics see themselves as a catholic church with a three-fold office of deacon, priest, and bishop which is open to men and women; receiving revelation through scripture and tradition; emphasising Word and Sacrament; and standing up for the rights of the local church.

Old Catholics and Anglicans have obvious similarities, and since 1930 they are in full communion, with Old Catholics participating in Anglican ordinations and vice versa.

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13 Responses to Old Catholics

    • As far as I can see, Peter, the main issue that divides Anglicans and Old Catholics from Roman Catholics is Anglicans and Old Catholics ordain women. Other things, like the Old Catholic practice of a local choosing of bishops, are areas of practice which are variable – the Vatican cannot claim that papal universal jurisdiction in appointing bishops is of the esse of church. Blessings.

    • I disagree that this is “better”, Graham-Michoel. Rome’s universal jurisdiction in appointing its bishops in England after 1850, in the manner of head office appointing branch managers, was not the norm prior to that. Just as one example: who appointed Thomas Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury? The episcopal pre-1534 hierarchy continued in England after that date. The establishment of a significant parallel episcopal structure there dates from the 1850 establishment. Using the term “re-established” fits in with RC creation myths of Anglicanism which do not stack up with history. Blessings.

  1. Thank you very much for this article! Especially that you write about it on St Willibrord’s feast.

    It is in 1724 that the French missionary bishop Dominique Varlet ordained Cornelius Steenhoven as Abp of Utrecht; this is the moment that Rome cut the ties with the Chuch of Utrecht.

    Another interesting parallel: in 1731, Canon Willibrordus Kemp published the Getijdenboek (prayerbook) in Dutch (even with the hymns, poetically translated from Latin). Liturgical-vernacular was on its way.

    The full communion between our communions of Churches was due, at least in part, to the St Willibrod Society, founded by George Barber, Anglican priest, in 1908.

  2. The Holy See recognizes the validity of Old Catholic Holy Orders but having said this that does not mean that the circus and psychodrama that is “old catholic jurisdictions” in the US and the UK is accorded such recognition despite the plethora of web sites claiming said recognition. From what I have been told by several Roman Catholic bishops Anglican clergy are accepted as validly ordained only if they have Union of Utrecht bishops who participated in the consecrations of their Anglican bishops. Lastly there are no so called Old Catholic churches in the US or the UK that are recognised as having valid sacraments either by the Union or the Holy See no matter what their web sites claim!

    • Thanks, Andrew. The Vatican does not recognise the validity of Old Catholic Holy Orders of women. I do not think that a priest or bishop ordained in the Polish National Catholic Church in USA who went to serve in an Old Catholic Church in Europe would need to be re-ordained. Thirdly, I would be surprised if there are many Anglican clergy who do not have Old Catholic presence in their ordination lineage. Blessings.

      • I can’t speak for the UK, but he’s right about the US, there is an entire cottage industry here of playing dress up. There are a lot of wannabes in the US who couldn’t make it in main stream churches and got themselves ordained and consecrated by Episcopi vagantes who claim Old Catholic holy orders. They set up shop in one parish in which they usually pastor and there are often more ordained folk than laity. The really successful ones have one or two struggling satelite parishes.

        • Yes, Br David. These are a fascinating phenomenon. The other thing they often have is magnificent websites, stealing photographs from here and there to give the impression of grandeur. Blessings.

  3. You are absolutely correct with regards to the refusal of the Holy See to recognize women’s ordination by the OCs. You are also correct about the PNC. In this case it was JPII or so I am informed that quietly settled the issue about their validity ! In the matter of Anglican clergy it is decided on a case by case basis by the Vatican and in most former Anglicans are “conditionally” ordained,

  4. “episcopi vagantes who claim Old Catholic holy orders” – you rightly say Br David, not OCs at all. I think it is important to make that distinction. There were one or two clergy in the early 20th century who claimed ordination from OC bishops, (clearly disclaimed by Henry Brandreth), and these have men have gone on to ordain men and women without authority. But I guess the whole issue of ‘whose authority’ might be another and significant debate.
    In the meantime, I think the true OCs have a lot to teach us about inclusiveness and tolerance – which both Anglicans and Latin Catholics could well listen to.

  5. In respect to what Bro David said, I would like to underline that in the pre-1990 era, in the so-called communist European countries, there were a lot of wannabes who couldn’t make it in the Orthodox or Roman Catholic Churches, and got themselves ordained and consecrated by episcopi vagantes who claimed Byzantine Catholic holy orders.

    Most of those guys used to celebrate the Mass alone or with a wife as cantor & server, in the living room. None of them had any theological formation at all.

    After 1990, all those wannabees came out of the closet, they got recognized by the popish system, and here they were!

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About This Site Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.

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