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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