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Saint Willibrord and Old Catholics

Recently, online, there have been a number of misrepresentations of Old Catholics and of overlapping geographical jurisdictions by bishops in full communion with each other.

One example (mentioned here, here, and here) is of Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies of Sydney touting the European overlapping jurisdictions as a model to “recognise” (I have no real idea what that means, entails, or results in) those disaffiliating from Anglican Churches as “Anglican”.

In actual fact, rather than being a model to aspire to, “the strange phenomenon of the five different jurisdictions in continental Europe” where “All these churches are in full communion with each other” is something that “is a reality, but an increasingly undesirable one, because it is in conflict with ecclesiological principles of the ancient church to which the Old Catholics – hence their name – refer to.” [From the presentation to ACC-15, in Auckland New Zealand 2012, by +Dirk Jan Schoon, Bishop of Haarlem].

The four overlapping Anglican jurisdictions in Europe even have their own issues. And none of these jurisdictions exist because of difference in doctrine (the cause of disaffiliation).

Yesterday was the feast of St Willibrord (the world being round, some readers are still celebrating that today). So, it is appropriate to reflect on Old Catholics – as they look back to him.

Saying that the Old Catholic Church started in 1870 is an oversimplification about as correct as claiming the Church of England started 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 Utrecht cathedral elected their bishop, a right confirmed by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.

As in other places, during the Reformation the Catholic Church in the Netherlands 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.

The “Bonn Agreement” between the Church of England and Old Catholics (Union of Utrecht) has:

  1. Each Communion recognises 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. Full Communion 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.

Since then full communion extends to all members of the Anglican Communion.

The history of the Old Catholic communion is complex.

The twelfth century Investiture Controversy resulted, in 1122, in the Concordat of Worms (confirmed 1st Lateran Council 1123; reinforced 4th Lateran Council 1215). The Emperor would not invest bishops, and the bishop would be elected locally, and not be appointed. The See of Utrecht held strongly to this position.

The Reformation in the Netherlands resulted in the Dutch Reformed Church confiscating church property, and making Catholicism illegal. Catholicism went underground. The Pope, Bishop of Rome, suspended the dioceses north of the Rhine and Waal.

Rome, later, began to “re-establish” the Catholic Church in the Low Countries. But many Catholics there saw themselves as part of the continuing church rather than part of a new mission of Rome. They held to their previous rights.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Utrecht elected a bishop that the Pope did not approve. This Archbishop of Utrecht consecrated bishops of other Dutch dioceses, again without Roman agreement, in accordance with the Concordat. While most Dutch Catholics held allegiance to Rome, these “Old Catholics” in schism did not accept Rome’s jurisdiction over them.

The declaration, at the First Vatican Council 1870, of papal infallibility and universal jurisdiction, led to Austrian, German, and Swiss Catholics seeking to continue Catholic faith and practice without these additions. They joined with those in communion with the See of Utrecht to form the Old Catholic Communion. The Communion has grown from then.

The Vatican accepted the validity of the orders of Old Catholics – I do not know how the Vatican responded to Old Catholics ordaining women. Old Catholics have been fully involved in Anglican ordinations and consecrations – confusing the Vatican’s position on Anglican orders.

The Old Catholic communion is led by an International Bishops’ Conference (IBC), chaired by the Archbishop of Utrecht and meeting annually. The IBC is a coordinating and not a legislative body. Member churches are autonomous.

Old Catholics take part at the Lambeth Conferences and the Anglican Consultative Council, and maintain relations with Anglican churches around the world.

The Anglican-Old Catholic International Co-ordinating Council (AOCICC) met in York, England from 4 to 8 November 2011. It finalised the text of a joint statement on ecclesiology and mission, “Belonging Together in Europe“. An earlier version of the text was the major focus of the International Old Catholic and Anglican Theological Conference held in Neustadt, Germany from August 29 to September 2, 2011.

More recent Communiqués of Meetings of the Anglican–Old Catholic International Co-ordinating Council:

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4 thoughts on “Saint Willibrord and Old Catholics”

  1. Whenever I’ve been in the Netherlands on a Sunday I’ve gone to Mass with the Old Catholics. I remember a Mass a few years ago that was celebrated by a German woman priest, a former Lutheran, with the Mass Ordinary chanted in Dutch to John Merbecke’s 1550 setting for the first Anglican Prayer Book. All rather ecumenical: I could sing the tune, but stumbled over the words!

  2. Old Catholics in the US are a peculiar bunch. Most are smal independant groups claiming some sort of apostolic succession from the Union Of Utrecht, but none recognized by nor in communion with the UU. If you do a search of Old Catholics in the US you get a page or so of websites for OC dioceses and parishes with autonomous patriarchs and bishops and their own little band of priests, deacons and layfolk. Embarrassingly, many of them are gay men dressing up and playing church, having gotten some claiming Old Catholic apostolic succession to ordain them a priest and ultimately a bishop.

    The main reason that none of them receive recognition from the UU is because the UU recognizes the Episcopal Church as the catholic jurisdiction in the US.

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