Commentary by Revd Dr John Williams, Co-ordinator for Local Ministry, Diocese of Wakefield
In this brief résumé I have singled out those aspects of Old Catholic ecclesiology discussed at the Conference which (in my view) are of interest in the pursuit of practical ecumenism. I have not attempted to comment on all the papers individually.
The Declaration of Utrecht, which brought together the Old Catholic churches of the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland in 1889, stated that 'we adhere faithfully to the Rule of Faith laid down by St Vincent of Lerins in these terms: id teneamus, quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est...' In 1931 a consultation took place in Bonn between Anglican and Old Catholic representatives, with a view to finding a way towards mutual recognition of ministries and intercommunion. At the Anglican-Old Catholic consultations in Bonn in 1931 strong representations were made by the Anglican Evangelical contingent, keen to preserve the distinctively Reformed character of the doctrine of the Church of England and to resist any premature declaration of doctrinal accord. However, the leading Evangelical George Francis Graham-Brown made an intervention which, rather surprisingly, did much to smooth the way to agreement: he proposed that since there was no agreed doctrinal basis for intercommunion, 'no such identity or consistency of doctrine should be insisted on', i.e. intercommunion should not rest on these grounds at all but on mutual recognition and acceptance as part of historic Catholic Christianity, holding 'all the essentials'.
The Bonn Agreement of 1931 therefore, which established full intercommunion between the Anglican and Old Catholic churches, declares that 'intercommunion 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'. In other words, Old Catholic ecclesiology affirms that churches that are able to recognise in each other the authentic marks of the Catholic Faith should logically on that basis be able to proceed to intercommunion. This is a refreshingly uncluttered approach to ecumenical relations, although beneath its apparent simplicity it raises questions about what is included in 'the essentials'. Later in 1931 the Old Catholic Congress assembled in Vienna and ratified the Bonn Agreement: but the delegation of Anglican bishops, when reporting back on what had been agreed in order to commend the Agreement to the Anglican Communion, produced a form of words that attempted to present the agreement as being 'on the basis of the recognition of the validity of Anglican ordinations': a more precisely measurable juridical formula, but not precisely what Bonn had said. The existence of a basis for full intercommunion that rests entirely on the willingness of churches to recognise each other's catholicity remains a tantalizing prospect to which the Old Catholic churches bear witness.
The Old Catholic tradition places an emphasis on 'qualitative' rather than 'quantitative' catholicity, leading to a tendency to stress the being of the church in making decisions about ecumenical matters, rather than intellectual theological articulations. The actuality of 'local churches' (understood in this context as defined by the diocese) which share certain features of their life in common is a stronger criterion for intercommunion than doctrinal formulae. Churches who are forming their life on the primitive apostolic principles will in effect recognise each other's catholicity rather as siblings recognise they belong to the same family. 'The Old Catholic understands the Church to be a visible Church': what is presented, lived, takes priority over abstractions. Thus in a similar way apostolicity is about the continuity from the apostles of what the church does in its apostolic mission, brought to focus in what the bishops do.
A Trinitarian ecclesiology looks to how the 'participation of the divine persons in each other' becomes 'participation of all Christians in this Trinitarian communion', i.e. 'persons in relation', unity in difference, mutual coinherence, perichoresis. 'What is involved is...a concept of personhood as determined by being-in-communion with others, a concept of Christian salvation as restoration of communion, and a concept of church as...the "proof" of the reality of this restored communion between God and humankind, and between people amongst each other...If women and men are created in the image of God, they are created in the image of the Trinitarian God, and therefore they are created on the basis of, and with a view to, being-in-communion' (extract from Ploeger). In this way Old Catholic ecclesiology also comes close to Orthodox thinking through the work of Zizioulas. It leads among other things to the idea of the local church as a 'corporate personality' and eschews autocratic, one-sidedly hierarchical expressions of authority.
A Eucharistic ecclesiology rests on the recognition of the ecclesial character of the Eucharist as formative or constitutive of the church understood in this Trinitarian / personalist way. 'The ministry is understood to be primarily the service of presiding over the gathering of the whole people of God in such a way that all (lay and clerical) charisms are enabled to contribute their part to the whole' (Ploeger). Notice that again, these ecclesiological models make it possible to take a generous view toward those communions with whom we may not agree on certain points, because all communions are 'in process of development towards the eucharistic goal' and are imperfect, thus having to live with inconsistencies and not insisting on purity.
The concrete life of the church takes place locally in liturgia, martyria and diakonia. This is the practical outworking of the church's reality as 'a communion of people, by which the reconciliation in Jesus Christ and by the outpouring and continuous work of the Holy Spirit is constituted as a unity in a given place around a bishop with the eucharist at its centre' (quoted by Esser from the Statute of the International Old Catholic Bishops' Conference 2000). Each local church (diocese) belongs in this way to the universal church, as the Trinitarian persons enjoy perpetual communion in and with each other: 'God's essence coincides with his being persons, and this is always realized in communion.' Therefore 'the universal church does not exist as preceding the local churches, it rather exists as local churches'. It follows from this that the mode of operation of the bishops is intrinsically collegial: in order to govern their respective dioceses they must agree together on any matters of policy to be decided- it is not possible for any one of them to decide for the others. 'A carrier of a singular leading office which is settled over the local churches, meaning that it is not collegially and conciliarly embedded among them, cannot be accepted by the Old Catholic church due to their ecclesiology' (all quotations from Esser).
Any concept of primacy can therefore only rest on a model of primus inter pares and can not have any juridical authority. Within the Episcopal college or the councils of the church, there may be an agreement that one of the bishops shall take the lead in initiating and enabling discussion, shall in this sense preside over the proceedings; and in case of disagreement or deadlock he may be looked to for the wisdom to discern a way forward; but in the end the bishops must come to an agreement, nothing can be imposed. This attitude spills over into the Old Catholic approach to ecumenism, where no church is seen as having the right to lay down special conditions to the others for its communion with them- rather each church needs to look for the signs of authentic catholicity in the others, and be ready to acknowledge it when it is recognized, thereby effectually creating communion.
The episcope proper to the eucharistic ecclesiology of the Old Catholic churches must be
These characteristics reflect the theological emphases already outlined: that there can be no abstract or ideal ecclesiological propositions that have no anchorage in the church as a socio-historical reality; that the meaning of church must always be tested in relation to an actual community of persons; and that even as the bishop is the focus for unity in his person he cannot operate other than as part of the college of bishops, nor can he function except as a member of the local church community.
The universal church must be seen as subsisting at the level of the local church, rather than manifesting itself in some other, higher or pre-eminent body or structure. All that is required for a church to manifest in itself the universal church is conformity and continuity with the ancient church (essential catholicity) in the manner of the Vincentian Canon: quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est. Questions about what these things consist of may be settled by reference to key historical statements of the communion in question, such as for example for Anglicans the Lambeth Quadrilateral of the Scriptures, the Catholic Creeds, Baptism and Eucharist and the Historic Episcopate. There are contrasts here with the Anglican understanding of the Church of England as 'part of' the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church and of the expectation that within a future undivided church some more explicit form of primacy, for example of a Petrine nature, should be anticipated. At this point Old Catholic ecclesiology would call into question some of the conjectures of the Windsor Report as well as of ARCIC II.
The final paper of the Conference by Professor von Arx suggests a typology of models by which different communions would designate 'the relationship of the visible communion of the Church (i.e. a specific denomination) to the One Church professed in the Symbol of Faith in the Ecumenical era'. These are informed by the distinctive Old Catholic perspectives of church as 'communion of people constituted through their participation in something, in an entity, which they are not themselves' (i.e. koinonia is not a human association based upon mutual affection or likemindedness alone, but a divine creation and gift); at the same time 'mystical unity between God and the believers does not exist without the unity of the baptized among them' (i.e. once again, no place for a purely 'invisible' church). The typology is as follows:
1. 'To claim the identity of a denomination with the One Church in such a way that all other denominations are explicitly unchurched'. This would traditionally have been the Roman position and it also implicit in Orthodoxy, though sometimes expressed in a more veiled form.
2. The modified Roman position post-Vatican II refers to the One Church 'subsisting in' the Roman Catholic Church while allowing for the 'ecclesial status' of other church communities, albeit in a provisional or incomplete form. (For example, the sacrament of baptism is recognised as effecting authentic initiation: re-baptism is not required of converts.)
3. The modified Orthodox position reserves its judgment upon other ecclesial communities on the grounds that 'we know where the Holy Spirit is, but we do not know where the Holy Spirit is not': an approach which makes an appeal to the 'invisible church' principle, that there is a One Church that may exist also beyond the boundaries of the Orthodox Church.
4. The Anglo-Catholic 'Branch theory' associated with the Oxford Movement regards Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Anglicanism as the three authentically Catholic branches growing out of the trunk of the ancient (i.e. pre-1054) undivided church: i.e. there was visible unity once and there will be again, but for the present there are separated branches.
5. The 'official' Anglican position states that the Church of England (and with it other churches of the Anglican Communion) is 'part of' the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church', thereby affirming a provisionality in its ecclesiology and that the fullness of the church is an eschatological reality: 'We are the Church. You are the Church. But none of us is the Church as it should be' (Avis). In this view, ecclesiality is recognised sufficiently but as yet incompletely, in baptism. Mutual recognition of baptism becomes the first stage, and Eucharistic sharing a later stage, on an ecumenical journey. In the case of the Meissen Agreement with the German Lutheran churches, for example, Eucharistic sharing actually precedes interchangeability of ministries. Von Arx questions this approach as involving an illegitimate prioritising of sacraments in some kind of order of theological significance.
6. Finally, the Old Catholic position: Andreas Rinkel, a leading Old Catholic theologian and archbishop, states that 'no Church can call itself the Body of Christ excluding the other Churches. For the Body of Christ is one and undivided, and each Church, even the one that thinks it has not deviated from the ancient tradition, is to be equally blamed for every division and separation'. There is to be a staunch refusal to judge, because 'the ecclesial status of other churches or denominations is not measured from a neutral standpoint or a general theory.' Instead, there needs to be a mutual exploration of ecclesial experience: 'recognizing two denominations as being identical in their catholicity (witness their faith and order, including the liturgy) is a confessional act implying a deep mutual ecclesial commitment'.
The attractiveness of the Old Catholic position is its emphasis on ecclesial practice and on the development of the relationships of communion which signal the outworking in actuality of ecclesiological (and Trinitarian) belief. It refrains from making over-elaborate doctrinal demands in advance of actual engagement between traditions. It is innovative in its appeal to a process of ecclesial discernment which would lead the participants to a mutual recognition of each other's catholicity, and its insistence that when that takes place, intercommunion occurs as a natural corollary. A major outstanding question is whether this is a witness that can only be maintained by the Old Catholic churches because they are so small; they remind us all of essential and primitive ecclesiological principles, the simplicity of which are inevitably clouded by the complexities of scale resulting from culturally more diverse bodies.
© J.A.Williams, September 2005