The Bishops of the Old Catholic Churches united in the Union of Utrecht met from 16th to 22nd November in Prague for their annual meeting. Alongside the regular items of business and reports, the bishops also had to address a number of difficult issues.
During the first half of the conference two guests from the Anglican Communion, were present: Bishop Carlos Lopez-Lozano, Bishop of the Spanish Reformed Episcopal Church, and Bishop Jonathan Gledhill, the Bishop of Lichfield and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Representative to the Union of Utrecht. He informed the IBC of the present situation within the Anglican Communion. Dr Tom Best (Department of Faith and Order, World Council of Churches) was welcomed as guest speaker to give a paper on the possibilities and limitations of a small Church in a secular society.
A large part of the agenda addressed relations with other Churches, in particular with the Anglican Church. This led to consideration of the consequences for the participation of Old Catholic bishops in the laying on of hands at Anglican consecrations, in which bishops of other Churches participate who are not in communion with the Old Catholic Churches. This led to the bishops issuing the following statement:
As a result of the Bonn Agreement (1931), bishops of the Old Catholic Union of Utrecht have participated in the consecration of Anglican bishops. In recent years, several Anglican churches have established full communion with other churches or ecclesial communities (e.g. the 1992 Porvoo Common Statement). In the light of this development, the Old Catholic International Bishops’ Conference (IBC) declares the following:
"1. To the extent that the Bonn Agreement governs the relations between individual Old Catholic and Anglican churches, participation by Old Catholic bishops in Anglican consecrations will continue, including those consecrations in which non-Anglican bishops take part in the laying on of hands.
2. The participation of Old Catholic bishops in such consecrations does not imply that either the Union of Utrecht as a whole or individual Old Catholic churches are in full communion with the churches represented by those non-Anglican bishops who also will take part in the laying on of hands.
3.The IBC expresses the hope that the churches of the Anglican Communion will consult with the Old Catholic Communion as part of the process of concluding and implementing agreements on full communion between Anglican churches and other churches and ecclesial communities."
In view of relations with the Anglican Church the problem of overlapping jurisdictions in Europe was also discussed. This problem has arisen because in Continental Europe there are Anglican and Old Catholic bishops who are responsible fort he same areas, although they are in full communion with each other. It is now hoped to be able to discuss a number of proposals to solve this situation.
A further point was the forthcoming celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Bonn Agreement in 2006. There was strong support for an official celebration with a service during the International Old Catholic Congress which meets in Freiburg in Breisgau in the same year. It remains unclear whether a further celebration will take place at Utrecht or Canterbury. Furthermore a theologians’ conference to address the theme of Anglican and Old Catholic ecclesiologies is being considered for the autumn of 2005.
Conversations are about to begin on an international level with the Roman Catholic Church. A preparatory commission of theologians from both Churches has already put together a list of proposed themes to be discussed and this list has met with the approval of the Bishops’ Conference. The commission, made up of members of both churches, plans come together for its first official meeting in the first quarter of next year.
Archbishop Vercammen reported on the visit which he made in September, together with Prime Bishop Nemkovich and Prof. Urs von Arx, to the Patriarch of Constantinople. In addition to the points which the Orthodox regard as problematic with regards to the relations between the Orthodox and Old Catholic Churches, time was also given to discussing the future shape of such relations. The Bishops’ Conference gave its support to the proposal made by the Old Catholic delegation in Constantinople which is to establish a common body to give shape and substance to these relations. The proposal was also received with interest on the Orthodox side. A reply can be expected towards the end of this year.
The Archbishop also informed the IBC of his visit to the Independent Philippine Church on the occasion of their 100th anniversary. A theologian will travel to the Philippines for a lecture series to foster theological exchange and to intensify relations.
In a further item, the Bishops gave their approval to a new order for the dedication of a church as formulated by the International Liturgical Commission. The Commission was disbanded with warm thanks for all they have done. It will be succeeded by a new Commission with new members and a new working brief to continue the work.
The most important and at the same time most difficult item of business for this year’s Bishops’ Conference was the consultation and examination of the situation within the Union of Utrecht as required by the resolution of the IBC at their meeting in Wislikofen in 1997, which sought to address the fact that not all member Churches stood in full communion with each other. Following intensive analysis and consideration of various solution proposals, the majority of the Bishops placed themselves behind the following statement:
"As the Polish National Catholic Church in the USA and Canada (PNCC) did not consider itself able to maintain communion with those Churches of the Union of Utrecht, which have introduced the ordination of women, the IBC felt it necessary in 1997 to determine a period of a maximum of six years within in which to work towards restoring full communion as required in the statute. As this was not possible, the majority of the IBC states the following:
1. At the meeting of the IBC from 16th – 22nd November 2003 in Prague we stated, that full communion, as determined in the statute of the IBC, could not be restored and that therefore, as a consequence, the separation of our Churches follows.
2. If in the future a possibility emerges from either side to restore full communion, then the other side shall be immediately informed.
3.The Archbishop of Utrecht [Dr. Joris Vercammen] will undertake the necessary steps as required by this statement."
What effect this statement will have on the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht (The churches in the Netherlands, in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Czechia, Poland and Slovakia on the one hand and the church in the USA and Canada on the other hand) will need to be considered over the next few months.
The next meeting of the Bishops’ Conference will be in Switzerland from 27th June to 3rd July 2004.
Amersfoort and Bern, November 29, 2003
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