1. The Old Catholic Church holds to the threefold ordained ministry as it emerged in the second century and was virtually universally maintained up to the Reformation. In view of Protestant criticism levelled against the idea that Holy Scripture considers the threefold ministry, especially episcopacy, an institution necessary for salvation, Old Catholic authors have sometimes tried to give an exegetical answer to the contrary. But on the whole it is now accepted that this is not really possible, not least because of the divergent ecclesiological approaches in the New Testament mentioned above. As the basic appeal of Old Catholic theology is not so much to Holy Scripture (taken in isolation from the Church of subapostolic times) but to the Ancient Church, this does not seem to create grave problems. The threefold ministry, the rule of faith, the canon of Scripture are taken as fundamental decisions of the early Church being in legitimate continuity with its apostolic origin.
In terms of systematic theology the following consideration may be worth mentioning. The ministry that is constitutive for the Church and its mission has its origin in the commissioning of the apostles by Christ. It carries on their service in those areas that are not limited to the historically unique and foundational aspects of their apostolate: the proclamation of the Gospel including its sacramental and pastoral dimension in a comprehensive sense. Now the one ministry is directed to the one local Church (of the earlier „urban“ or the later „regional“ type). This aspect is manifest in the oneness of the minister traditionally called „bishop“. But the one ministry also has a collegial dimension, and this is manifest in the college of collaboraters, traditionally called presbyters (or „priests“). The aspects of oneness and plurality or collegiality of the ministry is equally necessary, thus the differentiation of the one ministry in episcopcy and presbyterate may be seen as making sense – perhaps even as a reflection of the unity and plurality of the triune God.
It is more difficult to give a similar explanation for the diaconate as being part of the ordained ministry, or as a frequently used Old Catholic terminology would say, of the „apostolic ministry“. Incidentally, in some Old Catholic Churches there have been successful efforts to reintroduce a permanent diaconate with a larger pastoral responsibility than provided for the transitory diaconate of candidates to the priesthood.
2. The threefold „apostolic“ ministry of the Church has to be seen in its connection with the non-ordained baptized. Ministry and laity are being distinguished, but they act in a communion being a network with different tasks, not with the separation of, say, a teaching and obeying Church. In earlier times the Old Catholic concern for the integration of the laity (and lower clergy) into the responsibility for the local Church and thus in its leadership was given expression with the problematic term of „democratization“. Today the relation of the ministry and the laity is rather seen in analogy to the trinitarian model of the relation of Christ and Spirit. The ministry represents Christ and carries on his and the apostles’ mission, though not in an exclusive way; the laity represent the Holy Spirit – again not in an exclusive way – who helps them to recognize whether the ministry remains true to the Gospel of Christ (this would be a sort of a general „lay ministry“). Both have a responsibility for the Church and its proclamation, which neither can cede to the other or arrogate from the other. In the case of conflict over fundamental questions – and this holds good for other confrontations than ministry / laity as well, like e.g. bishop / synod, bishop / presbyterate etc. – discussion must go on until a consensus is reached or the breach of ecclesial communion is unavoidable. In other words, there is no hierarchical or democratic mechanism per se in coming to a decision in the sense that it is the bishop, or the clergy, or the laity, or a mixed majority that has the final vote. This is a consequence of the ecclesiological approach outlined so far, and a lot of encouragement (and instruction) is needed to bring the members of the Church to live this „high“ ecclesiology in terms of shared responsibility. Otherwise many dangers lurk.
There are a number of tasks that are only fulfilled by lay baptized, in other cases like religious education, pastoral and social work an exclusive connection with the ministry or the laity does not make sense. The administration of sacraments is a responsibility of the ordained ministry.
3. The leadership in the local Church (or in the nation-wide communions of local Churches, i.e. the „national“ Church) is assumed in a specific way in the co-operation of bishop and synod, and a sort of executive, often called synodal council. Diocesan or General Synods consist of lay delegates from the parishes and all or elected clergy (the majority must always be lay). The way how the common episcopal-synodal structure is working in details is rather different in the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht. To take an example, the institution called „synod“ in the Dutch Old Catholic Church has – contrary the the synods in the other Old Catholic Churches – only an advisory responsibility, the decisions being taken by the bishops together with a small steering group of clergy and lay (the „Collegiaal Bestuur“). Another difference is the frequency, with which synods are convened (1-5 years), what has repercussions on the allocation of responsibilities to either synod or synodal council.
Issues that concern the faith of the Church and thus its identity and its communion with other local or national Churches require a special awareness of ecclesial responsibility of the local Church and a common consultation beyond the local or national Church. It is here that in the Union of Utrecht the International Bishops‘ Conference (IBC) comes into the play.