Supralocal and universal koinonia of the Church

1.     In pursuance of the the approach outlined above (para. “Unity”) I shall attempt to show how the supralocal koinonia of the Church may be conceived of in consequence of the basic data of Old Catholic ecclesiology.

Supralocal koinonia is always a communion of local Churches in a gradually increasing geographic extension up to the universal communion. Following ancient models the first stage could be designated as a Church Province. It may be a communion of local Churches of a particular country or of a part of it. Communions of local Churches for their part may form a communion, what might be called a patriarchate or whatever. The geographical limits or extensions will be dependent on contingent factors of history, culture, tradition. Finally there is the universal communion of communions of local Churches.

Each communion of local Churches in whatever extension is a representation and realization of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church being an object of faith and confessed in the Creed. The common element is their soteriological-trinitarian identity by way of participation in God. Each type of communion has to manifest the unity of the Church in various ways.

In order to maintain the supralocal communion of Churches there will be appropriate forms of common consultation and decision-making and giving witness to the common faith in the Gospel. In this the bishops have a special responsibility, as they are at the interface of local Church and supralocal communion. As single bishops being integrated in a synodal network they are the personal focus of the unity of each particular local Church; as a group of bishops again integrated in a synodal network they are the collegial focus of unity of a particular communion of local Churches. Now the synod of bishops has a common responsibility to manifest the unity and communion of local Churches. One of the bishops, however, is supposed to have a special, the first responsibility for this. This bishop is a primus inter pares, who will not decide for himself nor will the other bishops (the pares) cede their co-responsibility to the primate. Consequently there is a co-operation between primate and synod within the common responsibility for manifesting the unity of the Church and giving a witness to the Gospel whenever such is necessary at this level.

A principal concern of this conception is, on the one hand, to have intermediate elements between the local and the universal dimension of unity and communion of the Church, which are all representations of the One Church in their „places“. On the other hand the conception of primacy should be freed from the fixation on the universal primacy (usually seen in the light of the Roman primacy as defined in 1870) and be understood as an important element in the synodal structure constitutive for any form of communion of local Churches.[1]

The above view of the manifestation of unity of the supralocal koinonia of the Church is a consequence of the ecclesiological approach which takes the local Church as the primary place of the life of the Church in martyria, doxologia and diakonia, and therefore as the primary (though always ambiguous) realization of the One Church confessed in the Creed. Consequently the synods of bishops represent the communion of the local Churches to which they belong in the first place and not an entity called the universal Church (or part of it) of which they would be the college. Accordingly measures (that cannot be specified here) are to be taken in order to safeguard that the bishops speak for their local Churches without, however, simply becoming their mouthpieces, for they carry the primary responsibility for the supralocal communion of the local Churches and may not cede it to supposedly superior instances. Lack of space does not allow to discuss some difficult questions as to details. Only one point must be mentioned: whereas on the local and the first supralocal (and national) level a regular convening is desirable, at geographically more extensive levels the assembling of synods is dependent on urgency. The Church as a universal communion of local Churches should never become something like a global bureaucratic machinery.

Another constitutive element in the ecclesiology outlined is the process of reception: A decision of a synod of whatever geographical representativeness is and must be recognized as a true witness of faith and thus becoming an element of practical belief by the baptized in the local Churches. In this Spirit-guided process that cannot be steered by some canonical machinery the „infallibility“ of the Church – if the term is to be preserved – has its proper place. It should be added that it is easier to recognize the non-reception of a synodal decision and witness than the reception as this is ultimately a never ending process.

2.     This vision of the manifestation of unity of the local Churches may now be set in relation with the Old Catholic view of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. There are a number of official statements always acknowledging „the historic primacy which several ecumenical councils and Fathers of the Ancient Church have attributed to the Bishop of Rome by recognizing him as primus inter pares“.[2] What is rejected is a primacy of (universal) jurisdiction that links the Pope in a unique way with what is called the universal Church and moreover implies a form of primacy without pares as he is a unicus and not a primus (qua patriarch of the West), i.e. a universal bishop in addition to the bishop of each local Church, whom as „the“ head of the Church all owe obedience.

3.     What is the ecclesiological status of the Union of Utrecht in the light of this conception? It serves as the primary Old Catholic framework to live and practise unity and communion on a supralocal level, but it was rather late that the ecclesiological implications were made an object of theological investigation, and certain insufficencies were recognized.[3] The Union of Utrecht ought to see itself as a representation of the One Church in its particular place and not simply as a loose association of individual national Churches.[4] However, this view is not undisputed. This has to do with the fact that it seems impossible to see an exact analogy of the Union in a province or in a patriarchate: neither model really fits. There is also a certain Old Catholic temptation to see the autonomy of the national Church in a certain analogy to the sovereignty of the modern state.

(Autor Prof. Dr. Urs von Arx, Bern)

[1] As a consequence of the inter-relation of synod and primate the traditional Old Catholic conception of placing the Ecumenical Synod/Council above the Pope is equally untenable as the opposite one to which it is a reaction.
[2] So e.g. the Declaration of Utrecht, para.2. Other statements include the fundamental programme of the Old Catholic movement issued by the Congress of Munich in 1871, the IBC-declaration of 1970 ‘The Primacy in the Church’ (both in: Küry, U., 450-452; 458-460), and common texts agreed upon by the Joint Orthodox-Old Catholic Theological Commission (in: Koinonia: 202-204) and the International Anglican-Old Catholic Theological Conference of 1985 (in: IKZ 80, 1990, 5-11).
[3] Cf. Papandreou, Damaskinos, ‘La signification de l’Union d’Utrecht du point de vue orthodoxe’, Episkepsis No 427 (October 15, 1989). The Union of Utrecht, its ecclesiological character and possible restructuration were made an object of two International Consultations of Old Catholic Theologians in 1993 (in: IKZ 84, 1994, 7-61; 92-127) and in 1996 (in: IKZ 87, 1997, 65-126).
[4] See the preamble of the new statute. There was an irregular situation insofar as the PNCC terminated ecclesial communion with those member Churches that introduced the ordination of women to the priesthood and , at the same time, insisted on belonging to the Union.