Relations with the Orthodox Churches

The relationship between Old Catholics and the Orthodox developed in five phases.  The first phase lasted from 1871 to 1888.  Although the Dutch Old Catholic Church of the 18th century repeated the Roman anathemas against the Eastern Church, the young anti-Vatican movement in Germany took steps towards a serious dialogue with the Orthodox. Orthodox churches were also invited along with the Anglicans to Bonn to the reunification conferences of 1874 and 1875.  It was resolved that unity must be based on an agreement about the faith of the ecumenical councils, scripture and tradition, the office of bishop and the seven sacraments.  The developments, which led to the declaration of papal infallibility in the Roman Catholic Church, as well as developments within Protestantism, which led to discontinuity with the early church, were rejected.  Concerning the filioque it was decided that this expression was mistakenly added to the creed, but that it is nonetheless possible to explain it from an Orthodox perspective.

The second phase lasted from 1889 to 1917, i.e. from the founding of the Utrecht Union to the Russian Revolution.  During this time dialogue commissions were formed in Rotterdam (Old Catholic) and in St. Petersburg (Orthodox).  The commissions never met together but they did exchange memoranda about the filioque, the Eucharist and the canonical validity of Old Catholic episcopal structure.  Conservative theologians like Bishop Sergius of Yamburg, the later Patriarch of Moscow, demanded that the Old Catholic Church recognize all Orthodox churches as the uniquely true church.

Patriarch Joachim of Constantinople wrote an encyclical in 1904 in which he demanded an official and comprehensive confession of faith from all Old Catholic churches.  On the basis of difficulties of communication the requirement was not fulfilled in Utrecht.  (The demand was repeated and in 1970 fulfilled.)   The Russian commission announced in 1912 that by acknowledgment of the Holy Synod all of the questions addressed to the Rotterdam commission had been adequately answered.

The third phase covers the years 1920 to 1960.  The incentives moved from Russia to Constantinople.  Three months after the Anglican – Old Catholic Bonn Agreement of 1931 an Old Catholic – Orthodox conference was held in the same city.  There were no major dogmatic differences of opinion, but the Orthodox delegates did not have a mandate to accept the decisions of the conference for their churches.  None of them dealt with the fact of the recently agreed upon Anglican – Old Catholic intercommunion.  Later Orthodox criticism of this agreement was a disappointment for Old Catholics, in particular because the chairman of the conference of 1931 – one of the later critics – was the well-informed Orthodox Bishop of Great Britain.

The fourth phase lasted from 1961 to 1975, i.e. from the Pan-Orthodox Conference of 1961 held on the island of Rhodes and the official handing over of the “Homologia” of the Old Catholics to the ecumenical Patriarch on June 21, 1970 (which was first demanded in 1904) to the actual initiation of the “Dialogue of Truth” between the commissions of Old Catholic and Orthodox theologians in 1975.

The fifth phase encompasses the concrete dialogues between 1975 and 1987 which dealt with the following themes:

(1) the doctrine of God:  divine revelation and its transmission, the canon of holy scripture and the holy Trinity,

(2) christology:  the incarnation of the Word of God, the hypostatic union and the Mother of God,

(3) ecclesiology:  the nature and marks of the church, the unity of the church and local churches, the boundaries of the church, authority of the church and in the church, the infallibility of the church, the synod of the church, the necessity of apostolic succession, the head of the church,

(4) soteriology:  the saving work of Jesus Christ, the activity of the Holy Spirit in the church, the allocation of redemption,

(5) doctrine of the sacraments:  sacraments of the church, Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Ordination, Marriage,

(6) eschatology:  the church and the end of time, life after death, resurrection of the dead and life in the world to come,

(7) ecclesiastical communion:  prerequisites and consequences.

Between 1975 and 1987 both sides achieved formal agreement on all these themes.

The end of this dialogue marks simultaneously the beginning of a sixth phase of Old Catholic – Orthodox dialogues.  It is now the task of the churches to decide on the practical consequences, which should flow from the theological agreement already reached.  An important issue still to consider is the “full communion” between Old Catholic churches and other churches as well as the extent to which an Old Catholic – Orthodox fellowship could or should be something exclusive within the framework of the actual ecumenical situation.  An open task still remaining is how the positive results of this bilateral dialogue can be collated with the multilateral dialogues of the World Council of Churches.

This sixth phase of the dialogue is characterized today by a confrontation with additional problems:  the introduction of the ordination of women by Old Catholic churches and the close relationship of some Old Catholic churches with Reformed churches.  The first issue is still controversial; with regard to the second issue it has been emphasized that complete intercommunion has not been established anywhere.

At the initiative of the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Archbishop of Utrecht a permanent joint task force for reflection and exchange of ideas was established in 2004.  One hopes that new impulses for common projects (pastoral as well as theological) will emerge from this task force.

Translator:  The Reverend Daniel G. Conklin