A Preamble: The Ecclesiological Foundations of the Union of Utrecht

1.    The “Union of Utrecht” is a union of churches and their bishops governing them who are determined to maintain and pass on the faith, worship, and essential structure of the undivided Church of the first millennium. On September 24, 1889, at Utrecht this determination was recorded in three documents that form the “Convention of Utrecht”: the “Declaration”, the “Agreement”, and the “Regulations”. By their uniting to form a Bishops' Conference, which other bishops joined later, the full communion of the Churches represented by them found its expression.[1]


2.    In the “Declaration of Utrecht”, fundamental for Old Catholic doctrine, the communion of the Union of Utrecht which came into existence in the context of the First Vatican Council confesses the catholic faith as expressed in the Church in the east and west by the seven Ecumenical Councils. It approves of the historic precedence of the Bishop of Rome as primus inter pares, but rejects the papal dogmas of the said council and a number of other papal pronouncements as far as they are at variance with the doctrine of the Ancient Church. It affirms its faith in the essence and mystery of the Eucharist. Furthermore the Union of Utrecht shows its awareness of its obligation to do everything that will help to overcome the divisions in the Church, and, based on the faith of the undivided Church, to seek and declare unity and communion with other Churches.


3.    As has been recognized and expressed ever more clearly in the course of time, the Union of Utrecht and the Convention of Utrecht (whose parts “Agreement” and “Regulations” were revised twice in 1952 and 1974) imply a specific ecclesiology.

3.1   It presupposes that each fellowship and communion of people, which by the reconciliation in Jesus Christ and by the outpouring and the continuous work of the Holy Spirit is constituted as a unity in a given place around a bishop with the eucharist as its center, is a complete church that carries out its tasks autonomously in that given place. Each local church living the common faith and having its indispensable synodal structures, uniting the ordained ministry and the laity,  which bring to bear her communion and unity, is a representation of the “one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”, as confessed by the ecumenical creed of Nicaea-Constantinople (381).

3.2   Each of them is “catholic” because on the one hand, it participates in the whole reality of salvation and truth that comprises God and humans, heaven and earth and finds therein its unity, and because on the other hand, it is linked in unity and communion with other local churches, in which it recognizes its own essence. Thus the catholicity of each local church becomes manifest in the unity and communion with other local churches perceived in faith as being identical in their foundation in the redemptive work of the Triune God. The unity and communion of local churches in their supra-diocesan link - i.e., usually in national churches, ecclesiastical provinces, patriarchates - is a representation of the “one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” as well - however, not as a kind of super-diocese of supra-regional or even universal dimensions, but as a communion of episcopally and synodally organized local churches. It is in this perspective that the relationship between autonomy of the local church (as to the self-government in the broadest sense) and supra-local obligation of each local church (as to the communion of local churches) should be viewed.

       That this unity and communion has for a long time has not existed universally among all the churches, is a consequence of human shortcomings and sin, which eclipses the fact that in Jesus Christ God has reconciled and called to partnership all humans who hear his call. This entails the obligation for each church, in obedience to the will of God and in faithfulness to the common tradition, to investigate whether existing separations must continue to be regarded as unavoidable or whether, on the contrary, its own catholicity should be recognized in a hitherto separated church.

3.3   Each local church is the Body of Christ in which the members, baptized and confirmed in the name of the Holy Trinity and united in the Eucharist, are called, authorized, and sanctified by the various gifts of the Holy Spirit to live a multifaceted common life in martyria, leitourgia, and diakonia. In communion with the other local churches they are the people of that God who has elected Israel to be a sign of salvation and has opened up the blessing promised to Abraham to all peoples in the power of the Gospel. Being the manifestation of the renewal of creation that has its origin in Jesus Christ, it is on the way to its fulfillment which all its members have to go in repentance and hope.

3.4   In continuity with its soteriological-trinitarian foundation, the catholicity of the Church is expressed by those elements and processes which are signified by the comprehensive term “apostolic succession”. This means that whatever the Church is doing in word and sacrament, doctrine and ministry, has and must have its origin, in space and time, in the mission of Jesus Christ and the apostles, operated by the Spirit. This includes preeminently the passing on of the ordained ministry by prayer and the laying-on of hands. The apostolic succession of the Church requires the full communion of the catholic churches that are headed by the bishops in unison with the college of presbyters and exhibit a synodal structure. It finds its particularly clear expression in the ordination of a locally elected bishop by the other bishops.


4.   Regarding the Union of Utrecht all this means that it is primarily the task and service of the bishops to maintain the catholicity of the church in the unity of the tradition of faith, to respond to arising new problems and to take decis­ions concerning the relationships to other churches. For they are at the intersection of primarily belonging, as individuals, to their local or national church on the one hand, and of taking, as a college, primary responsibility for the fellowship and communion of the local and national churches on the other hand. The conciliar unity and committed communion of autonomous catholic churches - be they individual dioceses or national unions of dioceses - is expressed in the bishops’ synodal assemblies, i.e. the IBC meetings.

4.1   The reception by the church is a manifestation that the decisions of the bishops, prepared and taken in a comprehensive conciliar process, have been initiated by the Spirit of God and correspond to the will of God for the mission of his Church. Reception therefore includes the participation and joint responsibility of the baptized (clergy and laity) in this process both within each local or national church (synods or other responsible organs) and within the Union of Utrecht as a whole. But being a process led by the Spirit of God, it cannot comprehensively, let alone conclusively, be put into juridical terms or mechanical finalization.


5.    Wherever, congruent with the ecumenical self-obligation of the Union of Utrecht, communion with churches outside the Union of Utrecht does exist or seems possible and necessary on account of theological clarifications, the bishops of the Union have to take care, in consequence of the explications above, that mutual consultations be initiated and maintained with these churches.


6.    In order to maintain their communion and to fulfill common tasks, the bishops of the Union of Utrecht establish, in accordance with the foundations above, the following Order and thereafter the required Rules. By doing so they presuppose that they as well as all the faithful be led by that mind that has been expressed in the words of the holy bishops Cyprian of Carthage and Ignatius of Antioch: Do not decide without the counsel of the presbyterium and the consent of the people (Ep. 14:4); do nothing without the bishop (Phld. 7:2).

[1] As the IBC declaration of July 14, 1997, states, the full communion of the member churches of the Union of Utrecht does not presently exist, due to the lack of universal recognition of the ordination of women to the priestly ministry. [As the Polish National Catholic Church left the Union of Utrecht in 2003, this footnote is not valid any more.]

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