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Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Good Friend and Teacher Comes to Town


 I recently had the privilege of having my friend and teacher Fr. G√ľnter Esser over to my home for Mass and dinner. Fr. Esser heads the Old Catholic studies department at the University of Bonn, Germany. Although I never had the opportunity to learn from him in a classroom setting, I have read much of his scholarly work concerning communion and the local Church. I must give credit to Fr. Esser for introducing me to the study of Old Catholic eucharistic ecclesiology and its implications for the communion of the Universal Church.

It was a real treat to be able to sit down and have coffee with a theologian I admire so much. I was happy to hear Fr. Esser's positive remarks about Old Catholicism here in the United States, as well as his challenging words about building an American Old Catholic Church. One of my major concerns for American Old Catholicism is that we stop "putting the cart before the horse." The Old Catholic faith tradition still very much in its infant stage here in the states. The various local Old Catholic Churches need to first learn how to come together and share (koinonia) their many gifts, concerns, and resources with each other apart from rules, policies, and canons. This has yet to occur here in the states in any meaningful manner. The reality is that no one jurisdiction in the U.S. has the canonical authority to speak for, or on behalf of, the Old Catholic faith tradition. Only together can any meaningful statement be made about American Old Catholicism. This is not an indictment, but a gift that our local Churches have yet to unwrap. 

In talking with Fr. Esser, he and I concurred that we must look at the history of our church and its beginnings in Europe. We must remember that our church is historical and possesses a particular tradition. That is, we should study the history of our European sister churches and how they formed communion with each other by first relating to each other in open meetings (i.e. the "horse") before setting structures, rules, and policies (i.e. the "cart"). 

American Old Catholics have yet to come in conference together apart from their local Church's policies and governance. Almost every American Old Catholic jurisdiction expects other local Church jurisdictions to conform to its policies and canons as a prerequisite for a relationship. This kind of practice prevents koinonia  (communion) because it sets one local Church above another in a patriarchal form of power. This kind of practice is antithetical to the theology and ecclesiology of Old Catholicism and its doctrine of unity in diversity. I firmly believe that Old Catholicism in the U.S., if it is to exist, will be a union of local Old Catholic Churches united together across this vast country. The American Old Catholic Church, realistically speaking, can indeed exist as a union of many local Churches. We must move away from the Gallican and Febronian ideas of one national church per se, and focus on creating koinonia among the diverse local Churches claiming to be Old Catholic here in the states in forming a more perfect union of local Churches. Unlike the smaller countries in Europe, the U.S. is geographically very large and comprised of many local Churches or dioceses. Prominent Swiss Old Catholic theologian Urs von Arx is clear in asserting that the terms "local Church" and "diocese" are synonymous. Where the bishop and the people are gathered in celebration of the Eucharist, there also is the Church Catholic in its wholeness. Christ is fully present in the Eucharistic celebration and thus the body of Christ formed in Eucharist as the Church is wholly and completely the manifestation of the Church. It matters not if a local Church numbers 100 people or 1,000 people--the qualitative reality of Christ's presence in the eucharistic gathering is the same. The American Old Catholic Church can only grow in the power of the Spirit when it begins to seek communion with other local Churches in a manner that does not impose the kind of patriarchal authority as described above.

The Union of Utrecht is united through a communion of cooperation centered in creative love (agape) rather than some kind of universal canon law or institutional policies. The central symbol of union among the European Old Catholic Churches is its college of bishops called the International Bishops Conference (IBC).  The bishops are united in a college and together uphold the local churches unity in the essentials of the faith taken from the Nicene-Constantinople Creed and the first seven ecumenical councils. Together the college possesses minimal authority on the local level, and most certainly do not create policies, canon law, or the like for the local Churches. 

The synodal character of the local Church is where its primary authority resides, and its horizontal governance consists of all the baptized: local bishop, presbyters, deacons, and the laity. It is here that local issues like liturgy and ministry are decided. It is here that canon law and policies are determined. But all of this is done synodally and locally. Keep it simple! Our union in the U.S. can exist amidst our diversity so long as the basic tenets of our tradition and the essentials of the Church are maintained. Our union with each other is not through canons or policies, but through local ministries, theological study, and the local Churches synodal structures in communion with the college of bishops who relate with each other in selfless love and charity in representing the Good Shepherd, Christ Jesus our Lord.


First things first, and in order to achieve unity among of local Churches in the U.S., we must first learn to pray and relate to one another, especially in the Eucharist, apart from our rules, regulations, and canons. These things come later and always within each local Church's synodal structure. Now is the time to pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us and our local Churches in our relationships with one another, in our theology, and in our various ministries in spreading the Good News of Jesus. 


It was overall a very nice evening filled with informal conversations and laughter. The chili my partner John made was amazing, and the company was delightful.


Thank you to my dear friend Michael for taking all these fantastic pictures and sharing them with me.

Shalom my friends, ~Bob