Orthodox - Old Catholic Dialogue

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The relationship between Old Catholics and Orthodox Christians has developed in five phases.

First Phase

The first phase was 1871-88. While the Dutch Old Catholic church from the 18th century repeated the Roman anathemas against the Eastern Church, the young anti-Vatican movement in Germany began to take initiatives for a serious dialogue. Anglicans and Orthodox were both invited to the Bonn reunion conferences of 1874 and 1875. It was decided that agreement on the faith of the ecumenical councils, scripture and Tradition, the office of bishop and the seven sacraments was necessary for unity. Both the developments which had led to the declaration of papal infallibility in the Roman Catholic Church and those which in Protestantism had led to discontinuity with the early church were rejected. As for the filioque, it was agreed that the clause had been inserted wrongly into the creed but that it was possible to explain it in an Orthodox way.

Second Phase

The second phase was 1889-1917, i. e. from the establishment of the Union of Utrecht until the Russian revolution. In this period, dialogue commissions were formed in Rotterdam (Old Catholic) and in St. Petersburg (Orthodox). The commissions never met, but they exchanged memorandums on the filioque, the Eucharist, and the canonical validity of Old Catholic Episcopal orders. Conservative theologians like Bishop Sergius of Yamburg (later patriarch of Moscow) required that Old Catholics should first of all recognize the Orthodox Church as the one true church.

In 1904 the Patriarch Joachim of Constantinople wrote an encyclical demanding an official and comprehensive confession of the faith of the Old Catholic churches. Because of communication problems this demand was not received in Utrecht (the demand was reiterated and met in 1970). In 1912 the Russian commission stated, with approval of the Holy Synod, that all questions put to the Rotterdam commission had been answered satisfactorily.

Third Phase

The third phase was 1920-60. The initiative now shifted from Russia to Constantinople. Three months after the Anglican-Old Catholic Bonn agreement in 1931, an official Old Catholic-Orthodox conference met in Bonn. No serious dogmatic points of difference were found to remain, but the Orthodox delegates had no power to accept the conference’s decisions on behalf of their churches. None of them raised the matter of the recently concluded Anglican-Old Catholic intercommunion. Later Orthodox criticism of this relationship was disappointing for Old Catholics, as the chairman of the 1931 conference, one of the subsequent critics, was the fully informed Orthodox archbishop in England.

Fourth Phase

The fourth phase was 1961-75, i. e. from the pan-Orthodox conference of Rhodes in 1961 and the official delivery by the Old Catholics to the ecumenical patriarch on June 21, 1970 of the Homologia (which was first requested in 1904) till the actual beginning of the “dialogue of truth” by the joint commission of Old Catholic and Orthodox theologians in 1975.

Fifth Phase

The fifth phase comprised the direct dialogue held 1975-87 on the following subjects:

  • (1) the doctrine of God: divine revelation and its transmission, the canon of holy scripture, the Holy Trinity;
  • (2) Christology: the incarnation of the Word of God, the hypostatic union, the mother of God;
  • (3) ecclesiology: the nature and marks of the church, the unity of the church and the local churches, the boundaries of the church, the authority of the church and in the church, the indefectibility of the church, the synods (councils) of the church, the necessity of apostolic succession, the head of the church;
  • (4) soteriology: the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, the operation of the Holy Spirit in the church and the appropriation of salvation;
  • (5) sacramental doctrine: the sacraments of the church, baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, the anointing of the sick, ordination, marriage;
  • (6) eschatology: the church and the end of time, life after death, the resurrection of the dead and the renewal of the earth; and
  • (7) ecclesial communion: conditions and consequences.

Between 1975 and 1987 the two sides reached formal agreement on all these points.

Sixth Phase

With the completion of this dialogue, a sixth phase of the Old Catholic-Orthodox relationship has begun. Now the churches will have to decide what practical conclusions can be drawn from the theological agreement that has been reached. A major point for consideration is the relationship of full communion between the Old Catholic and other churches, and the extent to which in the present ecumenical situation Old Catholic-Orthodox communion could and should be an exclusive one. A remaining task therefore is to relate the positive results of this bilateral dialogue to the multilateral dialogue of the churches of the WCC.

The sixth phase of this dialogue has become characterized by new problems: the debate about the ordination of women in the Old Catholic churches, and the closer relationship of some Old Catholic churches towards churches of the Reformation. On the first issue, consultations were held in 1996. On the second issue, it has been emphasized that no full intercommunion has been established anywhere.

On the initiative of the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Archbishop of Utrecht, a permanent working party for reflection and exchange was founded in 2004. The expectation is that this working party will stimulate joint projects, pastoral and theological.

See also

Further reading