Old Catholic and United Catholic History Introduction

The United Catholic Church is a free non-hierarchical fellowship of independent Catholic, Orthodox, and Apostolic churches who trace their individual histories back to the early church and to the apostles themselves. The history of our church then begins with the Book of Acts (with which I assume you are familiar). It continues through the undivided church of the first millennium, whose Catholic faith it upholds.

It is at the time of the Great Schism of 1054 that the histories of our individual churches diverge from each other. Some of us are descended primarily from the Eastern or Orthodox branch of Christianity, others from the Western or Roman branch. Many of us represent a union of both branches. But all of us trace our Apostolic succession back to the Patriarchs of the undivided Church, and through them to apostolic times.

We will begin this history with a look at the events surrounding the Great Schism. We will then follow the Western branch through two more great divisions – the Protestant Reformation of the 15th and 16th centuries, and the emergence in the 19th century of the Old Catholic Church and the Utrecht Union. We will see that most of our churches are descended from the Old Catholic Church, yet many of us also have recent bishops of the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches in our apostolic line.

The independent Catholic movement can be viewed as a further fracturing of the Roman monolith. Yet in truth, it represents an attempt to bring back the pieces, laying the basis for true unity by discarding demands for uniformity.

In our churches you will find Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Protestants, and Orthodox, as well as Old Catholics – all receiving Our Lord in Holy Communion around the Lord’s table. You will hear Mass straight out of the Roman Catholic Sacramentary, or using the Byzantine rite, or perhaps the Anglican prayer book. More often than not you will hear inclusive language developed by the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States but not approved for use by the Vatican.

Many of our clergy are Roman Catholic priests who left the active ministry to marry, then reactivated their ministry with us. Many others are former Protestant ministers – Baptists, Methodists, whatever – who answered the call to Catholicity through the Convergence Movement. Others are former Roman Catholic nuns and laypersons who, in spite of seminary training and vast experience, were denied Orders because of their gender or marital status. But all of them have been validly ordained by a validly consecrated Catholic bishop in the Apostolic succession.

Our sacraments are therefore recognized as valid by all branches of Christianity, including the Vatican. Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church states that Roman Catholics may receive the sacraments from us whenever a Roman Catholic priest is unavailable. Because, however, we do not have to follow the Vatican’s man-made rules, we often give sacraments to people who would be refused by Rome. Such is the case when we give the Sacrament of Matrimony to a couple without requiring annulment of a previously divorced marriage, or when we give the Sacrament of Holy Orders to a woman or a married man, or when we give the Eucharist to a Protestant or to a person in a committed monogamous gay or lesbian relationship, or (following the example of Jesus) to a sinner. In such cases the Vatican considers the sacrament to be “valid but illicit.” In other words, it is valid, but not administered in accordance with their rules. So be it.

The history of how we came to be is contained in the sub-sections that follow. Much of this history is excerpted from articles written for the Catskill Mountain Star in 1941 by an Old Catholic Benedictine brother who lived in an Old Catholic community in Woodstock, New York. His is a particularly Old Catholic perspective, and his language is dated, but the information he conveys is valuable, and his outlook instructive.