History

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The following is an edited excerpt from a report submitted to the Archbishop Joris Vercammen, at his request. The report was given to members of the International Bishops Conference of the Union of Utrecht at their April 2014 meeting.

The history of The Old Catholic Church, Province of the United States (TOCCUSA) begins with the formation of the Conference of North American Old Catholic Bishops. In May 2006, a consultation with American Old Catholic bishops was hosted by The Episcopal Church (TEC) at the request of the International Bishops Conference (IBC). However, the discussions concerning American Old Catholics were taking place well before that initial consultation, as noted at the IBC meeting of June 27, 2004. The Right Rev. Michie Klusmeyer, Bishop of West Virginia and TEC liaison to the IBC, and the Rev. Dr. Thomas Ferguson, TEC’s Deputy Assistant for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs attended the IBC’s June 2004 meeting. It was reported then that various American Old Catholic bishops were contacting the Archbishop’s Office, asking for admittance to the IBC. Such requests by the Americans were referred back to TEC, an ecumenical partner in full communion with the Union of Utrecht.

During the June 19-24, 2005 meeting of the IBC, it was once more noted that many more American bishops were requesting membership to the Union of Utrecht. Such requests prompted a comprehensive report on the American churches in order to learn about the nature and size of the American Old Catholic churches these bishops represented. Dr. Ferguson of TEC volunteered to undertake the task. He would design and distribute a survey to be answered by the American bishops; a compilation of the responses would be made available to the IBC.

Beginning in January 2006, Dr. Ferguson agreed to convene a consultation that would be comprised of the various American Old Catholic bishops who had responded to the survey, observers from the Office of the Archbishop of Utrecht, and delegates from the Episcopal Church. The consultation took place at the Bethsaida Spirituality Center in Queens Village, New York on May 22-24, 2006. Although numerous invitations were sent, six American bishops indicated that they would attend. Of the six, four bishops actually participated: Bishop Peter Paul Brennan of the Ecumenical Diocese of America, Bishop Charles Leigh of the Apostolic Catholic Church of Florida, Bishop Peter Elder Hickman of the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, and Bishop Robert Tarango Fuentes of the Old Catholic Diocese of Napa. The TEC delegates were Dr. Ferguson and Bishop Klusmeyer. The observers from the Archbishop’s Office were the Rev. Dr. Gunter Esser of Germany and the Rev. Bjorn Marcussen, formerly an Old Catholic priest incardinated by TEC Diocese of San Diego. Also in attendance were the Rev. Bernard Callahan (American Catholic church of Florida), the Rev. Frederick Mason (Ecumenical Catholic Communion) and the Rev. Louis Souza-Fuentes (Napa).

Bishop Klusmeyer and Dr. Ferguson asked the bishops about their own personal journeys toward becoming Old Catholic. Central to the telling of their stories was this question: if raised a Roman Catholic and no longer a member of that church, why be an Old Catholic instead of Episcopalian, since in the United States the Episcopal Church is the full communion partner of the Old Catholics? The bishops in turn answered this question by stating that one prime reason for not being Episcopalian was the Via Media of the Episcopal Church – being both Catholic and Reformed (Protestant). Identifying as partly Reformed is quite unfamiliar to a former Roman Catholic. As Roman Catholics the identification as Catholic is extremely important to the one who has left the Roman Catholic Church. For each of the bishops, being an Episcopalian meant that one gives up the liturgical, spiritual, devotional, historical, and cultural aspects of being Catholic. This was untenable. However, becoming Old Catholic retained the identification of being Catholic. The only thing lacking as an American Old Catholic church was the full understanding of Old Catholicism from the European perspective.

Dr. Esser and Fr. Marcussen spoke extensively on the Four Points that comprise the ecclesiology of the Old Catholics of the Union of Utrecht. In addition to these four points was the general question posed by the observers from the Archbishop’s Office: if Old Catholics in the United States agree on these points, can they resolve their own parallel jurisdictions? Said differently, if there is agreement on these four points, can those bishops who agree form one church? By the end of the consultation, the bishops in attendance stated that they would form the Conference of North American Old Catholic Bishops, with the express goals of unity and the formation of one national Old Catholic church. Bishop Fuentes was elected Moderator of the Conference. The Conference of North American Old Catholic Bishops (CNAOCB) was to meet at least two times a year.

The CNAOCB met in November 2006 in Los Angeles to draft a unity statement that potential new members of the Conference would have to agree to adhere when joining. Regrettably, of the four bishops who formed the Conference, only two – Bishop Leigh and Bishop Fuentes – remained members. Yet, despite this setback, the Conference members moved ahead to draft the Unity Statement of 2006, as well as the Order of the Conference of Bishops; the Order is patterned after the Rules of the IBC. Fr. Bjorn Marcussen was instrumental in helping to draft these two documents. Both the Unity Statement and the Order are foundational documents of TOCCUSA.

The member bishops at this meeting agreed to invite the original bishops who had left the Conference to rejoin, and to initiate efforts in having other bishops consider membership. In order to attract new members, the Conference invited nonmembers to its May 2007 meeting in Camden, New Jersey; Dr. Ferguson was in attendance at this meeting. Two bishops accepted the invitation. Later that same year, in the fall of 2007, Bishop Hickman of the Ecumenical Catholic communion rejoined the Conference. Admitted in 2007 as a new member was Bishop Michael Scalzi of the American Catholic Church of New England; he was one of the two bishops who had attended the May 2007 meeting. His jurisdiction at that time had three bishops – Bishop Rosemary Ananis and Bishop Stephen Burke (emeritus); Bishop Scalzi represented all three bishops during conference calls and at the Conference’s in-person meetings.

In September 2008, it was learned that neither the TEC delegates nor the observers would attend any subsequent meetings of the Conference of Bishops, as reported in the IBC communiqué of February 2008; the report from TEC was clear that unity among the American Old Catholics could not take place, due to fracturing among them. Despite the disappointment of this report, the bishops of the Conference of North American Old Catholic Bishops determined that it would continue to seek out those bishops who would agree to join the Conference and who would also agree to apply the ecclesiological understanding of the Union of Utrecht. That same month the Heartland Old Catholic Church, comprised of the Holy Cross Diocese of Minnesota, headed by Bishop James Judd, and the Diocese of St. John the Beloved of Washington, DC, headed by Bishop Charles Braun, voted to become members of the Conference of Bishops; these two churches had entered into a full communion agreement between themselves prior to seeking admission to the Conference of North American Old Catholic Bishops. The Conference also decided to begin the work of drafting a Plan of Union that would merge the member jurisdictions into one national church. Unfortunately, by the end of 2008, both the Ecumenical Catholic Communion and the Apostolic Catholic Church of Florida had withdrawn from the Conference. At this point, the Conference consisted of four jurisdictions with five bishops: the Old Catholic Diocese of Napa, Holy Cross Old Catholic Diocese of Minnesota, the Diocese of St. John the Beloved of Washington DC, and the American Catholic Church of New England.

Much of the year 2009 was devoted to drafting the Plan of Union. Once accepted by the bishops of the Conference, the Plan of Union was sent to the synods of each of the local churches for their consideration. It took nearly one full year for each of the four synods to convene and consider the question: can the synod of the local church accept the ecclesiology of the Old Catholics as the starting point toward unity and if it could, does the synod agree to merge in order to form The Old Catholic Church, Province of the United States? All four synods unanimously voted to merge. The Conference of North American Old Catholic Bishops convened for the last time on September 24, 2010 in Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota, during which time the Conference yielded to the newly formed National Church. It should be pointed out that the Declaration of Utrecht was signed on the same date 121 years previously, in 1889.

Please be sure to visit the Conference of Old Catholic Bishops to learn more about Old Catholicism as understood and practiced by the churches of the International Bishops Conference of the Union of Utrecht.