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polity  [pol·i·ty]  Noun,   (plural polities)


1. a particular form or system of government: civil polity; ecclesiastical polity.

2. the condition of being constituted as a state or other organized community or body: The polity of ancient Athens became a 

    standard for later governments.

3. government or administrative regulation: The colonists demanded independence in matters of internal polity.

4. a state or other organized community or body.




In the North American Old Roman Catholic Church we observe a hierarchical form of ecclesiastical polity i.e. church governance called “an episcopal polity”, in which the local ecclesiastical or church authorities are bishops, who govern their dioceses with Ordinary canonical authority. Their ministry is sacramental, administrative and authoritative; as well as performing ordinations, confirmations, and consecrations, the bishop supervises the clergy within his diocese, shepherds and pastors his people, and is their representative to both secular structures and within the hierarchy of the church. The bishops derive their authority from an unbroken, personal Apostolic Succession from the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ. This system of government by bishops comes down to us from Apostolic times as described in the New Testament. The bishops of several dioceses grouped together to form an Ecclesiastical Province are often subject to the canonical authority of an Archbishop or Metropolitan. A further level of authority is exercised by the Primate, an Archbishop elected to preside over the entire Church, to whom the various Bishops, Archbishops and Metropolitans are subject. They all meet at various intervals in Diocesan, Provincial or General Synods. These Synods or “councils” may be purely advisory or they can be deliberative, legislative and judicial, exercising authoritative and canonical jurisdiction.


In the earliest days of Christianity, all Christians were in churches with an episcopal government, that is, one Church under local bishops and regional Patriarchs. Writing between ca. 85 and 110, St. Ignatius of Antioch, Patriarch of Antioch, was the earliest of the Church Fathers to define the importance of episcopal government. Ignatius' view was the Apostolic teaching and practice, that the line of succession was unbroken and passed through the four ancient Patriarchal Sees, i.e. those local churches known to be founded by Apostles: Rome, Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria. Rome was the leading Patriarchate of the ancient four by virtue of its founding by Saints Peter and Paul and their martyrdom there, not to mention being the political center of the Roman Empire at the time.


Shortly after the Roman Emperor Constantine I legalized Christianity in 321, he also constructed an elaborate second capital of the Roman Empire located at Byzantium and renamed it Constantinople, in 324. The single Roman Empire was now divided between these two autonomous administrative centers, Roman and Constantinopolitan, Western and Eastern, Latin-speaking and Greek-speaking. This remained the status quo through the fourth century.


During the fifth century, the Western Roman Empire declined and was overrun by the German and Frankish peoples. Although the city of Rome was in ruins, was distant from the seat of secular power, and was constantly harassed by invaders, the Roman Patriarchate remained the center of the Western or Latin Church. Claiming the ancient primacy of Peter and the title of “Apostolic See”, it remained the last court of episcopal appeal in serious matters for the whole Church, East and West.


However, the center of the civilized Roman world had shifted definitively to Constantinople, or New Rome, the capital of the Greek-speaking Empire. Along with this shift, the effective administration of the Church in the Eastern Roman Empire also shifted. This practical eminence of Constantinople in the East is evident, first at the First Council of Constantinople 381, and then ecumenically at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.


The sometimes subtle differences between Eastern and Western conceptions of authority and its exercise produced a gradually widening rift between the Churches which continued with some occasional relief throughout the following centuries until the final rupture of the Great Schism, marked by two dates: 16 July 1054, and the Council of Florence in 1439.



The Roman Catholic Church has an episcopate, with the Pope, who is the Bishop of Rome, at the top. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that juridical oversight over the Church is not a power that derives from human ambition, but strictly from the authority of Christ which was given to His Twelve Apostles. The See of Rome, as the sole unbroken line of apostolic authority, descending from St. Peter (the "Prince and Head of the Apostles"), is a visible sign and instrument of communion among the College of Bishops and therefore also of the local churches around the world. In communion with the worldwide college of bishops the Pope has all legitimate juridical and teaching authority over the whole Church. This authority given by Christ to Peter and the apostles is transmitted from one generation to the next by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the laying on of hands, from the Apostles to the bishops, and from bishops to priests and deacons, in unbroken succession.



The conciliar view of episcopal government constitutes procedure found within the Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox Churches. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the sixteen or so autocephalous primates are seen as collectively gathering around Christ, with other archbishops and bishops gathering around them, and so forth, in a model called “Conciliar Hierarchy”. This is based in part on the vision in the Book of Revelation of the 24 elders gathered around the throne of Christ, who are believed to represent the 12 Patriarchs of Israel and the 12 Apostles of Jesus Christ. There is no single Patriarch with exclusive authority comparable to the Pope in Rome. The Patriarch of Constantiople holding a position of honorary preeminence only. The Eastern Orthodox Churches together with the Oriental Orthodox Churches affirm the ideas of Apostolic Succession and episcopal government. Within each national Church, the bishops form a Holy Synod to which even the Patriarch is subject.

  • The Syrian Orthodox Church traces its lineage to St. Peter and recognises Antioch as the original See of St. Peter.

  • The Armenian Apostolic Church traces its lineage to the Apostle Bartholomew.

  • The Indian Orthodox Church traces its lineage to the Apostle Thomas.

  • Both the Greek and Coptic Orthodox Churches each recognise their own Pope of Alexandria, both of whom trace their lineage to the Apostle Mark.

  • The Ethiopian Orthodox Church received its lines of succession through the Coptic Orthodox Church in the fifth century.



Anglicanism posits its claim (though that claim is criticized and rejected by Rome and others) to the historic episcopate through Apostolic Succession in terms comparable to the various Catholic and Orthodox Communions. Anglicans assert an unbroken episcopal succession in and through the Church of England back to St. Augustine of Canterbury and to the first century Roman Province of Britannia. While some Celtic Christian practices were changed at the Synod of Whitby, the church in the British Isles was under papal authority from earliest times.


The legislation of Henry VIII effectively establishing the independence from Rome of the Church of England, did not alter its constitutional or pastoral structures. Episcopacy was thus seen as a given of the reformed Ecclesia Anglicana, and a foundation in the institution's appeal to ancient and apostolic legitimacy. What changed was that bishops were now seen to be ministers of the Crown for the spiritual government of its subjects. The influence of Richard Hooker was crucial to an evolution in this understanding in which bishops came to be seen in their more traditional role as ones who delegate to the presbyterate (priesthood) inherited powers, act as pastors to presbyters (priests), and holding a particular teaching office with respect to the wider church.


Functionally, Anglican episcopal authority is expressed synodically, although individual provinces may accord their primate with more or less authority to act independently. Called variously “synods,” “councils,” or “conventions,” they meet under episcopal chairmanship. In many jurisdictions, conciliar resolutions that have been passed require episcopal assent and/or consent to take force. Seen in this way, Anglicans often speak of “the bishop-in-synod” as the force and authority of episcopal governance.


Anglican synodical government, though varied in expression, is characteristically representative. Provinces of the Anglican Communion, their ecclesiastical provinces and dioceses are governed by councils consisting not only of bishops, but also representatives of the presbyterate and laity.


There is no international juridical authority in Anglicanism, although the tradition's common experience of episcopacy, symbolised by the historical link with the See of Canterbury, along with a common and complex liturgical tradition, has provided a measure of unity. This has been reinforced by the Lambeth Conferences of Anglican Communion bishops, which first met in 1867. These conferences, though they propose and pass resolutions, are strictly consultative, and the intent of the resolutions are to provide guideposts for Anglican jurisdictions - not direction. The Conferences also express the function of the episcopate to demonstrate the ecumenical and Catholic nature of the church.



The Old Roman Catholic Church together with the Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox Churches teaches that juridical oversight over the Church is not a power that derives from human ambition, but strictly from the authority of Christ which was given to His Twelve Apostles, and that this authority given by Christ to His Twelve Apostles is transmitted from one generation to the next by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the laying on of hands, from the Apostles to the bishops, and from bishops to priests and deacons, in an unbroken line of Apostolic Succession.


The Old Roman Catholic Church, like the various Orthodox Churches identifies its ecclesiastical polity according to a Conciliar Hierarchical view of the Church with its bishops gathered around the Primate and governed by a General Synod to which even the Primate is subject according to the Constitution and Canons of the Church.


The Old Roman Catholic Church also incorporates elements of the Anglican view of episcopal polity, and understands the role of the Bishop to include the obligation of delegating certain powers and responsibility for the care of souls to the priests; serving as true pastors, shepherds and spiritual fathers to their priests and the flocks entrusted to them; and exercising a teaching office with repect to the wider and universal Church Catholic in its entirety.


The Old Roman Catholic Church, though governed by the Primate, the College of Bishops and the General Synod both collectively and individually, restricts and preserves the full, complete and exclusive authority in all spirtual matters (doctrine, liturgy, sacramental, etc) to the responsibility of the Bishops. All other matters coming before the General Synod or its properly constituted subordinate bodies, and any conciliar resolutions proceeding therefrom that have been passed, require episcopal assent and/or consent to take force. And thus there is an element of the Anglican “Bishop-in-Synod” concept present within the Old Roman Catholic system of episcopal polity.


The various Synods of the Old Roman Catholic Church (General, Provincial, Diocesan) consist not only of bishops, but also of elected and appointed representatives of the clergy and laity, with clearly defined authority according to the Canons and the status of the participants. The Old Roman Catholic Church understands the role of government within the Church to have been given exclusively to the Bishops via the Apostles and not to all the faithful collectively. Thus the role of the lesser clergy (those below the rank of Bishop) and of the laity as members of Synod with authority in their respective spheres, as a constitutionally delegated and regulated authority and which in turn is a share in the authority of the Bishops to whom full exclusive jurisdiction within the Church has been entrusted by Christ and the Apostles via Apostolic Succession, throughout the centuries.



Autocephaly/autocephalous is the status of a hierarchical Christian church whose chief bishop does not report to any higher-ranking bishop. The term is used especially in Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches, and also in the Old Roman Catholic Church


When an ecumenical council or a high-ranking bishop, such as a patriarch or other primate, releases an ecclesiastical province from the authority of that bishop while the newly independent church remains in full communion with the hierarchy to which it then ceases to belong, the council or primate is granting autocephaly.


Autonomy/autonomous is one step short of autocephaly. A church that is autonomous has its highest-ranking bishop, such as an archbishop or metropolitan, appointed by the patriarch of the mother church, but is self-governing in all other respects.


Collegiality refers to the doctrine held in the Roman Catholic Church that the bishops of the world, collectively considered i.e. the College of Bishops, share the responsibility for the governance and pastoral care of the Church with the Pope. This doctrine was explicitly taught by the Second Vatican Council. One of the major changes of the Second Vatican Council was to encourage episcopal conferences i.e. bishops' conferences.


Proponents emphasise that the doctrine does not attempt to diminish the role of the Pope, whereas Traditionalist critics claim that collegiality is contrary to the Catholic belief that only the Pope has authority over other bishops. Critics felt bishops' conferences could potentially destroy the independence of each bishop (by de facto forcing individual bishops to go along with a majority vote of a conference), as well as undermine the authority of the Pope (by a conference, synod, or council claiming to have some authority over the Pope).


Conciliarity is the adherence of various Christian communities to the authority of ecumenical councils and to synodal church government. It is not to be confused with conciliarism, which is a particular historical movement within the Catholic Church. Different churches interpret conciliarity in different ways.




The Old Roman Catholic Church professing itself to be a real, true and integral part of the Roman Catholic Church, though estranged at the present time from any practical unity with the Holy See, subscribes to a belief in the Collegiality of Bishops sharing responsibility for the governance and pastoral care of the whole Church worldwide, first in union with their own Primate and in turn when Catholic unity is once again achieved, in union with the Holy Father. By the same token, the Old Roman Catholic Church firmly adheres to the doctrine of Conciliarity and has done so consistently throughout the many centuries of its existence.

The canonical right of appeal to a General (Ecumenical) Council is as old as the Catholic Church itself, and we can find evidence of its universal acceptance and practice as far back as the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. Pope Innocent III, one of the most powerful and influential popes (pontificate 1198-1216) who exerted a wide influence over the Christian regimes of Europe, claiming a supremacy over all of Europe's kings, and who was central in supporting the Roman Catholic Church's reforms of ecclesiastical affairs through his decretals and the Fourth Lateran Council which resulted in a considerable refinement of Western canon law, when presented with an issue of far less importance than the Unigentus issue of the Church of Utrecht declared: “ If we should endeavor to decide anything on this point without the deliberations of a general council, besides the offence to God, and the infamy in the eyes of man, we should perchance incur danger to our order and office.” Thus, the doctrine of the supremacy and authority of an Ecumenical Council over the entire Church and all its members from layman to Pope is firmly established in the mind and conciousness of the Church from its earliest times.


The right of an aggrieved cleric or Church to appeal a sentence passed by any ecclesatic or court to the deliberations of a future General or Ecumenical Council was firmly entrenched in the practice of the Catholic Church throughout the centuries. Though several Popes attempted to limit or forbid such appeals of their decisions, e.g. Martin V (1418), Pius II (1459), Julius II (1509), Pius V (1569), and the famous Papal Bull In Coena Domini which was re-issued multiple times containing various revisions and additions, to establish and preserve numerous Papal prerogatives, but always forbiding appeals to General Councils first issued in 1363 until 1770. Despite its issuance, many appeals took place regradless, e.g. the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1239), the Church of England (1246), the Bishops of the Council of Reading (1264), Polish Ambassadors to the Holy See (1418), Archbishop of Canterbury (1427), Duke Sigismund of Austria (1460), the Elector of Mayence (1472), the Bishops of the Duchy of Florence (1478), the Venetian Republic (1509), Archbishop de Harlay and the University of Paris (1688). It is not until the First Vatican Council in 1870 that the Pope succeeded in perpetually forbidding any cleric or canonical person (Church, Order, Dioces, University, etc) from appealing any decision of the Supreme Pontiff to a future Ecumenical Council.


Thus it can be clearly proved that the actions of the Church of Utrecht and the Old Roman Catholic Church have always adhered to the doctrine of Conciliarity as an essential element in its ecclesiology.

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