Ecumenical Catholic Communion
|This article relies too much on references to primary sources. (January 2010)|
The Ecumenical Catholic Communion (ECC) is an independent Catholic church. Its members understand themselves as following the Catholic tradition without being in communion with the Bishop of Rome. The ECC is a confederation of independent communities based in the United States. It differs from Roman Catholic practice in a number of key areas such as: the ordination of married men to the priesthood and from Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox practice in allowing married men in the episcopacy, the ordination of women, the acceptance and ordination of people of all sexual orientations, and allowing marriage after divorce, (although Orthodoxy does permit divorced people to remarry under certain circumstances).
The ECC has been identified as being distinct from most other independent Catholic movements because of its number of affiliated communities and the ratio of clergy to laity. Many independent Catholic churches have few communities and consist mainly of bishops and priests with few lay members. In contrast, the ECC has a wider geographic spread and will only incardinate ordained clergy or ordain new priests if they have a community in which to minister. The membership of the ECC is about 5,000, including five bishops, and more than 50 communities across the USA and Europe 
The Ecumenical Catholic Communion professes that its roots are to be found in the Old Catholic Church and counts the Declaration of Utrecht among its foundational sources although it is not in communion with the Old Catholic Church of Utrecht. Peter Elder Hickman, the current Presiding Bishop of the ECC, has been key to the evolution of the communion. Originally ordained for the American Baptists, Hickman was drawn to the liturgical elements of the Catholic tradition but had difficulties with some elements of the structure and disciplines of Roman Catholicism. Hickman found a compromise between Roman Catholic sacramental practice and the authority of Rome in an Old Catholic Church community in East Los Angeles. After being ordained a priest in the Old Catholic Church, Hickman saw the potential to start a new community and founded St Matthew Church in Orange County at the end of 1985.
Over time, the community of St. Matthew's grew in number and changed locations, worshipping in mortuary and wedding chapels, before being able to acquire its own building. A number of former Roman Catholic priests joined St. Matthew's church and new communities began to be established. In 1995, the St. Matthew's community decided to seek episcopal ordination for Hickman. To this end, he was put forward as a candidate for the episcopacy to the bishops of the Ecumenical Communion of Catholic and Apostolic Churches. In May 1996, Hickman was ordained a bishop by three independent Old Catholic bishops (i.e. not in communion with Utrecht) and, as a result, was considered to be in the apostolic succession. The ECC was formally established as a national ecclesial organization on September 19, 2003.
A number of communities sought affiliation with the St. Matthew's community and then, after 2003, membership of the ECC. The new communities required ordained leadership and this has resulted in a number of ordinations of both women and men. In 1997, Patricia McElroy became the first woman to be ordained a deacon by Bishop Hickman. In 2000, Hickman ordained Kathy McCarthy to the priesthood, the first such ordination for the ECC. In the following year, the high profile ordination of Mary Ramerman was considered controversial by the Roman Catholic hierarchy but was supported by some who advocate the ordination of women in the Catholic tradition.
2011 brought the expansion of the ECC to Europe. The Community of the Good Shepherd, rooted in Belgium and currently also existent in the Netherlands and Poland, joined the ECC, and also a parish in Vienna, Austria. Now in Europe is 9 communities and missions of the Ecumenical Catholic Communion.
In the beginning of December 2013 the Apostolic Catholic Church, under the jurisdiction of Bishop Chuck Leigh joined the Ecumenical Catholic Communion as a member and became a part of ECC Diocese of Florida. The Apostolic Catholic Church is a member of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, Church World Service and Florida Council of Churches.
The constitution of the Ecumenical Catholic Communion affirms faith in elements common to other adherents of the Catholic tradition.
These elements include:
- The person of Jesus Christ
- The place of the one catholic and apostolic church
- The Christian Scriptures considered canonical by the historical Catholic Church
- The seven Sacraments
- The Nicene Creed
Additionally, the ECC affirms The Declaration of Utrecht (1889)  of the Old Catholic Church which rejected papal jurisdiction and papal infallibility, although the ECC does not completely reject the place of the Bishop of Rome, regarding him as first-among-equals, as was the case during the first millennium. However, reconciliation with the Holy See would be impossible without reform in key areas of disagreement.
- Invitation to the Sacramental Life
The ECC is open to Christians from other denominations participating in the sacramental life of the communion. In contrast, those Catholics in communion with the Bishop of Rome preclude other Christians from participating in sacraments such as the Eucharist.
- Invitation to Co-equal Ministry
While affirming the value of ministry of people whether they are lay or ordained, single or celibate people, the ECC allows the ordination of men and women who are married.
- Invitation to Intimate Commitment
While acknowledging the trauma of divorce, the ECC allows the marriage of people who have been divorced without the process of obtaining an annulment.
- Invitation to follow Conscience
The Ecumenical Catholic Communion has a synodal model of governance. The synod of the communion consists of, "the Presiding Bishop in collaboration with the House of Laity, the House of Pastors, and the Episcopal Council." When the synod is not in session, the governance of the communion is carried by the Leadership Council, except where authority is reserved to the Presiding Bishop, the Episcopal Council, the House of Laity or the House of Pastors. The Leadership Council, "is a group comprised of the Presiding Bishop and an equal number of representatives from each of the House of Laity and House of Pastors, who shall normally be the elected officers of those Houses."
Bishop Hickman was the only bishop of the communion until late 2009, when the Ecumenical Anglican Church (EAC) joined the ECC. At that stage, Bishop Richard Hollingsworth of the EAC also joined the communion, but relinquished juridical authority within the ECC. Should another diocese be established, Bishop Hollingsworth would be eligible for election to this role.
One of the most significant theological questions raised by the existence of the ECC is its claim of catholicity. For some, the term "Catholic" may only be used by those in communion with the Church of Rome. Others find it unhelpful to use the term "Roman Catholic" to distinguish the churches or dioceses in full communion with the Pope as this neglects those Eastern and Coptic Catholics who are in communion with the See of Peter. Dioceses or churches in communion with the See of Rome can have their own cultural nuances that are not Roman in nature. Other Christian churches take very seriously their claim to catholicity as they recite the words of the Nicene Creed and affirm belief in “one holy catholic and apostolic church” even though these groups may not have the word "Catholic" as part of their name.
For individuals, the question of Catholic identity may be very personal. There are many people who deeply identify themselves as Catholic, but can no longer accept the rulings of the papacy when it comes to matters of homosexuality and women's participation. Churches such as the ECC have played a role in the lives of some people who come from this experience.
The Roman Catholic Church itself recognizes that there are churches not in communion with Rome which possess apostolic succession and thus valid sacraments. However, when referring to apostolic succession, a distinction can be drawn between a minimalist understanding and a broader understanding of the term. A minimalist understanding highlights that bishops can trace their own ordination back to the Apostles whilst a broader understanding speaks of handing on the faith of the Apostles. What remains then are questions about how the apostolic faith is to be interpreted in contemporary contexts.
Throughout the history of Christianity, there have been a number of schisms brought about by various circumstances. These have included the Great Schism between Eastern and Western Christianity, the Protestant Reformation and the English Reformation. Other events have involved the Catholic Church in communion with the Pope and Old Catholics or the Society of St. Pius X. The ecumenical movement has been an attempt to reconcile some of these divisions. These attempts at reconciliation are further complicated by divergent approaches to questions such as the ordination of women.
From one perspective, the catholicity of a church may be seen as dependent on that church having sacraments celebrated by a validly ordained priest. Some groups celebrate sacraments which the Holy See considers to be valid but illicit; examples would be the Old Catholic Church, the Polish National Catholic Church and well as the Society of St. Pius X. With the ECC, what is being considered is an entity that is not considered to be in communion with either the Holy See or the Old Catholics of Utrecht. There is also the additional question of the ordination of women, which the papacy does not consider to be possible. The schisms that have occurred in the history of Christianity have sometimes been attributed to disputes about what has been a valid exercise of papal authority. While it is clear that papal authority has evolved over time, some argue that not all of these developments have gained the necessary assent from all Christians and are thus questionable. In the final analysis, the issues of catholicity and authority are complex and judgements made are based on varying positions within numerous Christian traditions.
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- Apostolic succession
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