[Episcopal News Service] January brings an annual event, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (Jan 18-25). Across the country you will find ecumenical services in various houses of Christian worship, all with the intent to bring about Jesus’ prayer for us to his Father, “…that they may be one as we are one.” (John 17:22)
This new year also officially brings to the U.S. Roman Catholic efforts to create a church home for disaffected Anglicans and Episcopalians. A liturgical rite (aka, “ordinariate”) has been established for parishes and clergy wishing to leave the Anglican tradition and unify with Rome.
St. Luke’s parish in Bladensburg, Maryland, in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington was the first to be received last October. Baltimore’s Mount Calvary Church in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, with its 20 voting members, will be next.
Much has been made in the mainstream media of the popularity for such action. History and current data reveals otherwise.
According to national survey data from the Episcopal Church, 12 percent of Episcopalians are former Roman Catholics. The figures are higher in areas of the Episcopal Church where the predominant faith is Roman Catholic. A very small percentage of our 7,000 Episcopal parishes have witnessed a majority of their members leaving for other expressions of the Anglican tradition. Far fewer have sought a return to Rome.
I am one of the 12 percent. Raised Roman Catholic, I was instructed in the Baltimore Catechism, attended Catholic schools, spent time in a Catholic seminary in college, and came of age during the Second Vatican Council. Those leaving the Roman church have their own reasons. Mine included the primacy of the pope, exclusion of women in leadership positions, and the discrimination of LGBT Christians.
There’s a book about us. In Finding Home, Stories of Roman Catholics Entering the Episcopal Church (Cowley, 1997), Christopher L. Webber chronicles the journey of 11 Catholics into the Episcopal Church. One is the Rev. Matthew Fox, the former Dominican now a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of California and founder of the University of Creation Spirituality.
“My decision to embrace the Anglican tradition,” said Fox in 1994, “is about including some anglo-saxon (and celtic) common sense into twenty-first century catholicism.” Fox cited the Dominican tradition of Thomas Aquinas and Meister Eckhart as completely compatible in Anglicanism. They included “the broad themes of mysticism, social justice, Christian unity, and the central concern for creation,” wrote Webber.
“I think the Episcopal Church became the church envisioned in Vatican II,” the Rt. Rev. William Swing told me when he was my bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of California. He said he received at least one serious inquiry per month from Roman Catholic clergy seeking to become Episcopal priests during his 26 year episcopacy. (Swing is the bishop who received Matthew Fox.)
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was begun just over 100 years ago by the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement when they were still Episcopalian with roots in the Order of the Holy Cross. Later, they became a Roman Catholic order. Trying to keep track of all this could make an ecclesiastical traffic cop dizzy.
For Roman Catholics, Christian unity may come down to union with Rome as an ordinariate for various denominations under the authority of the pope and the Magisterium.
Or maybe it will be something altogether quite different. It may be a system or non-institution that any of us have yet to imagine, although it’s difficult to imagine the need for such. Nearly all denominations accept each other’s baptism if done in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Isn’t that unity? Aren’t we already one if we agree on common membership in the Body of Christ?
The ordinariate is Rome’s latest effort toward unity as defined by the Vatican. For me, I strive every day to be a faithful Catholic, just not Roman Catholic.
The late John Cogley, a former Roman Catholic author, editor of Commonweal and columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, may have said it best when writing about his journey into the Episcopal Church: “I do not look upon this move as a ‘conversion’ since I have not changed any of the beliefs I formerly held. Rather, it is a matter of finding my proper spiritual home.”
I suspect former Roman Catholics and former Episcopalians could each say the same of their new spiritual home. And they would both be right.
– The Rev. Canon Dan Webster is canon for evangelism and ministry development in the Diocese of Maryland and former media relations director for the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.