Catholic Church announces new order of ex-Episcopalians

01/02/2012 21:32

NYT:  Opening its doors more widely to disaffected Episcopalians, the Roman Catholic Church has established the equivalent of a nationwide diocese in the United States that former Episcopal priests and congregations can enter together as intact groups, the Vatican announced Sunday.

Converts who join the new entity will be full-fledged Catholics, expected to show allegiance to the pope and oppose contraception and abortion. But they will be allowed to preserve revered verses from the Book of Common Prayer. And, in what one Catholic leader called “an act of generosity,” priests who are married will be exempted from the Catholic requirement of celibacy, though they may not become bishops.

The new grouping, called the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, will have its headquarters in Houston and be led by Jeffrey N. Steenson, a former Episcopal bishop and father of three who left the church in 2007 and became a Catholic priest in 2009, under an existing exemption for converting Anglicans.

With the title of ordinary, Father Steenson will be a member of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and will report directly to the Vatican, church officials said.

Catholic leaders and some former Episcopalians are celebrating the announcement as a small but notable event in an often tortuous history of relations between the Vatican and the Anglican Church, which includes the Episcopalians, after their break in the 16th century.

The Episcopal Church is the main American branch of the Anglican Communion, a loose global body whose symbolic head is the archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Church of England. It has been shaken by discord from conservatives who object to the ordination of female priests, the acceptance of bishops with homosexual partners and changes in the liturgy.

While it involved only a small fraction of the Episcopal Church in the United States, which has more than 7,000 priests and two million members, dozens of entire parishes have broken away to join alternative Anglican branches. Many do not want to become Catholics but a share of disaffected Episcopalians are seeking to convert, something they say they have long dreamed about.

“I’m excited about the opportunity for those who, for the most part, are already with the Catholic Church in their hearts,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, said in an interview. The cardinal supervised planning of the ordinariate.

Since the Vatican’s grant of an exemption from celibacy in 1980, scores of Episcopal priests have joined the Catholic priesthood, remaining married. The new ordinariate will allow priests and their existing congregations to switch en masse, establishing new parishes with an Anglican flavor. Unmarried Anglican priests who join the ordinariate will not be allowed to marry later on.

So far, more than 100 priests and groups of members totaling more than 1,320, including six congregations of 70 or more, have asked to join the ordinariate, said Father Scott Hurd, a Catholic priest in Washington, D.C., and a former Episcopalian who helped design the new system.

Father Steenson said he expected more former Episcopalians to join after they saw how the new group operated. He said that he personally had always longed for closer ties with the Catholics, a feeling that only intensified as the Episcopal Church broke with tradition on female priests and acceptance of homosexuality, dividing the churches further. But he is also overjoyed to preserve elements of the Anglican liturgy, he said. The expectation is that this parallel structure will continue indefinitely.

When the Vatican authorized creation of these entities in 2009, some Anglican leaders, especially in England, expressed concern that it was trying to take advantage of their turmoil. In England, where a similar grouping was formed last year, about 60 priests and more than 1,000 members have joined so far.

But Cardinal Wuerl and Father Hurd said that the system was developed in response to a growing demand.

“There have been Anglican groups requesting this for 30 years,” Father Hurd said. “This is not an effort at poaching or sheep-stealing.”

Charles K. Robertson, canon to the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, in New York, said that the reports of departures from the church were often exaggerated. He noted that the numbers expected to join the Catholics were small and that in recent decades a steady stream of Catholics, frustrated by restrictions on women and marriage, had joined the Episcopal Church.

Catholic leaders said they did not believe that the presence of married priests, most of whom will work in the parallel system of the ordinariate, would sow discord within the church.

“It’s been very clear to everyone that these married priests will be an exception, that celibacy remains the norm,” said Father Hurd. “It’s an act of generosity to these communities so they can come in with their pastors, and maintain the bond that has developed between them.”

Cardinal Wuerl said, “The commitment to celibate clergy in the Latin church is a very deeply rooted, long-lived tradition.” Future seminary applicants who want to enter the ordinariate must commit to celibacy, so married priests will disappear over time, he said.

Charles Hough III, 57, of Fort Worth, an Episcopal priest of 31 years, has been unhappy with liberal trends and warring factions in the Episcopal Church. In 2008, he joined a rival Anglican domination, but he has dreamed for years of leading his congregation into the Roman Catholic Church, he said in an interview.

“This is something we have been praying for,” he said of the ordinariate.

He resigned his Anglican post in March and became a Catholic, along with 30 followers. Like dozens of other former Episcopal priests who have already applied, he will start an online class in Roman Catholic theology and procedures in late January, and hopes to be ordained in June.

In the meantime, Mr. Hough leads prayer services for his small congregation at a makeshift church in Cleburne, Tex., just south of Fort Worth. In conservative Forth Worth, where almost the entire diocese left the mainstream Episcopal Church a few years ago, at least four different congregations, including Mr. Hough’s, are now seeking to join the ordinariate and become new Catholic parishes.

Many of these were already, like Mr. Hough, steeped in the “Anglo-Catholic” wing of Anglicans, which has long hoped for reunification with Rome.

“It’s a joy to be able to embrace the fullness of the church,” Mr. Hough said. “God is repairing his church.”

Mr. Hough, who has been married for 38 years, has a son, Charles Hough IV, who is also a former Episcopal priest now seeking ordination as a Catholic. The son, who is 30, married and has two small children, previously led an Episcopal church of 70 but is now teaching catechism, as a layman, in a Catholic church of 10,000 in Forth Worth. He expects that he will keep working at that church after he is ordained.

Working alongside celibate priests, the son said, he had detected no resentment. “Both of us see the sacrifices and the graces of each side,” he said. A celibate priest has more time for religious duties and devotion, he said, while a married man faces “a balancing act with the family.”

“There will be a time-management factor,” he said.

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