Leaders of the church said Monday that they were not leaving the Episcopal Church because of the ordination of gays and women — issues that have bitterly divided the American wing of the Anglican Church and coincided with stepped-up efforts by the Vatican to reach out to Anglicans. Instead, church members said, they were satisfying their longing for a clear religious authority by welcoming the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI.
“In the Episcopal Church, bishops in one place say one thing and in another say another,” explained Patrick Delaney, a lay leader from Mitchellville. “That’s the crux of it. Each bishop has its own kingdom.”
He and others at St. Luke’s said they were thrilled to help bridge a spiritual schism that dates back to the 16th-century Protestant Reformation.
“It feels fantastic,” Delaney said. “It’s like correcting 500 years of history.”
Although the parish already embraced various Catholic practices, Lewis, the rector, said he had already ordered a larger statue of Mary and planned more teachings on praying the rosary and saying confession — core Catholic rituals. The sign out front that had read: “St. Luke’s Parish-Anglican” was blank, awaiting the parish’s new name.
The conversions, which are expected to unfold in the coming months, are a dramatic example of the rapid flux of organized religion in the United States. But the Episcopal Church in particular has been rocked in recent years by bitter departures, with exiles slamming the church for ordaining a gay bishop, and by land disputes around the country costing well into the tens of millions. Seven breakaway Northern Virginia congregations have been in court for more than four years with the Episcopal Church.
On Monday, experts noted that the departure of St. Luke’s and its 100 members was remarkably amicable. Under the terms of a lease agreement reached last week with the Episcopal Diocese, the St. Luke’s congregation may continue to worship in its church, with an option to purchase it.
But the conversion also represents a test for the Vatican, which hopes to attract more Anglicans. It was made possible by Benedict’s 2009 offer to let Anglican parishes interested in Catholicism keep many of their rituals and traditions, including their married pastors.
The head of that effort in the United States is Washington’s archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl. He is set to announce next month at a bishops meeting how much interest he has found.
Officials won’t give numbers but say they think interest is high enough that they are creating a “ordinariate,” or national diocese, for Anglican converts.