An Episcopal church in Maryland — including its pastor — has decided to convert to Catholicism, the first in the United States to make the move under new Vatican rules meant to appeal to disaffected Protestants.
St. Luke’s, a small, tight-knit congregation in Bladensburg with a majority of members from Africa and the Caribbean, will be allowed to hold onto its Anglican traditions even as it comes under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. That will include being led by its married pastor, the Rev. Mark Lewis, and retaining much of its liturgy.
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.
But some Episcopal Church experts said the “Anglo-Catholic” movement is small and unrelated to most breakaways, congregations that have left the Episcopal Church for other, more conservative parts of the Anglican Communion.
“Certainly there haven’t been any floodwaters,” said the Rev. Mark Dyer, a theology professor at the Virginia Theological Seminary.
St. Luke’s began exploring the possibility of converting to Catholicism almost two years ago. In January the vestry, the church’s elected decision-making body, agreed to become Catholic. But regional Catholic and Episcopal leaders were so worried about angry litigation that even members of St. Luke’s didn’t know until Sunday how serious the discussions had grown.
Lewis stood up for his regular sermon, parishioners said, and announced that everyone could begin the process — as a parish — of converting. Will you consider going through this process? he asked them. Of being Catholic?
“We didn’t know for sure how people would react,” said Esperanza Stewart, 76, who had been part of the vestry during much of the process. “That show of hands was so comforting.”
Only one family expressed reservations, congregants and Lewis said.
In many ways, St. Luke’s won’t resemble the Catholic churches around it, said Philip Jenkins, an expert on global Christianity. Its congregants worship more like pre-Vatican II Council Catholics, with the priest facing the same direction as the congregation and the altar table flush against the wall and not in the middle.
“The church they’re seeking to join is one that ceased to exist 50 years ago,” Jenkins said. “They have this idealized view,” including the notion that the pope’s authority can’t be challenged.
The only other Episcopal churches ever to convert en masse were three Texas congregations that did so in the 1980s, under a system created by Pope John Paul II that placed the churches under the local Catholic diocese.
Since Benedict’s 2009 invitation to Anglicans, another Anglo-Catholic parish, Mt. Calvary in Baltimore, began the process of converting, but became stuck on property issues.
The decision by St. Luke’s to embrace Catholicism was “achieved in a spirit of pastoral sensitivity and mutual respect,” Episcopal Bishop John Bryson Chane said in a statement.
Wuerl said: “We welcome the St. Luke community warmly into our family of faith . . . [noting] our shared beliefs on matters of faith while also recognizing and respecting the liturgical heritage of the Anglican Church.”
The community will start the conversion process this year, and on Sunday will use a special “Book of Divine Worship” created by the Vatican for Anglican converts. Lewis, who is married, hopes to become a Roman Catholic priest. There are about 100 married Anglican priests who converted to Catholicism under the 1980 guidelines.
Among those elated about the change Monday was Karen King, a 52-year-old bookkeeper from Crownsville who grew up Catholic and then went into what she described as a self-centered period “where everything was about me, me, me.” She looked for more liberal churches and bucked authority. Slowly she came to realize that her understanding of Christianity was rooted in Rome.
“It was like this revelation — we’re really Catholics!” she said with a laugh. “The holy spirit has been at work here for years.”
Staff writer Michael E. Ruane contributed to this report.