A bold new venture in church union - the establishment of a joint Roman Catholic-Episcopalian parish - will be launched Sept. 1 in Norfolk.
The unique new church, to be known as "The Anglican/Roman Catholic Church in Tidewater" until prospective parishoners choose a formal name, is believed to be the first such effort in the country.
It has the joint sponsorship and blessing of the Roman Catholic diocese of Richmond and the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia.
An 18-month study preceded the announcement last week of plans to establish the church.
Roman Catholic Bishop Walter Sullivan of Richmond said the two groups are launching the joint church because "there is a need to further the unity of our two communions."
The joint parish, he explained, would put into practice the unity commitments of the two streams of Christendom to "do all things together except those things that would divide us."
Personnel committees of each communion are searching for clergy to copastor the new church. Asked what would happen if the Episcopalians should select a woman priest, the Catholic bishop said: "We are willing to face that. Who the Episcopalians select is their decision." The Catholic Church does not admit women to the priesthood.
Bishop Sullivan stressed that both copastors of the new church must be "priests who are at home in their own tradition," as well as committed to the ecumenical idea.
According to Bishop Sullivan, membership will be limited to about 100 families from each communion. For Catholics, it will of an "extra-territorial parish" rather than restricting membership to a limited geographical area.
Eucharistic services will be separate for Episcopalians and Catholics coming into the new church, but members from both backgrounds are expected to share as many other worship and paraliturgical services as possible.
Bishop Sullivan said "the emphasis is on what can be done in common, as one parish, rather than having two separate parishes which try to cooperate."
While there are cases of Episcopal and Catholic congregations sharing the same facilities, the two communions have never come together before to launch a joint church.
Church union talks, on an international level are probably more advanced between Roman Catholics and Anglicans than any other faith groups, with the possible exception of Catholics and Orthodox Christians.
At a recent meeting with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury pressed for intercommunion between Catholics and Anglicans, but the pontiff held back from such a step at this time.
The proposed Norfolk joint church is in complete accord with agreement reached by theologians of the two faiths, but puts those theoretical agreements into practice in a way never before attempted.
The study committee which laid plans for the new joint church was chaired by Episcopal Bishop Coadjutor Charles Vache and the Rev. Thomas J. Quinlan of Norfolk, immediate past president of the Catholic diocesan Council of Priests.
Father Quinlan, who was once pastor of Good Shepherd Church near Mount Vernon, pointed out that "there have been more goings-on between the archbishop of Canterbury and the pope than there have between the average ANglican and Roman Catholic parishioners."
"Now," he said, we'll see if ecumenism can be real."
Calling the joint parish "a sign of things to come." Bishop Vache predicted that it would show "mutual respect for our difference as well as a celebration of our unity," even though the latter is "not as far along as we would like it to be."