Rumblings about disgruntled Episcopal congregations in the United States breaking off from their roots and joining the Roman Catholic Church have been circulating for a while, but the St. Luke’s Episcopal parish in Bladensburg, Maryland, became the first to actually take the plunge, when it announced that it will sever ties from its liberal bishop and submit to the Pope’s authority.
In 2009, the Vatican told Episcopalians that they would make it easy for those who opposed female and gay priests to become Roman Catholic while still retaining many of their traditions, and this is the first American congregation to take them up on the offer. Under Pope Benedict XVI’s offer, Episcopal or Anglican priests who were already married would not be required to become celibate, although they could not become bishops.
The rector of St. Luke’s said that they were not leaving the Episcopal Church because of their views on homosexuality. Instead, he said, he and his parishioners were looking for a clearer, more centralized authority, exemplified by the Pope. Authority in the Episcopal Church is more diffuse, with some bishops who are more liberal than others. The former bishop for St. Luke’s, Rev. John Bryson Chane, has spoken out in favor of same-sex marriage.
Some members of St. Luke’s said they felt as though they were healing the violent rift between the Catholic and Protestant Church that emerged in the sixteenth century. “It feels fantastic,” said one lay leader. “It’s like correcting 500 years of history.”
St. Luke’s will lease its land from the Episcopal Church, with the possibility of purchase. Its departure is remarkably amicable, considering that, according to the Washington Post, seven Northern Virginia congregations have been locked in land disputes with the Episcopal Church since their efforts to break away.
It’s hard to assign motive in a situation like this, especially since the St. Luke’s congregation has emphatically denied that this dramatic decision was motivated by anti-gay sentiment (although they could hardly say it was). But what’s clear is that the Episcopal Church’s troubles, caused by its progressive leadership and agenda, probably won’t go away anytime soon. The real question is whether the Catholic Church will be successful in luring away more Episcopal and Anglican parishes whose members are uncomfortable with the liberal policy decisions of past years. Will St. Luke’s be an anomaly, or the first among many?
Photo from Randy OHC's Flickr photostream.