An Episcopal parish in Maryland announced Monday that it will become the first in the United States to join the Roman Catholic Church under a Vatican process designed to bring disgruntled Anglicans and Episcopalians into its fold.
St. Luke's Episcopal parish in Bladensburg will become part of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington within the next few months. It will sever ties from its liberal bishop, who has spoken out in favor of same-sex marriage and other controversial issues.
The bishop, John Bryson Chane, said in a statement Monday that he approved the separation. Chane said the decision was made with "mutual respect," adding that "Christians move from one church to another with far greater frequency than in the past, sometimes as individuals, sometimes as groups."
The parish will lease its land from the Episcopal diocese with the option to purchase.
The switch from Episcopal to Roman Catholic comes after the Vatican's Oct. 2009 announcement that Anglicans who were unsatisfied with their denomination could join the Roman Catholic church en masse while preserving certain traditions, such as having married priests. Until the announcement, individual Anglicans and Episcopalians had to switch on their own.
The move was largely aimed at Anglican churches in the United Kingdom, many of which have struggled with the issue of ordaining female clergy. The Episcopal church is the American branch of the Anglican church. It is considered more liberal and it ordains women clergy, but members have been divided over the issue of ordaining gay bishops.
Since the Vatican's announcement, several U.S. Episcopal churches, including the 100-member St. Luke's, have shown interest in becoming Roman Catholic.
Dozens of formerly Episcopal parishes had already left the church in prior years because of disagreements over gay bishops and aligned themselves with more conservative African Anglican dioceses. Unlike Monday's move by St. Luke's, those departures were acrimonious and resulted in court battles over parish property ownership.
The Rev. Mark Lewis, rector of St. Luke's, told The Huffington Post that debates over issues such as homosexuality were not the main reason for leaving the Episcopal church.
"We worship in a very Catholic way," said Lewis about the parish's traditional "Anglo-Catholic" style, which more closely resembles Roman Catholic worship than Episcopal worship.
In a letter to parishioners, Lewis said that debates over social issues "illuminated a more significant issue in Anglicanism...Who speaks for the Church? Where is the teaching authority of the Church on matters of faith and morals to be found?" In the Roman Catholic Church, church teachings are centralized at the Vatican level, but Episcopal and Anglican parishes around the world can differ widely in their practices and beliefs.
In a statement, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington said the archdiocese will "welcome the St. Luke community warmly into our family of faith."
In other nations, special Anglican ordinariates are being created to formally bring Anglican churches and dioceses into the Roman Catholic Church. No such ordinariate exists in the U.S., but Wuerl was named last year by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to look into creating one.
“I am deeply grateful to Cardinal Wuerl and to Bishop Chane for their support throughout this discernment," said Lewis, who is married. "We look forward to continuing to worship in the Anglican tradition, while at the same time being in full communion with the Holy See of Peter."
The parish's vestry, its elected governing body, voted on the decision in January and the church approved the vote on Sunday. Only one family voted against the move. St. Luke's will began courses in coming months to formally teach members aspects of becoming Roman Catholic.