Mass Conversion: Changing Churches to Stop the Church From Changing

When the Rev. Mark Lewis joined his congregation and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington DC in announcing that St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Bladensburg, Maryland had decided to take up Pope Benedict XVI on his 2009 invitation to disconsolate Anglican and Episcopal churches to join the Roman Catholic church en masse, the official spin was that the move was motivated by a desire for greater Christian unity—a wish, as Lewis put it, to “enter into full communion with the Holy See of Peter.”

At the same time, the small flurry of press releases, letters, statements, and ecclesiological cheat sheets also insisted that the new arrangement for full communion with Rome would allow St. Luke’s to “continue to worship with integrity in the Anglican tradition.”

In practical terms, this means that St. Luke’s will no longer be under the authority of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and parishioners will be educated according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church on doctrine and faith practice in general. Thus, the parish has begun to adopt Roman Catholic practices of praying the rosary and saying confession. They’ve even ordered a bigger, better statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM).

But St. Luke’s will retain much of an Anglican liturgy that derives, as William Oddie points out in the Catholic Herald, from the 13th century Sarum Missal, which significantly influenced the 1549 Book of Common Prayer and subsequent revisions. The Sarum Rite is likewise echoed in Book of Divine Worship, a Roman Catholic adaptation of the 1928 Episcopal prayer book that St. Luke’s, like the seven other “Anglican use” parishes in the US Catholic Church, will take up.

A Liturgical Line in the Sands of Time

Opposition to the transition from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer to a much more thoroughly modernized 1979 revision was the warm-up fight for traditionalist Episcopalians who would later rail against the ordination of women, the full inclusion of lesbians and gays in the church and its ordained ministries, and the election of women and gay bishops. Which is to say that the line in the sands of time falls for Anglicans like those at the 100-member St. Luke’s parish just shy of a century ago, in the brief period of recovery after World War I and just before the Great Depression—perhaps the last era in which Episcopalians held great cultural and political sway over against evangelical revivalists and, well, Catholics.

Quick! When was the last time an American president headlined the General Convention of the Episcopal Church? Look it up: 1928, Calvin Coolidge, Washington National Cathedral.

Could it be that the congregational conversion of St. Luke’s and perhaps a handful of other Episcopal churches functions less to “bridge and heal a wound that has existed between Rome and Anglicanism for nearly five hundred years” than as a salve for the sting of change that continues apace in every religious institution—the Roman Catholic Church included? Is the fantasy at work in the Maryland congregation’s appeal to the magisterial authority of the Roman Church is that changing churches can somehow stop the church from changing?

Inventing the Roman Catholic Church

There is another such fantasy at work, as well, this likewise tied to the insistent use of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, with its persistent High Medieval echo of the Sarum Rite, amplified through the Roman adaptation in the Book of Divine Worship.

As historian Norman Cantor taught us some time ago, the Middle Ages have been remarkably adaptable to the prevailing projections of those who study the period.

For Enlightenment thinkers, the Middle Ages signaled ignorance and barbarism that was cleared away by new rationalist and humanist ideals. For Romantics, the Middle Ages were, according to Cantor, “steeped in idealism, spirituality, heroism, and adoration of women” that corrected for the dehumanizing mechanization of the Industrial Revolution. For Anglicans and Episcopalians seeking spiritual refuge in the Roman Catholic Church while retaining a medievalized liturgy that would be utterly unrecognizable to most Catholics today, the idealized medieval, pre-Reformation Church would appear to represent what Eamon Duffy describes as a “religious and imaginative homogeneity across the social spectrum, a shared repertoire of symbols, prayer, and beliefs which crossed and bridged even the gulf between the literate and the illiterate.” Wouldn’t it be nice?

The fact of the matter is that Roman Catholicism, pre- and postmodern, has been shaped and reshaped by the same sorts of stirrings that have recently roiled other denominations, these consistently having to do with the authority, status, and vocational options available to those outside a celibate, gendered clerical hierarchy and vexed questions of sexual morality. Indeed, notes church historian Darleen Pryds, conversations about “the Catholic Church” tend to “presume this monolithically and hierarchically controlled institution where the men at the top of the hierarchy actually know what’s going on in the local churches in terms of diversity and approve of it.”

The reality, says Pryds, is that “the diversity that has happened historically and which continues to happen in the Roman Catholic Church is more at the grassroots level.”

There, as Pryd’s research on the spiritual practices of lay women and men demonstrates, “the authenticity of the faith” of those outside of formal Church hierarchies has made them “important leaders and important voices for the faith and in the church” throughout history. These practices often create a “vibrancy of faith—a call to authenticity,” embodied in the Church from the apostolic ministry of Mary Magdalene, to the 13th-century street preaching of the teenaged Italian saint, Rose of Viterbo, to the zany 15th-century English lay mystic and pilgrim Margery Kempe, to Dorothy Day in the early 20th century, and onward to the evangelizing, teaching, preaching, and pastoral ministries of laywomen and men throughout the Catholic Church today.

This vibrant lay tradition twines in the Catholic Church with what Gary Macy, Phyllis Zagano, William T. Ditewig, Carolyn Osiek and Kevin Madigan, among many others, have indentified as robust tradition of women’s ordination to both the priesthood and the deaconate in the early and medieval church.

While the Vatican has put the smackdown on women’s ordination to the priesthood, the confluence of historical evidence, continuing agitation by the faithful, somewhat greater doctrinal wiggle room, and a crying need for clergy in many parts of the world have allowed the question of the ordination of women deacons to remain actively open in the Roman Catholic Church for some time.

My point here is not to advocate for women’s ordination—that’s pretty much covered by a wide array of groups and individuals in the Roman Catholic Church. Rather, my point is that the Roman Catholic Church is no more static than any other church, however much that movement might be more located in the body than the head.

The Roman magisterium’s continuing obdurateness (or, okay, depending on your perspective, “moral certainty”) with regard to women’s ordination, the full inclusion of LBGT persons in the church, abortion, contraception, condom use in AIDS prevention, and a host of other issues bears little relationship to the practices of the faithful in everyday life, not only in the West, but throughout the world. Such inconsistency does not, of course, mean that the “real church” exists in its quotidian practice, but it does illustrate the doctrinally uncontroversial notion that the Catholic Church is much more than its magisterial expression.

Renting with an Option to Buy-In

Any understanding of the Church enacted by humans, as Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams noted in an address just weeks after Pope Benedict issued his invitation to disaffected Anglicans, “is likely to be historically variable, vulnerable and in some way inadequate.” This reality, Williams argues, calls all Christians into ongoing dialogue about what the Church is at the most basic levels of sacrament, ministry, and mission and how these are incarnated in different times and places. The movement of the Church catholic is grounded at once in history, prophecy, and practice.

The decision of Episcopal churches like St. Luke’s to convert en masse to Roman Catholicism while retaining a quasi-medieval Anglican liturgy is not, however, a decision to move into this ever-emerging ecclesial reality. It is a solemn retreat into an imagined past where a priest’s sacramental office itself, his back turned to the congregation, protects him from the conflicted desires and diverse stirrings of the wider church. Likewise, the Rev. Lewis’s and the St. Luke congregation’s antique Anglican turn to the sure authority of the See of St. Peter in many ways separates them from the very unity they found wanting in the Episcopal Church.

“The local community without universality… runs the risk of becoming a ghetto,” says a 1977 report by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches cited by Williams in his address to the Pontifical Council. Where St. Luke’s stands in relation to this risk seems nowhere more clearly symbolized than in the congenial arrangement they have with regard to the church building itself, which they will continue to rent from the Episcopal Diocese of Washington with the option to buy some time in the future.

Elizabeth Drescher [@edrescherphd] is the author, with Keith Anderson, of Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012). She teaches religion and pastoral ministries at Santa Clara University. She is currently at work on Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of Religious Nones, a project funded in part through a grant from the Social Science Research Council’s “New Directions in the Study of Prayer” project through the Templeton Foundation. Her website is www.elizabethdrescher.com