Anglicans swimming the Trinity

Do not let the small mistakes in this article about the ordination of six former Anglican clergy as Catholic priests for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter distract you — this article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram entitled “6 former Episcopal clergymen are ordained in Catholic Church” is one of the few I have seen that “gets religion” and understands the big picture being covered in this story.

And that story is — these priests are entering the Catholic Church, not leaving the Episcopal Church.

Yes, I know the six priests in question have left the Anglican world for Rome — “Swimming the Tiber” in church parlance — (but as the Trinity River runs through Fort Worth I have changed the phrase somewhat). But the real story is about a journey to something — not a rejection of their past.

Before I go to deep into this article, let me say up front that I am acquainted with some of these priests — and have known the leader of the ordinariate, Monsignor Jeffrey Steenson for 10 or so years. And, I am a priest of the church where these men began their ministries and I have written about the journey these men have taken for a number of church-related publications over the past few years. The bottom line is that I come to this story with some degree of knowledge.

This knowledge can be obscure enjoyment at times — as there are one or two points I found to be distracting in this article. Let’s get them out of the way and turn to the lede:

KELLER — Under a huge dome with images of winged angels, six former Fort Worth-area Episcopal clergymen — including a father and son — lay facedown at a marble altar Saturday and were ordained as priests in the Roman Catholic Church.

In what officials called a historic moment, Fort Worth Catholic Bishop Kevin Vann and other white-robed priests in the diocese laid hands on the priests at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Keller to welcome them.

It was the first ordination class under Pope Benedict XVI’s new Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, created Jan. 1 to allow Episcopal priests to be ordained as Catholic clergy and for Episcopal congregations to join the Roman Catholic Church.

The tone of the article was respectful and the story arc supportive of the Catholic Church. And, yes, they were all once Episcopal priests — but not since 2008.

It would have been better to say that they left the Episcopal Church when the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth left the Episcopal Church in 2008. As an aside, the national Episcopal Church as since created a second Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth for the small number of clergy and congregations that opposed the decision to leave and litigation is presently before the Texas Supreme Court to determine which is the true Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.

When the six left the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth to become Roman Catholics in response to Pope Benedict XVI’s offer of an Anglican ordinariate they left the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) — the conservative rival to the Episcopal Church.

I would also add that the story is not as clear as it could be on the point of the “first ordination class”.  For readers who have not been following the ordinariate story, they might have assumed that this ordination to the priesthood was the first ordination for the ordinariate — which is not true. The first ordination took place on 2 June 2012 in Mobile. The Fort Worth six were part of the first batch or class of new priests to be ordained, not the first priests to be ordained.

Those minor quibbles aside, I was impressed the Star-Telegram presented the issues properly by allowing the subjects of this story to explain themselves. And what the subjects of this story told the Star-Telegram was that their decision to enter the Catholic Church was not motivated by anger with the innovations in doctrine and discipline made in recent years by the Episcopal Church. They had entered the Catholic Church because they had become convinced by the truth claims made by the Catholic Church.

Steenson and the six men ordained opposed many of the changes in the Episcopal Church, including the ordination of gay priests and bishops.

All emphasized, however, that those issues were not central in their decisions to convert.

“Hopefully we understand that this is not just about being opposed to something,” Steenson said.

“If you were just opposed to something, you don’t want to join the Catholic Church. It’s a lot more than that.”

The Rev. Mark Cannaday said his ordination ends a long journey.

“My decision had nothing to do with current issues,” he said, adding that he has been drawn to elements of Catholicism for many years.

The younger Hough said: “For me, it’s not running away from something or saying the Episcopal Church is falling apart. My decision was going toward truth. To me, the current issues in the Episcopal Church are symptoms of a greater problem, and that was authority. There was no authority to say this was or was not part of Christian practice.”

A very common mistake made in the reporting about the Anglican ordinariate is the supposition that those who join the Catholic Church do so in protest to the actions of their former church — be it the Episcopal Church or the ACNA.

The Episcopal Church is not a monolithic nor uniform body. Those who are opposed to the recent actions of the church can be found inside the Episcopal Church or outside in the new Anglican Church of North America or other continuing Anglican groups. Some join other Protestant denominations while many simply stop going to church.

Becoming a Roman Catholic, as Msgr. Steenson noted, is a very different thing than being opposed to gay bishops or gay marriage — it is a conscious decision that the Catholic Church is the true church. (I should add that some ex-Anglicans have entered the Orthodox Churches — and while there is no Orthodox ordinariate, the faith journey is very much the same.)

As Fr. Christopher Stainbrook noted, becoming a Roman Catholic was “just a natural progression” for him.

It could be argued that the article might have been improved by the addition of voices from the Episcopal or Anglican churches commenting on the decision to leave. If this had been a contentious decision it might have made sense to do so.

However, Bishop Jack Iker of the ACNA-affiliated diocese has ruined this particular story angle by being gracious and affirming of the decision made by his six one-time priests. I’ve interviewed him a number of times on this issue — and many others — and he won’t bite. I may be cynical but adding more affirming voices to the story from the priests’ former church would be a bit too happy-clappy for me. Now if I could have found someone to say something unkind, that would have been different.

Perhaps I am too close to the story to have an objective mind on this point — what say you GetReligion readers? Would it have improved the story to have spread the circle wider to add non-Catholic voices? Or do you agree with me that the article did a fine job in stating the “coming home” theme and adding more would have not improved the story?

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About geoconger
  • Deacon Michael D. Harmon

    “Swimming the Tiber” (or “Swimming the Bosphorus” for becoming Orthodox) has a concrete symbolism. “Swimming the Trinity” has a kind of total-immersion vibe that perhaps carries the context that the former church was not Trinitarian. And yes, I know I’m reading far too much into a mild, pleasant bit of humor. One can only respect these men’s decision to pledge fidelity to the church they have come to believe represents God’s plan for His people. Others of us have made the same commitment to our own communions, but we do so without condemnation of those we either left behind or have not chosen (except where a communion has departed so far from the faith that its derelictions must be rejected, even as we pray for its reform). The tenor of the story was fine, and certainly one is far more secure in actively joining one community than merely using it as a shelter for rejecting another. The faith is a positive thing, a presence, not an absence. As C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity, the faith is a huge structure with many rooms, and the life and the warm fire and the fine conversations are found not in the halls and corridors, but in the rooms. These men have found their room, and God bless them for it. But “My Father’s House has many Mansions.”

    • geoconger

      Yes, perhaps in July in Texas it would be better to say “walking the Trinity” as I doubt there is enough water in the river to swim across.

  • sari

    The Trinity River provides a nice allegory for Deacon Harmon’s statements. It runs almost the entire length of Texas, a sizable state, and its several branches merge to create the whole.

    For water levels, click the desired region on the interactive map.

  • Chris Jones

    while there is no Orthodox ordinariate, the faith journey is very much the same

    Allow me to offer a small correction. While the Orthodox Church does not have any organizational structure called an “ordinariate,” two of the Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States have something reasonably similar called the “Western Rite Vicariate.” Parishes of the Western Rite are part of the Orthodox Church and are in full doctrinal agreement with their Eastern Orthodox brethren, but they worship following the traditional liturgies of the Western Church. Formerly Anglican parishes which join the Western Rite Vicariate usually use a liturgy based on the traditional Book of Common Prayer, and other parishes (former Old Catholic, Lutheran, or others) usually use the traditional Catholic Mass (though in English, not in Latin).

    The Western Rite Vicariate differs from the RC ordinariate in that the ordinariate is headed by an “ordinary” (hence the name) who has the administrative jurisdiction normally exercised by a bishop, but parishes of the vicariate are subject to the administrative jurisdiction of the local bishop, just like any other parish.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Although, I agree the story as is is quite good–I also am in favor of the more information in a story the better. (As long as you don’t ruin the story as a good read which a professional writer rightly has to be concerned about).
    It should also be pointed out that is not just clergy of other faiths who are expected to be coming into the Catholic Church for good reasons, but all that go through the RCIA program to become Catholic are expected to be “coming home” for positive reasons. This frequently includes wanting to embrace the rock of Peter or to partake fully of the True Body and Blood of Christ as powerfully taught and experienced in the Catholic Church.

  • Jason VanBorssum

    Anglicanism has always been “messy.” It’s true that the Episcopal Church – and the rest of the Churches that comprise the Anglican Communion – does not have a central authority who claims to be the “vicar of Christ” and “Pontifex Maximus.” But neither did the Early Church. The dogma of papal primacy is a Gentile imperial construct that was created centuries after Christ and was retrojected onto the Gospels. It is false, imperial and antithetical to the structure of the Early Church. I am a High Church Episcopalian whose theology and practice is very catholic. However, if for some reason I felt the need to leave the ECUSA and/or Anglicanism, I would probably become Eastern Orthodox. I simply cannot understand and never will understand how and why anyone who was once an Anglican could “swim the Tiber.” Speaking personally, I feel like I would have to remove part of my brain to go to Rome.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Jason, no one was asking your opinion about swimming the Tiber. This is a media critique blog, not one to vent one’s feelings against any particular church.

  • Jason VanBorssum

    The theme of the article was “coming home.” I am responding to the story of these priests who felt that “home” means “Rome.” They reached that conclusion as part of their own personal journey and further discerning their vocation. More power to ‘em. But if seeking a return to the roots of the ekklesia is the goal, I daresay that other faithful, discerning persons would reach a different conclusion. My comments are rooted in history. They are not intended to be malicious.

  • AuthenticBioethics

    It would have been interesting if the article got the perspective of someone like Jason, if the converts would have a chance to respond to it. Obviously, if someone has a difficult time with the Catholic church for its alleged innovation of papal primacy, it is very difficult to see why he persists in a church founded by a king who invented the office of a royal, hereditary head of the church contrary to the Gospels and Christian tradition of more than a millennium. It’s an interesting critique from a committed Episcopalian of the converts’ motives, however, and perhaps the new Catholic priests would offer an insightful response.

  • Bull

    I do think that Bp. Iker’s voice is lacking from this article. Even if he were very supportive it stood out to me as a ghost. Perhaps a couple of comments from him as well as from Bp. Ohl or someone representing the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. OK, yeah, that might be turning over an anthill. I’m pretty sure that those turf “discussions” have been covered fairly well in the Star-Telegram already.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    First of all, the Trinity is an urban drainage ditch, and anyone who swims it deserves whatever bizarre diseases they get.

    Now, that’s off my chest and I have to confess that like geoconger, I’m probably too close to the story to have a valid opinion about the article. In fact, I would have been visible in that picture if I hadn’t moved so I wouldn’t be visible in pictures. I also sang in choir at thereception of St. Timothy’s and these six men’s ordination as deacons.

    So I found the story rather boring, probably because I do know too much background. Perhaps a voice like this would have added a bit of texture. And yes, the small errors (and one larger one) did distract me. Mea maxima culpa.

    But mark the calendars, I am about to praise Our Beloved Startlegram. This was a decent article (if dull), and follows on the heals of good articles over time, including the quadruple ordination here 4 years ago, and several other issues. By good, I mean celebrations of events worth celebrating, without excessive negative overtones, as well as fair, balanced, informative stories on more serious, substantive matters.

  • asshur

    I’d like to point to an article with a curious header about a similar event in San Juan Capistrano (CA) in what seems a local paper.
    Unusual Mass turns Anglicans Catholic
    Rather less sophisticaded -is local news style all along- but nonetheless interesting.
    My biggest surprise was that the “usual suspects” (WO, gay issues) appeared only in the third to last paragraph and introduced by “Althoug the media …”

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Another bit of local color:

    The interest here is that the pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (she’s a convert from Anglicanism you know), Msgr. E. James Hart, was an Episcopal priest and married.

    I think I wasn’t clear that the Star-Telegram has been putting up some decent religion articles over the past few years, specifically on Catholic issues. However, Terry Goodrich did some really fair, well-balanced articles (not available, unfortunately) on the split of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.

    Jim Jones is an interesting character, and I had no idea he was still working (he’s been around forever). He’s a liberal, excuse me, moderate Baptist and member of Broadway Baptist Church, an interesting congregation in it’s own right. This information may be out-of-date, of course, but it was true some years ago.

    FWIW, here’s another of his articles on Episcopalian matters. It would perhaps fall into that category of events worth celebrating without negative overtones.

    Finally, if I may share something I think deserved mention in the article referenced by Fr. Conger. It’s something that was printed in the guide for the Ordination Mass and read by Bp. Vann:

    The Holy Catholic Church recognizes that not a few of the sacred actions of the Christian religion as carried out in communities separated from her can truly engender a life of grace and can rightly be described as providing access to the community of salvation.

    There followed a prayer of thanks for the “fruitful unto salvation” years of ministry these men had in the Anglican Communion. Which is interesting, I think in the light of Fr. Conger’s use of “the true church” and comments made above.

    And now I promise to shut up. :-)

  • Christian

    Anyone who likes George Conger’s reportage may enjoy the nearly-weekly podcast, Anglican Unscripted, available here:

    (yes it’s “unsripted”)