A long time ago, back in the year 1991 to be precise, a circle of six doctrinally conservative priests in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland did a very unusual thing -- they published a paper reaffirming ancient Christian doctrines on a host of different subjects, including their belief that salvation was found through Jesus Christ, alone. Well, "The Baltimore Declaration" caused quite a stir and, to say the least, did not receive applause from local Episcopal leaders. The document also made some national headlines, which is how I heard about it all the way out in Denver.
The fallout for the priests was immediate. One of them was Father R. Gary Mathewes-Green, who left the Episcopal fold to enter Eastern Orthodoxy, becoming Father Gregory Mathewes-Green. He soon became the founding priest at Holy Cross Orthodox Church and is still serving there, which, to be honest about it, means that for the better part of a decade he has been the Mattingly family's beloved pastor.
With that out of the way, I can now mention that knowing Father Gregory and Frederica Mathewes-Green (yes, the author and commentator) also means moving in circles with close ties to supporters of the traditional Anglican order known as the All Saints Sisters of the Poor. In fact, former members of the order who left to convert to Orthodoxy played crucial roles in the birth, life and growth of Holy Cross Orthodox Church.
You see, the earthquake of the 1991 declaration, as well as a host of other developments in the Episcopal Church before and after that, sent aftershocks through the blessed peace and quiet of that lovely convent. The sisters have been trying to make decisions -- as a body -- about their future for many years now.
But that is not the story told in the recent Baltimore Sun news feature about the community's decision to swim the Tiber and join the Roman Catholic Church. No, you'll be shocked, shocked, to discover that the newspaper is convinced that this decision was caused by _____.
But first things first: Who wrote this strange headline?
Episcopal nuns' exit widens rift
As sect ordains women and gays, Catonsville sisters become Catholic
Sect? I guess there would be very, very conservative Anglicans who would consider the Episcopal Church a "sect," but I think most would still simply call the older, larger, official body linked to the Anglican Communion a "church." Right?
But back to the top of the story, which really is quite dramatic (although the decision by the sisters has been known in other publications for several months now):
In a move that religious scholars say is unprecedented, 10 of the 12 nuns at an Episcopal convent in Catonsville left their church ... to become Roman Catholics, the latest defectors from a denomination divided over the ordination of gay men and women.
The members of the All Saints Sisters of the Poor were welcomed into the Catholic Church by Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, who confirmed the women during a Mass in their chapel. Each vowed to continue the tradition of consecrated life, now as a religious institute within the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
"We know our beliefs and where we are," said Mother Christina Christie, superior of the order that came to Baltimore in 1872. "We were drifting farther apart from the more liberal road the Episcopal Church is traveling. We are now more at home in the Roman Catholic Church." ...
The women join the movement out of the nation's sixth-largest Protestant denomination since the 2003 consecration of its first openly gay bishop thrust long-standing divisions over homosexuality out into the open. Their departure, which the sisters said they had been considering for years, comes weeks after voters at the Episcopal General Convention declared homosexuals eligible for any ordained ministry within the church and began writing prayers to bless gay unions.
So, you see, it was the issue of the ordination of women as well as the 2003 consecration of New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson -- openly gay, non-celibate and partnered -- that pushed these sisters out of the shrinking Anglo-Catholic wing of Anglicanism in America.
Well, maybe there were other issues, too.
The Rev. Susan Russell, president of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender advocacy group Integrity USA, expressed sadness on learning of the sisters' departure.
"It grieves the heart of God whenever brother and sister Christians can't come to agreement and someone chooses to leave a fellowship," said Russell, an Episcopal parish priest in Pasadena, Calif. But she likened it to the past departures of members who differed with the church's positions on segregation, the Vietnam War and the ordination of women.
This is, of course, Russell's opinion and it's valid to quote these views -- especially if one is convinced that homosexuality is in fact the central issue that drove the order toward Rome. Then again, perhaps it was racism or support for U.S. military policies?
The point is that no one has a chance to respond to these charges. They simply echo in the air. The sisters are quoted, a little bit, about their motives -- but it's clear that they were asked to describe their order's doctrinal approach to those newsy sexuality issues.
It is true, however, that the Sun story notes that the work done by these sisters benefits a wide range of people.
Members of the order, who range in age from 59 to 94, wear the traditional black habit and veil and a thin gold band on the right hand. They lead a monastic lifestyle, filled with prayer and work with the terminally ill at Joseph Richey House in Baltimore, which they opened in 1987 with Mount Calvary Church, and with children and the poor.
Meanwhile, as a reader, I have all kinds of questions about the decision made by the sisters and the rite that ushered them into their new Communion.
What does it mean to say that they will be a "religious institute" in the Catholic church? As opposed to being a religious order?
Will the sisters be allowed to retain their unique and glorious tradition of Anglican rites, prayers and spirituality under the "Anglican Use" provisions? A symbolic issue: When they entered the Catholic fold, did the bishop preside at the sister's own altar? Facing East? Or was another altar used, Vatican II style, facing the congregation? Also, what happens to the retreat house itself and the grounds? Do they now belong to the local Catholic diocese?
These questions are, of course, not related to sexuality. Sorry about that.