First Episcopal parish to head to Rome?

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Flash back a few years and you may remember all of those big headlines about the controversial decision by Pope Benedict XVI to park Vatican tanks on the lawn of Canterbury Cathedral and, thus, begin an ecclesiastical invasion of England. Click here for a refresher course. In reality, Benedict had responded to more than a decade of appeals for help from many, not all, of the long-suffering Anglo-Catholics in the Church of England and elsewhere in the Anglican Communion. The idea of a large group of Anglicans swimming the Tiber has been around for a long time (see "The Roman Option") and everyone involved knew that, other than most of the mainstream journalists who covered the story.

So, the next stage of this important news story would be when this option began clicking into effect on this side of the Atlantic. That is why I thought it was news -- the Baltimore Sun did not -- when Mount Calvary Episcopal Church in Baltimore became the first Episcopal parish to vote to formally vote to go to Rome.

That parish has not changed its mind and the process appears to still be underway. These kinds of things take time, in part due to issues linked to money and property.

Still, I was surprised to read the following lede in the Washington Post this past week:

An Episcopal church in Maryland -- including its pastor -- has decided to convert to Catholicism, the first in the United States to make the move under new Vatican rules meant to appeal to disaffected Protestants.

St. Luke’s, a small, tight-knit congregation in Bladensburg with a majority of members from Africa and the Caribbean, will be allowed to hold onto its Anglican traditions even as it comes under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. That will include being led by its married pastor, the Rev. Mark Lewis, and retaining much of its liturgy.

Has the move already happened somehow, thus shoving St. Luke's ahead of the Baltimore parish? The Post story simply tells us that these conversions are "expected to unfold in the coming months." Frankly, that sounds like what is happening in Baltimore, according to the Baltimore parish's leaders.

Maybe, maybe not.

Hang on, because this gets complicated. As always, money is the hard part. Thus, this piece of the Post report was particularly interesting to me as a journalist who has covered Episcopal parish property wars since the early 1980s:

... (The) Episcopal Church in particular has been rocked in recent years by bitter departures, with exiles slamming the church for ordaining a gay bishop, and by land disputes around the country costing well into the tens of millions. Seven breakaway Northern Virginia congregations have been in court for more than four years with the Episcopal Church. ...

Experts noted that the departure of St. Luke’s and its 100 members was remarkably amicable. Under the terms of a lease agreement reached last week with the Episcopal Diocese, the St. Luke’s congregation may continue to worship in its church, with an option to purchase it.

That's interesting. One has to wonder why the Washington diocese was so "amicable." Is this a comment on local diocesan finances, in the midst of the bitter Northern Virginia church-property wars? Then again, might this be a comment on the cost of real estate in Bladensburg, as opposed to prime suburban real estate on the other side of the Beltway?

Anyway, the Post team did know about the earlier Mount Calvary parish decision, which leads to this strange reference near the end of the story:

Since Benedict’s 2009 invitation to Anglicans, another Anglo-Catholic parish, Mt. Calvary in Baltimore, began the process of converting, but became stuck on property issues.

So which church was the "first" to go to Rome?

One can argue that the Post story is accurate because it says that St. Luke's was the first "to make the move" to Rome (even though that move is not complete), as opposed to merely voting to go to Rome and continuing to head in that direction while continuing to wrestle with local Episcopal church leaders.

So note what matters here, in terms of the news values. It is not the theological decision by the parish that matters. What matters is the legal settlement over the land and money, made by Episcopal leaders.

Also, it appears that the Post may have been told -- by its anonymous experts, almost certainly staffers in the Episcopal diocese -- information about the Mount Calvary negotiations that has not been made public in Baltimore (at least not that I can find in the Sun or at the parish website, where the move to Rome appears to be on). The Sun may be missing an important story in its own backyard -- again.

One final point of interest about the Washington story. Readers are told that St. Luke's is a tiny congregation, with a mere 100 members. The key issue, actually, is how many attend worship each week. It helps to know that, as of two years ago, about 67 percent of Episcopal parishes in the United States averaged 87 or fewer worshipers in attendance on the typical Sunday.

This Bladensburg parish maybe be a rather ordinary parish, in terms of size. We do not know. The key would be to know how its Sunday attendance ranks in its home diocese.

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