For those of us who follow the ins and outs of Episcopalians, Anglicans and Catholics, there was an interesting development recently when the Vatican appointed a bishop to oversee 42 Anglican-rite North American churches. They had converted as congregations to Catholicism but retained some of their Anglican liturgies and customs, such as married clergy.
This group of Anglican churches is called an ordinariate and a system of bringing them into the Catholic fold was created in 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI. The priest he originally tapped to head it up was the Rev. Jeffrey Steenson, the former Episcopal bishop of the Albuquerque-based Rio Grande diocese (which is New Mexico and a corner of far west Texas).
Steenson was elected bishop in October 2004 and consecrated in January 2005. Then less then two years later in September 2007, he shocked his diocese by announcing he was turning Catholic and resigning his position. More on Steenson in a bit, but first see how the Houston Chronicle covered the new bishop:
Days before the Catholic Church announced Steven Lopes’ impending appointment as bishop, the 40-year-old cleric had a brief conversation with Pope Francis.
Lopes reminded the pontiff of the instructions he had given to new bishops, urging them to “tend to the flock of God that is in your charge” and not become “airport bishops.”
“I asked for a little exception,” Lopes said Tuesday, as about 50 people gathered in the sunlit Great Hall of Our Lady of Walsingham burst into laughter. “I imagine I’ll be on the road a lot.”
From the imposing structure of tan limestone on Westview Drive in west Houston, Lopes will preside over 42 churches flung across the U.S. and Canada as Bishop of “The Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter,” the community of Catholic parishes that maintain some traditional Anglican prayers and music in services. Many of the churches, called Anglican Use parishes, converted to Catholicism following their church’s decision to ordain women and gay bishops and to allow gay marriage. Some congregations wanted a more unified, stricter doctrine.
The two reporters painstakingly explained the complicated relationship between the Episcopal and Roman Catholic communions that made this mixed bag of churches a reality. They tried very hard but their efforts were nullified by whomever edited it in such a sloppy way. There’s a ton of “style” errors, which have to do with correct usage of titles, grammar and accurate names for various denominations.
Why is the Church of England “so-called?” Don’t the copy editors know that its American equivalent is the Episcopal Church, not the “Episcopalian Church?” Why is the word “bishop” capitalized in the fourth paragraph when it’s a noun and not part of a title? And the caption mentioning Joseph Fiorenza should say he's the retired archbishop of Galveston-Houston, not simply "archbishop." There is a sitting archbishop of that archdiocese, but it's not Fiorenza.
And in the 13th paragraph, what is the “Evangelical Lutheran” church? Are we talking about the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which is always what ELCA is called on the first reference? And was this agreement between just American Lutherans or some greater body?
As it turns out, the Lutheran World Federation was the signatory, not ELCA. The ELCA Council of Bishops formally approved it in October. And was this agreement really “the first reconciliation between Protestant and Catholic faiths since the Reformation?” Catholics and Lutherans –- maybe. But all Protestants? I think not.
Crux, the publication put out by the Boston Globe that covers the Roman Catholic Church, did a better job at explaining some of the behind-the-scenes machinations that led to the ordinariates.
Some in the Anglican Communion were annoyed by the set-up. They say the Ordinariates could harm ecumenical relations, accusing the Vatican of taking advantage of another Church’s internal struggles and trying to poach whole congregations. But others say it simply gave a home to former Anglicans who never had any interest in returning to full communion with Canterbury anyway.
When the structure was rolled out in 2009, then-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was taken by surprise, as he was not consulted during the process and was given a heads up from Rome only hours before the announcement. He nonetheless tried to downplay worries, asserting that the move was unlikely to attract large numbers.
About Steenson, his is an interesting side story because of the politics that got him elected as bishop in October 2004. He was running against five other candidates, one of whom was a northern Virginia cleric called Martyn Minns. Minns pastored the historic –- and sizeable -- Truro parish in Fairfax, Va., and looked as though he had the election wrapped up. Then Steenson’s name was put in late in the selection process and a more liberal coalition called Via Media was behind him. Steenson was also a local priest and he ended up winning on the third ballot. Minns was first runner-up.
Minns went in a different direction and got elected an Anglican bishop in the province of Nigeria in mid-2006. That gave him the ammunition to lead 11 Episcopal churches in northern Virginia out of the denomination later that year. His story is too long to go into here but I’ve always wondered what would have happened had Steenson been more honest about his bent towards Rome and refused to run for bishop. Had Minns been a bishop in New Mexico instead of pastoring one of the largest conservative parishes in Virginia, the formation of a powerful counter movement against the Episcopal Church might have gone in a different direction.
I’ve always thought that one reason for the American Anglican split-off from the Episcopal Church nearly a decade ago was not so much the election of a gay man as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 although that was a huge factor. It was also the politicking that went on in numerous dioceses where qualified conservative candidates for bishop were foiled by liberal groups who found less-qualified moderate candidates to beat them. Northern Virginia was full of such conservative leaders whose orthodox theological stances made them unelectable and there were a lot of priests like them around the country.
Small wonder that when these men got the chance to break away from the Episcopal Church starting in 2006, many jumped at the opportunity and not a few of them later became bishops in these new Anglican groups. If an institution -- in this case, the Episcopal Church -- keeps on quashing the ambitions of some of its brightest leaders, they will go elsewhere.
These Anglicans and Anglicans-turned-Catholic are fascinating to cover, but journalists need to know there's a lot of backstory with both groups. And please, folks at the Chronicle (where I worked from 1986-1990), next time you cover this ordinariate, please grab an AP stylebook.
Photos of Lopes, both of himself and himself with Pope Francis are courtesy of www.ordinariate.net.