Oklahoma's Episcopal bishop said switching from one denomination to another is nothing new.
“Just as the Roman Catholic Church has received people from other denominations, the Episcopal Church has received people from other denominations as well,” the Rt. Rev. Edward Konieczny, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma, said Wednesday.
Konieczny's comments came in response to news that Pope Benedict XVI established a new U.S. ordinariate, similar to a diocese, on Jan. 1.
The Houston-based Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter will allow a special Anglican-style Catholic Mass that can include sections from the Book of Common Prayer and other Anglican liturgies.
The Episcopal Church is the U.S. body of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
“What they're basically doing is taking the traditional Anglican approach and becoming part of the Catholic Church,” said George Rigazzi, a canon lawyer who is director of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City's Office of Family Life.
“They are allowed to keep their uniqueness as Anglicans but still be in communion with Rome.”
This new structure grew out of a controversial 2009 effort by Pope Benedict to persuade conservative Anglicans to align with Rome under an exemption that allows Anglican priests, laity and even entire congregations to convert while keeping their prized music and prayers.
Bishops who convert under the rite will be allowed to function as Catholic priests but not as bishops. Married Anglican male priests will be able to remain married and serve as Catholic priests, although unmarried priests who join will not be able to marry later without renouncing their priesthood.
The American ordinariate is only the second such jurisdiction established since Benedict launched the process; the first was set up a
Rigazzi said he attended a meeting about the new ordinariate in July and thought the idea was wonderful.
Rigazzi said he is familiar with Anglican traditions as well as Catholic traditions because he was raised Episcopalian. He converted to Catholicism at age 18.
“The beauty of this is they are maintaining their tradition while being in communion with Rome,” he said.
“It's part of the quest for Christian unity, at least that's the way I see it.”
Rigazzi said he did not see the establishment of the ordinariate as “an intent to undermine anybody.”
“It's just these people are searching,” he said.
It is unclear how much of a draw the new jurisdiction will be.
So far, about 100 former Episcopal priests have applied to become Catholic priests in the U.S. ordinariate, and about 1,400 individuals — as well as six small congregations — have sought to join the Catholic Church under the new provision.
After a year in existence, the ordinariate in England and Wales counts only 1,000 former Anglican lay people and 60 former Anglican priests as members.
Some Episcopalians in the U.S., like some Anglicans in other countries, have opted to affiliate with conservative Anglican bodies or breakaway traditionalist groups rather than become Catholics.
Konieczny said it's tough to see the disenchanted Episcopalians leave, but he is grateful they have opportunities for Christian fellowship elsewhere.
“I'm saddened they left the (Episcopal) church, but I'm certainly encouraged that they have a place to go to live out their spiritual journey and be nurtured in their faith,” he said.
Respect for decisions
Meanwhile, Konieczny said he knows the Rev. Jeffrey N. Steenson, who has been chosen to lead the U.S. ordinariate. Steenson is a former Episcopal bishop of New Mexico. He is a father of three who became a Catholic in 2007 and was ordained a Catholic priest in 2009.
Konieczny said Steenson, as New Mexico bishop, participated in Konieczny's consecration ceremony as Oklahoma bishop in 2007 in Oklahoma City.
“The House of Bishops is a small club — bishops tend to know one another,” Konieczny said.
He said he respected Steenson for how he handled his leave-taking of the Episcopal denomination.
“I have a lot of respect for him and the way he approached his difficulty with the denomination and his departure from it. It's a loss for the Episcopal Church.”
Konieczny said Steenson made the decision for himself only instead of trying to use his influence to persuade others to sever denominational ties.
In a statement Monday, Steenson was enthusiastic about the new rite but cautioned that Episcopalians who join face “a steep learning curve” in trying to integrate under such a novel arrangement.
“Pray that we may strive to learn the faith, laws and culture of the Catholic Church with humility and good cheer,” Steenson said. “But pray too that we do not forget who we are and where we have come from, for we have been formed in the beautiful and noble Anglican tradition.”
CONTRIBUTING: Religion News Service