ARLINGTON, Texas – At Saint Mary the Virgin Catholic Church, the 75-year-old priest is married, members sing from an Episcopalian hymnal and parishioners kneel at the altar to receive Communion.
Years ago, the Texas parish and a handful of other conservative Episcopal churches in the U.S. decided to become Roman Catholic. Though they were confirmed by the Vatican, they were still allowed to practice some of their Anglican traditions, including having married priests.
Now, these churches may have helped pave the way for Anglicans worldwide, or Episcopalians as they are known in the U.S., to become Catholic under a new Vatican plan created to make it easier for such conversions. The surprise move revealed in October is designed to entice traditionalists opposed to women priests, openly gay clergy and blessing of same-sex unions.
The Rev. Allan Hawkins, who leads Saint Mary the Virgin church outside of Dallas, said the Vatican's decision could start unifying the Catholic and Anglican churches after a centuries-old rift.
"I didn't think I would live to see this day," Hawkins said during a recent Sunday Mass.
Saint Mary the Virgin is one of three churches in Texas to become Catholic after the Vatican's 1980 approval of the "Anglican use" provision, which allowed U.S. churches to convert on a case-by-case basis but also retain their traditions and identity.
The small church 20 miles west of Dallas made the switch in 1994 after members decided to leave the Episcopal church because they felt it was going against Biblical teachings when it ordained women as bishops and accepted gay priests.
Saint Mary the Virgin stuck to many of its Anglican roots, such as offering a more traditional way of receiving Communion that includes kneeling instead of standing. But in other ways, it operates the same as Catholic parishes.
"We didn't join to be completely different," said Giles Hawkins, 42, the priest's son and parish member.
The new effort by Pope Benedict XVI to make it easier for Anglicans worldwide to convert to Catholicism is considered part of his overall aim of unifying the church and putting a highly conservative stamp on it.
The decision was reached in secret by a small group of Vatican officials, and the spiritual leader of the global Anglican church was not consulted about the change and was informed only hours before the announcement.
The Vatican and Anglican leaders have been in talks for decades over how to possibly reunite since Anglicans split with Rome in 1534 when English King Henry VIII was refused a marriage annulment. But the Vatican move could be considered as a signal that the ecumenical talks' ultimate goal is converting Anglicans to Catholicism.
"Christ's will for his church is that it's one," Hawkins said. "As Anglicans, our background is with the church (in Rome), and we didn't create that division. I would also like to see Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians unite as well."
However, no one expects a large number of Anglo-Catholic parishes to be created in the U.S. The decision was prompted mainly by Anglo-Catholics in England and the Traditional Anglican Communion, a 77-million strong organization led by an Australian archbishop.
Although details have not been finalized, the U.S. bishops are expected to create the equivalent of a nationwide diocese with one leader to oversee Anglo-Catholic parishes. Currently, each parish answers to a local Catholic bishop.
When San Antonio's Our Lady of the Atonement Catholic Church converted to Catholicism in 1983, it was the first parish to do so under Rome's new provision. At the time, it was a group of 18 people who had left several Episcopal churches and wanted to become a Catholic church, said the Rev. Christopher Phillips, the parish priest. It has since grown to 500 families.
"But being a married priest has never been an issue. When I'm with other priests, they always ask about my family. I've been accepted as a Catholic priest because that's what I am," Phillips said.