Episcopal Church in Maryland to Convert to Catholicism

The Rev. Mark Lewis now offers a prayer every Sunday morning that centuries ago would have been considered an homage to the enemy. It's a prayer for the bishop of Rome, the pope and all the Catholic bishops and priests.

Lewis chants, "For Benedict our Pope ... Let us prayer to the Lord."

And the congregation sings its answer, "Lord, have mercy."

The distinctly Roman Catholic offering is the outward sign of an inner spiritual journey. St. Luke's Church in Bladensburg, Md., will become later this year the first American Episcopal Parish to convert to Catholicism, Anglicanism's one-time nemesis.

"What really drew us was the apostolic authority, the oneness of the faith of the people," Lewis said "That's what we really wanted, and I don't think you have that in Anglicanism."

Ironically, what is driving St. Luke's to Roman Catholicism is what split the church in the first place: the issue of authority.

Nearly 500 years ago, Britain’s King Henry VIII broke with Rome in a dispute involving his wish to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry his young mistress, Anne Boleyn.

A showdown forced England's clergy to choose sides, with the king demanding to know if the British bishops and Cardinals were more loyal to him or to the Pope.

Lives and heads were literally lost in the ensuing theological and political clash. In its wake, The Church of England was born, with the sitting monarch as its head, a structure still in place today.

The American version, the Episcopal church, was the faith of many of the founding fathers, including President George Washington.

Today, the Episcopal Church, with nearly 1.5 million members, is one of thousands of Christian denominations in the U.S. Its recent conflicts over the ordination of gays and women and the blessing of same-sex unions have caused some congregations to seek more conservative branches.

But that was not an option for St. Luke's. Lewis says he felt that the same problem would persist. There was no authority concerning who would have the final interpretation of scripture over the most controversial issues the church is facing.

"Anglicanism is Anglicanism," Lewis said. "So it doesn't matter if you go to a more conservative group like the Anglican Church in North America or any of the others that are around. It's still the faith of this body here. (It) doesn’t necessarily mean it's the same in Nigeria or Sierra Leone or any other outlet."

In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI created a special Ordinariate, a path through which Anglicans could reconcile with Rome and come back to the Roman Catholic flock. In some circles it's been called the religious equivalent of sheep stealing.

The Rev. Scott Hurd, who's assisting Washington's Cardinal Donald Wuerl to create the new Anglican Ordinariate, disagrees with the implication, saying, "This initiative is a response to repeated and insistent requests from Anglican groups. So it's not a matter of stealing sheep. It's more a matter of opening the door for people who have been seeking to come in for some time."

In the last few years, bitter legal battles over property have erupted in the American Episcopal church when conservative congregations sought to leave and be led by more orthodox Anglicans groups. But St. Luke's transition was essentially given a blessing by the Washington Diocese's Bishop John Bryson Chane.

"Christians move from one church to another with far greater frequency than in the past, sometimes as individuals, sometimes as groups," Chane said in a written statement. "I was glad to be able to meet the spiritual needs of the people and priest of St. Luke's in a way that respects the tradition and polity of both of our churches."

Under the terms of the agreement, St. Luke's congregation will have three years to either buy its current building or move elsewhere.

That especially pleases its 100 members, who are mostly West African immigrants like Gloria Deigh, from Sierra Leone.

Deigh is happy to convert, saying, "I like it. To me, it's like going home. That's where the original church was. We are all one."

Parishioner Randy King says for him the conversion brings needed certainty.

"We have a church that doesn't change. We don't have to worry one day or the other what is going to be said from the pulpit."

Over the next few months, members of St. Luke's will attend catechism classes to learn more about the Catholic faith and the its doctrines. Then in October they will be formally confirmed into the Roman Catholic Church -- what Lewis calls the return of the prodigal son.

"We drifted away and now we want to come home," he said, "and I am just thankful that we have the opportunity to do so."