By Kate Shellnutt in the Houston Chronicle:
The Rev. Jeffrey Steenson’s colleagues joke that during the past several years, he’s gone from a church heretic to a hierarch.
Even though he has been a Catholic priest for only about three years, Steenson was Pope Benedict’s pick to lead a brand-new structure for Catholic converts from Anglican churches, a position he officially takes on this weekend in Houston.
Catholic bishops and leaders from across the country will fill downtown’s Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart at 3 p.m. Sunday for his installation as the head of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.
The ordinariate consists of Catholic parishes that maintain some traditional Anglican prayers and music in services. Like most of the members of these communities, called Anglican Use parishes, Steenson used to be an Episcopalian, an Episcopal bishop, in fact.
He converted to Catholicism in 2007, after spending most of his career studying the church fathers, striving for ecumenicalism and, ultimately, feeling God put on his conscience that the Catholic Church was the “one, true, holy and apostolic” body.
A married father of three and amateur pilot, Steenson joined the church under provisions initially made for former Anglicans in the early ’80s by Pope John Paul II. About that time, the first Anglican Use parishes formed in the U.S., including Our Lady of the Atonement in San Antonio and Our Lady of Walsingham in Houston, now the headquarters for Steenson’s ordinariate.
The announcement came as a surprise to Steenson and members of the local parish, which years ago “had been meeting in borrowed chapels and rented warehouses. We wouldn’t have imagined it would have come to this and that Houston would be the headquarters for this nationwide (ordinariate),” said Clint Brand, a parishioner at Our Lady of Walsingham and professor at the University of St. Thomas. “It’s a recognition of what converts have carried with them into the Catholic Church. We can now reclaim the tradition that taught us to be Catholic.”
Catholics hope their Episcopal neighbors see the initiative positively, as an unprecedented way of honoring the Anglican tradition and its core liturgy, in the Book of Common Prayer, by officially making a place for it in the Catholic Church.
“We aren’t about trying to break up congregations or sheep-stealing. We respect the integrity of these communities,” Steenson said. “We’re not about competing for souls … . There is a desire to work together to build up church unity.”
Joseph Britton, dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University, said even from an Anglican perspective, this can be seen as a positive move that opens further opportunities for dialog.
“Though the first instinct may have been to think this was a poach on Anglicans by the Roman Catholic Church, one recognizes there is a more subtle ecumenical effect,” said Britton, an expert in Anglican studies.
About 1,500 former Episcopalians have expressed interest in joining, and 42 Episcopal priests could be ordained by the Catholic Church as early as this summer.
Those figures aren’t large enough to concern Episcopal leaders. The Rt. Rev. Andy Doyle noted that the Episcopal Diocese of Texas alone adds 200 members annually from Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.
“I have no anxiety, and I hope that the ordinariate will be a place where some who feel spiritually homeless may find a dwelling place; and a place where others may come to a better understanding of their own Anglican heritage,” he said in a statement. “I have chosen to follow God in Christ Jesus through the particular and unique church community of the Episcopal Church. I am unabashedly Episcopalian and I love my church.”
Anglicans and Catholics split centuries ago, and the formation of the ordinariate is the latest move by Benedict – who took the second-ever papal trip to England in 2010 – to reach out to disaffected Anglicans who may feel connected to Catholic theology and practice. After seceding in the 1530s, the Church of England maintained many Catholic elements, including clergy titles, vestments and ritualization of the sacraments.
“While the words of the church sounded Protestant, it always looked very Catholic,” said Aysha Pollnitz, a lecturer in early modern British history at Rice University.
Converts back to Catholicism describe the move as a homecoming or completion of the faith journey they began as Anglicans, but that’s not the case for everyone.
“Because Anglicanism has so many strains in it, some would have disdain (toward the Catholic Church), and some would think of themselves as Catholic in theology and Catholic in orientation,” said Britton, at Yale Divinity.
“It’s impossible to generalize.”
Unlike the Catholic Church, which falls under the centralized authority of the Pope, Anglican churches have much less structure and a wider range of beliefs, a result of the different governing structures of Roman rule and English common law, according to Britton.
Ex-Anglican Catholics often say it’s this organizational difference that led to their conversion.
Some were frustrated with changes made in the Episcopal Church – the decision to ordain women or, more recently, openly gay clergy – and some over time craved a more unified, stricter sense of belief.
Brand described his conversion this way: “It’s a growing awareness that everything I really loved about the Anglican Church was there in the Catholic Church. It was a hunger and a thirst for order, for authority, for the big picture.”
Through the Anglican Use parishes, the Catholic Church lets ex-Episcopalians keep worshiping from the Book of Common Prayer, the quintessential and beloved Anglican text that lays out the forms of service and worship, plus gives them a sense of fellowship with other parishioners and clergy who came from Anglicanism.
“As a former Episcopalian, I can appreciate the journey they are on,” said the Rev. Scott Hurd, the vicar general for the ordinariate and the chaplain to a former Episcopal parish in Maryland that joined the Catholic Church last fall.
The basic elements of Mass are the same, Hurd said, and a majority of his parishioners have thought and prayed through issues such as papal authority, devotion to Mary and other theological differences before coming into the Catholic Church.
“These people are just so excited to be Catholic, and they are bringing their Anglican heritage with them,” he said.