The Rev. Richard Rodgers of Blessed Sacrament Old Catholic Church in Racine, Wis., has presided over Masses since 1989. But Rodgers isn’t a typical priest — the 62-year-old pastor is married and has a son and grandchildren.
A former Episcopalian minister, Rodgers leads a seven-member congregation in the Chicago Diocese of the Old Catholic Church, a hybrid of Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions.
“I left the Episcopal Church because it was slowly descending into chaos,” Rodgers said, referring to his opposition to the church’s acceptance of openly gay clergy, blessing over same-sex unions and allowance of female priests and bishops.
Traditionalists in the Episcopal Church believe these practices go against biblical teachings. Rodgers said he and his parishioners were looking to maintain a more conservative approach to worship when they left the church.
They weren’t the only ones to leave the Episcopal Church.
The Catholic Church has been strongly encouraging Anglican conversions since 1980, when Pope John Paul II passed the “Anglican Use” provision. It allowed for former Anglican parishes to keep certain elements of the Anglican service and tradition while also embracing conservative Catholic values.
Typically, Anglican Use parishes answer to the Roman Catholic bishop of their diocese. These churches are considered Roman Catholic by the church authority, though they still maintain some Anglican traditions. Married priests, like Rogers, have been allowed to join.
In an Oct. 20 announcement, Pope Benedict XVI looked to further ease the process of conversion for Anglicans. The pope established a new position in the church — personal ordinariate — an office to provide pastoral oversight and guidance for Anglicans looking to join in full communion with the Catholic Church through Anglican Use. In effect, the ordinariates will serve as bishops to Anglican Use parishes.
Rodgers said the Vatican’s recent efforts are aimed at capitalizing on the tensions within the Anglican Church to bring more members to Catholic Church.
Bill Chapin, president of the southeastern Wisconsin chapter of the American Anglican Council, another group that has broken off from the Episcopal Church, said he believes that not many people will want to join the Catholic Church in the area.
Chapin heads a group of Episcopalians “who still believe in the orthodox teachings of the Anglican Church,” but have also broken away from the Episcopal Church for its stance on gay clergy, in addition to theological differences. The group is aligned with the newly formed Anglican Church of North America.
However, some Anglican parishes across the country have fully made the conversion to Catholicism. Our Lady of Atonement Catholic Church in San Antonio, Texas, was the first Anglican Use parish to become part of the Catholic Church in 1983.
The Sunday services at Blessed Sacrament in Racine closely resemble those of the Anglo-Catholic Masses in San Antonio. This includes a more traditional way of receiving communion that includes kneeling. An Anglican hymnbook, “The Book of Divine Worship,” provides music. Much of the service is performed with the priest’s back to the congregation.
Rodgers described his Mass as being the “old traditional Latin service in English,” a reference to the Catholic liturgy pre-Second Vatican Ecumenical Council.
Some theologians view the latest move by Pope Benedict XVI as a step toward unification of these closely related churches.
Julian Hills, an associate professor of theology and an expert on the relationship between the Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches, said the pope’s recent move is “an effort to receive Anglicans while letting them retain some dignity.”
Hills said an additional motivation may be to push for the conversion of entire parishes at once instead of individual conversions.