By RACHEL ZOLL
AP Religion Writer
NEW YORK – A Maryland Episcopal parish will be the first in the United States to join the Roman Catholic Church under a new streamlined conversion process created by Pope Benedict XVI, leaders of both church groups said Monday.
St. Luke’s Episcopal parish in Bladensburg will come under the care of Washington Catholic Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who is forming a U.S. ordinariate- effectively a national diocese- for Episcopalians converting under the pope’s plan.
The invitation could heighten the stress within Anglican churches; Anglicans worldwide have been on the brink of schism over how to interpret what the Bible says about gay relationships, ordaining women and other issues. Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 issued an unprecedented invitation for Anglicans to become Catholic while retaining some Anglican liturgical heritage.
The 2-million-member Episcopal Church, the U.S. body of the Anglican Communion, caused an uproar in 2003 by consecrating the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Episcopal conservatives responded by creating an alternative fellowship, the Anglican Church in North America, which says it includes about 1,000 congregations in the United States and Canada.
Critics accused the pope of poaching converts, but the Vatican said Benedict was only responding to requests from Anglicans. Washington Episcopal Bishop John Chane, a leading liberal in his denomination, said Monday that he approved St. Luke’s decision and will allow the congregation to continue worshipping in their church under a lease with an option to buy the building.
Only one other U.S. Episcopal parish, Mt. Calvary of Baltimore, has responded to Benedict’s invitation by voting to join the Catholic Church. That congregation is still negotiating property use and other details.
The Anglican Communion is a 77-million-member fellowship that traces its roots to the Church of England. Anglicans split from Rome in 1534 when English King Henry VIII was refused a marriage annulment. Before Benedict created the “personal ordinariate” for Anglicans, the Catholic Church accepted Anglican converts on a case-by-case basis.
St. Luke’s, which has about 100 members, is expected to complete its conversion by the end of this year. The parish rector, the Rev. Mark Lewis, is married with two grown children and is expected to be ordained as a Catholic priest. Vatican officials have said that easing the way for married Anglican priests does not mean the Catholic Church is loosening the celibacy mandate for its clergy.