By Chaz Muth
WASHINGTON (CNS) – Four priests from the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, who said they are troubled by the “liberal” direction taken by the Episcopal Church met with the Catholic bishop of Fort Worth.
The meeting raised questions about whether they intend to seek a way to join the Catholic Church.
The Episcopal clergy members met with Bishop Kevin Vann of Fort Worth on June 16 to explore how the two faith communities can better collaborate spiritually, Pat Svacina, director of communications for the Catholic diocese, confirmed to Catholic News Service on August 14.
“The bishop listened to them as part of an ongoing dialogue he has been having with them,” Svacina said. “The bishop has not taken a position on this topic at this time. Ultimately, full communion with the Catholic Church would be a decision made by the Vatican.”
The priests who met with Bishop Vann were the Rev. Charles Hough, a canon and an assistant to Fort Worth Episcopal Bishop Jack Leo Iker; the Rev. William Crary, rector of St Laurence Church in Southlake; the Rev. Christopher Stainbrook, vicar of St Timothy Mission in Fort Worth, and the Rev. Louis Tobola, vicar of St Barnabas Mission in Fort Worth. Established in 1983 when it was created from the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth has resisted ordaining women as priests, which the Episcopal Church allows, and its members have voiced opposition to the church ordaining an openly gay bishop.
In a prepared document delivered to Bishop Vann, the Episcopal priests said they have witnessed Episcopal dioceses throughout the US “fall away from a traditional biblical and Catholic practice of the faith.”
The document also states the four priests realise that England’s King Henry VIII – the monarch who broke with Rome but who wrote the “Defence of Seven Sacraments” and was granted the title “defender of the faith” – never intended to make any substantive or permanent changes in the Catholic faith.
“The four priests did go to visit the local Catholic bishop and did talk about a fuller communion,” said Suzanne Gill, director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.
“It was not an attempt by the diocese to join the Catholic Church, but to reach a fuller unity on those things that we do hold in common.” However, the document presented to Bishop Vann does suggest the Episcopal priests are seeking guidance from Pope Benedict XVI to effect “more quickly the healing of this portion of the broken body of Christ.”
Though Bishop Iker knew the priests were meeting with Bishop Vann and was given a copy of the document they presented to him, they were not representing their diocese, bishop or congregations, Gill told CNS.
“They represented only themselves.”
The meeting with Bishop Vann follows a year of the Episcopal diocese studying various agreed statements that have come out of ecumenical dialogues between Anglicans and Roman Catholics on the national and international level, Bishop Iker said in a prepared statement.
The priests’ “discussion with Bishop Vann has no bearing upon matters coming before our diocesan convention in November, where a second vote will be taken on constitutional changes concerning our relationship with the General Convention of the Episcopal Church,” he said. “There is no proposal under consideration, either publicly or privately, for the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth to become part of the Roman Catholic Church.”
The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth intends to realign with an orthodox province in South America as a constituent member of the worldwide Anglican Communion, a decision affirmed in its diocesan convention in 2007, Bishop Iker said.
In 2006 Bishop Iker and several clergy from his diocese travelled to Rome and discussed with Cardinal Bernard Law, archpriest of the Basilica of St Mary Major, “the crisis in our branch of Christendom,” said Rev. Stainbrook in the document presented to Bishop Vann.
“At that meeting, Cardinal Law indicated that the Catholic Church was aware of the current difficulties faced by Anglo Catholics, and particularly the Anglo Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth,” he said.
The Episcopal Church is the US member of the Anglican Communion, which has its origins in Henry VIII’s 16th-century break with Rome after the pope’s refusal to grant an annulment of his first marriage.
This is often referred to as the English Reformation.
The document also asserts the Reformation itself was intended to be for a limited time only, “a season,” a reference to the Book of Ecclesiastes.
“We believe that it is now time for a new season,” Rev. Stainbrook said in the document.
“It is, perhaps, time for a church of Reformation to die and a new unification among Christ’s people (to) be born: unification possible only under the Holy Father.”