In the last month, I have prepared three different Episcopal clients to speak to reporters about the advent of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, through which disaffected Anglicans can join the Roman Catholic Church while continuing to use an Anglican rite of worship. This story has appeared in major newspaper across the country, often accompanied by commentary about the Vatican’s bold move against the theologically liberal Episcopal Church.
I am still trying to figure out what all of the fuss is about.
Thus far, 100 priests and fewer than 1,400 people in 22 church communities have expressed an interest in the ordinariate. Gather them all in Washington National Cathedral, and the place isn’t half full. Only six of these 22 communities have more than 70 members, which suggests that their longterm viability may be an issue. And there is no evidence to suggest that these small congregations are the thin edge of an as yet invisible wedge.
The prominence the ordinariate has achieved in the media has unsettled some Episcopalians. As a denomination, we are still recovering from several years worth of news stories in which the departure of some three percent of our membership for a more theologically conservative body was variously described as a “schism” or an “exodus.”
In part to bolster Episcopal spirits, and in part to provide reporters with some sense of perspective, I thought it might be helpful to take a look at some numbers. According to the 2004 U. S. Congregational Life Survey—which I believe is the most recent one available—11.7 percent of Episcopalians were formerly Roman Catholic.
The Episcopal Church had slightly fewer than 2,248,000 members in 2004, indicating that not quite 263,000 of its members were former Catholics.
The Episcopal Church has shrunk some in the last seven years, and now has about two million members. Assuming that the percentage of former Catholics in the Episcopal Church has remained constant (I think it is likely to have risen, but that’s an essay for another day), there are currently some 228,000 former Roman Catholics in the Episcopal Church.
There may be a good reason that the departure of fewer than 1,500 Episcopalians to the Roman Catholic ordinariate deserves extensive media coverage while the departure in recent years of more than 225,000 Roman Catholics to join the Episcopal Church goes unmentioned even in stories about the creation of the ordinariate, but I don’t know what it is.
The stories on the ordinariate also report that as many as 100 priests—many of whom may be Episcopalians—have also applied to join the ordinariate. Is this evidence that the Catholic Church is winning priests from the Episcopal tradition? It reads that way, unless one knows, thanks to the Church Pension Group, that 432 living Episcopal priests have been received from the Roman Catholic Church.
There is no reason to fear the ordinariate. Its creation is among the most overhyped religion stories of recent years. Some people swim the Tiber. Some swim the Thames. Media coverage suggests that reporters pay little attention until the Vatican tells them it’s a big story.