They’re a large but neglected group of Christians. Some do not have their own denomination. They have no bishops or pastors. Others might be Baptists or Presbyterians or members of a nondenominational fellowship or a mega church. They are sincere evangelical Protestants who are disenchanted with evangelicalism and are searching for a church that is historical, traditional and liturgical.

Usually the first place they stop and shop is the Episcopal Church.

Before long they discover that Episcopalians are too liberal for their liking. Not only does the Episcopal Church ordain women priests and bishops, but it also permits bishops and priests to be “out and proud” homosexual activists.

The evangelical searchers move on. They read. They study. They pray. They explore Eastern Orthodoxy. But that’s not English, and they’re not Greek or Russian, and the culture shock is enormous.

Finally, they turn to the Catholic Church, and that’s a letdown, too. First of all, the same sorts of ethnic problems that turned them away from the Eastern Orthodox turn up among the Catholics. They’re bewildered by Catholic culture. Rosaries, novenas, Fatima, statues and candles, the Infant of Prague — all of it seems foreign. Plus a lot of Catholics seem just as liberal as the Episcopalians.

This is where the new Anglican ordinariate — established by Pope Benedict XVI last fall — may well prove a bridge to Rome not only for Anglo-Catholics but also a wide range of Protestants.

What many Catholics don’t know is that there are many more Protestants who are sympathetic to the call from across the Tiber yet do not register in ecumenical discussions. They are serious, God-fearing Christians. They are distressed by the liberal drift of their denomination. They admire the Pope and the resilient stance of the Catholic Church. They are curious about the doctrinal differences and are ready to discuss them. They are ready to affirm the authority of the Catholic Church.

These brothers and sisters in Christ are looking for a church where the historic faith is taught, the worship is liturgical and the culture is acceptable. If they could only find a church with decent liturgy, fine music, solid preaching and a link with the Catholic Church, they’d be in church heaven. If the new Anglican ordinariate is set up in the right way and is run by the right people, many more of our separated brethren than we first envisioned will cross the bridge. The Anglican ordinariate has the potential to be not simply a minor concession to a small rump of disgruntled Anglo-Catholics, but a major tool for evangelization and reconciliation.

In Springfield, Mo., for example, there has been a very interesting development. As yet there are no Episcopal or continuing-Anglican congregations interested in the Anglican ordinariate, but a few pioneering Christians are starting their own prayer group. Their intent is to eventually form an Anglican-use parish under the pastoral care of the Anglican ordinariate. 

The group is small but diverse. Shane Schaetzel and his wife are former evangelicals. They turned Episcopalian, then converted to the Catholic Church about 10 years ago. After putting up a group page on Facebook, Schaetzel immediately received the support of more than a dozen friends, many of whom live in or near Springfield. The emerging group has drawn much interest. One inquirer is a former Episcopalian who is without a church home at this time. An active Episcopalian couple has also gotten in touch. The rest of the group consists of Catholics who have become disillusioned with the current vernacular celebration of the Mass and are now seeking something more traditionally “Catholic” but simultaneously have no interest in the Latin Mass. Even some Baptists have established contact.

Schaetzel explained to me that the initial intent of the group is prayer. They hope to meet weekly in Springfield. Those within the group who are not currently Catholic will use this time for personal reflection on the prospect of conversion and whether or not that’s the right decision for them. An Anglican-use Catholic priest in Kansas City has graciously offered to drive 160 miles to celebrate Mass, and the Anglican Use Society has offered much help.

In the past, Anglican-use parishes have been created when a group of Episcopalians decide to convert together, usually with an Episcopal priest who guides them and is himself ordained as a priest in the Catholic Church. The Springfield group is showing a new way forward — and not just for those who are interested in the Anglican ordinariate.

The Pope’s new initiative is full of promise. Perhaps one day we’ll look at those who used it to drive a new catechetical mission — and call their brand of success the “Springfield spirit.”

Father Dwight Longenecker, a convert from the Anglican priesthood,

is online at DwightLongenecker.com.