RICHMOND, Va. — Bishop Barry Knestout of the Diocese of Richmond has issued a statement responding to concerns that a local parish church is to host an Episcopalian consecration of a female bishop.

The online petition, titled “Stop Ordination of Female Episcopalian ‘Bishop’ at Catholic Church” refers to the upcoming consecration of the Rev. Susan B. Haynes as the new bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia. It has attracted nearly 2,000 signatures. 

In a statement Wednesday, Bishop Knestout called the “offer of hospitality to a Christian neighbor in need” and an “act of charity and well within the teachings of ecumenism and the norms provided by the Church for ecumenical activities.”

The event is scheduled to occur on Feb. 1, 2020 at St. Bede Catholic Church in Williamsburg, Virginia. Haynes was elected an Episcopalian bishop on Sept. 21.

The online petition, posted Monday, called the event “highly disturbing given the fact that Ven. Pope Leo XIII solemnly declared Anglican ordinations to be ‘absolutely null and utterly void,’ and the Church has repeatedly reaffirmed the fact that women cannot receive the sacrament of ordination,” the online petition says. 

The petition also notes that canon law provides that “only activities which ‘serve to exercise or promote worship, piety, and religion’ are permitted in sacred spaces.”

Neither the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia nor the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia have a cathedral. The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, which covers the northern part of the commonwealth, has a cathedral shrine, a small, open-air venue, in Orkney Springs. The closest Episcopal cathedrals to the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia are located in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. 

In the Jan. 15 statement, Bishop Knestout responded to “concerns” raised about the event.

“Use of space in a Catholic parish for the Espiscopal Church to conduct their own religious ceremony is well within the accepted ecumenical teachings and norms of the Church,” the bishop said. “I appreciate that [people] are concerned that the sacred space of the Catholic Church be safeguarded, which it is.”

Bishop Knestout pointed to the Vatican Council II document on ecumanism, Unitatis Redintegratio, as well as the 1993 Directory of the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, which he said gives “clear guidelines and recommendations regarding the possibility of sharing space with our separated brothers and sisters.”

Bishop Knestout also referred to a Jan. 14 letter from Msgr. Joseph Lehman, pastor of St. Bede, which explained that in December 2018 a previous pastor of the parish gave the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia permission to use the church and parish reception hall for its forthcoming episcopal consecration. 

The agreement was reached months before the candidate for ordination was known. 

“Their request came out of a long-standing formal relationship between our two Churches,” reads the letter. “The Anglican (Episcopal) Communion and the Catholic Church have been in dialogue, both nationally and internationally, since the late 1960s. In addition, in 1990, the two Virginia Catholic dioceses, the three Episcopal diocese, and the two Lutheran Synods of the ECLA [sic] in our Commonwealth have been in a covenant. The United Methodists joined us in 2007.”

“[The former pastor, Msgr. Tim Keeney] sought and received approval from our Bishop to host this event,” Msgr. Lehman wrote in the letter. 

“The Bishop’s only directive was to ‘remove the reserved Blessed Sacrament.’”

Msgr. Lehman indicated that St. Bede was approached to host the ordination because it has a seating capacity of 1,200, a social hall and catering kitchen, plus “ample parking.” All of St. Bede’s parish campus is handicapped accessible. 

The two Episcopal churches located in Williamsburg have seating capacities of 380 and 225. 

Msgr. Keeney did not respond to CNA’s request for comment in time for publication. 

The diocesan bishop is responsible for exercising direction and discretion over ecumenical initiatives in the diocese.

Paragraph 137 of the Directory of the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism states that Catholic churches are “consecrated or blessed buildings” that are “generally reserved for Catholic worship.” 

“However, if priests, ministers or communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church do not have a place or the liturgical objects necessary for celebrating worthily their religious ceremonies, the diocesan Bishop may allow them the use of a church or a Catholic building and also lend them what may be necessary for their services,” the directory said. That norm also applies for services at Catholic cemeteries.  

Title III, Canon 11, sections 5-6 of the Canons and Constitution of the Episcopal Church, which explain the requirement of Episcopalian ordinations of bishops, have no requirements that such liturgies take place in either a cathedral or church building.

The previous Episcopal bishop of Southern Virginia, Herman Hollerith, was consecrated at William and Mary Hall on the campus of the College of William and Mary, a public university.

The Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia is home to 105 parishes and missions. Norfolk, where the main diocesan offices are located, has 10 Episcopal parishes. According to the diocesean website, the consecration service will be live-streamed and tickets are not required for the event.