Episcopal Priests Leave Home For Rome

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — Serving as a priest in the Episcopal church for 25 years, Alvin Kimel had retirement in sight. In just five more years, he could have taken early retirement.

But Kimel made a decision that will postpone his access to his pension. In May, he resigned his position as pastor of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Johnstown. In June he entered the Catholic Church.

It's a decision that is being made by an increasing number of Episcopal priests in the United States.

“When the 2003 General Convention [of the Episcopal Church] authorized the election and consecration of [openly homosexual Bishop] Gene Robinson, that was the last straw,” said Kimel. “After the convention, I knew that I could not in conscience wait for retirement.”

Kimel is not alone.

A small but growing number of Episcopal clergy are “swimming the Tiber,” and some of them desire to be ordained in the Catholic Church.

Archbishop John Myers of Newark, N.J., was named recently by the Vatican to oversee the acceptance into the priesthood of former Episcopalian ministers in the United States.

“We've had several inquiries in the past week,” said Archbishop Myers in mid-October. As ecclesiastical delegate to oversee the so-called Pastoral Provision in the U.S., he succeeds Cardinal Bernard Law.

Cardinal Law was the first ecclesiastical delegate for the Pastoral Provision, appointed in 1981. He held the post until Archbishop Myers’ appointment. Since 2004, Cardinal Law, who resigned as archbishop of Boston in 2002, has been archpriest of the patriarchal Basilica of St. Mary Major.

In 1980, in response to requests from priests and laity of the Episcopal church who were seeking full communion with the Catholic Church, the Vatican created the Pastoral Provision. Under the jurisdiction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the provision makes it possible for married former Episcopal priests to be ordained Catholic priests.

To date, 79 former Episcopal priests have become Catholic priests under the provision. At least another 13 are inquiring or are somewhere in the process.

Archbishop Myers was approached about the possibility of overseeing the provision last winter, but with the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican was late in announcing his appointment.

“We had to wait until there was a new prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” said Archbishop Myers. “My appointment came in July from Archbishop [William] Levada,” former archbishop of San Francisco and the new prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith congregation.

Archbishop Myers indicated that Episcopal clergymen increasingly seem to be interested in the Catholic Church.

“Some who are of the Episcopal communion are not happy with some of the directions that are being taken by the Episcopal church here and in England,” said Archbishop Myers. “I think it flows from some dissatisfaction and some awareness which was heightened over the last six months.”

Archbishop Myers described the process Episcopal clergy undergo.

“There is a transition period,” he said. “A faculty [episcopal committee] interviews the former priests as they begin the process. The receiving bishop assigns a theological mentor and spiritual mentor. After about 15 to 24 months, the faculty interviews the man again and communicates to the ecclesiastical delegate whether they think he is prepared for the priesthood or not. Almost invariably they are.”

The Role of Authority

Brad Colvis, former pastor of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Houston, entered the Catholic Church with his wife and four children in May. He is now teaching Church history at Peoria Notre Dame High School in Peoria, Ill.

“The chief thing I was grappling with was the issue of authority,” said Colvis. “I picked up the Catechism of the Catholic Church at Houston's University of St. Thomas bookstore. It was most helpful.”

Colvis cites several influences in his decision to convert — the faculty at the University of St. Thomas, the work of Catholic author J.R.R. Tolkien, and Colvis’ access to an “Anglican-use” Catholic parish. Such parishes have special permission to incorporate elements from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer into the Catholic liturgy.

“One of my predecessors in the congregation that I served had converted to the Catholic Church,” said Colvis. “His experience was helpful to me.

“I came to the realization that at Holy Trinity I was trying to create a non-Catholic Catholic church,” said Colvis. “I started seeing how by rejecting authority in the first place and separating from the Catholic Church, the Anglican church didn't have any platform for being what they purported to be.”

Colvis works with another Episcopal convert, Douglas Grandon, who is director of catechetics in the Diocese of Peoria, Ill. Grandon started an evangelical church in Peoria before resigning to become Episcopalian. He has been Catholic for two years.

“I never dreamed I would be a Catholic,” said Grandon. From the outset “in the Pentecostal church, I had the worst kind of prejudice against the Catholic Church. I couldn't believe that the one true Church could be the Roman Catholic Church, so I was very happy to believe that the Anglicans represented this ancient kind of faith.”

He added, “I knew that the Episcopal church had huge problems, but our diocese stood against that.”

While he has converted, Grandon still believes that evangelicals and Catholics have something they can offer each other.

“Catholics have the papacy, apostolic succession, and the sacraments,” said Grandon. “What evangelicals can give to Catholics are a keen interest in Scripture study, zeal for evangelization, faithfulness in stewardship, and the vibrancy that comes from creating communities through small groups.”

A Bishop Threatens

Controversies within the Episcopal church continue to threaten its future.

On Oct. 2, six Florida congregations left the Episcopal Church. In addition, the Washington Times reported that a network of Episcopalians secretly met this summer to create a plan to unseat those bishops who oppose the consecration of Robinson as bishop.

With a July 12 decision by the Church of England's synod to move towards ordaining women bishops, some wonder whether this may not fracture the church even further, especially across the Atlantic.

Bishop Andrew Burnham of Ebbsfleet, England, declared that if the Church of England ordains women as bishops, he will join the Catholic Church.

“A woman bishop wouldn't be a bishop because a bishop is someone whose ministry is acceptable through the ages to all other bishops,” Bishop Burnham told London's Sunday Times.

Bishop Burnham estimated that if women were ordained bishops, 800 priests would leave the church in protest.

It wouldn't be the first time.

When the Anglican church first permitted female pastors in 1992, approximately 400 clergymen abandoned the church.

“For those who convert it's different in England than it is here,” said Grandon. “There could be a huge exodus there.”

Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.