Monday, July 6, 2015

Some old time religion: the lives of ex-Episcopal refugees on the Main Line

It so happens that the nearest sane place for us to go to church on Sundays in our new home is with a tiny new Ordinariate community named after Blessed John Henry Newman. In 2012, following the publication of Pope Benedict XVI's Anglicanorum Coetibus, the Catholic Church established a nationwide entity throughout the United States called the "Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter" for the purpose of allowing former Episcopalians and Anglicans to convert to the Catholic faith while keeping their congregations intact and ordaining their clergymen, even if they are married men, as Catholic priests. This little fellowship on the Main Line (a collection of small townships west of Philadelphia, where we now live), numbering maybe 25 souls or so, is one of the first fruits of Benedict's labors. More on that in a moment.

Assisting at Mass

We arrived late, so I can only recount my experience at Mass from the Gospel onward. Mass was celebrated at the church of Our Lady of the Assumption, a standard Roman Catholic parish borrowed by the Newman Fellowship for evening worship. Assumption, with its handsome Gothic exterior of stone, was built in the 1920's to serve the immigrant Italian railroad workers of the time. (I also spotted an Italian-American newsletter in the narthex.) The interior is a bit too Continental for my taste, what with the rosy-cheeked frescoes, though I feel bad even mentioning it since, given the state of Catholic architecture elsewhere in this area, it's like complaining about one's steak being overcooked in the midst of a famine.

When I walked in, a greeter handed me a service order, an insert for the Sunday's readings and prayer intentions, and an ominous red hardcover book titled only "The Hymnal". This was the first sign that I was walking into a slightly different world than I was used to. Though a Protestant convert myself and a member, on and off, of an Anglican Use Catholic parish for nearly ten years, I've never been a member of the Episcopal Church. My former parish draws heavily from this hymnal, but they print the verse texts directly onto disposable bulletins, so this was the first time I've ever had the Hymnal of 1940 in hand. The book's reputation did precede it, though. I knew it was the definitive hymnal in Episcopal-dom for forty years until political correctness struck in the '80s and the Hymnal of 1982 was issued. Flipping through its pages, I saw many hymns I had never heard of and probably never will. 

The homily was quite solid. The priest, who I understand was only ordained in the Catholic Church a few years ago himself, had the air of a learned divine of the Scriptures. (I have never once gone to Mass at a mainstream Catholic parish and heard words like "concomitant" used in a homily, as it was yesterday.) His puffy white beard reminded me of the time I met Dr. Rowan Williams, the previous "archbishop" of Canterbury. I hope to one day learn why Anglican ministers have an affinity for facial hair.

We recited the Creed in the sacral English I grew used to at my old Anglican Use parish in San Antonio, Texas. The whole order of Mass was almost entirely the same as Our Lady of the Atonement's use of Rite I in the Book of Divine Worship, but I'm not sure what the Ordinariate's variant is properly called. It's essentially an adaptation of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, re-ordered to more closely follow the Roman Mass and with the Roman Canon. In other words, you respond to "The Lord be with you" with "and with thy spirit", say that the Son "shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead" in the Creed, and begin the confession with "Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men, we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against Thy Divine Majesty, provoking most justly Thy wrath and indignation against us". 

About half of the liturgy was recited and half sung. I was told later that it would be fully sung if the choir were not out for summer break. There was still an organist to accompany the hymns. During the Offertory rite, everyone in the paltry congregation of 15 or 20 dutifully whipped out their The Hymnals and turned to the page noted on the signboard without any prompting whatsoever, singing every verse (a few also attempting harmony, it seemed). For Madame, who says she has managed to never attend a Protestant service her entire life, this must surely have been a bizarre sight. You see, elsewhere in American Catholic-dom, including most traditional Latin Mass communities I've visited, hymnody is foisted upon an uninterested and unwilling congregation with predictable results: either a cantor must stand in the sanctuary to whip a few dedicated parishioners into action with exaggerated hand gestures Mussolini would be proud of, or else the hymnals are used only by the choir and otherwise left to collect dust in the pew racks as a testament to the sentiment, "at least we tried". For most cradle Catholics, to see more than a handful of the most devout in the pews actually sing from the hymnals is unfathomable.

On the right, the hymn chosen for the Offertory rite. On the left, Chesterton's "O God of Earth and Altar", which, though a spectacular hymn written by one our most celebrated convert authors, I've never actually seen in a Catholic hymnal.

The priest sung the Preface and the people sang the Sanctus to a tune I was unfamiliar with. The priest proceeded with consecrating the sacred species using the Roman Canon, and Mass proceeded almost entirely the same as at Our Lady of the Atonement back in Texas. Communion was distributed to all while kneeling along an altar rail. The priest left the sanctuary only to bring the Sacrament to an elderly lady in the pew before me, and the young man assisting her (a dutiful grandson, perhaps) knelt in adoration as the priest approached. Madame commented to me later at how odd it was to see people receiving in the hand even while kneeling, since in Catholic churches, it's usually entirely one way (standing and in the hand) or the other (kneeling and on the tongue). I don't know how prevalent hand Communion is among the Piskies, but in my very limited experience at Episcopal churches, it seems the idea of queueing up in a single file line to receive Communion while standing never caught on, even among those who don't even pretend to have any belief in the Real Presence. I still don't understand how or why it was adopted universally almost overnight in Catholic-dom after Vatican II.

During the recessional hymn, I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of traddies cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. Since it was the day after Independence, we turned to page 100-something to sing The Star Spangled Banner; and not just the usual ballgame anthem, but even the second verse that no one below the age of 80 ever knew existed. Despite being a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, I'm of the camp that singing the national anthem at church is a major faux pas at the least, though I concede that it never sounded better in my whole life than with an organ accompaniment. I'm not sure if this was a glimpse into the remnant of the old northeastern WASP establishment; the Main Line is an area with a venerable old Episcopal or Presbyterian church every mile, and you don't have to drive far from here to see posh prep schools on every corner; or if I just live in a bubble and singing the national anthem after Mass is normal in the rest of the American Catholic world, too. 

After-Mass refreshments

Like any other proper church, there were refreshments in the form of lemonade and pastries waiting for us in the hall after Mass. The priest was among the first to talk to us, and from there, we ended up gabbing with most of the congregants for an hour or more. They were exceedingly friendly and even started offering to help me find a job in the area. Mostly, I asked about the members' conversion stories or how the community came to be. Merely mentioning having come from Our Lady of the Atonement in San Antonio seemed to confer instant street cred. It turned out that my old pastor had visited them some time ago, was something of a minor celebrity among their ranks. Being former parishioners of his was probably akin to saying we once had dinner with Peter O'Toole.

It slowly dawned on me that we were likely the most senior Catholics in the room, priest not excepted. Nearly everyone was a new convert from the Church of the Good Shepherd, a property of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia). The following recap of their story, as gleamed in these after-Mass chats, is sure to be lacking and may err in one or two small points, but here is how I understand it: Good Shepherd was once a crown jewel of the Anglo-Catholic sphere of Episcopalianism in the Main Line. Relations between this parish and the Diocese began straining since the '70s when the Episcopal Church at large began ordaining women into the clergy, and have only gotten worse since then. A few of the members pointed to the Episcopal Church's latest moves in favor of same-sex unions as a shining example of why they're glad they left. At any rate, their rector, after a decade-long lawsuit and loss against the Diocese, eventually came to the conclusion that the only way forward was to seek union with the (Roman) Catholic Church under the provisions given by Pope Benedict XVI.

It must have been a humbling experience for the rector since I learned that, though he been conferred the status of bishop by the TAC (Traditional Anglican Communion, a breakaway group), Rome decided neither to recognize any of his orders as valid nor place him as a candidate for ordination as a Catholic priest (at least at present); he decided to proceed with his conversion to the Catholic faith as a layman, anyway. The priest who celebrated Mass when I visited had been ordained for another Ordinariate community in Philadelphia, Saint Michael the Archangel's, just a few years ago, and was doing double-duty for Blessed John Henry Newman as well on Sunday evenings.

I was even more inspired when listening to the lay faithful here, who were mostly older folks, about their conversions. It was easy for me to decide to join the Catholic faith at 18, when one naturally begins to question the boundaries placed before them their whole lives. To be a lifelong Episcopalian since the Eisenhower Administration and then, in the latter years of one's life, decide to pack up and move to Catholicism without even a church building to call your own, must be a wrenching experience. Most seemed to believe that, even though the congregation that stayed behind at Good Shepherd was even smaller than they were and are doomed to bankruptcy and closure in a matter of years, the Newman Community's chances of buying their old property back were slim to none. "The Diocese would sooner sell the church to Muslims or turn it into apartment space!", one exclaimed. I hope I didn't discourage that gentleman when I remarked that most Catholic dioceses are prone to doing the same thing when faced with offers by groups like the Society of Saint Pius X.

On the way out, I mused that, despite the bleakness of the situation, it could just be the beginning of a bright new future for them. I wasn't alive yet during my old parish's foundation in the early '80s, but I imagine Our Lady of the Atonement wasn't much different when it first started, either. Today, that parish is not a ragtag band of ex-Anglican refugees, but rather has four very well-attended Masses every Sunday in a splendid church building, a full K-12 parochial school, a wide range of spiritual and musical events throughout the year, and all sorts of active ministries in the larger Catholic community.

I look forward to visiting other churches in the Philadelphia area, such as Saint Michael's (the other Ordinariate community), the traditional Latin Mass communities, perhaps a few Eastern-rite churches, and posting my thoughts on those as I see fit.


  1. You will enjoy St. Michael's - the building is truly glorious, and truly medieval.

  2. Great post. Glad to see you guys on the hunt.