Anglican parish in Towson switches to Catholicism

The Rev. Edward Meeks and his flock attended to a "million and one details" last week in the run-up to a momentous day for their church. People to talk to. Flowers to arrange. Food to cook. And, of course, the new sign.

On Sunday, Christ the King Church — Anglican — became Christ the King Catholic Church.

The Towson congregation of about 140 is one of the first groups in the United States to join a new "ordinariate" established for those who want to be Catholic but hold on to Anglican traditions. The largest Anglican church in the country to do so, it follows in the footsteps of Mount Calvary Church in Baltimore and St. Luke's Parish in Bladensburg.

Liberal stances by Anglican leaders, particularly Episcopalians, have driven some clergy and members to the Roman Catholic Church. But Meeks, who studied to become a Catholic priest as a young man, speaks not of rejection but of reunification — becoming one with the "authentic apostolic authority" of the church that dates back 2,000 years.

"We're just overjoyed by this," said the Rev. Msgr. Jeffrey Steenson, who heads the U.S. ordinariate, the equivalent of a diocese but national in scope. As parishioners of all ages scurried past to take their seats for the Mass, he added, "It's such a healthy community — you can see it's full of children."

The parishioners who became Catholics Sunday morning were joining the church for the first time or returning after years apart. A handful of parishioners haven't decided whether to make that leap, though they're remaining in the congregation.

Others left. The 140-member church had about 200 parishioners when it started down the road to Catholicism almost two years ago, losing both those who didn't want to be Catholic and those who opted for a more traditionally Catholic experience.

That loss has been painful, parishioners say. But they add that the transformation from Protestant to Catholic has not been acrimonious — in contrast to the roiling discontent that produced the Church of England more than 450 years ago and that spawned Anglican churches around the world. Some parishioners who went elsewhere return for social events.

"We've still got a good relationship with virtually all who have left," Meeks said.

For Meeks, known as Father Ed, the journey to this day was circuitous.

He went to St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore as a young adult, intending to become a Catholic priest. But the tumultuousness of the 1960s spilled over into the church, and "what it created on the part of a lot of people, myself included, was confusion," Meeks said.

He left, earned a master's in business administration, raised a family.

But he kept hearing the call. Finally Meeks became an Anglican priest and formed Christ the King Church in 1996, with his wife, Jan, as administrative assistant. It was a very Catholic sort of Anglican church, even closer than the two denominations already are.

And there, perhaps, it would have remained if not for a 2009 decree by Pope Benedict XVI that gave Anglican groups — including Episcopalians, the most common offshoot of the denomination in America — the ability to join the Catholic Church without giving up all of the distinctions between the two churches. Among those: married Anglican priests could become Catholic priests.

The change was pitched as an invitation rather than a recruitment drive, expected to appeal to Anglicans upset with decisions allowing women and gay people to be ordained and blessings to be given for same-sex unions.

But there was nothing angry about the conversion at Christ the King on Sunday. One of the few references to schisms in Anglicanism came when Steenson — a former Episcopal bishop — told the congregation, "Some of us have come from a church which literally could not say what it believed."

"What's remarkable about the church which you are joining is you will never be left in doubt again," he said.

The main emotion Sunday was joy. Parishioners hugged after being confirmed or once again received into the church. Music filled the sanctuary, sending vibrations through the bulletins in people's hands. Sunlight streamed through the many windows. The smoky-sweet scent of incense hung in the air.

It was a Mass that seemed very familiar to those raised Catholic. But it wasn't much of a change for the rest of the Christ the King parishioners, with many of the readings and responses straight from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

Ken Schuberth, a physician from Homeland, walked out afterward with a smile on his face. He hadn't attended a Catholic church, except on rare occasions, for more than 40 years. As one of 30 people received back into the church Sunday as the "reconciled," he said, "It was like being home again."

Newly confirmed Catholics Sheila Schmolitz, 75, and her cousin Anita Goldman, 74, were Jewish but felt at home at Christ the King, too. Schmolitz makes the trek from Bel Air.

"It's just like a family," said Goldman, who lives in Baltimore County. "The more I came, the more I felt welcome."

Phoenix resident Nancy Witkowski, raised in the United Church of Christ, is among the 10 or so parishioners who are staying with Christ the King even though they're not sure whether they want to be Catholic. For her husband, raised Catholic, and their two children, baptized in the Catholic Church, the decision was easy. For Witkowski, who said she doesn't see eye-to-eye with all Catholic teachings, time and more study is required.

"But I would follow Father Ed wherever he went because it's a wonderful church," she said.

She loves the "intimate" setting, so much smaller than Catholic churches she attended in the past. And the glorious music. And Meeks' sermons, so full of interesting historical context that it's not unusual to see parishioners taking notes.

Unless she becomes Catholic, though, she now cannot take communion at Christ the King. And she will miss that.

But unification does appeal to her. She remembers the sermon Meeks gave in 2010 when he called on the church to make the trip with him, likening the Protestant denominations to lifeboats bobbing on the open sea and the Catholic Church to a solid aircraft carrier.

"The idea of one church is really what it should be all about, and that's what we're going towards," Witkowski said.

The move can be complex. The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland owned Mount Calvary's building and agreed after negotiations to let the Baltimore parish buy it. For Christ the King, which wasn't Episcopal and owned its property, the switchover was somewhat simpler.

Meeks, 64 — ordained Saturday in Washington — attributes some of his youthful decision not to become a Catholic priest to a "heavy dose of immaturity." But if not for that choice, he wouldn't have married Jan. Their four children and 13 grandchildren never would have existed. And he wouldn't have stood in the church he founded as his parish joined the Catholic Church with him.

He gives thanks for the unusual journey to the priesthood.

"When I look back over it, I see God's hand in it every step of the way," he said. "And I'm so very grateful for that grace of God, so very grateful for the generosity of the church in allowing me to do this."