Episcopal bishop: Church switching goes both ways

We're trying something new this morning. We were invited to sit down this week with the Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, the 14th bishop of the 228-year-old Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, to hear his thoughts on plans announced by the Vatican last week to make it easier for Anglicans (called Epsicopalians in the United States) to join the Roman Catholic Church.

The surprise announcement comes amid a growing divide between conservatives and liberals in the worldwide Anglican Communion over the ordination of women, acceptance of gay clergy and the celebration of same-sex relationships.


As attention has focused on disaffected Anglican conservatives "crossing the Tiber" -- slang for joining the Roman Catholic Church -- Sutton, who is firmly on the side favoring greater acceptance of women and homosexuals, wanted to make clear that Roman Catholics also are joining the Episcopal Church.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore has declined to comment on the Vatican announcement until hearing more details.


The interview with Sutton yielded a story in Friday's paper. But because we found the entire discussion interesting, we're posting the complete transcript here, after the jump.The Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, 14th Episcopal Bishop of Maryland:

The Vatican statement last week was to set up church structures that make it easier for groups of Anglicans – in America, Episcopalians – to become Roman Catholic. So we're just monitoring that very closely, but with some concern. What is the impetus for this? To put the best possible light on it, if there are some disaffected Anglicans who come knocking at your door, you've got to find a way to do it. Those who are more distrustful, and I'm not one of them, would say, well this is just an attempt to poach, or to kind of open up the door.

There are some internal difficulties that they will have to work out in the Roman Catholic Church. You know: married clergy when you don't allow married clergy in your own, why in this case? Even divorced and remarried clergy, what do you do about them? And obviously, this of course means only male clergy. And we, they're not there.

So that's internal with them. But with us, we just want to remind people that this switching from Anglicans becoming Roman Catholics goes both ways. Roman Catholics become Anglicans and Episcopalians. Many, many lay people in our churches came from the Roman Catholic Church. We get many clergy. Just in the last month in a half, we received three Roman Catholic clergy. They were former Roman Catholic priests who have come into the diocese, including one who was received into the Episcopal Church some years earlier but now just a month ago we installed him as the dean of this cathedral.


He was received as a Roman Catholic. He was a Dominican priest. When we say receive, that's actually a technical term. We don't re-ordain them. Now, they have to learn about us. But we receive them. So he was received into the Episcopal Church.

I'm sure when he partook of the sacrament of marriage, that he had to be released from his vows. So here's part of the problem. The statement last week did not abrogate the papal ruling from 1896 that Anglican orders – that is, ordination – were null and void. So we still have that on the books. So we recognize Roman Catholics and the validity of their orders, but they don't recognize the validity of ours.

We have an excellent relationship with the Archdiocese of Baltimore here. And that's very important, because we actually get several inquiries a year from Roman Catholics. But we know that we can call up the archbishop or Bishop Madden and say, give us the lowdown on that person. Now, we have a few from our side who go there, and they'll call on us. We don't want to give each other bad apples. Making sure that they're upstanding, that they're not running away from lawsuits and potential lawsuits and all of that.

And then in our process, the bishop and the standing committee interviews them and deems if they're worthy. And also, we expect, and we have ways of doing this, that they learn the Anglican tradition, and the differences. Learn our liturgy, which is very similar to Roman Catholic, but different. So that process isn't that difficult. It's just that we need to take care that they do know the differences.

And the differences, although they may be small, are significant. The biggest differences in ecumenical relationships used to be around theological issues like the incarnation, salvation. What we're seeing increasingly is that the issues are not essentially theological, but they are more and more social issues. What is the place of women in the church? That's a big issue. And what about marriage among clergy? And increasingly, what about those who are ordered toward the same gender? What do you do?

In each case, the Episcopal Church and most Anglicans, not all, in each case, the Episcopal church is looking to the future, not to the past. We hold onto the traditions of the past as a ground, but we aren't bound by teachings on these wedge issues that have always changed over time. So we're looking to the future. We welcome women in leadership. Not all churches do. We welcome married clergy. Not all churches do. We welcome people oriented to the same gender. If they profess Jesus Christ, lord and savior, we say, welcome. We think that's right. We think that's the way of Jesus. We feel that we are faithful to traditional Christianity. We are faithful to the command of Jesus to not make distinctions among us in terms of class and where you are.

Now, they disagree. Well, we need to make sure that people know that our church is more open in that way. For instance, I've been bishop for a year and three months. How did I get to be bishop? It wasn't a small group of people, men, who said 'Okay, we like him. He's your bishop.' We have several nominees. How did we get nominees? Groups of women, men, lay, clergy, say, 'what are our needs?' and they go out and find someone and we elect them.

This is actually a big theological point. We believe that the Holy Spirit speaks not only through bishops and popes. We believe the Holy Spirit speaks through lay people, clergy, youth, young and old, black, white, and all sorts of conditions of people. And if we don't listen to their voices, then what validity is the leadership among people who say, 'Ah, he may be my leader in name, but I had no say?'

And so, it's just a difference. I'm not really slamming that way. I'm just saying the Episcopal Church is an open church.

Except there is certainly a segment of the church, and you have a better sense than I do of how large it is, that is bound to those traditional ways and those traditional teachings, and over the last several decades, and particularly over the last several years, feels beleaguered by some of the changes and some of the 'openness' that you're talking about. How is that playing out in the diocese as you see it?


We're a broad church. Most of the diocese goes along with these changes. A minority do not. But they are loyal, faithful Episcopalians. We are traditionalists, progressives, liberals, conservatives, all down the line there. But in our diocese while they know they are a minority, they recognize that they're in a church where they choose to fellowship with those with whom they even disagree theologically, but the higher calling is to express our unity as followers of Jesus. And that is a big essential thing, that we can hold our opinions very dearly, but not at the cost of disunity.


And unity does not mean uniformity. When Jesus wanted his disciples to be in unity – and he's looking at that group of 12, and we also know there were larger numbers of women – he didn't look at them thinking, 'Oh, gosh, they're all going to agree. No, he knew there would be disagreements. But he said, 'I pray that you may be one as I and the father are one, that the world may believe that you sent me.' This is key. Why would the world want to follow one, or follow Jesus, if they believe that to be a follower of Christ means disunity, name-calling, sheep-stealing, casting people into hell who disagree with you? No.

So, that minority in my diocese, none are threatening to leave. We don't know how many Anglicans are going to go over to the Roman Catholic Church on this. There probably aren't going to be any more than there would have been a month ago. And the percentages are very small. Around the world, and particularly in the U.S., we have 110 dioceses in the Episcopal Church. Majorities of four dioceses voted to leave. Now I say majorities, but not all.

We don't reconstitute a diocese in the Episcopal Church unless there are conservatives and progressives working together. So some may say, 'Oh, they're kicking out traditionalists or conservatives.' No, it's just that in many of our dioceses, not all – there are many dioceses that are more conservative than Maryland, the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland is fairly moderate, we're right in the middle – but in most dioceses, they know that we – and it's true to the Anglican spirit – we try to hold a lot of people together. And we think that's the biggest witness. And that's what the world needs.

I rejoice in the fact that there are many denominations. I know some don't. I think that's a good thing. I'm glad there are Baptists. I used to be one. I'm glad there are Methodists and Lutherans and Roman Catholics. Because it just shows there are diverse ways of coming at this thing. The only problem is when one group says, we are it, and all other are wrong and in error. We won't do that. And we won't say that the marks of the church, the marks of Christ are not with our Baptist and Methodist brothers and sisters. We just say we're different. And the biggest difference that we can say right now with the Episcopal Church is we always look for a way to hold onto the old while still embracing the new. We try to keep that tension.

Understanding what you're stating as the goal and the power of that witness – to show the diversity of opinion within the single, unified body – in a landscape in which you have more socially conservative Evangelical churches, you have other denominations that tend in those directions socially, you now have the Roman Catholic Church making what they say is a response to the people who have come to them, but other people – perhaps, people who are more suspicious than you – see it as an overture, do you run the risk of losing that ability to have that broad base within the Episcopal Church, given that you'll have these conservative members who suddenly have all of these people reaching out to them saying, 'Come join us and you won't have to have those arguments any more?'

Well, one thing, find me that church and any institution that doesn't have those arguments. And if they aren't, it's because leadership is trying to suppress the argument. The arguments are everywhere. That's one.

Two, there are always those people who, whenever a significant change happens, they just can't get on board with it. In the church, we've seen this constantly. We lost – rather, several, many Episcopalians left – when we ordained women. But it was the right thing to do. There are many Episcopalians who left when African-Americans started going to their church. But it was the right thing to do.

Right now, there are some who are leaving because we say that gay and lesbian Christians who didn't choose their orientation any more than I chose mine – I didn't wake up one day and say, which way should I go – they're going to leave, because they say, 'We can't have them, and we don't want them leading us. But it's the right thing to do.

I firmly believe we're doing the right thing because we're not locking people out in the way that the church has always done it. We're trying to open this thing up. So there is that.

Last thing: Even though it may be difficult to hold everybody together, and it is, when some people leave, or feel they have to leave, they go with my blessings. They're my brother and sister in Christ. But it's not as difficult as you'd think. It's not as difficult when we focus on what Jesus wants us to do in this day. We have pressing issues of poverty, injustice, inequity. We are killing ourselves and killing a good number of people around the world by our habits which contribute to climate change. We have people who are dying in the streets of violence. We have conflicts and wars everywhere. We have people who are crying out for some kind of spiritual nurture and community.

While all this is going on, you can focus on, is my priest married or not? Is it a he or a she? And how they are oriented? I say, if that's your focus, your priorities are seriously skewed, and it's not biblical Christianity. Jesus spoke only very little about issues of what we would say are sexuality. Jesus had very little to say about marriage, sexual ethics, that kind of thing. Jesus had a lot to say about justice, mercy, healing especially those who differ from you.

But look at us today. A lot of the media attention – because we church people, we give you the stories – a lot of the media attention is on that one area. But where is the focus on justice, mercy, healing? So it's not as hard to keep people together as you think as long as we do what Christians have always done at their best. They built schools. The Christian church began hospitals. We run the only residential hospice in the City of Baltimore. The Joseph Richey House. We're going to be getting another one for children. We're trying to do something for poor kids in their education. Trying to stop violence in the street. I was in Washington advocating for health care.

We believe this is what Jesus wants us to do. And we can sit around and talk to each other all day about who is leading us. Those aren't the big questions. Who is leading us isn't the central question of the day. It's that we are led to something. And so maybe that's why we don't have many who are trying to leave. Because we focus on the mission and the message, not on who. Whenever the church is focused on who, it has always been wrong. It leaves somebody out. And we're just not going to do it anymore.


Have you had any communication with the archdiocese since this has come out?

No, and don't take that as a negative. I think one of the main reasons is we actually have a lot of respect for each other. We know they didn't issue this statement and I made a gracious statement saying we have friendly and collegial relationships with them and we work together on a number of different things. So no, there haven't been frantic phone calls. We're going to get together – in fact, I'm going to see them within a couple of weeks because the archdiocese and we are in the ecumenical leaders group, I'm the head of that now as of this next meeting, the ecumenical leaders group getting denominational leaders around Maryland, and we want to expand the group. And I'm sure there will be all sorts of smiles knowing that there are going to be difficulties with this. But it really won't affect us much locally because we don't have a group that's trying to break away to Rome.

You know, we're family. When I say we are all family, I mean the human family. This is Jesus' message. Whether you're Roman Catholic, Episcopal, or Hindu, Muslim, Jewish or no faith, we are all part of the Human family. And Jesus wanted to call some people to say, 'You be a model for the human family ought to be. Be a model for the world of what it means to be family.'

If we show the world how much we're not family, and taking pot shots at each other and lobbing grenades across, then that's not going to help anybody. You and I are in families. We've probably had disagreements with spouses, parents, kids. But we don't kick them out. one of my sons went through a little period where he wasn't speaking to me much. And I knew he'd come back. He wasn't going to go, 'Gosh, I'm going to have look into being a Martin, not a Sutton.'

We know how to do this in families. Let's figure out how to do this as churches. So if I have a disagreement with the archbishop, I'll call him up and say so. But I'm not going to issue a statement saying he's a bad person or something like that anymore than my son would. We've got to start acting like family.

Is there a commonality in terms of the motivations that people tend to have, are there reasons that seem to come up repeatedly among Roman Catholics who join the Episcopal Church?

I'll answer it in both ways. For those going into the Roman Catholic Church, it's because they don't like the changes that we've done. They don't like the church opening up to women, gay and lesbian people, they just don't like it. that, by the way, is causing some concern with Catholic moderates and liberals. It's like, you get your most disaffected people, who want to turn the clock back.

Now, commonalities of those who want to come our way. A big one, and this is a big issue, a big one is they fall in love. Among the clergy, it's what do I do when I still feel I'm called to the priesthood, but I've fallen in love. And for the first thousand years of Christianity, that was no problem. It was only then that the church for various reasons said, no, our clergy will be celibate.

For lay people, it tends to be more other issues. And that is, they found themselves on the other side of a situation that the church condemns. Their marriages broke up, or they want to be in a church where on moral issues, and especially on moral issues around the body, they want the church to initiate a conversation, start the conversation and bring biblical and theological resources to the conversation, but it is a conversation, and they find that they don't want to be in a church where a smaller group say, 'This is what you believe.'

I can put it a little more strong than that in terms of human development. When you're head of a family, when the children are at a young age, it's very important to dictate, for their own safety. Do this, don't do that. Why? I don't have to explain it to you. And in fact, I don't even expect you to buy my explanation. Just don't do this or don't do that, if you're going to be in this house.

You do that when they're two years old. Three years old. But as they get older and mature, every successful parent, head of household, knows that you have to do a lot less of that. As they mature, they have to make their own decisions, and you actually are in a more conversational mode. If your child is 17 and you say do this, do this, don't do that, you've got a lot more trouble. What if they're 37? What if they're 57?

One of the reasons why I actually chose the Episcopal Church is the attempt by the leadership to treat people as if they're mature adults. In the maturation process, another doesn't dictate to a true adult. The other convinces. You say, here are the resources, how would you decide, and let's be in community.

That's behind a lot of the switching right now. There are some who want more authority. And so they tend to go to the Tiber. For those who say, 'You know, I don't want to be dictated to,' they come here.

Now on our side it means it's messy. You've got to get in the fray. The Episcopal Church is a beautiful church. We have beautiful churches, a beautiful liturgy and all that. But we're a mess. We're a holy, glorious mess. I think it's like Heaven. For all we know Heaven may look more like Rome's traffic. It's a mess.

But that is a big issue, and that's what I'm trying to do as a spiritual leader for these almost 50,000 Episcopalians in the State of Maryland. I'm trying to be a spiritual leader that says, 'I'm going to treat you as an adult, and all of you get to have a voice around this table.'

To the extent that I'm successful in doing that, they will respect me as a leader. But the more I try to dictate, the less respect I'll have, and they'll listen respectful and all of that, but in their hearts and minds, they'll go, 'I don't believe that. No way. No way.' And that's what happens in authoritarian systems. People widely disobey in whatever ways they can.

In Vatican II, 1965, the big statement in Vatican II, that statement was entitled The Church in the World. James Carroll picked this thing up in this article, he made a big thing, that title suggests that the church is trying to engage the world as it is now. That was a time of great ecumenical fervor. And I recall times and many of our clergy when the Episcopal and Roman Catholic clergy did more things together. You could even participate in the Mass together. There was a sense that the old authoritarian structures are going to loosen up and allow more participation and we're going to bind more with these other communities.


Here's my lament: where are those days? What it ends up being is the statement from last week. You want to switch? So my lament is that we seem to have lost in the worldwide scene that sense of we really are together. We really are brothers and sisters no matter what our stripes may be. What can we do to bring it back?

So there's been a kind of coarsening of the religious language. More and more fundamentalists – you know what fundamentalists are. Fundamentalists in any religion is, 'Yeah, my way or the highway.' We've seen a rise in fundamentalism in this country, and it's coarsened the religious language.

But guess what? We've also seen the rise of political fundamentalism. And a lot of people think our public and political discourse is coarsened. And we are more polarized as a populace. I think we're seeing the same in the religious scene, where people are just, 'Ugh, I can't stand it, you disagree with me? You're anathema.'

So it's a lament that we have to get there. So, if anything let this interview be a call for let's ratchet down the volume. Let's stop with the name-calling. Let's get back to a spirit a generation ago that we're going to get beyond these differences. We're going to live together. Some people would be Roman Catholics, some would be Anglicans, some would be Methodists, and we don't think that's a terrible thing. But they're doing it because they're more comfortable with that liturgy, and not because they're trying to run away from abuse, or abuses in the old system.

I come from a long line of protesters, of course. But when I was growing up, I wouldn't be happy in most of the Episcopal churches I'm now bishop of. I wouldn't have been welcomed. In most of the churches in my diocese, '50s, early '60s, I wouldn't have been welcomed.

So this whole thing about women, gay and lesbian clergy, I see that through the lens of the old civil rights thing: 'Oh, these are people who just don't want to give up power.' So those who can't go along with the change, sorry, goodbye, but the door's always open. Because we think that one day, they'll come back.

The church was wrong in slavery – many parts of the church. The church was wrong in the Crusades. The church was wrong with Galileo. The church was wrong with women. The church was wrong with people of different so-called race. The church increasingly we find it was wrong with people who are oriented to the same gender.

In every case, the church was saying, 'That's a change that leaves the faith.'

No. it may be that the Holy Spirit is leading us into the change. I think so.

But the church moves slowly. It took 1900 years to come for the church universally to say that enslaving other human beings is wrong. So I'm under no illusion that it's going to take some time for them to come around here. But they will come. They will come, because I think it's led by the Holy Spirit.