In the wake of Vatican plans to make it easier for Episcopalians to become Catholic, the Episcopal bishop of Maryland would like to make one point clear: The door swings both ways.
Lost in talk of the splintering of the Anglican Communion, Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton says, is the appeal that the 45,000-member Episcopal Diocese of Maryland has held for former Roman Catholics and others looking for a big-tent church.
While attention focused on the conversion en masse last month of a Catonsville-based order of Episcopal nuns to the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland has received three former Roman Catholic clergy in the past couple of months, Sutton says.
"We just want to remind people that this switching from Anglicans becoming Roman Catholics goes both ways," Sutton said. "Many, many laypeople in our churches came from the Roman Catholic Church. We get many clergy."
He spoke a week after Vatican officials said the Roman Catholic Church would create structures to welcome the Anglican (called Episcopalian in the U.S.) clergy and laypeople who have asked about joining. The surprise move comes amid a growing divide among conservatives and liberals in the worldwide Anglican Communion over the ordination of women, acceptance of gay clergy and the celebration of same-sex relationships.
The Episcopal General Convention, the principal governing body of the church in the United States, voted this year to declare homosexuals eligible for any ordained ministry and began writing prayers to bless gay unions.
A smaller group has broken away to form the Anglican Church of North America, a conservative body seeking separate recognition within the Anglican Communion.
Others have "crossed the Tiber," church slang for joining the Roman Catholic Church. In September, 10 of the 12 members of the All Saints Sisters of the Poor were welcomed into the Catholic faith at a Mass celebrated in their Catonsville chapel by Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien.
The Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore has declined to comment on the Vatican announcement last week. A spokesman said Thursday that officials are waiting to hear more details before speaking.
Sutton says the two churches enjoy good relations here. He says he consults with his counterparts at the archdiocese when a Catholic priest wants to join the Episcopal diocese, and vice-versa.
"We actually get several inquiries a year," he said. "We know we can call up the archbishop or [Auxiliary] Bishop [Denis J.] 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."
He has not spoken with anyone at the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore since the Vatican announcement, in part because he doesn't see it having much impact here. While there is a minority in the diocese that is frustrated with the direction of the Episcopal Church on social issues, he says, no one is threatening to leave over them.
"We don't know how many Anglicans are going to go over to the Roman Catholic Church on this," he said. "There probably aren't going to be any more than there would have been a month ago. And the percentages are very small."
He is supportive of the moves to embrace women and homosexuals. The first African-American leader of a diocese whose founding bishop owned slaves, Sutton sees them as part of a larger arc of progress.
"The church was wrong on slavery - many parts of the church," he said. "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 a different so-called race. The church, increasingly, we find it was wrong with people who are oriented toward the same gender.
"In every case, the church was saying, 'That's a change that leaves the faith.'
"No," Sutton said. "It may be that the Holy Spirit is leading us into the change. I think so."