Thousands have swum the river in both directions

By Daniel J. Webster

In a recent move to Baltimore I unearthed the October 5, 1973 issue of the National Catholic Reporter. I was a stringer for the paper then when TV news in Phoenix didn’t pay much. I even had a part time job teaching religion at a local Catholic high school. My ministry included playing guitar at Sunday night masses at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale.

Finding this particular issue of NCR not only flooded me with memories (my byline was on page two) but propelled me into the present. On page one was the notice that John Cogley had become an Episcopalian. Cogley was a former executive editor of Commonweal, an NCR columnist and well known Catholic author and journalist.

His migration, I later discovered, is fondly referred to by those who keep score as “swimming the Thames”—the description for Catholics who become Episcopalians. Those going the other way “swim the Tiber.” These expressions acknowledge the two rivers next to seats of ecclesiastical authority of both branches of Christ’s “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”

My move to Baltimore came at the calling of the Episcopal bishop to join his staff as canon for evangelism and ministry development. I swam the Thames nearly 20 years ago, went to the Seminary of the Southwest, and was ordained nearly six years later. And so recent events have caused friends, old and new, to ask for my reactions.

The Vatican’s recent establishment of an ordinariate to make it easier on disaffected Anglicans/Episcopalians to return to Rome hit home in my diocese when Mt. Calvary Episcopal Church and its 24 voting members announced they were swimming the Tiber. (Negotiations on separation continue). Around the same time a handful of Church of England bishops announced they were leaving for Rome. The British media seem to be keeping the scorecard on this latest swimming meet.

The list of those who’ve made the swim in the past 450 years is exhaustive. Last September on his visit to England, Pope Benedict XVI beatified Cardinal John Henry Newman, described by some as the most important Anglican convert to Rome. (Cardinal Newman was added to The Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints in 2009. Feb. 21 is his feast day). One of my heroes, Bede Griffiths, a Church of England priest who became a Roman Catholic Benedictine, lived out his life in a Christian ashram in India. He has inspired many who see Christian meditation as a way to change the world.

This swim meet can get crowded at times. Fr. Alberto Cutie made headlines in 2009 when the Spanish language TV talk-show star became an Episcopalian. So did Matthew Fox in 1994 when his creation spirituality teachings got him in hot water with then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. When I asked the bishop who received Fox into the Episcopal Church about how many inquiries he had gotten from Roman priests during his 20-plus year episcopate, he said it was about one a month. To him it was understandable, since he thought the Episcopal Church had become the church Vatican II had envisioned. That ecumenical council profoundly changed the Episcopal Church and shaped the liturgy we use in our 1979 Book of Common Prayer. In the past 40 years Sunday worship has migrated from a predominant Morning Prayer service to the celebration of Holy Eucharist.

Baltimore is arguably the seat of Roman Catholicism in this country. I am one of millions formed by the Baltimore Catechism during childhood. I’ve been taught by Jesuits, Dominicans, Carmelites and Holy Ghost fathers. I embrace Pope Leo XIII’s stand for workers’ rights in Rerum Novarum and regret his invalidation of Anglican/Episcopal holy orders. I champion (and preach) Paul VI’s proclamation of Jesus’s “preferential option for the poor” and regret his undermining of Vatican II and promulgation of Humanae Vitae.

There are hundreds more, lay and ordained, who make the journey from one communion to the other without fanfare. I am still Catholic and will always be. I’m no longer Roman Catholic. I think Jesus wants me to be where I can most effectively at live out his Gospel.

The late John Cogley’s words in that 1973 NCR could speak for many who’ve swum either river either way: “I do not look upon this move as a ‘conversion’ since I have not changed any of the beliefs I formerly held. Rather, it is a matter of finding my proper spiritual home.”

The Rev. Canon Daniel J. Webster is canon for evangelism and ministry development in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. This article first appeared in the June issue of Episcopal Journal.

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