Last week, Pope Benedict XVI made what many called a startling offer to Anglican priests: Become a Roman Catholic priest and bring your wives, children and book of prayer with you.
While the specific details have yet to be worked out, the offer was aimed mainly at priests who have left or are considering leaving the Episcopal Church in the United States and priests in the Church of England, many of whom disagree with their denomination's stand on social issues, such as the ordination of women and gays, and on theological issues, such as the inerrancy of Scripture.
Those divisive issues caused the San Joaquin Diocese to become the first diocese in the nation to leave the Episcopal Church in December 2007. The theologically conservative Fresno-based Anglican San Joaquin Diocese represents about 40 parishes from Lodi to Bakersfield, including St. Francis in Turlock, St. Matthias in Oakdale, the historic "Red Church" (St. James) in Sonora and St. Luke's in Merced.
The theologically liberal Episcopal San Joaquin Diocese, with its headquarters in Modesto, has added about 10 new churches to the original seven that chose to remain Episcopal in 2007. Those original parishes include Christ the King Community Episcopal Church in Riverbank and St. Anne in Stockton.
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The pope's offer comes after decades of discussion between the Vatican and the worldwide Anglican Communion over healing the split between the two churches that began in 1534 when England's King Henry VIII was denied an annulment by the pope.
"I think it's amazing news," said the Rev. Michael McClenaghan, who in July led about 90 percent of his 300-member congregation from St. Paul's in Modesto to begin Wellspring Anglican Church. "It's hard to know how it's going to play out. Personally, I find it an encouragement, that we Anglicans are being seen as mainstream Christians. It's kind of a stamp of approval."
McClenaghan, however, doesn't think many U.S. Anglican priests, most of whom spent years and expensive lawsuits to split with the Episcopal Church, will turn to the Catholic Church.
"I think in the short term it's going to affect clergy in England a lot more than here," he said. "So much water is already under the bridge here. I think people will be reticent to give that up right away."
The Rev. Jim Stickney, priest at St. Paul's Episcopal Church — the $2.3 million campus the Wellspring congregation voluntarily left behind — is a former Catholic priest. He said he made the switch to Episcopalian primarily because of the Vatican's stance against female clergy and other issues. He also married a few months after he left the Catholic Church.
"I wish them (Catholics) well, but it's really not for me. I know what that life is like," said Stickney, who joined the Jesuits, a Catholic order, shortly after high school and served as an ordained Jesuit priest from 1975-80. "They say they've been approached by Anglicans who want to join. It's a little perplexing to me. How many people realistically are going to be doing this?"
Catholic Bishop Stephen Blaire of the Stockton Diocese said he didn't expect many, if any, Anglican or Episcopal priests from this area to switch. In the past decade, only two such priests have approached his office, one inquiring about becoming a Catholic priest and one asking about becoming a deacon. Neither followed through, he said.
It has been known to happen, however. In 1996, the Rev. Randy Rainwater, a former Episcopalian priest in Stockton, was ordained as a Catholic priest with his pregnant wife by his side. Their other five children, all younger than 10, were part of the deal.
Rainwater became one of about 90 married Catholic clergy in the United States at that time under a 1980 policy called the Pastoral Provision Program, which allowed such priests to work as chaplains or as school administrators, but not as pastors, assistant pastors or bishops.
Rainwater is still part of the Stockton Diocese and serves as chaplain at the N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton. He was in a training program Thursday and unavailable for comment.
The Rev. Tom Foster, who serves at Jesus Our Savior Anglican Church in Modesto, said that "most of the Anglican priests I know are so pleased that the pope would think of us with an old remedy that's been around for years."
But, he said, while some Episcopal priests have switched to Catholicism over the past half-century, many more — such as Stickney — have gone the reverse route. There are other considerations, too.
"Practically, who wants to be reordained again?" Foster asked. "It's basically saying the 54 years you've been a priest didn't count. I know it's generous of them to let married clergy bring their wives and children with them, but the price of having to recant your previous priesthood is a high price to pay. That's the interpretation most of us place on it."
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or email@example.com.