- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 13, 2009

It’s been at least 10 years since I visited the All Saints Sisters of the Poor convent in Catonsville, Md., for a personal retreat. Located on 88 acres near Patapsco State Park, it offered plenty of walks for those of us inclined to pray better while traipsing about nature. I stayed in a guest wing, as retreatants were not allowed to mix with the nuns who lived there.

The sisters are well known for their artsy, handmade cards. All Saints was the first place I knew of that had sympathy cards for people who had lost a pet.

Even more unusual was their calling as Episcopal nuns in a denomination that had very few religious communities. Their habits were nearly exact replicas of the long, black robes and white wimples of 1960s-era Roman Catholic nuns.

So I was not totally surprised to learn they were leaving the Episcopal Church. On Sept. 3, Baltimore Archbishop Edwin O’Brien received 10 of the 12 nuns into the Roman Catholic Church.

The final blow had been the Episcopal Church’s 2003 decision to consecrate an openly gay bishop. Thousands of conservatives have left the denomination since then. This past summer, the Episcopalians voted to allow more gay bishops (two are in the running for positions in Minnesota and California) and start the process toward church-blessed same-sex unions.

Unhappy with the 2003 vote, the nuns had remained in the denomination, hoping to be an orthodox witness to the rest of the church. Instead of leavening the loaf, their efforts fell flat and they began to see their own church as way too much baggage.

“The Episcopal Church, in trying to reach out to anybody and everybody — which is important — were tending to water down the teachings of the Gospels,” Mother Superior Christina Christie told me. “Instead of helping people overcome their contrariness to Gospel teachings, we were supporting them in it.

“Some misinterpreted that to mean we were on the same boat and thinking along the same lines,” she said. “There are religious communities — more liberal than we are — that are all right with the path the Episcopal Church is traveling now.”

I’ve listened to this struggle tons of times from people in various mainline Protestant denominations that are shifting to the left. Many feel they need to be a light for those who remain; that like the Southern Baptist conservatives in the 1970s and 1980s, they might be able to turn their denomination around.

Gradually these stalwarts see the troops about them evaporate as more and more followers lose heart and flee for safer theological climes.

A case in point is last month’s historic Evangelical Lutheran Church in America convention in Minneapolis where the ELCA became the largest mainline Protestant denomination to accept gay clergy. Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson spent several minutes after the final vote begging conservatives not to leave. The ELCA has been losing members as well and Bishop Hanson knows the trend these days is to flee rather than fight.

Mother Christie told me the nuns talked with several breakaway Episcopal groups, but nothing clicked. Even a conversation with Archbishop Robert Duncan, a longtime associate of All Saints and the new head of an American Anglican province formed in June by several of the breakaway groups, went nowhere.

Then they encountered a Dominican priest — himself a former Episcopal monk — who suggested they make a total break. They were attracted to the Catholic Church’s far richer tradition of professed religious life and so approached Archbishop O’Brien last fall.

They had been with the Episcopal Church more than 100 years.

“It was time, it was time,” she said. “We were not making any difference. In fact, it seemed we might make more of a difference [to the Episcopalians] if we were not here.”

Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs Sundays and Thursdays. Contact her at [email protected]

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