WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (ChurchMilitant.com) - Faithful Catholics are fuming after it was announced that a woman is to be consecrated a Protestant "bishop" inside a Virginia Catholic church.
Saint Bede Catholic Church in Williamsburg will host the ordination and consecration of female Episcopal bishop Susan Bunton Haynes on Saturday, Feb. 1. Haynes is becoming the 11th bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Southern Virginia.
Area Catholics in the diocese of Richmond are outraged that a Catholic church, where Mass is regularly offered, would be used for a Protestant denomination's ceremonies.
Bishop Barry Knestout of the Richmond diocese addressed the pushback in a statement Wednesday, saying, "Use of space in a Catholic parish for the Episcopal Church to conduct their own religious ceremony is well within the accepted ecumenical teachings and norms of the Church."
He added, "I appreciate that you are concerned that the sacred space of the Catholic Church be safeguarded, which it is."
The bishop characterized letting the Protestant denomination have a ceremony inside a Catholic church as "hospitality to a Christian neighbor in need."
Knestout emphasized that it is not a violation of the Church's rules for ecumenism and the use of churches.
A long-time parishioner at St. Bede's spoke to Church Militant on condition of anonymity. He said news of the Episcopal consecration ceremony came as a surprise for many parishioners, and "set off alarm bells."
He added that Catholics were especially bothered that St. Bede's previous pastor, Msgr. Timothy Keeney, planned this event without informing them.
"I've heard the word 'sneaky' used to describe his action," he recalled.
The source also expressed concern about the impact of this controversy on the parish, saying, "The real loser in this scenario will be the parish, losing parishioners who have been there for a long time."
Monsignor Keeney was St. Bede's pastor until June 2019, when he was reassigned.
The current pastor, Msgr. Joseph Lehman, addressed the controversy in a letter to parishioners on Tuesday, writing:
The [Episcopal] diocese of Southern Virginia made contact with the former Pastor of Saint Bede (Msgr. Timothy Keeney) in early December of 2018 to inquire about the use of the Church (nave and commons), Kaplan Hall (our event/receptions venue), and the other spaces here for this significant event in the life of their diocese. Saint Bede is one of the largest liturgical churches of any tradition in this part of the Commonwealth, with a huge seating capacity of 1,200 people, a social hall and catering kitchen, ample parking, all handicap accessible, with many auxiliary spaces for clergy and diocesan leadership to gather, dress, process and move about freely.
"The pastor sought and received approval from our bishop to host this event," Msgr. Lehman emphasized in bold letters. "The bishop's only directive was to 'remove the reserved Blessed Sacrament.'"
Church Militant's source spoke highly of both Msgr. Lehman and Msgr. Keeney. He called Lehman "likable" and "a good pastor," and gave Keeney credit for "starting a new fundraiser for getting the new wing of the church started."
Elsewhere in the letter to parishioners, Lehman noted his own involvement in ecumenism, stating, "I write wearing two hats; as the new pastor of Saint Bede Church, and as the recently named ecumenical and interreligious officer of the diocese of Richmond."
To defend the Episcopal ceremony's Catholic parish platform, Lehman cited a 1993 Vatican document on ecumenism, which states, "If priests, ministers or communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church do not have a place or the liturgical objects necessary for celebrating worthily their religious ceremonies, the diocesan bishop may allow them the use of a church or a Catholic building."
His letter briefly discussed the history of ecumenism between Catholics and members of the Anglican Communion (such as Episcopalians), stating: "Their request came out of a long-standing formal relationship between our two Churches. The Anglican (Episcopal) Communion and the Catholic Church have been in dialogue, both nationally and internationally, since the late 1960s."
Lehman made an unclear reference to a 1990 "covenant" between "the two Virginia Catholic dioceses, the three Episcopal dioceses, and the two Lutheran Synods of the ECLA [Evangelical Lutheran Church of America]," adding, "The United Methodists joined us in 2007."
A recently-launched Change.org petition voices Catholics' concerns. The petition calls it "highly disturbing" that Episcopalians would be allowed to use a Catholic church for the consecration of a female bishop, "given the fact that Pope Leo XIII solemnly declared Anglican ordinations to be 'absolutely null and utterly void,' and the Church has repeatedly reaffirmed the fact that women cannot receive the sacrament of ordination."
It also argues, "Simulation of a sacrament is an excommunicable offense under Canon Law. Additionally, canon 1210 asserts that only activities which 'serve to exercise or promote worship, piety and religion' are permitted in sacred spaces."
The petition had more than 1,700 signatures by press time.
The authors of the petition call on people to sign by saying, "We are asking for your signature to help convince His Excellency, Bp. Barry Knestout of the Catholic diocese of Richmond, to stop this event and the desecration of one of his own parishes."
Church Militant contacted the diocese of Richmond for comment on the controversy but did not receive a response by press time.
Saint Bede's website lists an Alpha Program — a catechetical video series that Catholic parishes are implementing with the hopes of re-energizing the faith of parishioners. The Alpha Program was made by a Protestant for Protestant communities. The version used in Catholic parishes has been criticized on theological grounds, accused of spouting off half-truths and misleading statements. Uniquely Catholic beliefs like Purgatory and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist are absent from Alpha.