By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Liturgical changes are coming soon to the only U.S. congregation that blends Episcopalians and Roman Catholics. Exactly what those changes will entail for Church of the Holy Apostles in Virginia Beach, Va., and what they’ll mean for the community’s ecumenical witness, remains to be seen.
The parish’s co-pastors received new instructions in December from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Richmond. The directive called for eucharistic prayers to no longer be celebrated jointly, says the Rev. Michael B. Ferguson, Episcopal co-pastor of Holy Apostles.
The new policy portends a shift for the 35-year-old congregation, where Roman Catholics and Episcopalians worship side-by-side for nearly the entire worship service. They’re apart for only a few minutes while receiving their respective sacraments at different sides of the sanctuary.
Exactly what the congregation must now do to comply with new codes will require interpretation, Ferguson says. He notes that the church is consulting with a Roman Catholic liturgist to help translate the order into practice.
“It’s like a flower that’s unfolding its petals slowly,” Ferguson says. Roman Catholic authorities “love what we do ecumenically. It’s just that they don’t like what we’re doing with the liturgy of Word and Sacrament. So that’s what we’re trying to figure out.”
Since inception in 1977, Church of the Holy Apostles has had both theological and practical goals for its ecumenical mission. In the mid-1970s, leaders from both communions were seeking land in the Virginia Beach area for new houses of worship. In the collaborative spirit of Vatican II, they joined forces, built a structure together and embodied ecumenism while saving money for both groups.
The collaborative effort now allows for ministry to families that might otherwise go to separate churches on Sunday mornings. Children of mixed marriages study a Roman Catholic curriculum in Sunday school.
Because Roman Catholics and Episcopalians do not share the Eucharist, those gathered at Church of the Holy Apostles have always been clear not to share elements, Ferguson explains. Instead, they partake only of elements consecrated by their respective priests.
Now it’s uncertain whether they will need to move into separate rooms for eucharistic prayers, or whether homilies from Episcopal clergy will still be acceptable in the joint assembly. Amid these unknown factors, Ferguson hopes for the best.
“As we’ve discussed this with the congregation,” Ferguson says, “some of the cooler heads have said, ‘We might learn some things from this.’ This has been a congregation that’s very willing to learn.”