Page last updated at 10:16 GMT, Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Anglicans welcome offer from Rome

By Robert Pigott
Religious Affairs Correspondent, BBC News

Pope Benedict  XVI
The Roman Catholic Church says it is responding to calls from Anglicans

The Vatican has published details of its plan to ease conversion for Church of England clergy unhappy about the ordination of women bishops.

The proposal offers them what amounts to their own dioceses within the Roman Catholic Church.

The Vatican also said they could continue with Anglican traditions, such as some church services.

Anglican clergy claim the rules set out in the document make the offer seem more generous than it first seemed.

Fr Geoffrey Kirk, the national secretary of Forward in Faith, which represents Anglicans sympathetic to Catholicism, said more clergy around the world would probably convert as a result.

"Of the 450 parishes I knew would take it (the Pope's invitation) seriously, I said between 150 and 200 would convert. Now I think it'll be more than 200."

The details published today confirm that Church of England priests who are married will be allowed - on a case-by-case basis - to serve as Roman Catholic priests.

That could lead to an influx of married priests to a church where clergy have traditionally been celibate.

Separate training

The document emphasised that the Vatican had no intention of relaxing the requirement for celibacy for Roman Catholic priests.

However, the presence of significant numbers of married priests could present an alternative model of priesthood to Roman Catholics.

The Vatican made clear that Anglicans who were in "irregular marriage situations" would not be eligible to convert.

Men intending to become priests inside the new section of the Church could train in seminaries separate from other Catholic priests.

Dr Kirk said this concession, and the creation of multiple "dioceses" for former Anglicans showed that the Vatican intended Anglican traditions to become a permanent part of Catholicism.

Dr Rowan Williams
Dr Rowan Williams will be meeting the Pope in Rome

"This is not terminal care. It's viewed as a permanent thing, and it could actually grow," he said.

However, Anglicans who convert will have to commit to all Roman Catholic beliefs, and that might create conflict for some.

They would have to accept that the Pope could on occasion be regarded as "infallible".

Facing choices

They would also have to accept Roman Catholic views on contraception, the way Catholics regard Mary, the mother of Jesus, and that the bread and wine of Holy Communion actually become the body and blood of Jesus.

Clergy wishing to convert will have to be re-ordained as Catholic priests, and some might face painful choices - having to leave well-placed and historic medieval churches with thriving congregations for more modern churches on the edge of town.

Even among Catholic-minded Anglicans, there is continued resistance to transferring to Rome.

Many are desperate to maintain the historic composition of the Church of England as including both a Protestant and a Catholic wing.

However English Anglicans are likely to make up only a small proportion of those wishing to find a permanent home in the Roman Catholic Church.

The Traditional Anglican Communion - which broke away from the Anglican Communion in 1991 - claims four hundred thousand members around the world, and several hundred are thought likely to convert.

The first English clergy could convert as early as next year.

Spiritual home

The Vatican insisted that its invitation came only in response to Anglicans who pleaded for a new spiritual home.

But it angered some Anglicans because it came at a sensitive time in discussions over how women bishops would be introduced into the Church of England.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Rowan Williams, was given only two weeks' notice of the announcement.

Dr Williams is due to travel to Rome for a long-scheduled meeting with Pope Benedict on 21 November.

Lambeth Palace said the Pope's initiative was on the agenda.

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