WASHINGTON – In a remarkable bid to attract disillusioned members of the Anglican Communion, the Vatican announced Tuesday that it would establish a special arrangement that will allow Anglicans to join the Roman Catholic Church while preserving their liturgy and spiritual heritage, including married priests.
The worldwide Anglican Communion, which includes the 2.3 million-member U.S. Episcopal Church, has been wracked by years of conflict over the interpretation of Scripture that has led to clashes over female clergy and, more recently, the rights of gays to serve as clergy.
The Catholic Church plan “reflects a bold determination by Rome to seize the moment and do what it can to reach out to those who share its stance on women priests and homosexuality,” said Ian Markham, dean of the Virginia Theological Seminary, an Episcopal seminary in Alexandria, Va. “It is very, very bold and very interesting.”
The new system will allow the Catholic Church to capitalize on tensions within the Anglican Communion and make potentially large inroads into its worldwide network of 80 million members. The Communion broke from the Catholic Church in 1534, when England’s King Henry VIII was denied a marriage annulment.
In more recent times, Anglicans and the Catholic Church have made attempts to reconcile, but Tuesday’s move could jeopardize those efforts, according to theologians.
In establishing the new structure, Pope Benedict XVI is responding to “many requests” from individual Anglicans and Anglican groups – including “20 to 30 bishops,” said Cardinal William Levada, the Vatican’s chief doctrinal official.
At a joint news conference in London, Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury and Anglican spiritual leader, sat next to the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, but said he had no role in developing the plan.
Nevertheless, Williams said the move “is not an act of aggression … It is business as usual.”
For years, the Anglican Communion has struggled to reconcile its warring factions. Racial and class tensions have grown between the Anglican Communion’s wealthy but shrinking Western congregations and its rapidly growing, more conservative, membership in the developing world, particularly Africa.
Under the new system, the Catholic Church will create “personal ordinariates” – separate units headed by former Anglican priests or bishops. Although married Anglican priests would be permitted to head the ordinariates, married bishops, who are not in keeping with Catholic tradition, would not be permitted. Potentially, entire former Anglican parishes or dioceses could move under the wing of the Catholic Church.
The former Anglicans would be considered theologically Catholic but with their own traditions, such as use of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.
The plan is not without precedent. The Catholic Church has, in rare instances, allowed married Anglican priests to join, but only under strict conditions. For centuries, the church has included Eastern Rite Catholics, who maintain their own traditions.
Between 100 and 200 of the 7,000 Episcopal congregations have broken away from the denomination over the 2003 ordination of Gene Robinson, a gay man, as bishop of New Hampshire. The ordination of female clergy and the church’s definition of salvation also have been issues in the conflict. Many of the breakaway congregations allied themselves with conservative Anglican units in countries such as Nigeria and Uganda.
Conservative Anglican leaders in the United States said the impact will be greater in England than it will be here. “The British papers are saying it’s the biggest thing since Henry VIII, and in some ways, it is for them,” said the Rev. Martyn Minns of Fairfax City, Va., leader of a group of conservative congregations that broke from the Episcopal Church three years ago.
“Over there, you have bishops, congregations, even whole dioceses that may shift. Here in the U.S., we’ve already faced the division and what came out of it was the Anglican alternative. … What the pope said affirms what I’m doing, but doesn’t mean I’m going to become Catholic.”
Other conservative Anglican leaders, including those with strong Catholic leanings, said Tuesday that they are unlikely to join the Catholic Church.
Bishop Jack Iker of Fort Worth, for instance, led one of the founding dioceses in the group of breakaway U.S. conservatives and has strong ties to the Catholic Church. But on Tuesday, his spokeswoman, Suzanne Gill, said that “while it’s true he’s an Anglo-Catholic bishop with many friends in the Catholic Church, we don’t have any plans to convert into the Catholic Church.”