Vatican Bidding to Get Anglicans to Join Its Fold
VATICAN CITY — In an extraordinary bid to lure traditionalist Anglicans en masse, the Vatican said Tuesday that it would make it easier for Anglicans uncomfortable with their church's acceptance of female priests and openly gay bishops to join the Roman Catholic Church while retaining many of their traditions.
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Anglicans would be able "to enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of the distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony," Cardinal William J. Levada, the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said at a news conference here.
It was unclear why the Vatican made the announcement now. But it seemed a rare opportunity, audaciously executed, to capitalize on deep divisions within the Anglican Church to attract new members at a time when the Catholic Church has been trying to reinvigorate itself in Europe.
The issue has long been close to the heart of Pope Benedict XVI, who for years has worked to build ties to those Anglicans who, like conservative Catholics, spurn the idea of female and gay priests.
Catholic and Anglican leaders sought on Tuesday to present the move as a joint effort to aid those seeking conversion. But it appeared that the Vatican had engineered it on its own, presenting it as a fait accompli to the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury and the spiritual head of the Anglican Communion, only in recent weeks. Some Anglican and Catholic leaders expressed surprise, even shock, at the news.
The move could have the deepest impact in England, where large numbers of traditionalist Anglicans have protested the Church of England's embrace of liberal theological reforms like consecrating female bishops. Experts say these Anglicans, and others in places like Australia, might be attracted to the Roman Catholic fold because they have had nowhere else to go.
If entire parishes or even dioceses leave the Church of England for the Catholic Church, experts and church officials speculated, it could set off battles over ownership of church buildings and land.
Pope Benedict has said that he will travel to Britain in 2010.
In the United States, traditionalist leaders said they would be less inclined than their British counterparts to join the Catholic Church, because they have already broken away from the Episcopal Church and formed their own conservative Anglican structures (though some do allow women to be priests).
The Vatican's announcement signals a significant moment in relations between two churches that first parted in the Reformation of the 16th century over theological issues and the primacy of the pope.
In recent decades, the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church have sought to heal the centuries of division. Some feared that the Vatican's move might jeopardize decades of dialogue between Catholics and Anglicans by implying that the aim was conversion.
The Very Rev. David Richardson, the archbishop of Canterbury's representative to the Vatican, said he was taken aback.
"I don't see it as an affront to the Anglican Church, but I'm puzzled by what it means and by the timing of it," he said. "I think some Anglicans will feel affronted."
The decision creates a formal universal structure to streamline conversions that had previously been evaluated case by case. The Vatican said that it would release details in the coming weeks, but that generally, former Anglican prelates chosen by the Catholic Church would oversee Anglicans, including entire parishes or even dioceses, seeking to convert.
Under the new arrangement, the Catholic practice that has allowed married Anglican priests to convert and become Catholic priests would continue. (There have been very few such priests.) But only unmarried Anglican bishops or priests could become Catholic bishops.
Cardinal Levada acknowledged that accepting large numbers of married Anglican priests while forbidding Catholic priests to marry could pose problems for some Catholics. But he argued that the circumstances differed.
Under the new structure, former Anglicans who become Catholic could preserve some elements of Anglican worship, including hymns and other "intangible" elements, Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia, the Vatican's deputy chief liturgical officer, said at the news conference.
Cardinal Levada said that the Vatican had acted in response to many requests from Anglicans since the Church of England ordained women in the 1990s, and, more recently, when it faced what he called "a very difficult question" — the ordination of openly gay clergy and the celebration of homosexual unions.
He said that 20 to 30 bishops and hundreds of other people had petitioned the Vatican on the matter in recent years.
In the United States, disaffected conservatives in the Episcopal Church, the American branch of Anglicanism, announced in 2008 that they were reorganizing as the Anglican Church in North America.
Bishop Martyn Minns, a leader of that group, welcomed the pope's decision. "It demonstrates his conviction that the divisions in the Anglican Communion are very serious and these are not things that are going to get papered over," he said.
However, both Bishop Minns and Archbishop Robert Duncan, primate of the Anglican Church in North America, said that they did not expect many conservative Anglicans to accept the offer because the theological differences were too great.
"I don't want to be a Roman Catholic," said Bishop Minns. "There was a Reformation, you remember."
In Britain, the Rev. Rod Thomas, the chairman of Reform, a traditionalist Anglican group, said, "I think it will be a trickle of people, not a flood."
But he said that a flood could in fact develop if the Church of England did not allow traditionalists to opt out of a recent church decision that women could be consecrated as bishops.
Some said the move would probably not win over traditionalist Anglicans in Africa.
"Why should any conservative break away from a church where the moral conservatives represent the overwhelming mass of opinion, such as in Nigeria?" said Philip Jenkins, a professor at Pennsylvania State University and an expert in the Catholic Church's history in Africa and Asia.
The plan was announced at simultaneous news conferences at the Vatican and in London.
The Vatican's archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, and Archbishop Williams of the Anglican Church issued a joint statement in which they said that the new structure "brings to an end a period of uncertainty for such groups who have nurtured hopes of new ways of embracing unity with the Catholic Church."In London, Archbishop Williams minimized the impact of the announcement on relations between the two churches. "It would not occur to me to see this as an act of aggression or a statement of no confidence, precisely because the routine relationships that we enjoy as churches will continue," he said.
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