Vatican extends a hand to disgruntled Anglicans

Pope Benedict has created a new church structure for Anglicans who want to join the Catholic Church, responding to the disillusionment of some Anglicans over the ordination of women and election of openly gay bishops. (Oct. 20)
By Jacqueline L. Salmon and William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 21, 2009

In a remarkable bid to attract disillusioned members of the Anglican Communion, the Vatican announced Tuesday that it is establishing a special arrangement that will allow Anglicans to join the 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 racked by years of conflict over the interpretation of Scripture that has led to clashes over female clergy and, more recently, gay clergy.

The Catholic Church's 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. "It is very, very bold and very interesting."

The new system will give the Catholic Church a way 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 Catholics 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 J. Levada, the Vatican's chief doctrinal official.

At a joint news conference in London, Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican spiritual leader, sat next to the Catholic archbishop of Westminster. But Williams 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 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 under strict conditions. For centuries, the church has included Eastern Rite Catholics, who maintain their own traditions.

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