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New Vatican plan to welcome Anglicans disaffected by elections

VATICAN CITY – The Vatican announced a stunning decision yesterday to make it easier for Anglicans to convert, reaching out to those who are disaffected by the election of women and gay bishops to join the Catholic Church’s conservative ranks.

Pope Benedict XVI approved a new church provision that will allow Anglicans to join the Catholic Church while maintaining many of their distinctive spiritual and liturgical traditions, including having married priests.

Cardinal William Levada, the Vatican’s chief doctrinal official, announced the new provision at a new conference.

In the past, such exemptions had only been granted in a few cases in certain countries. The new church provision is designed to allow Anglicans around the world to access a new church entity if they want to convert.

The decision immediately raised questions about how the new provision would be received within the 77-million strong Anglican Communion, the global Anglican church, which has been on the verge of a schism over divisions within its membership about women bishops, an openly gay bishop and the blessing of same-sex unions.

The Anglican’s spiritual leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, downplayed the significance of the new provision and said it wasn’t a Vatican commentary on Anglican problems.

‘It has no negative impact on the relations of the communion as a whole to the Roman Catholic church as a whole,’ he said in London.

Conservative Party lawmaker Ann Widdecombe, who left the Church of England because of its policies for the Catholic Church, welcomed the Vatican’s decision.

‘I’m delighted if it does become easier, because when we had the last big exodus in 1992 over the ordination of women, the Catholic Church was not ready,’ she said in London.

‘There were enormous discrepancies up and down the country, and the direction from the Vatican came late in the day.’

The new Catholic church entities, called personal ordinariates, will be units of faithful established within local Catholic Churches, headed by former Anglican prelates who will provide spiritual care for Anglicans who wish to be Catholic.

They would most closely resemble Catholic military ordinariates, special units of the church established in most countries to provide spiritual care for the members of the armed forces and their dependents.

‘(This will) facilitate a kind of corporate reunion of Anglican groups’ into the Catholic Church, Levada said. Anglicans split with Rome in 1534 when English King Henry VIII was refused a marriage annulment. The new canonical provision is a response to the many requests from Anglo-Catholics who want to come back, increasingly disillusioned with the progressive bent of the Anglican Communion. Many have already left and consider themselves Catholic but have not found an official home in the 1.1-billion strong Catholic Church.

By welcoming them in with their own special provision, Benedict has confirmed the increasingly conservative bent of his church. The decision follows his recent move to rehabilitate four excommunicated ultra-conservative bishops, including one who denied the full extent of the Holocaust, in a bid to bring their faithful back under the Vatican’s wing.

Levada declined to give figures on the number of requests that have come to the Vatican, or on the anticipated number of Anglicans who might take advantage of the new structure.

One group, known as the Traditional Anglican Communion, has made its bid to join the Catholic Church known. The fellowship, which split from the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1990, says it has spread to 41 countries and has 400,000 members, although only about half are regular churchgoers.

The new canonical provision allows married Anglican priests and even seminarians to become ordained Catholic priests – much the same way that Eastern rite priests who are in communion with Rome are allowed to be married. However, married Anglicans couldn’t become Catholic bishops.

The Vatican announcement immediately raised questions about how the Vatican’s long-standing dialogue with the Archbishop of Canterbury could continue. Noticeably, no one from the Vatican’s ecumenical office on relations with Anglicans attended the news conference; Levada said he had invited representatives to attend but they said they were all away from Rome.

Just last week, the Vatican’s top ecumenical official, Cardinal Walter Kasper, told reporters: ‘We are not fishing in the Anglican pond,’ when asked about the Vatican’s negotiations with would-be converts.

Levada stressed that ecumenical dialogue with the global Anglican church would remain a priority. But he said the goal of that dialogue for 40 years had been to achieve ‘full visible unity.’

To downplay suggestions of poaching, the Catholic archbishop of Westminster and Williams, the Anglican leader, issued a joint statement saying the decision ‘brings an end to a period of uncertainty’ for Anglicans wishing to join the Catholic Church.

And at a press conference in London, Williams tried to put the best face on the decision.

‘It has no negative impact on the relations of the communion as a whole to the Roman Catholic church as a whole,’ he said.

But Williams’ representative in Rome, the Very Rev. David Richardson, called the Vatican’s decision ‘surprising,’ given that the Catholic Church in the past had welcomed individual Anglicans in without creating what he called ‘parallel structures’ for entire groups of converts.

‘The two questions I would want to ask are ‘why this and why now,” he told The Associated Press. ‘Why the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has decided to embrace that particular method remains unclear to me.’ Also unclear, he said, was the Vatican’s target audience: those Anglicans who have already left the Anglican Communion, or current members. Levada said it covered both.

‘If it’s for former Anglicans, then it’s not about our present difficulties, then it’s people who have already left,’ Richardson said. If it’s current Anglicans, ‘There is in my mind an uncertainty for whom it is intended.’

The Anglican Communion has been roiled for years over disagreement on the role of women. But the long-standing divisions over how Anglicans should interpret the Bible erupted in 2003 when the Episcopal Church consecrated the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

Williams has struggled ever since to keep the church from splitting, frustrated by moves by churches in the United States, Canada and elsewhere to bless gay relationships.

At least four conservative U.S. dioceses and dozens of individual Episcopal parishes have voted to leave the national denomination since 2003, with many affiliating themselves instead with like-minded Anglican leaders in African and elsewhere.

The Vatican announcement was kept under wraps until the last moment: The Vatican only announced Levada’s briefing Monday night, and Levada only flew back to Rome at midnight after briefing Catholic bishops and Williams about the decision.

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