VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican announced a stunning decision Tuesday 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 news conference.
In the past, such exemptions had been granted only 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.