400,000 former Anglicans worldwide seek immediate unity with Rome

Rome, Italy - Leaders of more than 400,000 Anglicans who quit over women priests are to seek immediate unity with Rome under the apostolic constitution announced by Pope Benedict XVI. They will be among the first to take up an option allowing Anglicans to join an “ordinariate” that brings them into full communion with Roman Catholics while retaining elements of their Anglican identity.

The Pope’s move is regarded by some Anglicans as one of the most dramatic developments in Protestant christendom since the Reformation gave birth to the Church of England 400 years ago.

Archbishop John Hepworth, the twice-married Primate of the Traditional Anglican Communion, who led negotiations with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, said he was “profoundly moved” by the Pope’s decision and would immediately seek the approval of the group’s 400,000 members worldwide to join.

He described the development as “a moment of grace, perhaps even a moment of history”.

As fully-fledged Anglicans also seek refuge from liberalism in the shelter of Rome, it is feared that the proposal could deal a deadly blow to the 77 million-strong Anglican Communion, which already faces schism over homosexual ordination.

Up to 500 members of Forward in Faith, the traditionalist grouping that opposes women bishops, are meeting this weekend to debate the Pope’s offer of a home for former Anglican laity and married priests.

Many are waiting for the publication of a code of practice by Rome to flesh out what is on offer before deciding whether to go.

Insiders believe that Rome’s new canonical solution to the Anglican crisis could tempt entire dioceses and possibly even a province.

More than 440 clergy took compensation and left the Church of England, most for Rome, after the General Synod voted to ordain women priests in 1992. More than 30 returned.

The Pope has made it significantly more attractive for Anglicans to move over this time by offering a universal solution that allows them to retain crucial aspects of their identity and to set up seminaries that will, presumably, train married men for the Catholic priesthood. But any serving clergyman would face a marked loss of income. A job as a clergyman in the Church of England comes with a stipend of £22,250 and free accommodation. Catholic priests earn about £8,000, paid by their parish and topped up by a diocese where the parish cannot afford even that.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, indicated that there would be no compensation this time. It was only introduced at the last minute previously as a way of getting the whole women’s ordination package through the General Synod with the necessary two-thirds majorities.

Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Catholic who retired this year as the Anglican Bishop of Rochester, welcomed Rome’s “generosity of spirit” in its recognition of Anglican patrimony. But he made clear that many issues needed to be resolved before decisions could be made. The two “flying bishops” appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury to care for opponents of women priests also said that this was not a time for “sudden decisions”.

Andrew Burnham, the Bishop of Ebbsfleet, and Keith Newton, the Bishop of Richborough, who went last year to Rome to begin talks with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said: “Anglicans in the Catholic tradition understandably will want to stay within the Anglican Communion. Others will wish to make individual arrangements as their conscience directs. A further group will begin to form a caravan, rather like the People of Israel crossing the desert in search of the Promised Land.” In the US a writer for the Jesuit magazine America expressed fears that some newcomers would be “nostalgists, anti-feminists and anti-gay bigots”.

At Notre Dame University in Indiana, scholars forecast a migration of Catholics into the new Anglican Catholic rite because of the sudden freedom to marry that it would grant. Professor Lawrence Cunningham called the Vatican’s move a “stunning” endorsement of the married priesthood, adding that it would have immediate repercussions for Catholics. It would “raise anew the question, ‘If they can do it, why can’t the priests of Rome?’ ”

Archbishop Robert Duncan, of the Anglican Church of North America, which broke away from the Episcopal Church over the ordination of the gay Gene Robinson as the Bishop of New Hampshire, said: “We rejoice that the Holy See has opened this doorway, which represents another step in the co-operation and relationship between our Churches.”

In Rome, Vittorio Messori, who has co-written books with the Pope, said that the Anglican Communion was already losing followers because of female and gay priests. “More Muslims go to the mosques in London than Anglicans go to church” he said. “The exit of half a million Anglicans to Rome will only confirm a trend.”