Catholic bishops prepare path for Anglican exodus

Vatican City - THE Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales has taken the first steps towards receiving Anglican converts en masse.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols, its leader, has appointed a panel of bishops to plan the recruitment of entire Church of England parishes.

The move, effectively to “poach” Anglican congregations disenchanted with their church’s liberal drift, came as Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, held a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican.

Speaking after their meeting, Williams denied that the Pope’s offer to allow members of the Church of England to convert while preserving many of their traditions was “a kind of dawn raid on the Anglican communion”.

He added: “I don’t think it’s a question of the Catholic church trying to attract by advertising and special offers.”

Williams admitted that there were serious tensions between the two churches, however.

The Catholic committee targeting Anglican converts will look at ways of overcoming obstacles to receiving entire parishes.

A key problem is property. Many of the congregations wanting to defect to Rome are attached to beautiful church buildings.

There is no question of the Catholic church buying such places of worship from the Church of England — and the Church of England commissioners are not willing to sell them.

The committee of Catholic bishops will scrutinise the possibility of church sharing, the use of temporary buildings for convert vicars and their congregations.

The panel will also look at the possibility of taking out long-term leases of Anglican churches, giving the Catholics responsibility for repairs and maintenance for up to 100 years.

Many Anglican clergy and lay worshippers have become dissatisfied with Williams’s leadership and are still resentful about the Church of England’s decision to ordain women priests.

Nichols fired another broadside on the eve of the meeting at the Vatican, saying Anglicans should not become Catholic to protest against liberalisation and adding that any converts must accept the Catholic church’s doctrine.

“It must be a positive desire in the heart — not questions of the ordination of women to the episcopate, not questions of sexual ethics — but it must centre round the understanding of the role of the office of bishop of Rome,” Nichols said in London.

Forward in Faith, the Anglo-Catholic group, believes up to 450 Anglican parishes are considering joining the exodus to Rome.

Bishop John Broadhurst, chairman of Forward in Faith, said: “We welcome this initiative.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope talked alone for 20 minutes — a relatively short time by Benedict’s standards. A source described the meeting as “a fraternal moment”, with the Pope giving Williams a gold bishop’s cross to wear on his chest.

During his visit to the Vatican, Williams talked of “these continuing points of tension” and said Rome’s ban on ordaining women was an obstacle to unity.

“For many Anglicans, not ordaining women has a possible unwelcome implication about the difference between baptised men and baptised women,” he said.

The Pope will visit Britain for the first time next year when he will beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman, the 19th-century Anglican convert to Rome. In an unprecedented move, he may hold the ceremony in Westminster cathedral or even Wembley stadium.