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Pope Benedict XVI has established a special structure for Anglicans who want to be in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church while preserving aspects of their Anglican spiritual and liturgical heritage.

A new apostolic constitution would establish “personal ordinariates”—similar to dioceses—to oversee the pastoral care of those who want to bring elements of their Anglican identity into the Catholic Church with them. According to the new structure, Anglican priests who are married may be ordained Catholic priests, but married Anglican bishops will not be able to function as Catholic bishops, in keeping with the long-standing Catholic and Orthodox tradition of ordaining only unmarried clergy as bishops. 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.

It is uncertain how many “high church” Anglicans may be tempted to accept the pope’s framework, but in Britain there was speculation that entire parishes—even dioceses—would “go over to Rome.” The Rev. David Houlding, the leader of the Catholic Group on the Anglican Church synod, said several hundred clergy would leave immediately and as many as 1,500 eventually, a desertion that could seriously damage the Church of England’s efforts to preserve its Anglo-Catholic wing.

The announcement on Oct. 20 was a shock to many and apparently even something of a surprise to the leader of the Anglican Communion, Archbish-op Rowan Williams of Canterbury, who admitted he had not been consulted on the creation of the framework and only heard about the plan “a couple of weeks ago,” as he spoke at a London press conference held jointly with the Roman Catholic archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols. Williams said: “I do not think this constitution will be seen as in any sense a commentary on Anglican problems offered by the Vatican.... In that sense it has no negative impact on the relations of the communion as a whole to the Roman Catholic church as a whole. It is not an act of aggression. It is not a statement of no confidence. It is business as usual.”

The British press seemed unconvinced. An analysis in the Times of London called Pope Benedict’s decision an effort to “poach thousands of traditional Anglicans who are dismayed by growing acceptance of gays and women priests and bishops” in the global Anglican church.

In recent decades thousands of conservative priests and parishioners in England, America and Australia have left the 80-million-strong Anglican Communion in protest over the ordination of women and openly homosexual clergy. The pope’s unprecedented move allows Anglicans to become fully incorporated into the Roman Catholic Church instead of forming small breakaway churches, while retaining parts of their Anglican heritage that do not clash with Catholic doctrine.

The extraordinary London press conference was accompanied by a parallel announcement from Cardinal Levada at the Vatican, who said the new provision does not weaken the commitment of the Vatican to promoting Christian unity, but is a recognition that many Anglicans share the Catholic faith and that Anglicans have a spiritual and liturgical life worth preserving. “It has always been the principal aim—the principal aim—to achieve the full, visible unity” of the Catholic Church and Anglican Communion, the cardinal said. The pope’s apostolic constitution and norms for implementing it will be published after final revisions are completed.

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