Vatican Plan Eases Conversion For Anglicans

The Vatican is making it easier for disaffected Anglicans and Episcopalians to join the Roman Catholic Church. The move is aimed at Anglicans who feel their church has become too liberal after it allowed the ordination of women priests and gay bishops. The Vatican said Pope Benedict had approved a measure that would allow Anglicans to adopt Catholicism, while maintaining some of their own traditions.

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Today, the pope made it easier for Anglicans to join the Catholic Church. The move follows years of fierce debate within the Anglican Communion, which includes American Episcopalians, that debate over issues such as gays and women serving as clergy. As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome, the Catholic Church is hoping to attract discontented Anglicans.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: The split between Catholics and Anglicans dates from 1534 when the Vatican refused the English King Henry VIII a marriage annulment. With the new provision, Anglicans will now be allowed to come back to Catholicism. Speaking in London, Vincent Nichols, the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, described the new provisions as a response...

Archbishop VINCENT NICHOLS (Archbishop of Westminster): ...to those groups of Anglicans who, over the last three or four years, have approached the Holy See with a desire to find a way of coming into full, visible community with the Holy See while having some opportunity to preserve elements of Anglican patrimony and spirituality and tradition.

POGGIOLI: The Vatican move comes after years of growing discontent within the 80-million-strong worldwide Anglican community over openly gay bishops, the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of women. The exact numbers of disgruntled Anglicans is not known. One major group is the traditional Anglican Communion, which claims to represent 400,000 worldwide, including 5,000 in the United States. The new Vatican provisions will allow married Anglican priests and even seminarians to become ordained Catholic priests. However, married Anglicans will not be allowed to become Catholic bishops.

In London, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, signed a joint statement with Archbishop Nichols, saying the decision brings an end to a period of uncertainty. But he also downplayed the new provisions.

Archbishop ROWAN WILLIAMS (Archbishop of Canterbury): It would not occur to me to see this as an act of aggression, a statement of no confidence, precisely because the routine relationships that we enjoy as churches continue.

POGGIOLI: But veteran Vatican correspondent John Allen says the move breaks a longstanding gentlemen's agreement among divided Christian churches.

Mr. JOHN ALLEN (National Catholic Reporter): That they don't go fishing in one another's ponds, or that is, they don't proselytize one another's members.

POGGIOLI: Allen says the decision is symbolically important because the relationship between Catholics and Anglicans has always been a template for ecumenical relations. And he adds, there is widespread concern about what this could mean for Anglicans.

Mr. ALLEN: At the grassroots, I think there will be many Anglicans and Episcopalians who will see this as the Vatican sort of accommodating the dissident wing, if you like, of the Anglican Communion and thereby potentially contributing to the implosion of the Anglican Communion.

POGGIOLI: Not everyone inside the Vatican may be pleased. At the press conference today where the announcement was made, representatives of the Holy See Ecumenical Office were noticeably absent, officially because all of them were away from Rome. Many analysts see the new move as another sign of an increasingly conservative church under Pope Benedict. It follows his recent move to rehabilitate four excommunicated ultra-conservative bishops, including a Holocaust denier. Both moves fit the Pope's desire to bring all the faithful back under the Vatican's wing.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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