The long-simmering divisions in the Church of England over plans to consecrate women bishops led to a split on Sunday after three Anglican bishops, three nuns and a host of worshippers from some 20 parishes defected to the Vatican under a scheme, the ‘ordinariate,' that enables Anglicans opposed to women bishops to convert to Catholicism while allowing them to retain aspects of their distinct identity.

‘Historic moment'

Critics, describing the scheme as amounting to “poaching” by the Vatican, feared that it would “irrevocably” damage relations between the Church of England and the Vatican.

Its supporters, however, hailed it as a significant step towards unity. Both, though, agreed it was a “historic” moment with profound implications for ecumenical relations.

The new converts were received into the Catholic Church at a ceremony in Westminster Cathedral on Saturday amid reports that up to 50 Anglican priests and “thousands” of worshippers could join the exodus if they failed to win concessions over women bishops.

Under a process, now under way, the first women bishops could be appointed in 2014.

Challenges

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who tried hard to unite the Church over the issue, acknowledged that the move had put him in “an awkward position,” but said he respected the decision of those who wished to leave.

“I think the challenge will come in working out shared use of churches, of how we as Anglicans ‘recommend' people, and also of course there will be some parishes without priests,” he said.

The three ex-bishops — John Broadhurst, Andrew Burnham, and Keith Newton — are expected to be ordained as Catholic priests on January 15.

Father Broadhurst called it the “end of an era,” saying he approached the future with a touch of “excitement and a little bit of trepidation.”

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