The move surprised many as it was unveiled simultaneously in the Vatican and in London, where the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, was forced to admit that he had not known about it until a fortnight ago.

Pope Benedict’s initiative -- set out in an apostolic constitution, the highest form of pontifical decree, and unveiled by a senior Catholic cardinal -- allows Anglicans worldwide, both clergy and worshippers, to convert en masse while still maintaining part of their spiritual heritage.

Both Williams and the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, who was sitting next to him in a show of unity, refused to concede that the Vatican was passing judgment on the troubles within the Anglican communion.

“It is not an act of aggression, it is not a statement of no confidence. It is business as usual,” said Williams, who nevertheless apologised to Anglicans that there had not been prior debate. The Vatican sought no input from Lambeth Palace. The papal decree comes after many years of approaches to the Vatican from Anglicans unhappy with the ordination of women and gay people.

There was scarce detail about how the new structure would work -- there could be separate services in Roman Catholic churches for breakaway Anglicans, though control would lead back to Rome. It creates not so much a church within a church as an enclave operating under the auspices of the Vatican. The most significant part of the decree is that it will allow married Anglican clergy to be ordained as Roman Catholic priests, waiving the requirement of celibacy.

The pope’s chief theological adviser, the U.S. cardinal William Levada, said that he would put the number of Anglican bishops in the world who were poised to become Catholics “in the 20s or 30s.” Later, Joseph Di Noia, the deputy head of the Vatican’s liturgical department, said he believed the figure was closer to 50.

Williams appeared on Tuesday alongside Archbishop Nichols in Eccleston Square, the central London administrative HQ of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, and there were awkward moments. When Williams was asked if the Vatican move was a “massive vote of no confidence” in his leadership, it was Nichols who jumped in with an answer. Several times they both said the apostolic constitution was not a commentary on the internal disputes ravaging the world’s second biggest Christian denomination -- despite years of Roman consternation over the ordination of women and gay people.

At an Anglican conference last year several cardinals swooped into Canterbury to air their concerns about the impact such innovations would have on relations between the two churches and how undesirable an Anglican schism would be.

But on Tuesday in a basement room, faced with the press, Williams was optimistic and resolute, though his complexion reddened. “I do not think this constitution will be seen as in any sense a commentary on Anglican problems offered by the Vatican. It is a response to this range of requests and inquiries from a very broad variety of people. 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.”

Williams was also forced to reveal his ignorance about the move to Anglican bishops and archbishops, a number of whom are dissatisfied with his leadership. In a letter he wrote: “I am sorry that there has been no opportunity to alert you earlier to this; I was informed of the planned announcement at a very late stage, and we await the text of the apostolic constitution ... in the coming weeks.”

Two bishops from a prominent Anglo-Catholic movement in the U.K., Forward in Faith, welcomed the apostolic constitution, but said it was not a time for “sudden decisions or general public discussion.”

The bishops of Ebbsfleet and Richborough, who provide pastoral and spiritual care for people opposed to women bishops, also confirmed their 2008 meeting with Vatican officials, an event previously denied by Lambeth Palace.

They said some would want to stay in the Anglican Communion, while others would make arrangements according to their conscience. They said they had chosen February 22 “to be an appropriate day for priests and people to make an initial decision as to whether they wish to respond positively” to the apostolic constitution.

“We were becoming increasingly concerned that the various agendas of the Anglican communion were driving Anglicans and Roman Catholics further apart. It was our task, we thought, to take the opportunity of quietly discussing these matters in Rome. We were neither the first nor the last Anglicans to do this in recent years. Following the decision of the General Synod of the Church of England in July 2008 to proceed with the ordination of women ... we appealed to the Holy Father and have patiently awaited a reply.” The initiative is not without problems for the Vatican. The Catholic Church will accept married Anglican vicars who agree to be reordained, just as it includes married priests of the so-called Uniate churches that belong to the Orthodox rite. But, like the Orthodox, it draws the line at married bishops.

However, under the arrangements Anglicans can be taken into so-called “personal ordinariates” in each country, similar to military chaplaincies. Each would be headed by a former Anglican prelate, who does not have to become a bishop in the Catholic Church, and so could be married.

By accepting numbers of married clergy, some with the responsibilities and status of bishops, the Vatican risks reigniting the debate among Catholics over its insistence on celibacy for the vast majority of its priests who belong to the western, or Latin, rite. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009

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