WASHINGTON — In a remarkable bid to attract disillusioned members of the Anglican Communion, the Vatican announced Tuesday that it would establish a special arrangement that would allow Anglicans to join the Catholic Church while preserving their liturgy and spiritual heritage, including married priests.
The worldwide Anglican Communion, which includes the 2.3 million-member U.S. Episcopal Church, has been racked by years of conflict over the interpretation of Scripture that has led to clashes over female clergy and, recently, the rights of gays to serve as clergy.
The Catholic Church plan "reflects a bold determination by Rome to seize the moment and do what it can to reach out to those who share its stance on women priests and homosexuality," said Ian Markham, dean of the Virginia Theological Seminary, an Episcopal seminary in Alexandria, Va. "It is very, very bold and very interesting."
The new system will enable the Catholic Church to capitalize on tensions within the Anglican Communion and make potentially large inroads into its worldwide network of 80 million members. The Anglican Communion broke from the Catholic Church in 1534, when England's King Henry VIII was denied a marriage annulment.
In more recent times, Anglicans and the Catholic Church have made attempts to reconcile, but Tuesday's move could jeopardize those efforts, theologians said.
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 Levada, the Vatican's chief doctrinal official.
Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury and Anglican spiritual leader, said the move "is not an act of aggression. . . . It is business as usual."