First group of Anglican bishops to convert to Rome

November 8, 2010

williams benedict

(Photo:  Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Pope Benedict celebrate evening prayer at Westminster Abbey in London September 17, 2010/Richard Pohle)

Five Church of England bishops opposed to the ordination of women bishops will take up an offer by Pope Benedict and convert to Roman Catholicism, heralding a possible exodus of traditionalist Anglicans.

The bishops will enter full communion with Rome through an ordinariate, a body proposed by the pope last October to let traditionalists convert while keeping some Anglican traditions, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales announced.

The ordinariate will let married clerics become Catholic priests, in an exception to the Vatican’s celibacy rule, but not bishops. Married Anglican bishops who convert may be granted a special status almost equivalent to their former rank.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, head of the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion, accepted the resignations of two bishops directly under his authority, Andrew Burnham and Keith Newton, “with regret.” He wished them well “in this next stage of their service to the Church.”

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference said in a statement: “We welcome the decision of Bishops Andrew Burnham, Keith Newton, John Broadhurst, Edwin Barnes and David Silk to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church through the Ordinariate for England and Wales, which will be established under the provisions of the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus.

“At our plenary meeting next week, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales will be exploring the establishment of the Ordinariate and the warm welcome we will be extending to those who seek to be part of it. Further information will be made known after the meeting.”

One of the departing prelates, Bishop Andrew Burnham of Ebbsfleet, told BBC television the women bishops issue was part of a wider problem they had with the Church of England claim to belong to the universal Church founded by Jesus that includes the far larger and older Roman Catholic Church.

“We are accepting the invitation,” he said, noting the dispute was bigger than just the women bishops question. “Women bishops is a presenting issue, but it’s the question of whether the Anglican church is, as it says it is, is part of the universal church going back to the time of Jesus or whether it is going off in its own way and making its own rules. We think it is going off in its own way and making up its own rules and we therefore need to belong to the older body.”

Read the full news story here.

Struggles over female and gay bishops, same-sex marriage and authority in the church have split the 80-million-strong Anglican Communion, pitting mostly British and North American liberals against more traditional churches in Africa and Asia. This has also strained individual churches, such as the Church of England, where traditionalists no longer feel welcome. Some conservatives in the United States have left the Episcopal Church there to form breakaway Anglican networks. Several small groups in the United States, Australia and Canada have applied to form an ordinariate in their countries, but none have been accepted by the Vatican yet.

The bishops’ departure was announced two days after Gene Robinson, whose consecration as Anglicanism’s  first openly gay bishop opened a deep rift in the Anglican Communion, said he planned to retire in 2013. His election as Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 led some conservative Episcopalians to form their own church and stoked a backlash among Anglican churches in regions such as Africa.

In remarks to the New Hampshire Diocese’s annual convention that were posted on its website, Robinson, 63, said the strains of the controversy surrounding his role figured in his decision. “The fact is, the last seven years have taken their toll on me, my family and you,” he said. “Death threats, and the now-worldwide controversy surrounding your election of me as bishop, have been a constant strain.”

In May, the 2 million-member Episcopal Church ordained a second gay bishop, Mary Douglas Glasspool in Los Angeles, despite a request by the Communion not to do so.

Also on Monday, the Vatican announced that Cardinal William Levada, its top doctrinal official, would make an announcement on November 19 about the ordinariates to accept converting Anglican priests during a meeting of cardinals in Rome.

The CoE has set up a new group  new group, the Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda, for traditionalists who wanted to stay Anglican, but it’s not clear whether this will have much effect.

Archbishop of Canterbury Williams was quite diplomatic when the pope first made his offer to disaffected Anglicans, and he has since visited the Vatican and hosted Pope Benedict at Lambeth Palace and Westminster Abbey during the papal visit to Britain in September. But he was also rather blunt last month in an interview with The Hindu during a trip to India:

“I was very taken aback that this large step was put before us without any real consultation. And it did seem to me, in some inexplicable way, that some bits of the Vatican didn’t communicate with other bits. Overall it seemed to me a pastoral provision for certain people who couldn’t accept where the Church of England was going, a pastoral provision which didn’t in itself affect the relations between the two Churches, between mainstream Churches. But it caused some ripples because I think there was widespread feeling that it would have been better to consult. There were questions that could have been asked and answered and dealt with together. And as this is now being implemented, we are trying to make sure that there is a joint group which will keep an eye on how it’s going to happen. In England, the relations between the Church of England and Roman Catholic Bishops are very warm and very close. I think we are able to work together on this and not find it a difficulty.”

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