Pope Benedict XVI has paved the way for thousands of Anglicans worldwide to join the Roman Catholic Church while maintaining elements of their own spiritual heritage.
The Vatican said it had approved a new Apostolic Constitution allowing groups of Anglican clergy and faithful who wish to enter into full communion to do so while preserving elements of the distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical life.
The announcement comes after threats by traditionalists within the Church of England that they could leave over issues such as the consecration of women bishops and gay priests.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, speaking at a news conference yesterday with the leader of Catholics in England and Wales, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols, insisted the development did not damage relations between the two churches.
“I do not think this constitution will be seen as in any sense a commentary on Anglican problems offered by The Vatican,” he said.
“It is a response to this range of requests and inquiries from a very broad variety of people, either Anglican or of Anglican heritage, 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.”
Under the terms of the new constitution, groupings of Anglicans would be able to join so-called “personal ordinariates” allowing them to become Roman Catholics but at the same time preserve elements of the Anglican traditions including the possible use of Anglican prayer books.
The constitution would provide for the ordination of married former Anglican clergy as Catholic priests but would not allow for married bishops.
Dr Williams, who will visit Rome before Christmas, said the announcement did not disrupt “business as usual” in relations between the two churches.
He said it would be a “serious mistake” to view the development as a response to the difficulties within the Anglican Communion.
It was aimed at people who had reached a “conscientious conviction that visible unity with the Holy See was now what God was calling them to,” he said.
Dr Williams added that he was aware of approaches to the Holy See by groups such as the Traditional Anglican Communion, a network of former Anglicans who left the church some years ago.
He said others who had approached the Holy See included groups in the US and groups within the Anglican Communion who might been looking at their “options” should the Communion take any further steps they considered to be “problematic”.
“It is not a secret that in this country the ordination of women as bishops is one of those test issues,” he said.
Archbishop Nichols said the new constitution had been signed in response to groups of Anglicans who over the last “three or four years” had approached the Holy See with a desire to come into “full visible” Communion with the Catholic Church while having “some opportunity” to preserve elements of Anglican heritage.
He said the new personal ordinariates would be gatherings of Catholic lay people and clergy under the leadership of an “ordinary” — a person who has the power of jurisdiction within the Catholic community.
The new “ordinariate” would permit a “pattern of Catholic life” with space for some of the patrimony of the Anglican community that was “consistent with the Catholic faith”.
Any use of Anglican liturgical books would have to be approved by the Holy See, he said.
Dr Williams said: “For, I suppose, rather more than 150 years, more or less significant numbers of Anglicans have entered into visible Communion with the Roman Catholic Church.
“I do not see this as, in that sense, anything new.”