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(RNS) The Vatican released on Monday (Nov. 9) rules for Anglican converts that allows them to retain traditional forms of worship and governance, but limits the Anglican practice of a married priesthood.
In an historic move last month (Oct.) the Vatican announced plans to facilitate the conversion of Anglican conservatives upset with their church’s increasing acceptance of homosexuality and female clergy.
Under the new rules, Anglican clergy who are already married will be eligible for ordination as Catholic priests — but not as bishops — within the new structures, unless they have divorced and remarried.
The new provision does not allow for the perpetuation of a married priesthood, which some Anglicans have called a condition of their conversion to Rome. But according to the rules released Monday, leaders of the new dioceses may ask the pope for permission to ordain married men as priests “on a case by case basis.”
The Vatican’s acceptance of certain married Anglican priests led some progressive Catholics to speculate that the church would revise its centuries-old policy on priestly celibacy. Not so, the Vatican said Monday.
“The possibility envisioned by the Apostolic Constitution for some married clergy … does not signify any change in the Church’s discipline of clerical celibacy,” the Vatican said.
New Catholic dioceses called “personal ordinariates” will be set up by the Vatican’s doctrinal office, in consultation with national bishops conferences, wherever there is sufficient demand.
Each diocese will be headed by a former Anglican clergyman, who will exercise an administrative and leadership role equivalent to that of a bishop. Unmarried men in such positions will also be eligible for ordination as Catholic bishops, giving them the power to ordain new priests.
The Vatican’s qualified exception for ordaining married men as priests most likely will apply to men who have already started their preparation in Anglican seminaries, said Monsignor William H. Stetson, an American who has personally supervised the conversion of approximately 100 Episcopal priests since the early 1980s.
Eliminating one loophole for married clergy, the rules make former Catholic priests who have converted to Anglicanism ineligible for re-ordination in the new dioceses.
Members of the new dioceses will be able to preserve many of the Anglican liturgical, musical and devotional traditions developed over the more than 450 years since the Church of England split from Rome.
Also in keeping with Anglican tradition, priests and lay people will take a larger role in governing the new structures than is normally the case within the Catholic Church.
For instance, a Governing Council of priests will propose all candidates to serve as head of their diocese; and the council’s approval will be required for the ordination of new priests and the establishment of new parishes. The heads of the new dioceses must also establish pastoral councils to solicit the advice of lay faithful.
The Vatican’s decision to facilitate the en masse conversion of Anglicans represents a major shift in Catholic-Anglican relations after more than four decades of ecumenical dialogue aimed at restoring “full and visible unity” between the two churches.
“The Vatican seems to be going back to an earlier model of Christian unity, in which the path is for all to admit their errors and return to Rome,” said the Rev. R. William Franklin, academic fellow at the Anglican Center in Rome and a visiting professor at the Vatican’s Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas.
A statement from the Vatican accompanying the new rules insisted that “ecumenical dialogue … continues to be a priority for the Catholic Church.” The future of that dialogue is likely to be the focus of discussion when Archbishop Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the 77-million member Anglican Communion, meets with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on Nov. 21.
The Anglican Communion has been deeply divided in recent years by a growing acceptance of homosexuality in its North American branches, including the consecration of a gay bishop in New Hampshire and the blessing of same-sex unions in a number of dioceses.
Meanwhile, more than 1,000 Anglican priests have threatened to leave the Church of England — the mother church of the worldwide communion — if it begins to ordain women bishops.
On Monday, that church’s top ecumenical official insisted that dialogue with Rome would continue.
“The Vatican response to certain requests from individuals and groups across the world does not deflect us from… (our) longstanding commitment to seeking the unity of all the churches, including the Roman Catholic Church,” said Bishop Christopher Hill, chairman of the Church of England’s Council for Christian Unity, in a statement.
Representatives of the British province of the Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC) voted unanimously last month to pursue “corporate reunion … with the Holy See” in a personal ordinariate. Although the TAC claims to have 400,000 members worldwide, its British branch reportedly has only about 20 parishes. Its resolution was apparently the first formal move by any Anglican group to accept the Vatican’s new offer.
By FRANCIS X. ROCCA
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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