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VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI will meet with the Archbishop of Canterbury next month in the leaders’ first encounter since the Catholic church moved to make it easier for disenchanted Anglicans to convert to Catholicism, a Vatican spokesman said Friday.
Archbishop Rowan Williams, the Anglican leader, was already due to visit Rome in November for ceremonies at a pontifical university to honor a late cardinal who worked for Christian unity, said the spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi. Taking advantage of the archbishop’s presence in Rome, Benedict will receive Williams on Nov. 21 at the Vatican, Lombardi said in a telephone interview.
The Vatican’s move, announced last week, to ease Anglican conversions to Catholicism is designed to entice traditionalists opposed to women bishops, openly gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions in the church headed by Williams.
Given the surprise overture to potential converts, the talks between Benedict and Williams “take on a particularly important significance,” said Lombardi. But he stressed that Williams has met with the pontiff during past trips to Rome and indicated that the two would have likely met even without the recent developments.
The Anglican church is grappling with deep doctrinal divisions that threaten to cause a permanent schism among its faithful.
The Vatican move means conservative Anglicans worldwide can become Catholics while maintaining aspects of Anglican liturgy and identify, including married priests.
Before the announcement, disaffected Anglicans had come over to Catholicism on a case-by-case basis, but the Vatican decision set up a formal structure to make it easier for Anglicans to convert. The Vatican says it is responding to many requests over the years from Anglicans disillusioned with the progressive turn of the Anglican Communion.
Anglicans split with Rome win 1534 when English King Henry VIII was denied a marriage annulment by the Vatican. The Anglican Communion includes the Episcopalian Church in the United States.
For decades, the Anglican church has been divided over how to interpret the Bible on many issues, including ordination of women, and the rift was widened with the consecration in 2003 of V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire as the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop.
Benedict has made efforts aimed at Christian unity a priority of his pontificate.
When the pope and Williams held private talks at the Vatican in November 2006, they acknowledged there were “serious obstacles” to closer ties between their churches, a blunt reference to Vatican disapproval of gay bishops, women priests and blessings of same-sex unions in the Anglican church.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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