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Vatican welcome to Anglicans boldest move since Reformation

The Vatican on Tuesday opened the way for Anglican communities to switch allegiance en masse. Hundreds of thousands of Anglicans angry over the church's liberal stance on women and gays may convert.

By Correspondent / October 20, 2009

Britain's Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, left, from the Anglican church listens as Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols from the Roman Catholic Church speaks during a news conference in London, held in reaction to the announcement of a new church structure for Anglicans who want to join the Catholic Church, Tuesday.

Matt Dunham/AP

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Vatican City

The Vatican launched an historic initiative Tuesday to make it easier for disgruntled Anglicans worldwide to join the Roman Catholic Church. The church said the move was not a swipe at the Anglicans but it could nevertheless result in hundreds of thousands of churchgoers unhappy with openly gay and female clerics defecting to Rome.

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Pope Benedict XVI gave his approval to a new framework to bring back into the fold Anglicans who oppose their church's liberal stance on gay marriage and the ordination of women priests and gay bishops while allowing them to retain some of their separate religious traditions.

The move comes nearly 500 years after Henry VIII's desire for a divorce led him to break with Rome and proclaim himself as the head of the newly formed Church of England in 1534. The framework is the Vatican's most sweeping gesture toward any schismatic church since the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century and the Thirty Years' War that followed it in the 17th century. That war ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which acknowledged the right of monarchs rather than the Vatican to determine their national faiths, prompting Pope Innocent X to declare the document "null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, empty of meaning and effect for all time."

Over the centuries, relations between the various Christian faiths have improved and both Anglican and Catholic leaders were at pains on Tuesday to say that warming relations between the two churches will not be affected by the new plan. But both churches have been struggling to retain adherents in recent years, particularly in the developed world, with poorer countries their only growth spots.

Individual Anglicans have long been free to convert to Catholicism, as former British prime minister Tony Blair did after leaving office in 2007. But the so-called Apostolic Constitution will enable entire Anglican communities to transfer their allegiance en masse.

The pope was responding to "numerous requests to the Holy See from groups of Anglican clergy and faithful in various parts of the world who want to enter into full and visible communion" with the Catholic Church, Cardinal William Joseph Levada told a news conference. He is the American head of the Vatican's doctrinal body.

Vatican officials declined to say how many of the world's 77 million Anglicans might take the opportunity to convert to Catholicism.

Anglican conservatives

The Traditional Anglican Communion, a vocal group of 400,000 conservatives who split from the Anglican Communion in 1991, are expected to move towards Rome.

"We have had requests from large groups, in the hundreds," said Cardinal Levada. "If I had to say a number of bishops, I would say it's in the twenties or thirties."

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