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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.

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His American colleague, Archbishop Joseph Di Noia, Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, said after the press conference that he believed the number of bishops ready to convert was closer to 50.

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They would come from the United States, Australia, and the island nations of the Pacific, he said.

Cardinal Levada was asked whether the Vatican's new policy weakened the Anglican Church's standing.

"I would not dare to make a comment on that. After the long years of the British Empire, and the work of Anglican missionaries, the Anglican Communion is a diverse and very varied worldwide communion."

Under the new constitution, married Anglican priests will be allowed to enter the Catholic Church but will not be ordained as bishops.

Will African Anglicans move?

The initiative was in response to years of lobbying by Anglicans who had become disenchanted with Anglican liberalism, a dissatisfaction which reached a crisis point in 2004 when the Episcopal Church in the United States ordained the first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

That move and other liberal shifts, such as a Canadian diocese's willingness to bless same-sex unions, have been fiercely opposed by more conservative Anglicans, particularly in Africa.

The new framework was announced simultaneously in Rome and in London, where the head of the Church of England, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, said he did not see the Vatican move as "an act of aggression." (Read a Monitor profile of the archbishop here.)

Neither was it a vote of no confidence in the Anglican Church, he said, but a sign of maturity and understanding between the two faiths.

But Vatican commentators described it as a blow to the Anglican Communion. "For people who harbor the vision of Anglican unity, this will be a great disappointment," said Vatican analyst Francis X Rocca, of the Religion News Service.

"But it may also help to let off steam within the Anglican Church. If disaffected traditionalists leave, then they will lower the tensions over issues like gay marriage and women clergy."

Vatican expert John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter wrote in a blog post that while the opening by the Vatican had long been rumored, some Catholics feared "potentially negative repercussions in relations with the Anglican Communion – whose leadership might see it as 'poaching.'"

Why did a quarter of Anglican bishops boycott the church's summit last year?