Five Anglican bishops announced Monday that they will accept an offer from Pope Benedict XVI to convert to Catholicism, primarily over their opposition to the Church of England's decision to ordain female bishops.
The five bishops, in a joint statement, spoke of their distress caused by developments in the Anglican Church that they felt were "incompatible with the historic vocation of Anglicanism and the tradition of the church for nearly 2,000 years."
Officials said a new arrangement for the bishops would be determined by the Vatican, which has moved to facilitate the switch to the Roman Catholic Church by traditional Anglican clergy upset by the acceptance of female priests or gay bishops. The Catholic Church plans to create an ordinariate under the Vatican's apostolic constitution Anglicanorum coetibus.
"With the ordinariate, canonical structures are being established through which we will bring our own experience of Christian discipleship into full communion with the Catholic Church throughout the world and throughout the ages," said serving bishops the Right Revs. Andrew Burnham of Ebbsfleet, Keith Newton of Richborough and John Broadhurst of Fulham and retired bishops the Right Revs. Edwin Barnes and David Silk.
After the Church of England General Synod meeting in July, the church's decision to move ahead to ordain female bishops triggered rebellion among traditionalists. The five bishops turned to Pope Benedict asking for a structure within the Catholic Church that would enable them to hold on to certain of their rituals and practices within the parameters of Roman Catholicism.
In a brief statement, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, as head of the Anglican Church, accepted "with regret" the five resignations. "We wish them well in this next stage of their service to the church and I am grateful to them for their faithful and devoted pastoral labors in the Church of England over many years."
Burnham, who, like the other bishops converting to the Catholic Church, is married, told the BBC their decision went beyond the issue of female bishops.
"It's bigger than that," he said. "It's the question of whether the Anglican Church is, as it says it is, part of the universal church going back to the time of Jesus, or whether it is going off in its own way and making up its own rules. And we think it's going off in its own way … and we therefore need to belong to the older body."
He expects other Anglicans will also convert to Catholicism, though at least initially not in large numbers. "I don't think there'll be flood … so much is at stake, people losing their homes, their livelihoods, their pensions … inevitably the first wave will be quite small."
In Rome, the pope on Monday called a meeting of cardinals for Nov. 19 to discuss and issue statements on, among other things, a response to sexual abuse within the church and the constitution Anglicanorum coetibus.
Bishop Alan Hopes of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales and episcopal delegate for the implementation of the Anglicanorum coetibus welcomed the bishops' decision "to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church."
Stobart is a staff writer in The Times' London Bureau.