"I am sorry that there has been no opportunity to alert you earlier to this; I was informed of the planned announcement at a very late stage." Those words begin the second paragraph of a letter that Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, sent to all the bishops of the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion. The letter was transmitted shortly after Williams appeared at a press conference with Vincent Nichols, the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, where they announced to a stunned Christendom that Pope Benedict XVI would provide a canonical structure for traditional Anglicans to enter the Catholic Church.
Provision will be made to accept already-married Anglican priests into the Catholic priesthood as well as establish leadership of these traditional Anglican communities outside of the standard Catholic diocesan structure. For a pontiff such as Benedict, whose stated goals include encouraging union with various portions of Christianity that have fallen away since the East-West Schism of 1054, this is a massively important ecumenical step, perhaps the most important since the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.
On past occasions, provisions have been made for very specific instances involving very specific problems. Here, however, the pope has created an open-ended process at the request of leadership of the traditional Anglican communion.
Simultaneous to the press conference in London with Williams and Nichols, an availability was held in Rome with William Cardinal Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – Rome’s chief doctrinal officer and Archbishop Augustine DiNoia, O.P., a scholarly Dominican and Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments – the No. 2 official responsible for all liturgical matters. Levada and DiNoia explained the process, years in the making, and how "intake" would occur.
Necessarily, the Anglicans who decide to join the Catholic Church will have to recognize the primacy of the pope, as opposed to the archbishop of Canterbury, whose leadership over the worldwide Anglican Communion has been tenuous at best over the past few years.
Fissures have been developing within this loose confederation of churches over issues such as homosexuality among clergy and the ordination of women. These defections by and large involve disputes over the failure of Anglican leadership to take strong stands on any side of these controversial topics.
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