U.K. Bishops Defect to Catholic Church: A Sign of Crisis?

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The Achbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams supports the arm of Pope Benedict XVI as he leaves after addressing a meeting of Anglican and Roman Catholic Diocesan bishops of England, Scotland and Wales at Lambeth Palace on September 17, 2010 in London

When Pope Benedict XVI made his historic visit to the U.K. back in September, the images and message were all about peace, reconciliation and understanding between churches and faiths. His meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, on Sept. 17 was particularly seen as part of the long healing process between the Anglican church and the Vatican. Fast-forward seven weeks, and that process seems to have shuddered to a halt. On Nov. 8, five Church of England bishops announced that they have "defected" and will convert to Catholicism — sparking talk of the biggest crisis to hit the church since 1534, when Henry VIII needed to swap wives without the Vatican's consent and broke away from Rome.

Both the Pope and the Archbishop have been well aware of this simmering split for some time, but chose not to publicly highlight it during the papal visit, which was already being marred by demonstrations over Benedict's attitude to homosexuals and women — two of the very issues that have led to this latest fracture.

Indeed, the Pope had virtually ensured there would be defections by clergy who are steadfastly opposed to the ordination of women bishops, gay priests and gay marriage when, almost a year ago, he made it clear he was ready to offer a deal to allow disaffected Anglicans to convert to Catholicism without being forced to abandon all their traditions. The move was immediately branded as "poaching," with Williams expressing his "concerns" over the way it was handled and the lack of consultation.

But is this the start of an irreparable schism within the church, with large numbers of clergy and worshippers taking up the pope's offer — described by one bishop as an offer they couldn't refuse? Or is it a minor crack that will see only a few hard-line traditionalists breaking away, and perhaps allowing the rest to carry on in a more unified way?

The Archbishop appeared relatively relaxed over the affair when he issued a short, simple statement on Monday noting his "regret" at the bishops' decision. "We wish them well in this next stage of their service to the church," he added. "And I am grateful to them for their faithful and devoted pastoral labors in the Church of England over so many years."

But one of the bishops, John Broadhurst, told the Times of London he believes there will be significant further defections amongst the clergy and perhaps thousands of ordinary churchgoers. "There are lots of people interested," he said. "Some are actively looking at it. A lot of people are saying they will wait and see how it develops." Although it's a tough decision, he said, considering how Rome is not offering to replace the homes or salaries of any defectors, "I suspect thousands, not hundreds, of laity will go."

In the statement announcing their defection, the bishops declare that they feel recent developments in the church are incompatible with traditional Anglicanism. They argue, for example, that Jesus only chose men as his disciples so women should not become bishops. Campaigners such as Women and the Church (WATCH), however, point out that the church has regularly adapted its stance on controversial issues. Spokeswoman Rev Rosie Harper told the BBC: "That has been the story of the church. We worked out eventually that it wasn't God's will we should have slaves, and worked out we shouldn't be racist."

According to Church of England figures, there are 12,894 parishes in the U.K., of which 802 have refused to accept women celebrating holy communion and 966 refuse to accept a woman as a vicar. Two of the men taking up the pope's offer are so-called "flying bishops", so named because they were given the job of looking after those parishes that would not accept the ordination of women.

Rome, however, might prefer to see them as "homing bishops," returning to the Catholic Church and leading a flock of future returnees.