Two thousand traditional Anglicans in Canada have accepted Benedict XVI's invitation to join the Roman Catholic Church under an agreement that will allow them to keep their liturgy, have their own bishop but acknowledge the Pope's supremacy.
Bishop Peter Wilkinson of the Anglican Catholic Church of Canada said his tiny denomination -- which has 41 churches across the country -- has been pestering the Vatican for years to be taken in as a body. It was created by priests and lay Anglicans who refused to accept mainstream Canadian Anglicanism's decision in the 1970s to ordain women as priests.
Bishop Wilkinson, who lives in Victoria, called the Pope's decision to let groups of Anglicans join Rome en masse an "extremely generous offer . . . that just takes your breath away."
Benedict issued his invitation last October as fractures in the world Anglican Communion – global Christianity's third largest denomination – deepened over the role of women and homosexuals in the church.
The invitation was widely interpreted as a brick thrown through the window of Anglican-Catholic unity talks and an affront to Anglicanism's spiritual leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.
But both Rome and Dr. Williams have said there was consultation between the two leaders over the invitation and several church scholars have pointed out that the Pope was pulling a thorn out of Anglicanism's toe.
Church scholars also have noted that the invitation will appeal only to mainstream dissidents in the Anglo-Catholic, or high church, wing of Anglicanism, not the much more numerous opponents of liberal Anglicanism in the evangelical or low church wing.
The Anglican Church was created in England, as its name suggests, as a 16th century state church that with theological difficulty embraced both Catholics and Protestants. The tensions between the progressive middle and the two traditional flanks have been present throughout the church's life.
"It's a permanent divide," Bishop Wilkinson said.
A letter from Anglican Catholic Church of Canada sent to the Vatican last Friday asked the Pope's permission to form an interim governing council under Rome's authority that would propose one to three names as candidates for bishop.
The Vatican without comment made public the letter yesterday. It refers to a "positive response" from Rome to the denomination's request to become Catholic.
While the Pope's invitation would allow married priests to continue practising, their bishop would have to be celibate, said Bishop Wilkinson, who is celibate.
"I'm the only one, and I don't know what that bodes. I'm not even going to go there. I've been at this so long and I've got to summon up enough energy to see it through."