The Vatican said it will make it far easier for disgruntled Anglicans to convert to Catholicism, in one of Rome's most sweeping gestures to a Protestant church since the Reformation.
A newly created set of canon laws, known as an "Apostolic Constitution," will clear the way for entire congregations of Anglican faithful to join the Catholic Church. That represents a potentially serious threat to the already fragile world-wide communion of national Anglican churches, which has about 77 million members globally.
The Anglican Communion has been strained by fights over its relations with other Christian denominations and the church's growing acceptance of gay and women clergy and same-sex marriage. The 2003 election of an openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the movement, has sharpened those tensions.
The move comes nearly five centuries after King Henry VIII broke with Rome and proclaimed himself head of the new Church of England after being refused permission to divorce.
In a news conference Tuesday, Cardinal William Levada, head of the Vatican's office on doctrine, described the measures as a step in the Holy See's long efforts to heal the rift between Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism. He said they are a response to requests from Anglicans around the world seeking to join the Catholic Church.
Such requests have grown with the Anglicans' embrace of liberal theological doctrine, starting with the ordination of women priests in the 1970s.
The Vatican stressed that Pope Benedict XVI, who plans to visit the U.K. next year, wasn't seeking to poach from the Anglicans. The two churches have for decades been engaged in formal dialogue aimed at healing the wounds of the schism.
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Communion, issued a statement with Vincent Gerard Nichols, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, that described the announcement as an "end to uncertainty for such groups who have nurtured hopes of new ways of embracing unity with the Catholic Church."
Still, the announcement appeared to catch Anglican leaders off guard. Hours after it was made, Archbishop Williams sent a letter to Anglican bishops expressing concern over any confusion the news may cause them.
"I was informed of the planned announcement at a very late stage, and we await the text of the Apostolic Constitution itself and its code of practice in the coming weeks," Archbishop Williams wrote. "It remains to be seen what use will be made of this provision, since it is now up to those who have made requests to the Holy See to respond to the Apostolic Constitution."
The Right Rev. Michael Scott-Joynt, the Anglican Bishop of Winchester and co-chair of the English Anglican-Roman Catholic Committee, said the new measures went outside the "mainstream" of Vatican-Anglican dialogue, adding that he, too, was told of the measures at a "very late stage."
The move comes amid disarray within the Anglican Communion, the world's third-largest Christian communion after Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. The 2003 election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay Episcopal bishop in New Hampshire, drove a wedge between conservatives and liberals in the U.S. that has inflamed tensions globally. Church leaders in Africa, the continent with by far the most Anglicans today, have openly criticized their counterparts in the U.S and called on Archbishop Williams to discipline them.
In the past two years, four U.S. dioceses -- in San Joaquin, Calif.; Quincy, Ill.; Fort Worth, Texas; and Pittsburgh -- have voted to split from the Episcopal Church. They have set up a rival province, the Anglican Church in North America. Individual parishes also have chosen to leave the national body.
The response to the Vatican move from the U.S. Episcopal Church, which has about two million members, was muted. "We are in dialogue with the Archbishop's office and will, in the coming days, continue to explore the full implications of this in our ecumenical relations," said Bishop Christopher Epting, deputy for ecumenical and interreligious relations. Bishop Robinson declined to comment, saying he hadn't had time to study the announcement.
The Anglican Church of North America, which represents the seceding church bodies, expressed support. "We rejoice that the Holy See has opened this doorway, which represents another step in the growing cooperation and relationship between our churches," said the Most Rev. Robert Wm. Duncan, the group's archbishop.
Still, the Rev. Jack Leo Iker, who leads the group that broke from the Episcopal Church of Fort Worth, said the Catholic proposal is likely to get a mixed reception.
"Not all Anglo-Catholics can accept certain teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, nor do they believe that they must first convert to Rome in order to be truly catholic Christians," the Rev. Iker said.
The new measures also raised questions in Rome. The Vatican so far hasn't released the text of the regulations governing the new Apostolic Constitution, leading some Catholic canon lawyers to question how Pope Benedict will square Anglican and Catholic teachings.
The Vatican has at times provided dispensations to non-Catholic married priests on an individual basis, including Anglicans and Lutherans. Eastern Rite Churches, which are in communion with the pope, ordain married men as priests.
Still, relaxing rules on priestly celibacy for a group as large as the Anglican Communion is more dramatic, said Eduardo Baura, a professor of canon law at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross and a consultant to the Holy See's Congregation for Bishops.
"The pope wants to make it easier to welcome these priests as Catholics," he said. "What I don't know is what will happen to future generations" of priests who might be ordained under the new system.
The Apostolic Constitution calls for the creation of new church structures, called Personal Ordinariates, that will operate under local Catholic dioceses and be administered by former Anglican clergy.