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50 Anglican priests 'to defect to Catholic church'

Around 50 Anglican priests are expected to defect to the Roman Catholic Church next year, Catholic leaders said today.

The clergy have registered their interest in a Vatican scheme for disaffected Anglicans and will undergo training and formation for priesthood in the Catholic Church.

The details emerged after it was announced last week that three serving bishops and two retired bishops will enter the ordinariate, which allows members of the Church of England to join the Roman Catholic Church while maintaining aspects of their spiritual heritage.

It comes after the Archbishop of Canterbury warned that some parishes will be left without priests as disaffected Anglicans switch to Rome.

Dr Rowan Williams said vicars "jumping ship" through the ordinariate would pose a practical challenge.

Speaking to Vatican Radio yesterday during a visit to Rome, he said: "There will be at least some parishes which will now be without priests, so we have a practical challenge here and there to supply."

Archbishop Vincent Nichols, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, told a press conference following a plenary meeting of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England that he did not feel guilty about the defection of Anglican clergy.

He referred to the Archbishop of Canterbury's comment that he did not view the scheme as an "aggressive act" and said the Catholic Church was responding to requests.

"This is a response to requests," he said. "It's very interesting that yesterday, speaking in Rome, Archbishop Rowan said he did not view this as an aggressive act, so I don't feel guilty.

"I think you have to be very sensitive to the point at which people arrive in their lives when they have a profound conviction about where and how they must live their Christian discipleship.

"It's out of respect for that imperative of conscience that all of this takes place.

"This is not a process of rivalry or competition between our two churches and, indeed, we believe that mutual strength is very important because we have a shared mission, because we have a shared task. We are not in competition over the task of trying to bring the gospel to this society."

The Archbishop said he hoped members of Anglican parishes losing priests and possibly part of the congregation to the Catholic Church would "understand" and "respect" their decision "as sensitively and profoundly as their Archbishop, the Archbishop of Canterbury, does".

The bishops who have confirmed they definitely intend to enter the ordinariate are the Rt Rev Andrew Burnham, Bishop of Ebbsfleet, the Rt Rev Keith Newton, Bishop of Richborough and the Bishop of Fulham, the Rt Rev John Broadhurst, the Roman Catholic Church said.

They will be joined by the Rt Rev Edwin Barnes, former bishop of Richborough, and the Rt Rev David Silk, former Bishop of Ballarat, Australia.

Bishop Alan Hopes, who is overseeing the implementation of the ordinariate, said around 30 groups are expected to feature in the initial establishment, although exact numbers are not yet known.

Setting out the timetable for the process, he told reporters the three serving bishops will join the Catholic Church "in full communion" in January and "soon afterwards" they will be ordained as Catholic priests.

The retired bishops will be ordained before Lent while other Anglican clergy and lay people who decide to defect will be received into the Catholic Church and confirmed during Holy Week, he said.

Former Anglican priests who are accepted will then be ordained following "rigorous formation" and training in Catholic clergy during a 12-week course and will be expected to continue their studies following ordination.

He said priests and their "faithful" who had expressed interest had already begun preparing.

It is not yet known how many more priests will decide to move across as the scheme is established, but the Catholic Church is seeking to put together a fund to finance it in its early days, with the Archbishop of Westminster saying his diocese had pledged £250,000 to the ordinariate.

Decisions and issues such as housing and locations would be made on a local basis and Archbishop Nichols denied the Catholic Church was "seeking to acquire property" in the form of buildings belonging to the Church of England.

A statement issued by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales said: "In responding generously and offering a warm welcome to those seeking full ecclesial communion with the Catholic Church within the ordinariate, the bishops know that the clergy and faithful who are on that journey of faith will bring their own spiritual treasures which will further enrich the spiritual life of the Catholic Church in England and Wales."