CARDINAL Basil Hume, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, yesterday welcomed Anglicans who decide to become Roman Catholics because of the Church of England's decision to ordain women priests.
The move was hailed by triumphalist Catholics as beginning the last eclipse of the Church of England, but the Cardinal emphasised: 'We take no pleasure at all in the prospect of a weakened Church of England. It is important for the nation that the Church of England be strong.'
The Roman Catholic Church will have no difficulty with married former Anglican priests, the Cardinal said. There are eight married Roman Catholic priests in Britain, although none is employed as a parish priest.
The Cardinal's terms fell a long way short of the aspirations of some Anglo-Catholics who cannot accept the decision to ordain women. They had floated the idea of whole parishes and networks of priests moving en masse, and still using the Book of Common Prayer.
But after yesterday's statement, Anglican converts will have to be reconfirmed individually after going through a process of instruction and, if accepted as Roman Catholic priests, reordained. Though the Cardinal welcomed the prospect of Matins and Evensong from the Book of Common Prayer being said in Catholic churches, there will be no 'Anglican Rite' to enable new Roman Catholic parishes to continue worship as if nothing much had happened.
'Supposing,' the Cardinal said, 'and there isn't much evidence for it yet, a group or a parish wanted to come over, there would be no global reception. Religion doesn't work like that. But for those who do approach us as a group there will be a possibility of some temporary pastoral provision.'
The aim, for converts, said the Cardinal, stressing each word, would be their 'eventual total integration'.
The Cardinal said opposition to the ordination of women was not in itself a sufficient reason to become a Roman Catholic. 'Nobody can come and say 'I don't want a woman minister in my church so I want to become a Roman Catholic'. There is no question of becoming Catholics by accepting our teaching a la carte,' he said. 'You have to eat the menu - or go to another restaurant.'
In a commanding performance of great charm, peppered with jokes, the Cardinal restated the Catholic position that the priestly orders of Anglicans are 'utterly null and void'.
That refusal to accept they are priests now has held back many Anglican priests from conversion; and after he restated the traditional position, the cardinal softened the blow by adding that 'the Second Vatican Council had made clear that sacred actions done by ministers of other churches were effective and gave grace and could lead to salvation'.
In a joint statement, the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, and the Archbishop of York, John Habgood, welcomed the Cardinal's announcement as 'pastorally sensitive'. However, they believed a compromise being worked out by the Church of England's House of Bishops would provide a framework for opponents of women priests to 'retain a full and honoured place within the Church of England'.
The Rev Peter Geldard, a leading Anglo-Catholic enthusiast for a mass movement to the Roman Catholic Church, welcomed the Cardinal's statement and claimed as many as 250 priests or congregations would pass over to Rome.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies