The Roman Catholic Church made a stunning policy reversal on Tuesday in a move to attract thousands of traditional Anglicans who have become disaffected by a growing acceptance of gays and women priests and bishops.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams admitted that he was surprised when he heard that Pope Benedict XVI announced a new “Apostolic Constitution” to provide a legal framework for the many thousands of Anglicans and former Anglicans who wish “to enter into full visible communion with the Roman Catholic Church.”

The announcement paves the way for thousands of Anglicans worldwide to join the Roman Catholic church while maintaining elements of their own spiritual heritage.

Although Williams knew that talks had been taking place in Rome, he was unaware until two weeks ago of the radical nature of the proposals being drawn up by the Vatican.

Cardinal William Joseph Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who hosted a simultaneous press conference in Rome this morning, visited London only last weekend to inform Williams and the English Catholic bishops of what was being proposed.

Normally, talks between the two churches are conducted under the auspices of the Holy See’s Council for Christian Unity and it is significant that they have been left out of the new plans.

The constitution, a canonical structure, will provide “personal ordinariates” that will allow Anglicans to “set up church” within the Catholic church while retaining elements of their former ecclesiastical identity, such as Anglican liturgies and vestments.

Click here for more from the Times of London.