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Anglican bishops say they are in talks with Vatican over defection to Catholic Church

LONDON (AP) — Three Church of England bishops traveled to Rome last week for talks with Vatican officials about joining the Catholic Church, according to two of the bishops involved.

The bishops told The Associated Press they went to the Vatican to find out more about Pope Benedict XVI's decision to invite disaffected Anglicans to join the Catholic Church — a sensitive issue which has roiled relations between the two denominations and threatens to overshadow the pontiff's visit to London later this year.

The Vatican's spokesman said he had no information about the meeting.

Rev. Keith Newton, the bishop of Richborough, said the trip consisted of "nothing more than exploratory talks" and denied a report in The Sunday Telegraph that he and his colleagues had secretly promised the Vatican they were ready to defect to Rome.

"No decisions have been made," he said.

The Vatican surprised many Britons last year when it unveiled plans to make it easier for traditional Anglicans upset over female priests and gay bishops to join the Catholic Church. The two issues have already pushed the Anglican Communion to the edge of a schism, and the Vatican's intervention prompted some critics to say that Rome was poaching from the Anglican flock at a vulnerable time for the 80 million-strong religious body.

Benedict has defended the decision, saying the invitation was made in the spirit of ecumenism.

Anglicans split from Rome in the 16th century after England's King Henry VIII was refused a marriage annulment. For decades, the two churches have held theological discussions on trying to reunite, part of the Vatican's broader, long-term effort to unify all Christians who have separated from Rome over the centuries.

While the Vatican's offer made in October has yet to be taken up en masse, it has been warmly welcomed by several traditionalist bishops, including Newton, who traveled to Rome two years ago following the Church of England's decision to proceed with the ordination of women to the episcopate.

Newton was joined in his most recent trip by Rev. Andrew Burnham, the bishop of Ebbsfleet, and Rev. John Broadhurst, the bishop of Fulham.

Burnham did not immediately return a call seeking comment, but Broadhurst also confirmed that the trip had taken place, although he declined to say what was discussed.

"I don't want to be drawn on it," he said, explaining that the issue "can damage both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church."

The Church of England also refuses to speak publicly about the issue, saying only that conversion is a matter for individual Christians to decide.

As for the latest trip, church spokesman Ben Wilson said the church had no knowledge of it "and we'd have no comment to make on it anyway." A Vatican spokesman also said he had no information on the meeting.

Benedict is due in England in September for an unprecedented four-day visit, where he is due to preside at the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman — a prominent 19th century convert to Catholicism.

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Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Turin, Italy, contributed to this report.