LONDON – About 50 Church of England priests have expressed interest in joining five of their bishops in converting to Roman Catholicism, a senior Catholic leader said Friday.
The Anglican defectors say they cannot accept the women as bishops, a step the Church of England is slowly approaching.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols, who heads the Catholic church in England and Wales, told a news conference that his church was responding to requests, and was not aggressively seeking converts among the Church of England's more than 19,000 priests.
"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," Nichols said.
"We are not in competition over the task of trying to bring the gospel to this society."
Three serving Church of England bishops and two retired bishops have announced that they will join the ordinariate created by Pope Benedict XVI to receive converts from the Church of England. Those joining the ordinariate will be allowed to retain some of their Anglican traditions, and married Church of England priests will be eligible to be ordained as Catholic priests.
It's unclear how many lay members might follow their priests and bishops to Roman Catholicism. Bishop Alan Hopes, who is overseeing the creation of the ordinariate, said about 30 groups are expected initially, but offered no precise numbers.
Church officials said the ordinariate would begin operating in January, and that the three non-retired bishops would probably be ordained soon afterward.
In an interview with Vatican Radio on Wednesday, the spiritual leader of the Church of England said he accepted that the ordinariate was not an aggressive move by the Catholic Church.
"It remains to be seen just how large a movement we are talking about," said Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury.
"I think the challenge will come in working out shared use of churches," Williams added, as well as the practical problem of replacing the priests who leave.
Earlier this month, Bishop of Ebbsfleet Andrew Burnham, Bishop of Richborough Keith Newton, Bishop of Fulham John Broadhurst and retired bishops Edwin Barnes and David Silk announced they were leaving the Church of England.
Burnham and Newton had served as "flying bishops" who minister to Church of England parishes where congregations won't accept a female priest. A third "flying bishop," Bishop of Beverley Martyn Jarrett, is supporting an initiative seeking to create a separate space for traditionalists within the Church of England.
The Church of England began ordaining women to the priesthood in 1994; 495 full-time male priests opposed to the change accepted financial settlements and resigned. Sixty-seven later came back, and the Church of England estimates that about 300 priests joined the Catholic Church.
In a typical year, the Church of England loses 300 to 400 full-time male priests to retirement, death or changes of job. Last year, 564 new male and female priests were ordained.
The Church of England has moved slowly toward authorizing women to serve a bishops, trying to bridge the demands of opponents for legal protection from submitting to a female bishop and the insistence of many women priests that this would make them second-class bishops.
The church's governing General Synod this year voted against any specific protection for traditionalists, offering a code of conduct instead. At the earliest, church officials say it will be 2014 before any woman becomes a bishop.