Religious Affairs Correspondent, The Daily Telegraph
Leading traditionalist bishops in the Anglican Church have secretly told senior Vatican officials that they are ready to defect to Rome, taking clergy with them.
In a move likely to raise tensions between the two Churches, a group of Church of England bishops met last week with advisers of Pope Benedict XVI to set in motion steps that would allow priests to convert to Catholicism en masse.
They are set to resign their orders in opposition to the introduction of women bishops and to lead an exodus of Anglican clerics to the Catholic Church despite Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, urging them not to leave.
It would be the first time for nearly 20 years that large numbers of priests have crossed from the Church of England to Rome, and comes only weeks ahead of a crucial General Synod debate on making women bishops.
The Sunday Telegraph has learnt that bishops travelled to the Holy See last week to hold face to face discussions with senior members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the most powerful of the Vatican’s departments.
The Rt Rev John Broadhurst, the Rt Rev Keith Newton and the Rt Rev Andrew Burnham, the bishops of Fulham, Richborough and Ebbsfleet respectively, are understood to have informed senior Catholic officials that Church of England clergy are keen to defect to Rome.
It is the first significant response to the Papal offer made last year, which opened the doors for Anglicans to convert while retaining key elements of their tradition.
The Most Rev Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, was unaware of the summit, which is likely to prove embarrassing to the Catholic Church ahead of the Pope’s visit to Britain later this year as it will rekindle fears that it is trying to poach Anglican clergy.
One source close to last week’s discussions said that the Anglican bishops raised concerns with the Vatican officials that there is opposition to them defecting from Catholic bishops in England.
Nevertheless, they made clear they have become so disillusioned with the Church’s liberal direction that they are keen to accept the Pope’s offer if they can finalise plans to implement it.
The Vatican summit will raise the stakes at the General Synod in July when the Church of England’s parliament will vote on how to treat traditionalist clergy opposed to the introduction of women bishops.
Although the number of priests who have openly said that they plan to defect has been small so far, the group is likely to grow if they are not given adequate provisions.
A leading Anglican cleric said: ‘This will seriously embarrass the Pope.
‘It’s a plot within the Vatican that they are desperate to keep quiet until they are ready to go public.
‘Many will see this as proof that the Catholic Church is intent on poaching clergy from the Church of England despite its reassurances to the contrary.’