Churchgoers in almost 300 parishes that disapprove of women priests may take advantage of Pope Benedict XVI’s offer to change denomination if their “flying bishops” lead the way.
However the Church of England is expected to make a last-ditch attempt to stop the disillusioned groups leaving, by offering them concessions over the introduction of female bishops.
The Church of England clergy who held talks with members of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are “flying bishops”, who provide “episcopal oversight” to parishes that cannot accept women priests.
Anglican clergy who resign their priestly orders, even those who are married, could become Catholic priests under the terms of the unprecedented “poaching” offer made last year.
However not all of the traditionalists in the Church of England will cross over, as some will feel unable to accept the more rigid structure of the Catholic church or the power of the Pope.
In addition, many may be persuaded to stay in July when the General Synod, the Church of England’s governing body, holds a critical meeting to decide how to make the historic step of ordaining women bishops.
Detailed plans – due to be published this month – are unlikely to include substantial provisions for traditionalists who oppose female leadership in the church but Synod could alter the plans in order to prevent an exodus of Anglo-Catholics.
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Mirroring the renewed drive in the US to combat polygamy, Nigeria’s Anglican leader has this week told the country’s many Christian polygamists that the time has come to give up their extra wives.
In a letter to the faithful, Archbishop Peter Akinola warned the issue could “make a mockery” of the church. Until now, converts to Christianity have been allowed to keep their polygamous relationships.
Bishop Ali Buba Lamido said that it was difficult to convert polygamous Muslims to Christianity unless they could keep their wives, while Bishop Ali Buba of the Wusasa diocese in northern Kaduna State said 10% of some congregations in the north can be in polygamous marriages.
As with Sudan, Nigeria is deeply divided between the mostly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian and animist south.
The archbishop’s letter comes ahead of the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops in July. Even though a significant proportion of its population is not Christian, Africa’s most populous country’s sheer size means that Nigeria is a major power in the Anglican church. With 17.5 million members, the Nigerian Anglican Church is the second largest in the communion.
“Those of us who are in the forefront of the prophetic call for a return to Biblical truth cannot close our eyes to the increasingly blatant disregard for the teaching of the Bible on family life,” wrote the archbishop. “The observation will destroy our witness if not firmly addressed. We cannot claim to be a Bible-believing church yet be selective in our obedience.”
Bishop Lamido said polygamous converts are prevented from taking leadership positions in the church until they accept monogamy. If they do separate, the women usually give up their children to the care of their ex-husbands.
“These women remain in the church and can remarry, but mostly decide to remain single. It is often difficult for them to restart family life,” he said.
Archbishop Akinola has led opposition by some European and American Anglicans to the ordaining of gay priests.
Critics of that stance have suggested that the archbishop’s letter may be an attempt to head off criticism about “unscriptural practices” in his own backyard.