WASHINGTON — The announcement that a path is opening for possibly thousands of Anglicans to join the Catholic Church was met with excitement. But it’s still too early to tell how things will work out.

The New York Times reported that at least one American Episcopal pastor and his 400-member congregation in Philadelphia are ready to convert en masse as soon as the Vatican completes a new apostolic constitution setting up jurisdictions called personal ordinariates for Anglicans who wish to unite with Rome.

“We’d been praying for this daily for two years,” Bishop David Moyer, pastor of Church of the Good Shepherd, told the Times.

But American observers wonder what impact the implementation of the constitution is likely to have on Episcopalians in the United States.

“The USCCB stands ready to collaborate in the implementation of that provision in our country,” said Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, following the Vatican’s announcement.

For the most part, Anglicans who have been upset with certain trends in their church have been moved by the generosity of the Vatican’s offer, announced Oct. 20. That offer came about because of a request put forward to the Vatican at least two years ago by a sizeable number of Anglicans, many of whom have protested their church’s ordination of women as priests and bishops and its blessing of same-sex “marriages.”

“We are profoundly moved by the generosity of the Holy Father,” said Archbishop John Hepworth, primate of the Traditional Anglican Communion, describing Pope Benedict XVI’s action as “an act of great goodness. … He has dedicated his pontificate to the cause of unity. It more than matches the dreams we dared to include in our petition of two years ago.”

Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, indicated that the Vatican had had requests from hundreds of large groups of Anglicans, and at least 30 bishops, for the provision.

A Fractured Communion

Worldwide, there are approximately 77 million Anglicans, with 2.3 million members in the U.S.

The Anglican Communion in the United States has already been fractured by actions such as the ordination of women and an openly homosexual bishop, leading to the creation of splinter groups: the Anglican Church in North America, the Anglican Mission in the Americas, the Traditional Anglican Communion, Forward in Faith, and others. Of those groups, the Catholic-minded groups are known as Anglo-Catholic, while the evangelical Anglicans retain a traditional interpretation of sacred Scripture but are wary of Rome and papal authority.

In the Traditional Anglican Communion alone, there are some 400,000 members worldwide, including approximately 5,000 in the United States. The Anglican Church in North America formed last June when four U.S. dioceses broke away from the Anglican Communion. It represents approximately 742 congregations. Most recently, the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, representing some 30,000 members, voted to distance itself from the national Episcopal Church. The Anglican Mission in the Americas represents a group of Anglicans that broke away from North American Episcopal leadership and placed their congregations under the leadership of an African bishop.

It’s uncertain which of the Anglican breakaway groups might be amenable to the provision.

Father Douglas Grandon, a former Episcopalian pastor who became a Catholic in 2003 and was ordained a priest last year, described the scattering of different groups as “denominationalism all over again.”

“There are so many of these breakaway continuing Anglican churches, we don’t know what many of them will do,” said Father Grandon, associate pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Moline, Ill. “Many of them, which are seen as illegitimate in the eyes of Anglicans in full communion with the archbishop of Canterbury, could come in. It would be a double bonus for them and could help legitimize them.”

“Since the apostolic constitution hasn’t been released, I’m not sure how it will impact the Anglicans in the U.S.,” admitted Father Robert Imbelli, associate professor of theology at Boston College.

“Proportionally, we would expect the numbers of Anglicans coming in to be much larger in England,” said Father Grandon.

‘Asked for a Lifeboat’

It’s not the first time Anglicans have left the Anglican Communion. When the Church of England voted to ordain women in 1992, more than 400 Anglican pastors left, most for Catholicism.

Not all the breakaway groups are expected to take advantage of the offer.

“We rejoice that the Holy See has opened this doorway,” said Archbishop Robert Duncan, primate of the Anglican Church in North America. “While we believe that this provision will not be utilized by the great majority of the Anglican Church in North America’s bishops, priests, dioceses and congregations, we will surely bless those who are drawn to participate in this momentous offer.”

The Church expects that greater numbers may enter from other geographic areas, such as Africa. Archbishop Peter Akinola, head of the Anglican Church in Nigeria and spiritual leader of Africa’s 40 million Anglicans, said that he is weighing the Vatican’s offer.

Those within the Traditional Anglican Communion have said that they will use Advent as a time for quiet prayer and discernment. They suggested that February would be an appropriate time for congregations to decide whether or not to pursue the offer.

“They couldn’t have asked for more than what they got,” said Father Grandon. “Leaders from Forward in Faith have said, ‘Look, you have to be careful what you ask for, if you really don’t want this. We asked for a lifeboat, and they gave us a galleon.’”

The Zanesville, Ohio-based Coming Home Network ministers to Protestant clergy interested in converting to Catholicism. Of 248 Episcopal clergy members who have contacted the group, 180 are now Catholic.

“We also have 79 clergy from 17 different continuing Anglican denominations,” said Jim Anderson, director of pastoral care for the organization. “Twenty-five are now Catholic.”

Breakaway groups describe themselves as “continuing Anglicans.”

Anderson added that since the Vatican’s announcement, they’ve had additional Anglican clergy members contact them.

Future Ecumenism

Others wonder what the provision means for continued dialogue between the Anglican and Catholic Churches.

“My impression is that there’s no reason for ecumenical dialogue not to continue,” said Father Imbelli, who served on the U.S. Committee for Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue between 1998 and 2008. “These are believers in Jesus Christ. I think it may entail a more modest expectation as to what the fruits of such dialogue might be.”

“As more Anglicans ... leave for Rome and find that they can remain Anglo-Catholic while in communion with the universal Church, this signals to others that the water is safe,” said Francis Beckwith, professor of philosophy and church-state studies at Baylor University. “Then the trickle will become a torrent. This will either chill ecumenism or accelerate unification with other churches and communities. But the Canterbury-Rome ecumenism of the past is effectively over.”

Once the apostolic constitution is in place, Anglicans will have three options.

“Anglicans in the Catholic tradition understandably will want to stay within the Anglican Communion,” said Bishops Andrew Burnham and Keith Newton in a joint statement. The two are Anglican bishops in England who oversee more traditional parishes. “Others will wish to make individual arrangements. A further group of Anglicans will begin to form a caravan, rather like the people of Israel crossing the desert in search of the Promised Land.”

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.