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LONDON (Reuters) - The Roman Catholic Church will launch its first ordinariate for disaffected Anglicans in England and Wales in January and take in bishops, priests and laity over the following months, the Church announced on Friday.
Five traditionalist Church of England bishops have applied to join the ordinariate, a Church subdivision retaining some Anglican traditions, and about 30 groups of parishioners are due to cross over, Church leaders told journalists.
It was not clear how many priests would convert in the move, prompted by traditionalist opposition to Church of England plans to ordain women bishops. Married Anglican priests will be accepted but married bishops cannot retain their higher status.
"Decisions are with those who at present are in the Anglican Communion, or on its edge, and they have to make up their minds," said Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales.
"But we are open to whichever way this develops, whether it develops into something significant or whether over time the groups ... naturally absorb themselves into Catholic dioceses."
Pope Benedict offered last year to create ordinariates for traditionalist Anglicans, mostly "Anglo-Catholics" whose liturgy is close to Catholic practice. Other groups of Anglicans in Australia and North America have also expressed interest.
The offer caused tension between Rome and the Church of England, where many felt the announcement was handled badly and sidelined Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.
Williams received the pope warmly during his visit to Britain in September and met him at the Vatican on Thursday. He told Vatican Radio he did not see it as an aggressive move.
"It remains to be seen just how large a movement we're talking about," he said. "There will be some parishes without priests so we have a practical challenge here and there."
A Church statement said the five Church of England bishops would be received into the Catholic Church in early January and ordained as Catholic priests in the following weeks, a necessary step because the Vatican does not recognize Anglican ordinations.
After this relatively quick procedure, they would oversee the spiritual preparation of like-minded Anglican priests and lay people for their reception into the Church during Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter Sunday on April 24.
The former Anglican priests accepted for the clergy would be ordained as Catholic priests before Pentecost on June 12.
Bishop Alan Hopes, a former Anglican priest who is now a leading Catholic official dealing with the ordinariate, told journalists: "At the moment, there are 30 odd groups that will be set up in the initial establishment of the ordinariate."
The Catholic Church will earmark 250,000 pounds to set up the ordinariate, adding to the financial burden on a Church still three million pounds in debt from Pope Benedict's visit in September.
Nichols said he "did not feel guilty" at the offer because it came in response to requests from Anglicans themselves.
"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," he said.
Potential disagreements could arise if a group of converts wanted to continue worshipping in its church. Williams said some buildings might be shared between congregations.
"We are not seeking, as it were, to acquire properties at all," Nichols said. "The simpler route is that those who are becoming Catholics use our Catholic churches."
Editing by Tom Heneghan