Pope Benedict XVI named a married former Episcopal bishop Sunday to head the first U.S. organizational structure for disaffected Anglicans and Episcopalians who want to join the Roman Catholic Church.
The Rev. Jeffrey Neil Steenson, a father of three and Catholic convert, will lead the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, the equivalent of a diocese, that will be based in Houston, Texas, but will operate nationally.
The Vatican created the first such ordinariate in Britain last year. Other ordinariates are being considered in Australia and Canada.
Steenson stepped down in 2007 as the Episcopal Bishop of Rio Grande, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, after the Episcopal Church elected the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Steenson had said he was "deeply troubled" about the direction of the U.S. denomination and he described the Catholic Church as the "true home of Anglicanism."
The Episcopal Church is the U.S. Anglican body in the United States.
Benedict in 2009 issued an unprecedented invitation for Anglicans to become Catholic in groups or as parishes, at a time when traditional Anglicans in several countries were increasingly upset by the ordination of women and gay bishops. Formerly, Anglican converts to Catholicism were accepted on a case-by-case basis.
The pope's decision created tensions with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual leader of the world Anglican Communion, who like his predecessors had been in talks with Vatican officials to bring Anglicans and Catholics closer together.
The 77-million-member Anglican fellowship has its roots in the Church of England, which split from the Holy See in 1534 when English King Henry VIII was refused a marriage annulment.
At the time of the pope's announcement, Anglicans were already fracturing over Robinson's election and other issues. Williams had little advance notice of the Vatican announcement. Still, after meeting privately with the pope soon after, the archbishop of Canterbury said he was convinced that there was no "dawn raid" on his church by the Holy See.
Under the pope's plan, Anglicans who become Catholic will be allowed to keep some of their heritage in liturgy and other areas. Married Anglican priests who convert can stay married and be ordained in the Catholic Church, an exception to the Vatican's celibacy rule. Married Anglican bishops, however, cannot retain that position, and will serve the Catholic Church as priests.
More than 100 Anglican clergy have applied to become Catholic priests in the U.S. ordinariate. Church officials said more than 1,400 individuals are seeking to join. The U.S. Episcopal Church has just under 2 million members. Many Anglo-Catholics in the United States had never been part of the Episcopal Church.
Steenson, 59, who has a doctorate from the University of Oxford, has been married since 1974 and has three adult children. His wife also converted to Catholicism. He was ordained as a Catholic priest in 2009 in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and helped create the education and training program for Anglican priests seeking to join the Catholic Church.
AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll contributed from New York.
U.S. ordinariate: http://www.usordinariate.org/