VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The new leader of disaffected U.S. Anglicans who have converted or want to convert to Catholicism said Monday his flock would strive to learn the culture of the Catholic Church without forgetting the "noble Anglican tradition."
Rev. Jeffrey N. Steenson, a married former Anglican bishop, assumed his post in Houston, Texas, Monday after Pope Benedict named him at the weekend to lead converts from the Episcopal Church, the main branch of Anglicanism in the United States.
"Pray that we may strive to learn the faith, laws and culture of the Catholic Church with humility and good cheer. But pray too that we do not forget who we are and where we have come from, for we have been formed in the beautiful and noble Anglican tradition," he said in a statement.
Pope Benedict decreed in 2009 that Anglicans who leave, many because they feel their Church has become too liberal, can find a home in Catholicism in a parallel hierarchy that allows them to keep some of their traditions, such as parts of the Anglican liturgy and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.
Steenson, 59, converted in 2007 and will head a "personal ordinariate," roughly equivalent to a nationwide diocese, that will oversee ex-Episcopalians who have converted and be a point of contact for those wishing to do so.
It will be the second in the world after England and Wales, and others are expected to be set up in Canada and Australia.
Benedict's move followed years of discontent in some parts of the 85-million-strong worldwide Anglican community over the ordination of women priests and homosexual bishops.
It was the boldest step by the Vatican to welcome disaffected Anglicans since King Henry VIII broke with Rome and set himself up at the head of the new Church of England in 1534.
The new regulations do not affect the Catholic Church's ban on its own priests marrying, but continue an age-old practice of allowing a married Anglican priest who converts to remain married.
In 2003, the 2.3 million member Episcopal Church triggered what many observers describe as an ongoing schism by consecrating its first openly gay bishop, the since-retired Gene Robinson.
It was this that prompted Steenson to leave the Church.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said that so far 100 Episcopalian clergy in the United States have asked to be ordained Catholic priests and some 1,400 individuals have asked to convert.
"The establishment of the Personal Ordinariate is an historic moment in the history of the Church," Steenson said.
"For perhaps the first time since the Reformation in the 16th century, a corporate structure has been given to assist those who in conscience seek to return to the fold of St. Peter and his successors," he said.
The most prominent recent Anglican convert to Catholicism was Tony Blair, who joined after stepping down as British prime minister in 2007.
Both Vatican and Anglican officials have stressed that both churches would continue dialogue aimed at eventual reunion.
"The thing that is in my mind is what a privilege it is to be participating in the Holy Father's vision for Christian unity and to be included in that. That's what I'm excited about as this goes forward," Steenson told Reuters in an email.
He and his wife Debra have three adult children and one grandchild.
Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Kevin Liffey