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By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor
PARIS (Reuters) - Conservative bishops who say they represent almost half the world's Anglicans urged fellow believers Sunday to reform the Anglican Communion rather than take up Pope Benedict's invitation to join the Roman Catholic Church.
The "Global South" group, which last year seemed close to quitting the Communion, said those opposed to gay clergy and other liberal reforms should "stand firm with us in cherishing the Anglican heritage (and) pursuing a common vocation."
Indirectly declining the pope's offer to receive alienated Anglicans, the group called on the Communion's member churches to adopt a "covenant" to coordinate policy in the loosely structured 77-million-strong worldwide Anglican community.
"The proposed Anglican Covenant ... gives Anglican churches worldwide a clear and principled way forward in pursuing God's divine purposes together," said the statement posted on their website. Conservatives see this plan as a way to block liberal reforms in the United States, Canada and Britain.
A call to convert to Catholicism by bishops in developing countries, where the faith is expanding, could have dealt a body blow to the Anglican church, founded when King Henry VIII broke with Rome in 1534 to divorce one wife and marry another.
The Global South group, which says it represents 35 million Anglicans, stopped short of schism at a Jerusalem conference last year and set up a council of bishops to provide orthodox leadership for disaffected Anglicans in western countries.
It has also supported congregations in the United States splitting from the Episcopal Church, the U.S. Anglicans led by Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. The consecration of a gay Episcopal bishop in 2003 sparked off a crisis that has shaken the Anglican Communion ever since.
HOW MANY WILL SWITCH?
The Global South group led by crusading Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria praised Benedict's "common biblical teaching on human sexuality" but only briefly mentioned the offer that could have a deep impact on both Anglicanism and Catholicism.
Estimates of how many Anglicans might take up the pope's offer range from a few thousand to 400,000, the membership claimed by the breakaway Traditional Anglican Communion group that appealed to Rome two years ago to be taken in.
Forward in Faith, a conservative Anglican group that debated the pope's offer Saturday in London, heard a senior Church of England prelate, Bishop John Hind of Chichester, say he "would be happy to be reordained into the Catholic Church."
Under the Vatican offer, married Anglican clergy could join the Catholic Church but married bishops would have to give up their titles before doing so. Despite this, Forward in Faith estimates that about a dozen bishops might switch.
Bishop John Broadhurst of Fulham, the group's leader, declared "the Anglican experiment is over" because it had failed to bridge differences over gay clergy and women bishops.
Some Anglican churches have women bishops and the Church of England has approved them in principle but is deeply split over whether they should have the same authority as men.
"Anglicanism has become a joke because it has singularly failed to deal with any of its contentious issues," said Broadhurst, whose group claims to represent about 1,000 conservative Anglican priests.
(Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)