Associated Press
Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the leader of Catholics in England and Wales, oversees the ordination of three former Anglican bishops in Westminster Cathedral, London, Saturday Jan. 15, 2011. The three have become the first to take advantage of a program announced by the Vatican in 2009 to accommodate Anglicans unhappy about the direction their church is taking. Congregations and members of the Episcopal Church — including married priests — may also join the Roman Catholic Church under a new structure announced by the Vatican.

LOS ANGELES — Congregations and members of the Episcopal Church — including married priests — may join the Roman Catholic Church under a new structure announced by the Vatican.

The nationwide "ordinariate," which is similar to a diocese, will be headed by the Rev. Jeffrey N. Steenson of Houston, a Catholic convert who called the announcement by Pope Benedict XVI a "historic moment in the history of the church."

For perhaps the first time since the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, he said, a structure has been created to "assist those who in conscience seek to return to the fold of St. Peter and his successors."

The Episcopal Church has been rocked in recent years by divisions over doctrine and the role of gays and lesbians in church life. With about 2 million members, the church is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and the ongoing disputes have prompted some congregations to align themselves with Anglican bishops overseas.

A moratorium on electing gay bishops was overturned at the Episcopal Church's national convention in Anaheim in 2009; the next year, Mary Douglas Glasspool became the church's second openly gay bishop and serves in the Diocese of Los Angeles.

Steenson, in a conference call with reporters Monday, appeared to allude to the issue when asked why he left the church. "It came down to the question of how authority is handled in the church," said Steenson, who was ordained a Catholic priest in 2009. "Putting challenging theological questions to a vote is not traditionally how we answered questions. Every generation has its issues. We need to take the long view."

Under the structure announced by Benedict on Sunday, members of the what is formally called the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter will be fully Catholic, while also allowed to maintain some Anglican traditions. Married Episcopal clergy will be allowed to become priests. Steenson, 59, is a father of three and grandfather of one.

According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, more than 100 clergy have applied for Catholic ordination and 1,400 individuals from 22 communities have asked to join the ordinariate.