Clarence C. Pope, Jr., bishop of Fort Worth, announced in late October that he will leave the Episcopal church. He and his wife, Martha, will become Roman Catholics, following a handful of other Protestant leaders who have converted in recent years.

Pope, 65, will retire at the end of 1994. On sabbatical this fall, Pope waited until his successor, Jack Iker, had been consecrated before making his own announcement.

Pope said he had been thrilled at the possibilities of an "organic reunion between Rome and Canterbury" in recent years. But it has become apparent to Pope since the Church of England voted two years ago to ordain women priests that "the pilgrimage" he longed to take "corporately would now have to be taken alone." Pope has called the ordination of women "a tragedy."

About 50 Episcopal priests have converted to Catholicism since the late 1970s. Pope apparently is only the second diocesan bishop to turn to Catholicism. In 1853, Levi S. Ives, bishop of North Carolina, left the denomination.

Reaction to Pope's announcement was swift. "It saddens me that this breach has occurred," Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning said. "I pray that this new chapter in his life will be an occasion for grace."

"It's a terrifying self-centeredness," William C. R. Sheridan, retired bishop of Northern Indiana who served with Pope in the Episcopal Synod of America, told "The Living Church," a denominational magazine. "It's an attitude of 'it's my pain' - not thinking of the faithful who remain. I had hoped better of Bishop Pope."

Last year another Protestant's transition to Catholicism encountered greater difficulties than Pope's, ending up in an ecclesiastical court. William Farmer, a retired Perkins School of Theology professor, attempted ...

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