PERPLEXED Anglican priests have criticised a Catholic bishop for suggesting they are set to convert to Rome.

Jeffrey Woolnough and Lee Bennett, Hockley and Benfleet’s parish leaders, said the claims by the Rt Rev Thomas McMahon were premature.

Mr McMahon, the Bishop of Brentwood, announced yesterday seven priests were set to be welcomed into the Ordinariate – a group set up by the Pope for disaffected Anglicans.

But Mr Bennett, who has been the vicar at St Mary the Virgin church in Benfleet High Road since 2007, said: “I was quite dismayed when I saw it.

“I don’t quite know what possessed the bishop to say that. At the moment, all we are doing is exploring the idea. Nothing has been confirmed yet and, if or when it is, I will be very open about it.”

The Ordinariate targets Ang-lican priests opposed to the Church of England’s stance on female bishops, gay clergy and same-sex blessings. Mr McMahon claimed church members from six parishes – Benfleet, Hockley, Billericay and three in east London – were preparing to convert.

A spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Brentwood, which covers Essex, said between 250 and 300 churchgoers were also expected to move with them.

The group of priests met Mr McMahon last week.

The bishop said: “We had a wonderful day of sharing together and preparing for the future.”

However, Mr Woolnough rejected a suggestion the priests had already started their training in Catholicism.

The vicar of St Peter and St Paul church in Church Road, Hockley, said: “I have not resigned and I am still a member of the Church of England.

“I will speak to my bishop, Stephen Cottrell, before doing anything.”