IN 1534, simmering tensions became a religious revolution when King Henry VIII turned his back on Rome and set up the Church of England.

Now, after five centures, tensions between Catholics and Anglicans are bubbling again and this time Essex is the centre of attention.

The county has been thrust to the front of the Christian agenda after it was revealed three Church of England priests are considering joining the Ordinariate – an escape route set up by the Pope for the disaffected.

Despite attempts by the Catholic hierarchy in Britain to prevent the move reopening old wounds, senior Anglicans have already said the overtures have a “slightly predatory feel” to them.

However, Lee Bennett, who has been the vicar of the Church of England’s St Mary the Virgin Church, in Benfleet High Road, since 2007, is adamant there is no need to worry.

The leader of Benfleet parish is one of the names connected to the Ordinariate.

He has previously dismissed suggestions he and two collegues from other parishes were on the verge of defecting to Catholicism.

He said: “It is nothing more than an idea at this stage.

“Nothing has been decided and when, or if, it is, I will be very open about it.”

In January, the Rt Rev Dr Thomas McMahon, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Brentwood, claimed six priests from six parishes in the region.

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

Tim Gemmall attends the Church of England’s St Peter and St Paul Church, Church Road, Hockley, which has also been linked with a move across the religious border.

The 41-year-old, of Buckingham Road, Hockley, said: “I can see how it’s something which has the potential to cause some problems.

“But I really don’t think it should be anything to be concerned about. It’s not the conspiracy it’s made out to be in some quarters.

“Nothing has been decided here as far as I know, but if and when it is, I’m sure people will be open about it.”

The Ordinariate, officially known as the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, was introduced by the Pope in 2009 to offer a safe haven for Anglican priests opposed to the Church of England’s stance on female bishops, gay clergy and same-sex blessings. It allows vicars and churchgoers to be assimilated into Catholicism without losing all of their traditions. For example, priests who are already married are still able to join the Ordinariate, despite the Catholic belief in the celibacy of priesthood.

Dr Ian St John Fisher, vicar at the Anglican church of St Mary the Virgin, in North Shoebury Road, Shoebury, said he was glad there was an option for disillusioned church members.

He said: “I think it’s good it exists and is there for them. If there are people who do not like the way the Church of England is heading in its teaching, then the Ordinariate is probably the place for them.”