A PRIEST who heads a branch of the Catholic church has told members of an Anglo-Catholic congregation they face an individual choice whether to defect.

Father Keith Newton, a former Anglican bishop who was ordained as a Catholic priest last month to head the Ordinariate, yesterday addressed worshippers from St James the Great, Darlington, about plans to convert.

Its priest Father Ian Grieves has already publicly declared plans to leave the Anglo-Catholic church to join the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham (corr).

He expected "most" of the congregation would support the plans. However, the future of the church and its buildings remains unsure.

The church held its regular Sunday solemn mass at 10am, which included a sermon from Fr Newton, during which he spoke about choices.

Although it is one of the smallest parishes in the town, the numbers present were swelled to more than 200.

Fr Newton said during a public meeting after mass: "That could not have been anything other than an Anglican mass. There is something special about how you worship together."

The Ordinariate was established in January for groups of former Anglicans in England and Wales to follow the Anglicanorum Coetibus - a decree issued by Pope Benedict XVI.

It allows churches to maintain some Anglican traditions and enter into full Catholic communion.

About 30 groups are expected to defect, most in the south - those at St James the Great are likely to be the first in the North-East.

Fr Newton added: "Here is an offer and possibility for those who have the same yearning and longing.

"It is your own decision because anyone who becomes a Catholic must do so individually."

Many present appeared to support the plans, with applause for two speeches, which described the plans as "a no-brainer" and "exciting".

In the 22 years he has been priest, Fr Grieves has increased the size of the followers from just 18 and helped fund hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of improvements to the church which was previously at risk of closure.

However a new Catholic congregation may have to find a new building for worship.

Fr Grieves added: "It is the most monumental decision of my life. We are not afraid because we have been here before. We started with nothing."