Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, is reported to have been shaken by his encounters with Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity, last weekend in Rome.
These were difficult meetings highlighting acute dangers for the ecumenical movement. "Obviously, these exchanges were conducted in a courteous, fraternal manner," a Vatican insider told United Press International Monday, "but their substance was very clear: Rowan was told, in effect, that if he did not act against the impending consecration of an openly homosexual cleric as an Episcopal bishop in the United States, it will be all over between the Catholics and the Anglicans."
Pope John Paul II phrased it delicately. "New and serious difficulties have arisen," he said without going into details. He pleaded with Williams to preserve faith from "erroneous and misguided interpretations."
What transpired subsequently between Williams and Cardinal Kasper, a German normally considered a moderate within the Roman hierarchy, must have been a great deal tougher. Kasper merely told Vatican radio that he had voiced concerns over the homosexuality issue "because it touches on our relations."
But a ranking prelate in Rome made it clear that the Vatican was in no conciliatory mood concerning Anglicanism's "American problem." "What's happening here is in many ways worse than the great schisms 1,000 and 500 years ago," he said.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines schism as "the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him." That applies to the Eastern Orthodox and the Protestants. However, they still accept the basic tenets of the Christian faith.
But in the eyes of the Catholic hierarchy -- and others, including the majority of the world's Anglicans - the Episcopalians' decision to consecrate an active homosexual as overseer in his denomination and to bless same-sex unions points to a much deeper question: what coordinates must the Church follow -- Scripture or the mushy postmodern obligation to canonize any form of human desire, even when it is utterly unbiblical?
Clearly, the liberal-revisionist wing of contemporary Christianity, including many Western Catholics, is at the losing end of this global struggle within the Body of Christ.
Next week, the 38 primates of the Anglican Communion will meet in an emergency session at Lambeth Palace in London to decide what to do about the Episcopal Church U.S.A. Will they suspend it from their communion? Will they expel it even? Will they vote for the creation of a new Anglican Province in the United States?
Archbishop Williams, a liberal who has himself ordained an openly homosexual priest, will not be able to fudge the issue in true Anglican form, according to David W. Virtue, a renowned Anglican commentator.
Providentially, it seems, a secret action plan by leftwing clerics to sabotage any moves by orthodox primates fell into conservative hands and was published in the Church of England Newspaper, which can only have strengthened the primates' resolve.
They are "in a fighting mood, and they are a clear majority in the Anglican Communion," Virtue wrote. In the past, the orthodox Anglicans, chiefly Africans and Asians, depended heavily on their wayward American brethren. For example, the ECUSA used to fund past primates' meetings.
But now Nigerian primate Peter Akinola has called for the establishment of an endowment fund for Africa that would free the continent's bishops to speak their mind. To quote Virtue: "'Take your money and shove it,' coming from the mouth of Peter Akinola ... has a nice ring to it."
Akinola & Co. are in good company. Faithful African and Asian Christians from other denominations -- Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists -- are involved in similar struggles with co-religionists in the Northern Hemisphere.
But even in the North a turnabout seems to be taking shape. In the Church of England, 70 percent of all new priestly ordinands are reported to be evangelicals and thus the very opposite of much of the church's leadership.
Meanwhile, dramatic things are happening in the United States. Tuesday, 2,500 conservatives, including 50 to 60 bishops, 600 priests, and 900 seminarians, will meet in Dallas to discuss the next steps.
The result may well be a "graceful disengagement" from the ECUSA. In the end, they might come out in favor of submission to an alternative oversight by African bishops.
Congregations and perhaps entire dioceses might break away from the national church and possibly lose their sanctuaries to it. Flourishing parishes with many thousand members are currently debating whether to spend millions in legal fees trying to retain their houses of worship -- or conduct their services in schools, barns and cornfields.
In the final analysis, though, the matter comes down to this: Will they -- and other Protestants in similar situations elsewhere in the world -- remain Christians or will they join another religion that sings the old hymns and celebrates the old rituals in beautiful old churches but feel no longer bound to the inspired Word of God?
That, and nothing less, is what the ailing pope was referring to when he gently spoke to archbishop Williams about the "new and serious difficulties" between their two churches.