London — Rich in symbolism and history, the first visit by a pope to Britain was a major event, but its long-term impact remains unclear.
It was a study in contrasts and complexities from beginning to end.
It was a billed as a pastoral visit, but became political as John Paul II appealed time and again for peace in the British-Argentine battle over the Falkland Islands and as he tried to placate the anger of the predominantly Roman Catholic South American country over his presence in predominantly Protestant Britain.
The visit also gave an impetus to those waging the strongest drive for formal unity between Anglicans and Roman Catholics since Henry VIII's break 400 years ago.
The Pope worshiped with the Anglican Primate, Robert Runcie, at Canterbury Cathedral. The two church leader set up an Anglo-Catholic commission to pursue church unity.
But the visit also highlighted deep-seated opposition to such church unity. Low Church Anglicans (who prefer to keep a distance between their church and Rome) and Protestants were reminded anew of the great gulf between Catholic dogma and their own beliefs - especially on the role of the Virgin Mary, on the infallibility of the Pope, and on the edict of Pope Leo XIII in 1896 that Anglican orders (priestly vows) are invalid and nonexistent in the sight of Rome.
The Pope's visit saw demonstrations of goodwill, but little concrete evidence that formal unity, with the Pope as a ''universal pastor,'' is more than a talking point.
Many of the contrasts of the six days were summed up in the person of the Pope himself. He came here not only as a religious leader, but as a fierce anticommunist, a resister of communist oppression in beleaguered Poland, a symbol of his own country.
He attracted many British people with his kindly demeanor - yet he was out of tune with the majority of British Catholics on the issues of birth control, abortion, and divorce.
He came as a recognizable northern European. Yet his political reformism was combined with his theological conservatism.
Pope John Paul II tackled the Falklands issue head-on.
In Coventry he specifically denounced war of any kind as an acceptable way to solve differences. In Glasgow he recalled ''the victims . . . both the dead and the wounded, as well as the broken hearts of many families.''
Reportedly, Vatican advice to the Pope was that he could not visit Britain during the war, but the Pope decided to come anyway. He is said by sources here to have been sending signals to Warsaw and to Moscow.
The Polish military government is holding back on the Pope's desire to visit Poland again in August. By visiting Britain, his message is: If I can conduct church business by visiting non-Catholic Britain while it is fighting Catholic Argentina, why cannot I visit Catholic Poland at a time of thouble as well?
The answer is that his visits are political and pastoral, and that he is the symbol of a free Poland to millions.
Regarding the Soviet Union, the Pope is said to want to heal the breach between Rome and the Eastern churches, led by the Russian Orthodox Church. Prospects are still dim, but he is said to be using the visit to Britain to show Moscow that even churches with considerable differences can coexist in a degree of harmony.
In this century the Catholic Church in Britain has become more English in its priesthood; its congregations have become more liberal. Many Catholics have eagerly accepted the idea of a reunion with the Church of England.
Dr. Runcie himself accepts the Pope as a universal pastor of a united church. He has welcomed a recent Anglo-Catholic report that lays out the basis for such a concept. So have many High Church Anglicans.
But many millions of English and other Low Church Anglicans and Protestants disagree. So do conservative Catholics who do not want to see the Pope's infallibility or authority weakened in any way to accommodate Anglican beliefs.