London — The air in Britain these days is filled with arrow-sharp shafts of argument that penetrate to some of the deepest religious convictions of its people.
Should the Pope - so recently a spectacular visitor here - be accepted by Anglicans as ''universal primate'' of a combined worldwide church that would bring together 750 million Roman Catholics and 75 million Anglicans?
Would Anglicans - and those around the world who recognize the Archbishop of Canterbury as the titular head of the Anglican movement, including the US Episcopal Church - do harm to their own beliefs by accepting the Pope in this way?
Momentum toward some form of Anglo-Catholic church unity is stronger here now than at any time in living memory. Yet England remains a strongly Protestant country. Suspicion of Rome runs deep. And no concrete steps toward church unity are likely to be taken before 1988, if then. It is highly possible that nothing will be done at all.
Meanwhile, the verbal battle has been joined. For months it displayed all the fire and flair and command of language English clerics and churchgoers can summon up.
''It is true,'' thunders anti-unity Charles Brock of Mansfield College, Oxford, in a letter to The Times of London, ''that millions of people need mediators for their faith, loyalty, love, and hope - as their feelings toward the Queen, John Lennon, and V. I. Lenin amply demonstrate. But the Reformation was justly suspicious of all but one mediator to provide the essence of their faith. . . .''
He is emphatically joined by the Vicar of Tockwith, York, the Rev. Peter Mullen: ''It is not possible to compromise when one side (the Catholic side) clearly states that its own view is the absolute truth. . . .''
Firing back is Oxford scholar Gethin Rhys, himself a member of the United Reform Church. Writing to The Times, he insists that the papacy is a ''human focus for unity.''
The Bishop of Durham, J. H. Habgood, advocates not only ecumenism with Rome, but also with the so-called free churches here - Methodists, United Reform (Congregationalists and English Presbyterians), and Moravians. After six years of effort to ''covenant'' the Church of England with the free churches failed in the Anglican general synod July 7, he commented sternly:
''As I see it, there is no escape from the bleakness of the immediate ecumenical outlook. . . . The Church of England must do some heart-searching. A certain degree of defensiveness among those who see themselves as guardians of a tradition is both understandable and right. But stubborn refusal to face threats to cherished beliefs and to live with internal tensions seems to point to something rather seriously wrong. . . .''
In an interview with the Monitor, the Dean of St. Paul's, Alan Webster, remarked that church unity was of great interest to Anglican ecclesiastical leaders and to priests in both Anglican and Catholic churches, ''but it is of small interest to most Anglican laymen. . . . I would like to see unity proposals discussed in every Roman Catholic and Anglican parish, with groups meeting perhaps monthly, to talk about coming together. . . .''
It is quite possible that that unity will remain a talking point rather than a reality, opposed by the mass of devout Anglicans and Catholics alike. Yet, those who cannot accept the Pope in any ''universal primate'' role - even if it turned out to be only a kind of ''chairman of the board'' or symbolic leadership - feel they cannot rest on their oars.
They are concerned by the current momentum toward Anglo-Catholic church unity. This comes mainly from high Church of England Anglicans, close to Roman Catholicism in their inward and outward worship (perhaps as many as 40 percent of the Church of England clergy see themselves as High Church), and from liberal Catholics who believe themselves to be acting in the ecumenical spirit of the Vatican II Council. It has culminated in two headline-catching events:
1. An unprecedented acceptance of the Pope as ''universal primate'' by Anglican theologians in an international commission from both churches on April 1 this year.
In 12 years of discussions, nine theologians from each church developed a 100 -page document familiarly known as the ARCIC (pronounced ''arkick'') report - from the initials of its full title, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. To the dismay of many Anglican congregation members, the two delegations agreed that ''a universal primacy will be needed in a reunited Church and should appropriately be the primacy of the Bishop of Rome.''
2. The May 28-June 2 visit to England, Scotland, and Wales by Pope John Paul II. The Pope presented a television image of strength and compassion. His addresses, especially one on marriage and the family, were carefully drafted beforehand by English Roman Catholic bishops and avoided hard restatements of well-known Catholic positions against divorce and abortion.
The Pope made every effort to appeal to English Catholics in particular, who are increasingly liberal these days (and most of whom, polls show, ignore church teaching on family planning and other ethical, though not ecclesiastical, issues).
The high point of the Pope's English tour was attending a unique service in Canterbury Cathedral with Archbishop Robert Runcie, leader of the Anglican Church, after which he and Dr. Runcie agreed to set up a new joint Catholic-Anglican commission to continue the work of ARCIC.
There has been much speculation here on whether the Pope's visit has strengthened or weakened ecumenism.
Dean Webster said he felt it had boosted it. Gerald Priestland, former religion editor of the British Broadcasting Corporation, thought the effect had been mixed: The visit had challenged, in effect, political and economic leaders by showing an alternative, moral, approach to world problems - but it had also shown a Pope accustomed to exerting the authority of his church against all its opponents all his life.
Despite his carefully chosen words, that authority in turn is opposed by many an Anglican who cannot accept Roman Catholic moral teachings.
The visit was part of the background to the refusal July 7 of the General Synod of the Church of England to agree to ''covenant'' - share decisionmaking with, and recognize the members, ministries, and clergy of - Methodists, United Reform churches, and the Moravians.
Voting against were largely those clergy whose priority is unity with Rome and the Orthodox churches of the East, including the Russian Orthodox Church. They have little sympathy for Protestant Methodists, Congegationalists, and English Presbyterians, who do not ordain bishops and whose teachings are far more Protestant and less Catholic than the high Church of England. The papal visit was a spur to these clerics and strengthened their resolve to try for formal unity with Rome.
Taking an opposing view, advocates of non-Catholic church unity such as Bishop Habgood of Durham warn that the chance for this in England has now been lost for decades. Methodists in particular are disappointed, since this is the second time in 15 years they have agreed to unity, only to see the Church of England back away.
Unity with Rome, meanwhile, is propelled by two other factors.
One is adminstrative: Many an Anglican (and liberal Catholic) rector in parishes around the country would like to save soaring running costs and the need to sit on endless fund-raising and repair committees by having a single all-purpose church to a parish.
The other is youthful activism: England is seeing the emergence of an impatient church-going youth, irritated by the niceties of doctrine that forbid English Catholic priests from administering communion to Anglicans, for example. These people have taken to holding weekday prayer meetings in private homes, with or without priests present, and sometimes presided over by women.The young people put prayerful worship of one God above organizational differences.
And yet, the obstacles to Anglo-Roman Catholic unity are also immense. They will cause intense debate between now and the next gathering of world Anglicans at the next Lambeth Conference in 1988 and are the subject of controversy in Rome as well.
The ARCIC report, for instance, said nothing about English constitutional issues. The Church of England is a state church, with the Queen as its supreme governor. Any unity proposals would run into state as well as churchly snags and pitfalls.
The report likewise said nothing about Catholic insistence on the sinfulness of abortion and contraception, on Rome's stand against marriages between Catholics and non-Catholics, on the Catholic refusal to contemplate joint Catholic-non-Catholic schools.
The report failed to mention Rome's opposition to married priests, or its staunch stands against ordaining women and allowing the laity to participate fully in church government. It left unsolved the knotty issue of Rome's nonrecognition of Anglican orders.
But the biggest obstacle of all is the attitude of the average English Anglican, whether he attends church regularly or not. He combines nationalism and insularity as well as sturdy independence and a refusal to allow priests to usurp the role of the scriptures in leading the individual to salvation.