A groundswell of protest and controversy, touching the deepest aspects of religious faith for 65 million Anglicans and 700 million Roman Catholics worldwide, is building around the visit of Pope John Paul II to Britain May 28 to June 2.
The visit, the first by any Pope to Britain, coincides with the most concerted drive toward unity between the two faiths since Henry VIII broke with Rome in the 16th century and laid the basis for the Anglican Church, centered in England.
Monitor interviews with Anglican and Catholic bishops and priests in recent days indicate deep misgivings by liberals on both sides that the visit by the spectacular but strongly conservative Pope could more sharply define the differences between them, rather than unify them.
This correspondent has learned that senior figures in the Roman Catholic hierarchy fear that the Pope's conservative views on birth control, divorce, and theology will alienate large parts of the English Roman Catholic Church, which has steadily become more liberal in recent years.
On the other hand, some conservative Catholic bishops and priests hope that the Pope's visit will slow this trend toward liberalism. A recent University of Surrey poll of Catholic opinion showed that the vast majority of English Catholics practice birth control, accept divorce, and do not believe in the concept of purgatory.
At the same time, Anglican figures such as the Bishop-elect of Chester, Michael Baughen (pronounced 'born'), have told me that some of the ideas now circulating about Anglican recognition of the Pope as the ''universal primate'' are simply unacceptable. Other more traditional High-Church Anglicans welcome the new ideas.
The universal-primate concept comes in a just-released Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission report, 11 years in the making. The report indicates that Anglican members of the commission, led by the Anglican Archbishop of Dublin, Henry R. McAdoo, have accepted that the center of a universal (joint) church could appropriately be in Rome.
The word ''Pope'' is avoided, but ''the bishop of Rome'' is referred to as acting in the role of ''the universal primate.'' Henry Chadwick, a professor of religion at Cambridge University and one of the Anglican members of the commission, is quoted as saying:
''This is not an agreement to differ--it is an agreement. We have agreed that the papacy should be the focus of Eucharistic communion of all the churches.''
''If the report does say that,'' said the Rev. Mr. Baughen before the report was released, speaking in his newly renovated, attractive All Souls Church at Langham Place at the top of Regent Street, ''I don't think the Church of England would wear it.''
Mr. Baughen represents the strong liberal, evangelical movement of his church , All Souls, which he is about to leave for Chester. It is very much Low Church, in Anglican parlance, far from the ritual and theology of ''High'' Anglican churches, which are close to Roman Catholicism.
The new commission does not deal with birth control, abortion, women priests, or the role of laity in governing the church. Nor did it consider another controversial issue: the effect of acknowledging the Pope on the position of Queen Elizabeth II as the supreme governor of the Church of England, the oldest church in the Anglican community. The English monarch has been head of the Church of England since Henry VIII broke away from Rome.
Anglicans like Mr. Baughen want to look at all these matters - particularly the official refusal of Rome to recognize the validity of the Anglican priesthood at all.
A papal encyclical of 1896 says Anglican priests' orders are invalid because the tradition of ordaining by laying on of hands was broken when Henry VIII split with Rome. Since the Pope's rulings on doctrine are held to be infallible, this encyclical cannot be denied outright by Pope John Paul II. But Mr. Baughen and others feel strongly that Rome must change its views if it wants more ecumenism. The Roman Catholic co-chairman of the commission, Bishop Alan Clark of East Anglia, indicated March 29 that the Pope might soon order a ''deep study'' of the issue.
At the same time, conservative Roman Catholics dislike the new commission report, which considerably weakens the papal infallibility doctrine as laid down by the first Vatican Council in 1870.
Passions are beginning to run high on both sides. The Pope's visit is seen as a test of public opinion about unity and of the strength of Northern Ireland Protestants, who have vowed to demonstrate against the Pope in both Liverpool and Manchester during his visit.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Robert Runcie, and the Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool, Derek Worlock, have both been shouted down and prevented from speaking in Liverpool in recent weeks. Demonstrators with ties to the militantly Protestant Orange Lodge in Northern Ireland jeered on March 11 that Dr. Runcie was ''selling us down the road to Rome.''
The Rev. Ian Paisley of Belfast accused the archbishop of ''betraying the Protestant reformed church.'' On March 20 he led 200 demonstrators in Oxford, who carried banners saying ''the mass is blasphemous,'' ''Bible truth or Roman error - Britain must choose,'' and ''dare to stand alone.''
Defending the papal visit, Kevin O'Connell, a Roman Catholic spokesman in London, told this newspaper it was designed to strengthen the Catholic faith. Most Catholics would take it in stride, though he conceded that a minority were worried that the work of the National Pastoral Congress held in Liverpool in the summer of 1980 might be undone.
That congress pushed the Catholic Church in a liberal direction on matters of sex and morality and called for more involvement in the church by lay members. The Pope is opposed to such liberalism.
In an interview, the dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, the Rev. Alan Webster, said one of the Pope's overriding concerns these days was reestablishing contacts with the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow.
''That is why,'' Dean Webster said over lunch, ''Rome is shading the concept of infallibility in the new commission report: Without such dilution, he knows contacts with Moscow are even less likely.''
The Pope is to meet Queen Elizabeth II and celebrate communion with Dr. Runcie at Canterbury Cathedral. His visit is likely to dominate television and conversation all over England, Scotland, and Wales as he visits London, Canterbury, Manchester, Liverpool, York, Edinburgh, and Cardiff.
Answering questions from a small group of foreign correspondents, Dr. Runcie said the ''delicate'' commission report would be widely discussed in the Anglican Church for the next six years and at the next Lambeth conference of 1988. Nothing would be done soon.
There will be a similar period of discussion by Catholics.
Asked about the primacy of the Pope, the archbishop said that Anglicans ''should be ready to explore'' accepting the Pope as a ''focus of unity in terms of history, affection, and of recognition of a global outlook.''
Meanwhile, a Gallup poll of 1,032 people in England, Scotland, and Wales in mid-March commissioned by a Catholic newspaper showed 13 percent of British people ''strongly'' approving the Pope's visit and 37 percent who simply ''approve.'' Another 33 percent neither approve nor disapprove, 8 percent are opposed, 4 percent are ''strongly'' opposed, and 5 percent ''don't know.''
Approval was lowest in Presbyterian Scotland and highest in the northeast of England. Among Catholics polled, 85 percent approved of the visit.