As the Anglican Communion prepares for its decennial Lambeth Conference in July, the Vatican is viewing the meeting as a crucial moment for Catholic-Anglican dialogue.

At issue is the ordination by Anglicans of women and homosexuals as bishops, something that Rome has warned will permanently injure the prospects for unity if approved by the Anglican Communion.

Anglicans from around the world will meet in Canterbury, England, July 16 - Aug. 3 at a time when the communion threatens to split apart over the ordination question.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and Cardinal Ivan Dias, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, have both accepted invitations to attend the conference as observers.

On May 6, Cardinal Kasper said the Anglican Church must choose between Protestantism and the ancient churches of Rome and Orthodoxy.

In an interview with The Catholic Herald, the cardinal, who was in Oxford, England, to give a lecture, said Anglicans needed to “clarify their identity.”

Ultimately, he said, “it is a question of the identity of the Anglican Church. Where does it belong? Does it belong more to the churches of the first millennium — Catholic and Orthodox — or does it belong more to the Protestant churches of the 16th century?”

“At the moment it is somewhere in between,” Cardinal Kasper continued, “but it must clarify its identity now and that will not be possible without certain difficult decisions.”

Cardinal Kasper said he hoped “certain fundamental questions” would be clarified at the Lambeth Conference so that dialogue will be possible.

“I think that it is not sustainable to keep pushing decision-making back because it only extends the crisis,” the cardinal said.

A Vatican official who asked not to be named said that although the first part of the Herald interview had some “very strong words,” Cardinal Kasper has made the same points before, most notably in an address to the Anglican House of Bishops in 2006.

“His words on this occasion sounded a little more crisp because he had made them in a particular situation,” the official said. “It was simply an appeal from a dialogue partner to say: ‘We need to know whom we’re speaking with, so it would be very helpful if you made some clear choices.”

Responding to Cardinal Kasper’s comments May 13, a spokeswoman for Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, would only say that identity was “one of the two main themes” being covered at the conference, which will be attended by more than 600 Anglican bishops.

‘Long-Lasting Chill’

In 2006, Cardinal Kasper said that a decision by the Church of England to consecrate women bishops would lead to “a serious and long-lasting chill.”

But his words appear to have gone unheeded: Last month, the Church of England’s Legislative Drafting Group published a report preparing the ground for women bishops, who are already ordained in several Anglican provinces, including the Episcopalian Church in the United States.

Another major cause of tension centers on Gene Robinson, the openly homosexual Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire. Robinson, whose election as bishop in 2003 provoked condemnation from Anglican leaders in the developing world, is planning to come to the Lambeth Conference even though he was not invited by Williams.

In other potentially inflammatory moves, Robinson is planning a civil union with his male partner this summer and is also scheduled to publish a book on the controversy surrounding his ordination shortly before the conference starts.

Anglican bishops who adhere to an orthodox Christian understanding of the immorality of homosexual behavior, headed by Peter Akinola, archbishop of Nigeria, are unhappy about Williams’ apparent reluctance to take a clear stand on the issue and have organized their own conference on the Anglican Communion’s future.

The conference, called “Global Anglican Future: Pilgrimage to Our Roots,” will take place in Jerusalem June 21-28.

Meanwhile, discussions at the Vatican on devising a possible structure for the Traditional Anglican Communion to come into communion with Rome are understood to be nearing completion.

The communion is a breakaway group of 400,000 Anglicans opposed to women’s ordination.

Veteran observers of the Anglicans’ continuing identity crisis are not optimistic that it can be resolved, given the wide gulf that exists between liberal-minded Anglican hierarchies in Western countries and more orthodox bishops in the developing world.

Viscount Christopher Monckton of Brenchley, author of Anglican Orders: Null and Void?, believes that in the absence of a magisterium and under the less-than-decisive leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury, there is “no chance whatsoever that the Lambeth Conference will settle the question of what — if anything — the Anglican Communion believes.”

“The latest Lambeth Conference will merely continue to fail to address the question of core doctrine, just as all of its predecessors have done,” said Viscount Monckton. “To Anglicans, the only doctrine is the doctrine that there is no doctrine.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.