(RNS)- A historic meeting between the Roman Catholic and Anglicanchurches closed Friday (May 19) in Toronto amid a mixture of hope andambiguity about whether the two denominations could ever achieve unity.

Although Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey said the gatheringconfirmed the two "similar" churches would work toward greater harmony,he acknowledged the unique conference "ends on a note of mystery."

The 26 Anglican and Catholic bishops from 13 countries agreed tocreate a commission to study how to unite the two churches after a466-year rift, which has at times had members of each denominationburning one another at the stake.

But asked how long it might take before the world's 60 millionAnglicans and 1 billion Catholics would worship in a single church,Carey said cryptically, "How long is a piece of string?"

The highest Catholic official at the first-of-its-kind event,Cardinal Edward Cassidy of Australia, president of the Vatican's Councilfor Promoting Christian Unity, also would not speculate on whenAnglicans and Catholics might become one, saying, "It's something inGod's hands."

A symbolic sign of division also arose during the five-day event.Although the leading bishops regularly ate and prayed together, Cassidyacknowledged they were unable to receive from each other the Eucharist,the central Christian sacrament. "It's true we were not able to fullyshare," he said.

Across Canada, Anglicans and Catholics greeted the meeting with bothcautious optimism and stinging skepticism.

Vancouver School of Theology professor Richard Leggatt, an Anglican,dismissed the event as little more than a "photo opportunity" for Carey,whom Leggatt characterized as a conservative Anglican sympathetic toCatholic doctrine on homosexuality, abortion and birth control.

However, Catholic Charles Paris, former head of the Canadian Councilof Christians and Jews, applauded the event as a small but importantstep toward ending centuries of unseemly hostility.

The two churches split in 1534 after Pope Clement VII refused togrant King Henry VIII an annulment of his marriage to Catherine ofAragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. The king denied papal authorityover England, and the Anglican communion was born.

In 1968, however, the two churches officially stated their goal wasfull, organic unity. And last year the joint Anglican-Roman CatholicInternational Commission issued the momentous declaration thatChristians should accept the authority of the Catholic pope as a "giftto be received by all churches."

At Friday's wrap-up news conference, Cassidy acknowledged that theissue of ordaining women -- approved by most Anglicans throughout theworld but forbidden by the Vatican -- was "the negative side of thecoin" in the unity dialogue.

Both Carey and Cassidy said the new commission that will be formedwill look into issues such as women's ordination, ethical positions andhow to merge the two hierarchies.

Leggatt, however, said he doesn't expect anything "earth-shattering"to come out of the dialogue, since the denominations are so far apart ona host of issues, including women, abortion, birth control, theauthority of the pope and the role of laypeople in decision-making.

The Anglican church's dialogue with the Lutheran church, Leggattsaid, is far more exciting and advanced than talks with the Catholicchurch. "But it never gets any media attention."

Leggatt said he believes the Anglicans most animated by the Catholicdialogue are Carey and Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold of the U.S.Episcopal Church. While Carey's conservative tendencies lean him towardthe Catholic church, Leggatt said Griswold is more of a progressive whobecame intrigued by Catholics through his long friendship with the lateChicago Catholic Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

Northern Ireland Protestant leader the Rev. Ian Paisley had plannedto go to Toronto to lead a protest of what he called the Anglicans'betrayal of Reformation principles by engaging in unification talks withthe Catholics.

Paisley canceled his trip when his wife fell ill, but otherconservative Protestants led a prayer protest Monday (May 15) outsidethe center where the bishops gathered for the closed-door talks.

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