Conservative senior Anglican bishops have met officials of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to discuss the crisis over homosexual priests.
The Age reports the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, was not told of the talks, and the disclosure will come as a fresh blow to his efforts to prevent a major split in Anglicanism.
In highly confidential discussions, the English bishops met members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the most powerful of the Vatican's departments.
The bishops asked for anonymity because the talks are of such a sensitive and potentially explosive nature.
The disclosure comes on the eve of a critical vote as members of the General Synod, the Church of England's parliament, prepare to decide whether to allow women to be bishops without giving concessions to staunch opponents of such a move.
Up to 600 clergy have warned they might leave the church unless they are given a legal right to havens free of female bishops.
In a separate development, three diocesan bishops have sent a letter to Dr Williams supporting the threat, and another bishop has revealed that he is preparing to leave the church.
The letter from the bishops of Chichester, Blackburn and Europe argues that traditionalist clergy will not be able to "maintain an honoured place" in the church without legislation.
"Clearly, the ordination of women as bishops would divide the Church of England even more fundamentally than the ordination of women as priests," it says.
One bishop involved said he felt he had been left with no option.
"The Church of England is becoming more and more like the American church," he said.
Another bishop said: "There is no blueprint, but there are those of us who want to look at what's on the table … There can be no future for Christianity in Europe without Rome."
Anglican bishops in secret Vatican talks (The Age, 7/7/08)
Church of England (Wikipedia)
Church of England (Official website)