"Vatican and Henry VIII bridge their official rift," reveals one front-page headline. Inside are letters to the editor from four lords, a knight, numerous members of Parliament, and the faithful couple who catalogue the most popular names given to children of the British elite.

The Times, Britain's oldest and most famous newspaper, is back. After an absence of nearly a year caused by a bitter labor dispute, the 194-year-old "notice board of the establishment" reappeared today in reassuringly familiar form.

At the top of its front page, alongside stories on Iran, Rhodesia and the British economy, is an exclusive report of the extension of diplomatic rights to the pope's representative here. The Times' religious affairs correspondent authoritatively described it as the first move toward normalization of relations between Britain and the Vatican since Henry VIII split with Rome in the 1530s and Queen Elizabeth I was excommunicated 40 years later.

Picking up where it left off last Nov. 30, The Times today published announcements of selected births, marriages and deaths during the months the newspaper was silent. Among them was a notice of the birth of March 25 of Times Editor William Rees-Mogg's fifth child, a daughter named Annunziata Mary.

Only one of her names made the list of the most popular Christian names given to children whose births were announced in The Times during 1978, according to letter writers Thomas and Margaret Brown of Badger Hill in York. Elizabeth was the most popular name for girls for the third year, followed by Louise, Jane and Mary. James was most popular for boys for a record 15th year, its total double those for Edward, Alexander, William, Thomas and John.

Another reader decried the recent use in less discriminating journals of the word "sheepmeat" in accounts of Britain's Common Market dispute with France over agricultural trade. "The recent use of the term 'sheepmeat' in place of mutton and lamb," writes Parket Heskett of Evington, Hastingleigh, Kent, "is depressing in the extreme and will, I should think, put many people off buying what is one of our most important farm products."

Deprived of the opportunity to announce the first cuckoo of spring, traditional prerogrative of Times readers, D.J. Connolly of Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, paid tribute to the resurrected newspaper by reporting that "I believe I heard the sound of the first phoenix of the year."

The Times remained sufficently self-important to herald its own return in a front-page message to its readers, a cartoon in which a matron observes to her Times-reading husband, "That's the last I'll see of you in the mornings," and a report of welcoming words from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. There also were essays taking up nearly two of the paper's 32 pages on the year-long dispute with its printing unions.

In one to these essays, The Times' resident etymologist traced the derivation of the phrase "across the board" -- as in "across-the-board wage demands" -- to horse-race betting and, later, labor negotiations in the United States. In a three-column-long editorial, editor Rees-Mogg laboriously generalized The Times' dispute into a warning about across the board productivity problems in Britain.

The famous crossword puzzle began today with this definition for one across:

"henceforth, we hope, like ever-rolling streams." The five-letter answer: "Times." And for one down: "big noise no longer silenced." Answer: "Thunderer," the nickname The Times gained in its 19th-century heyday for thundering editorial directions to the rulers of the British Empire.

In what News Editor Rodney Cowton described as an attempt "to get what's happened on our records" after the long interruption, The Times will publish a review of the past year's news events this week and three supplements of obituaries.

Nearly 500,000 copies of The Times were printed and sold today, which is well above its daily circulation of 300,000 when publication was suspended late last year.

"During the suspension, much thought was given to ways of improving the paper, and this we hope to do in the coming months," The Times told its readers. "Today, however, we return as we left, unchanged but not unchanging, in the belief that readers also prefer continuity."