This is the article published in Church of England Newspaper today.
When the invitation to attend Lambeth Palace and Westminster Abbey to meet, and share in worship and prayer, with Pope Benedict first came I confess to being unsure about whether or not I wanted to attend. I was not wholly clear why the Pope wanted to make a State visit; nor actually how as Anglicans we should respond given some of the questions that clearly divide us from Rome (questions still of justification, the place of Mary, women priests and bishops, contraception to start naming a few). I know I have a deep in built Protestantism; I am convinced about being reformed and catholic not simply catholic; this comes from engaging with the Scriptures. But I have learned over recent years that some of this is not borne out of what I have thought of as deep theological conviction but sometimes out of emotion, misunderstanding, prejudice and ignorance. For these there can only be repentance rather than digging in my protestant heels. I decided I should attend, partly out of intrigue, partly out of simply ‘wanting to be there’, partly wanting to represent the people of my Diocese and partly from a conviction that if we pray regularly for unity and believe it is the will of God that we are one then I must take every opportunity to pursue that unity when it is offered.
By the time it came to the day my thoughts and feelings had moved on a great deal. I felt that in the lead up to the visit the media had treated the Pope unfairly; it seemed that there was a desire to create doom around the visit without giving it a chance. I thought that the Roman Catholic bishops here had been working very hard to be honest about the child abuse tragedies. They have been working hard to change practices and to address the needs of survivors, though more still needs to be done. Then there had been the coverage of the first day in Scotland – clearly far more positive and successful than any had been predicting. The gentle humble man who is Pope Benedict was already shining through. His conviction of the need for faith to be in the public square, being treated both with respect for our Christian heritage and for its reasonableness in the contemporary world were already coming through. So I arrived really looking forward to being with my fellow bishops, Anglican & Roman Catholic.
Inevitably there was a lot of waiting around at Lambeth Palace; we were all in place early, and then the Pope and his entourage were rather late. But the time gave all of us as bishops plenty of space to talk; we sat mingled with one another RC & C of E side by side. We chatted about things small and great, including the RC bishops reflections on the first day and a half – all were much more positive than they had expected to be, and were therefore very positive about the weekend to come. The Archbishop of Canterbury, in very cheery mood, arrived with the Pope. We prayed; they both addressed us; they exchanged gifts.
Then we were off to Westminster Abbey in coaches. The crowds were lining the streets and waved at us. One obvious point was seeing banners of protest alongside banners of support; apparently peacefully side by side (though I note Simon Jenkins, ‘Ship of Fools’ reflections that this was not always so). Then there was a lot more waiting in the Abbey; so more time to chat as once again we sat mingled together in the Lantern Crossing. On the screens were pictures of the crowd and then the Pope’s journey to Parliament. Together we watched the Westminster Hall address; concurring again with the Pope’s quiet insistence on faith and the public square; on our nations Christian roots and the need for firm moral foundations. We were impressed also by the 2 Speakers contributions. Then came the well crafted liturgy; well led. It was truly inspiring worship. The historic nature of what was happening hit me most forcefully here; especially in the prayers at Edward the Confessor’s tomb and the joint blessing. Archbishop Rowan was in no way overshadowed; here were 2 Christian leaders praying, speaking and encouraging in concert. Both men at different points emphasised that the faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord is what binds us together beneath all the real differences that we have. The Lord Jesus who unites us is greater than anything that divides.
As I left walking back to Lambeth the crowds were still cheering, and a few jeering. One banner said, ‘Lift up Jesus not the Pope’; I hear, and understand, the sentiment. But what I heard loud and clear was the Pope lifting up Jesus, and encouraging our nation to look to Jesus above all else. I’m glad I went; I am full of admiration for the Pope – his stamina, humility and courage. But the whole experience affirmed my conviction that the Church of England has a very particular place and calling in this nation; shared with our sister churches in Wales, Scotland and Ireland. May we, with our ecumenical friends and partners of all sorts, humbly but courageously fulfil our calling to point our nation afresh to Jesus Christ the Lord of all.