Papal Visit (xvi) Reflections on Pope at Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

I was privileged to receive a ticket to attend the Service of Evening Prayer on Friday lead by Pope Benedict and the Archbishop of Canterbury.  What an emotional and affecting event. However, the two key words which sum it up must be, relaxed and respectful.

There was security, of course, which was tight, but friendly and efficient.  It only took half an hour to go through it all, and then you walked into an Abbey, stilled by a sense of big occasion, with the murmurings of stewards advising politely and firmly where you could sit, neighbours introducing themselves and chatting quietly to each other, and questioning who that well-known figure was just walking past or being shown on the screens from Westminster Hall.

As the allotted time drew near, we knew the Pope was late – but who cared, apart perhaps from the television schedulers.  At last, the Popemobile was on its way from Lambeth Palace, moving slowly along the Thames with only a stop for a baby to be handed up to be blessed;  and the relief on the face of the child as it was returned to its mother gave rise to warm gentle laughter from the congregation.

The momentous address in Westminster Hall was beamed to us in the Abbey;  the words were hard to distinguish, because the Holy Father speaks softly and very fast – and the text was not a light discourse;  he was treating the assembly with the respect of an intellectual for fellow intellectuals.  What came across, however, was again his strong view that faith and reason are inseparable and should both be brought to bear in the ‘public square’. His expounding of the ways in which the UK and the Holy See work together for the Common Good, for peace, the ending of poverty and famine, tackling environmental issues, was  diplomatic and pointed and could well counter criticisms as to why it was appropriate for him to come as Head of State.

Then we came to the spiritual part of the day, with the Pope entering the Abbey side by side with his fellow ‘workers in the field’, almost dwarfed by his brother Bishop, albeit of a different tradition, the tall be-mitred Rowan Williams.  Also in the procession was the sixth century gospel, which may have been brought to England by St Augustine on his first mission to re-evangelize Britain.  This emphasized the link between the two leaders, both of whom, we understand, have taken much of their personal faith and spirituality from the teachings and example of St Augustine.

The service, the music, the prayers led by local young people, the Kiss of Peace, the mutual words of respect and the final joint blessing were a deep symbol of our unity in Christ, which His Holiness underlined in his address’s inclusion of, and concentration on, ecumenism, the challenges but the successes, too.

At the end of the service, the procession was long and colourful, including many of the bishops and clergy who had entered earlier and individually.  Their gorgeous robes, of all kinds, contrasted with the black worn by many in the congregation, great numbers of whom were clerics.  One marvelled at the numbers of clergy there – again, a demonstration of respect for each others’ traditions and a symbol of the importance of the task we all share, of bringing Christ’s message to our neighbours.

And in contrast to the seriousness of that thought, the flippant questions arose again – who was that?  Why was one wearing a skull cap and another, not? How do you distinguish the colours, so you know who is from which denomination, black with scarlet beading, all shades of red, including crimson, burgundy and plum. Does it matter?

And so my Anglican host and I departed to enjoy a glass of champagne to toast an historic event, secure in the knowledge that there is more that binds us together than divides us.


Share this story