Seated behind the altar of St. Peter’s, with the golden afternoon light streaming down from Bernini’s window depicting the Holy Spirit descending as a dove, Merton College Choir began the service with an introit by William Byrd set to a text from the Book of Common Prayer. Anglican and Roman Catholic priests sat together under the window, joined together in reading, song, and prayer.
The first Anglican Evensong ever held in St. Peter’s had begun. The possibility that Anglicans and Roman Catholics might one day meet for an Anglican service at St. Peter’s would have seemed a far-off dream when Archbishop Michael Ramsey opened the Anglican Centre in Rome in 1966. However, words from Psalm 127, sung at this service, reminded all those present: “except the Lord build the house; their labor is but lost that build it.” This Psalm had been used this past autumn, in the joint Vespers service held at San Gregorio Magno al Celio, where Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby commissioned the IARCCUM bishops to go out into the world in unity and shared mission.
The sheer improbability of that joint Vespers and now this Evensong at St. Peter’s seemed to show all those present that God really is at work in our two communions.
God’s work in this case started most immediately with a cricket match. In 2014, a team of Anglican seminarians narrowly squeaked out victory against a team of Roman Catholic seminarians. In the dinner following the event, the joint enjoyment of sport and the camaraderie that followed led to a discussion between several Roman Catholic leaders and the head of the Anglican Centre about the original source of the connection between Roman Catholics and Anglicans: St. Gregory the Great’s commissioning of St. Augustine (later “of Canterbury”) to establish a church among the Anglo-Saxon community in the British Isles. From that post-match dinner discussion arose a generous offer that the crozier of St. Gregory the Great be sent to visit Canterbury Cathedral, centuries after Gregory had held it at the commissioning.
Following the crozier’s historic visit to Canterbury, and its prominent place in the January 2016 Primates’ Meeting, Archbishop David Moxon and Fr. Marcus Walker, the director and associate director at the Anglican Centre, were able to continue ecumenical discussions with Roman Catholics about shared commitments to worship, service, and a shared devotion to St. Gregory. Out of this devotion came the Vespers and IARCCUM commissioning at San Gregorio, where Pope Francis also gave Archbishop Welby a new crozier modeled on that of St. Gregory. Plans also gradually emerged for a joint Anglican/Roman Catholic visit to venerate the tomb of Gregory the Great, as near as possible to his feast day. Then came a dream for more than mutual veneration, but an entire service in which Roman Catholics and Anglicans could come together for worship and prayer, in a Roman Catholic space but using an Anglican liturgy. The Anglican Centre eventually received permission from officials at St. Peter’s to organize the Evensong, using the Book of Common Prayer without liturgical reservations.
This Evensong marked the first time that any Anglican service has been held in the main body of the basilica (and followed a service of Morning Prayer according to Common Worship, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Community of St. Anselm, held this past autumn in the crypt below, the morning after the joint Vespers). The visit of Merton College Choir to Rome provided the opportunity to make sure that the service was enriched both by the liturgy and by a choir exemplifying the excellence of the English choral tradition. The choir’s visit also became an opportunity for further ecumenical partnership, as various Roman Catholic religious communities around the city opened their doors to provide lodging for the choir members.
Archbishop Moxon led the service, with the British Ambassador to the Holy See and a member of All Saints’ Anglican Church in Rome reading the lessons. The sermon was preached by the Roman Catholic Archbishop Arthur Roche, Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Holy Sacraments. In a fitting tribute to the occasion, Archbishop Roche reminded the congregation of Gregory’s exemplary humility towards others, which had not diminished his papal leadership, but transformed it. It was this humility, he exhorted the congregation, which should also characterize our relationships with each other and with God.
The service ended with a procession of the clergy and choir, walking together, to venerate the tomb of St. Gregory the Great, using prayers from the Roman Missal. While the altar was censed, the choir closed just as they had started: with a motet by William Byrd. This text, written later in Byrd’s life, was from the Roman Missal’s offertory for the Feast of All Saints. After the veneration, the service ended with a joint blessing by Archbishop Moxon and Archbishop Roche. The full pews emptied out into the Roman sunshine, a congregation of Anglicans and Roman Catholics from all around the globe, all ages and stations of life mingling together.
Archbishop Moxon, in reflecting upon the service, and all the events of the past year, stated that the Evensong, while significant in itself, was even more important in that it stood as a reminder that
inch by inch, we are moving closer as Anglicans and Roman Catholics, where we can. Although we do have some outstanding differences, what unites us is greater than what divides us. We share the same baptism, the same basic beliefs in many ways, and we can act together as much as possible for the sake of the Kingdom of God and for the mission of Christ in the world.
Although the Evensong is over, along with the festivities surrounding the Anglican Centre’s 50th anniversary, other works of unity continue. In his visit two weeks earlier to All Saints’ Anglican Church in Rome, Pope Francis encouraged the Anglicans attending to partner with Roman Catholics in works of mercy as well as prayer and worship. Many of those attending the Evensong on Monday intended to head out into the streets of Rome on Friday night. Members of All Saints’ would serve alongside Roman Catholics involved in the Community of Sant’Egidio, a lay Catholic movement of street missions. In reflecting upon the past and looking towards the future, Fr. Walker commented that
the last 50 years have seen us getting used to each other … 50 years of exploration, joy, and pain. We’ve learned that the myths we have created about each other are untrue, but there are points of disagreement that are difficult to overcome. Where we seem to be now is a place where we now feel comfortable enough with each other to … pray with each other, work with each other where we’ve seen real need on the streets, in conflict zones, [and in] anti-slavery and refugee work.
For those in the pews, the closeness and the distance between Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism were evident during the service. Most importantly, the prayers and the readings from Scripture united us all. Anglican choral music and the words of Evensong fit so perfectly within the space that it was difficult to imagine that this was the first time that a service such as this had taken place. Looking back over my shoulder at the crowds gathered behind the barriers on the other side of the altar, I realized that for them, there would be no obvious sign that we were a divided people, not one unified Church.
Not only the liturgy, but also the language of the prayers specially crafted for the occasion, and even the veneration of Gregory’s tomb, showed that the areas of division have changed. The first prayer gave thanks for the ministry of Francis, Pope and Bishop of Rome, “whom Thou hast chosen as shepherd to preside over the Church.” The common acknowledgement that the Church of England, as we understand it to exist now, was given birth by a pope, flourished under his authority, and might again do so seemed a fairly revolutionary acknowledgement and to open a clear path forward towards unity.
However, despite appearances and these theological acknowledgements, the service did not provide the solution for our divisions. As I looked around, I realized that perhaps the more difficult question now was not What is the connection between the See of Canterbury and the See of Peter? but What is Anglicanism? Are Anglicans unified enough to identity with the progress displayed in that service? Is the Anglican heritage, the root of Catholicism planted by Gregory and Augustine, still strong enough that all can be put in order? Or are we too fragmented amongst ourselves to move forward?
The icon on the cover of the service leaflet showed St. Gregory the Great and St. Augustine of Canterbury bowing before Christ. According to the leaflet, it was given by Archbishop Rowan Williams to Pope Benedict XVI and then blessed by Archbishop Welby and Pope Francis before it was installed in San Gregorio. The question for all who attended, walking out, seemed to be how much we were willing to carry forward the submission to Christ’s calling that we had declared in prayer — out into the wider world and among ourselves, not just with Roman Catholics, but with Anglicans as well.