ANOTHER milestone in relations between Canterbury and Rome was reached in the Vatican on Monday, as Anglican choral evensong was sung for the first time in St Peter’s Basilica.
The historic event, organised by the Anglican Centre in Rome, reflects the deepening friendship between the worldwide Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church (News, 17 February).
It also recalls the liturgical hospitality offered by the Archbishop of Canterbury in welcoming the Australian Cardinal George Pell to celebrate mass according to the Roman rite at the high altar of Canterbury Cathedral with the Vatican cricket team on 7 July 2015.
The service in St Peter’s took place on Monday, the day after the Church traditionally marked the feast of St Gregory the Great, who has become an unofficial patron of relations between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches. St Gregory was the pope who sent Augustine, the prior of a Benedictine monastery in Rome, to evangelise the English in the year 595.
Anglican and RC bishops and clergy — including one female chaplain, the Revd Dana English, Assistant Chaplain of All Saints’, Rome — gathered together at the altar below Bernini’s great bronze sculpture encasing the relics of the Chair of St Peter.
Sunshine streamed through the giant window that depicts the Holy Spirit as a dove, while the choir of Merton College, Oxford, sang motets by the English Renaissance composer William Byrd, besides more contemporary works and some well-loved Anglican hymns.
Archbishop David Moxon, the director of the Anglican Centre (who retires in June), officiated at the evensong, which took place on the day that Pope Francis marked the fourth anniversary of his election to the pontificate.
The Secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Archbishop Arthur Roche, in his sermon, highlighted the humility and missionary zeal of Pope Gregory the Great.
Speaking of the “remarkable ecumenical nature” of Gregory’s ministry, the Yorkshire-born Archbishop said: “It’s not enough for us to simply remember” his legacy, but rather we must also become “missionary Christians”, praying and working “to surmount the barriers that remain”.
After the event, Archbishop Roche said: “I think Gregory was a very courageous man in his own time, and I think that speaks to us here still today, that, despite the difficulties, to be outgoing, just as Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby have been saying, to proclaim the gospel with joy.”
The liturgy concluded with a procession to the tomb of St Gregory to pray for the Church and its leaders, an event that the Suffragan Bishop in Europe, the Rt Revd David Hamid, described as a “very moving and significant ecumenical moment”.
Bishop Hamid, who co-chairs the International Anglican Roman Catholic Commission on Unity and Mission, said: “The daily prayer of the Church is something which unites us; it goes back to our common Benedictine roots. . . This seems to be one step closer, in terms of our two Communions coming together to pray, and demonstrating to the world that, in Christ, we are one.”
The service, which will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 later this year, came just two weeks after Pope Francis made an unprecedented visit to the parish of All Saints’ (News, 3 March), and just five months after he and Archbishop Welby officiated at vespers together, sending out on mission pairs of Anglican and RC bishops from the historican Roman Basilica of St Gregory, on the Caelian Hill (News, 7 October 2016).