Earlier in the day there had been a cool breeze, but by mid-afternoon Rome was basking in spring sunshine allowing a brilliant white light to stream through Bernini’s window of the Holy Spirit in St Peter’s Basilica.
As the spirit-dappled rays shone down, the choir of Merton College, Oxford began singing the introit to evensong. Soon after, Catholic and Church of England clergy processed in together to the hymn “O Praise ye the Lord” before taking their seats on the altar beneath the chair of St Peter, the throne used by the first Bishop of Rome.
This was history in the making. For the first time, an Anglican liturgy was being celebrated at the heart of the Catholic Church, a symbolic moment showing that Christians really do have more that unites them than that which divides.
In his sermon Archbishop Arthur Roche, secretary of the Vatican’s liturgy department, said the outpouring of the holy spirit symbolised in the window above breaks down barriers so that “the unthinkable can be made possible.”
A few years ago it would have been unthinkable to celebrate a liturgy written by the English reformation’s hero Thomas Cranmer in the bosom of the Roman Church. Yet on Monday a 300-strong congregation made up of Anglican ex-pats, Catholic seminarians and diplomats stood next the tombs of Popes singing “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” and reciting prayers from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer asking God to “create and make in us new and contrite hearts.”
Such an English liturgy in Rome could have felt strange but it didn’t. In fact, it was perfectly natural to participate in an authentically Christian act of worship in the great bastion of Christendom.
Credit must go to Archbishop Sir David Moxon, the director of Rome’s Anglican Centre, who got special permission to celebrate the service. A New Zealander who studied theology at Oxford, Archbishop Moxon’s gentlemanly and scholarly approach has helped build bridges with the Vatican since he arrived in the Eternal City almost four years ago. Monday’s service was timed to mark the feast of St Gregory of the Great - the Pope who sent Augustine of Canterbury to evangelise England - and evensong concluded at Gregory’s tomb.
The event was also a reciprocal gesture by the Vatican for allowing Australian Cardinal George Pell to celebrate Mass at the High Altar of Canterbury Cathedral last July. The cardinal was at the evensong service on Monday, with his flowing red robes adding a flash of scarlet to proceedings and a reminder that over the years there have been many former Cardinal Archbishops of Canterbury. After the service ended one thing stood clearly in my mind: while the history of Catholics and Anglicans has been one of division today the spirit of unity is truly alive.