Last month we spent a week leading an ecumenical pilgrimage to Rome. We were accompanied by 20 Roman Catholic and 20 Anglican pilgrims, as we had been on our ecumenical pilgrimage to the Holy Land three years ago.

It was very good to be able to explore our shared heritage and pray at sites important to us all, like the tomb of St Paul. We visited Subiaco and saw the cave where St Benedict wrote his rule, that rule which has had so much influence upon this country and the church here.

We were moved by the Catacombs of Callistus where half a million of our forebears in the faith were buried and were reminded of the great sacrifice made during the first centuries of the church.

We visited the English College in Rome which, until the Reformation, was a hostel for English pilgrims to Rome.

Following the Reformation priests were trained there – as they still are – and we were reminded in the early years they returned to England in fear of their lives: quite a few were killed.

Relationships between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church are, thankfully, immeasurably better now.

We were warmly received in the Vatican where we spent an hour with Cardinal Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. We were very struck by a throwaway line of the Pope to which he referred.

After an atrocity against Christians, of which there are so many in today’s world, the Pope had apparently commented that those who persecute Christians realise our unity better than we do as Christians. That struck us as a profound insight on which to reflect.

It was perhaps providential that we should have been in Rome in the week leading up to the canonisation of St John Henry Newman, the first English Christian to be canonised for many years and the first Confessor (non-martyr) who lived after the Reformation.

Cardinal Koch referred to him as ‘our shared saint’.  There is no doubt that, though he left the Church of England, he took the best of his Anglicanism with him.

It has been argued that it was his thinking that laid the foundations for Vatican II. If that is the case, who knows whether a shared pilgrimage such as ours would have been possible without his witness. 

We were graciously received by Sally Axworthy, British Ambassador to the Holy See, who talked of arrangements for the canonisation and her other work.

We were welcomed to the Anglican Centre by Archbishop Ian Ernest, Director of the Centre and Archbishop of Canterbury’s Representative in Rome. He had just arrived, having previously been Bishop of Mauritius and Archbishop of the Indian Ocean.

Greeting us was his first official engagement.

One of the highlights of our pilgrimage was being part of a general audience of the Pope in St Peter’s Square. 

There were many thousands of people from all over the world at that audience, as there are every Wednesday morning, which was a powerful reminder of the universality of the Church.

We were very fortunate to be singled out and warmly greeted by the Pope who asked us for our prayers for him. ‘Don’t forget!’ he added.

At the heart of such audiences is a simple Bible study, given by the Pope in Italian and translated into a number of languages. On this occasion he reflected on the occasion recounted in Acts 8 when the apostle Philip met the Ethiopian who was reading a passage from the prophet Isaiah.  As he said:

‘Yet, without a guide, he is unable to understand its full meaning.  Philip explains to him how the Old Testament prophecies reach their fulfilment in Christ.  As a result, the Ethiopian professes his faith in Jesus, and asks to be baptized. 

From the baptismal waters he emerges no longer a stranger, but a member of the Body of Christ.  The dialogue in this encounter reveals to us the key to reading the Scriptures: namely, Christ. 

Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will strengthen all the baptized to follow the example of Philip in bearing witness to the saving power of the Gospel and bringing others to Jesus.’

Recognising that, along with baptism, the Bible is a key ecumenical instrument, we are committed to engaging with it together and encouraging others to do the same.

Last Saturday, we led our fourth biennial ‘Big Bible Study’ in Worcester Cathedral, at which we were joined by The Revd Dr Judith Rossall, Methodist tutor at the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham.

Cardinal Koch reminded us that Jesus had prayed for unity, he did not command it. Prompted by the Holy Spirit we shall go on working for it, recognising the unity we already share and doing all we can to further it.

And we pray that God will grant us the full visible unity which is his will so that we might together more effectively ‘bear witness to the saving power of the Gospel and bring others to Jesus.’

The Most Revd Bernard Longley, Archbishop of Birmingham

The Rt Revd Dr John Inge, Bishop of Worcester

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Ecumenical Pilgrimage to Rome