Enthusiastic witnesses to a shared faith
WHILE the invited representatives of all the main churches participated, in Saturday's moving service in Canterbury cathedral, it was outside in the large enclosed precinct that the ordinary faithful of the Catholic and Anglican churches showed how closely they identified with the warm sentiments of their respective religious leaders.
They had come from all over the south-east of England — lay groups representing their parishes, nuns, divinity students, clergy young and old. Their expectations too seemed realistic. All I spoke to before the service began were happy simply in the fact that the Pope had come; they did not expect any major breakthrough in ecumenical relations on that warm morning.
But the quiet devotion with which the vast majority followed the service as it was relayed out to us on loudspeakers showed just how much of a breakthrough has already been made. Together, as they sat on the grass, they joined in the hymn, "For all the saints who from their labours rest", with the unseen congregation inside.
They stood as the Pope read the Gospel they stood and later they replied to each of the prayers of intercessions with a heartfelt "Hear our prayer". And, most moving of all, as Pope and archbishop gave each other the sign of peace inside the heavy walls, Anglicans and Catholics did the same outside.
The hope which Dr Runcie expressed in his address that the service would stress "the existing unity of the Christian church" could hardly have been more fully realised.
Moving also, in its simple testimony to the shared appreciation of a great Christian leader, was the warm .and prolonged applause accorded to Archbishop Michael Ramsey, a predecessor of Dr Runcie, when he came into the precinct.
For all, the most eloquent symbol of this shared faith was that a successor of Peter had come among them in Canterbury. Just as the cheers of Anglicans and Catholics alike were slightly restrained as the Pope moved slowly in ceremonial procession alongside Dr Runcie — owing, one felt, to a sense of awe at this unique moment in the relationship of the two churches — so also did they listen with careful attention to Pope John Paul's address.
Only a very small number of those I spoke to afterwards expressed disappointment that the Pope had not announced a more concrete initiative. This was before the text had been made public of the common declaration signed by the two church leaders and announcing the establishment of a new cornmission to continue the now coippleted work of the current Anglican / Roman Catholic International Commission — A RCIC.
The Rev Peter Bannister of Temple Ewell seemed to sum up the opinions of Anglicans I spoke to when he said that he was very happy with what the Pope had said and felt sure that it would "help to further understanding between the two churches." Or as an Anglican laywoman put it: "Ile went as far as he could do at this _moment." Others had wider interpretations. Fr Russell Frost, an Anglican priest at the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, interpreted Pope John Paul as being by implication critical of the proposed covenant of the Church of England with some of the free churches. Fr Frost thought that the Pope stressed that he was speaking of the Church of England rather than the Anglican Communion, a fact he interpreted as meaning that the Pope wanted to strengthen the more Catholic parts of Anglicanism to be found more predominantly in the Church of Engfand than in other or its sister churches.
But for Fr Frost the fact that a Pope has stated publicly in Canterbury Cathedral that he is committed to church unity is "quite significant".
Catholics seemed very satisfied. Mrs Jean Williams saw the service as the "beginning of a better understanding between the churches" and two Irish nuns working in London thought that the Pope's address "was just terrific."
But, amid all the welter of excitement, I did manage to find one person who was somewhat disappointed. Fifteen-year-old Pauline from Dover admitted to me that she came hoping to see the Pope, Terry Wogan and the Prince of Wales. She was glad she was the Pope, but she didn't manage to catch a glimpse of the others.