Two major services, one major difference – but a good few reasons to be hopeful


Has such a week of Christian ritual and liturgy, of prayer and symbolism ever happened before? An unexpected chain of events led to this happy coincidence – that the new Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury be installed within days. Both placed themselves in succession to Peter: Pope Francis with his visit to Peter’s tomb beneath St Peter’s Basilica and with the singing of Tu Es Petrus; the new Archbishop of Canterbury chose the Gospel reading of Peter attempting to walk on water like Our Lord.

Both men carry not only the burden of office but the hopes and expectations of their flocks. They have to find ways of healing divisions and the difficulties of recent years. Both identified themselves with Peter who failed. But as Welby said in his sermon, Jesus is stronger than failure. The similarities between these two new pastoral leaders were apparent in their sermons. As leaders they point to Christ, but it is Christ who remains at the centre.

Francis urged the crowd of 200,000 in St Peter’s Square to protect God’s gifts of creation and the vulnerable. Justin Welby spoke of the many services which Christians do to help those in need.

These two great occasions were celebrations of two denominations with a chequered past and a once difficult relationship. Divisions do still resonate. The Welby installation was on the day commemorating Thomas Cranmer, the Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury burned by England’s last Catholic monarch. Only Catholics received Communion in Rome. But at both services, the ecumenical presence was considerable. Archbishop Sentamu of York leading the delegation in Rome, Cardinal Kurt Koch in Canterbury.

Rome’s papal Mass was an international event with heads of state rubbing shoulders with Catholic queens dressed in white. Canterbury had its guests from around the world but was essentially an English affair; the hymns familiar from village churches across the land, the Prime Minister, the Prince of Wales. In Rome the banners with their messages of ‘Go Francis, repair the Church’ fluttered alongside the flags of 100 nations, surrounding the open-air Mass. In Canterbury the political protesters and gay activists were kept yards away from the cathedral by the police, leaving the service to the clergy and their invited guests.

Pope Francis has eschewed much of the trappings of office in his first days in office, but tradition remained during his inauguration. He was clothed in his pallium and given his fisherman’s ring. Justin Welby was seated on two thrones – first the diocesan throne, then on the marble chair of St Augustine, after a wealth of legal language. These were two men essentially given the task of pastors while also being leaders of their Churches.

For those like me who were in Rome for Francis’ inauguration, Thursday’s inauguration of Justin Welby had strong echoes of that first service. There was the pattern of Old and New Testament readings, the psalms, the Gospel, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the intercessions. But one thing above all made an immense difference: Thursday’s service had no Eucharist and its sign of peace was made without being linked through its place in the liturgy with consecration, the moment when Christ transformed the world.

Both Churches have, though, been transformed in recent years. The Church of England, while still dominated by male clergy, has a notable number of women too. Catholicism’s hierarchy remains resolutely male, with but one woman, a reader, playing a part in Tuesday’s Mass. Yet that day it seemed a truly universal Catholic Church, with people there from across the globe, reflected too in the mix of its clergy. Canterbury on Thursday, with a few notable exceptions, seemed much more white. On Thursday we sang The Church’s Sure Foundation with its line ‘Elect of every nation/Yet one o’er all the earth’ but it would have been a perfect verse of Tuesday’s papal Mass.

Thursday was the feast of passing of St Benedict, honoured during the installation by his own Collect, reminding the congregation of the history of Christian Europe and Benedict’s rule of service and hospitality. As I sat in Canterbury’s nave, listening to Justin Welby’s pledge of his own service, Pope Francis’ words at his own service came back to me: ‘We must not be afraid of goodness or tenderness.’ He has sent a message to Justin Welby hoping for a meeting with him ‘in the near future’. That theme of goodness and tenderness could well be the one that rings through Catholicism and Anglicanism’s mutual journey in faith in the coming months.

Catherine Pepinster is Editor of The Tablet