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‘It is good that the Pope is coming’

The Very Rev Dr John Hall hopes that Pope Benedict will have an ‘opportunity to talk about the centrality of Christianity within our understanding of the nation’ (Photos: PA)

What do you feel is the significance of the Pope visiting Westminster Abbey in particular, rather than another prominent Anglican place of worship such as St Paul’s?

In 1982, Pope John Paul II of course came to Canterbury and so he met the Archbishop of Canterbury there. That was a very significant and important occasion.

That was a pastoral visit. This is a state visit, so he’s coming partly as head of state, as well as head of the Roman Catholic Church, and every head of state is invited to come and lay a wreath at the grave of the unknown warrior.

So actually both heads of state on state visits and heads of government on government visits generally come here – they don’t absolutely all come but generally they come. There’s a ceremony which lasts maybe 20 minutes to half an hour at which we stand at the grave of the unknown warrior and they lay a wreath, before a brief tour of the Abbey.

Quite often their state television and media cover it. It’s very rarely covered here, but it always happens. On the first day of the state visit, that’s the general pattern: after lunch they come here and so that’s the first thing they do after they’ve met the Queen, and it’s significant because of course the grave of the unknown warrior, that’s the original unknown warrior and it’s therefore important that the Pope should come and pay his respects there. So he won’t be laying a wreath, but he will be saying a prayer, a prayer for peace, and I shall welcome him to the Abbey and we shall stand there and pray for peace.

Now, this is of course also the shrine of St Edward the Confessor, king of England from 1042 to 1066, and so he will also pray at the shrine. He’ll pray with the Archbishop of Canterbury at the shrine, and I’ll be there supporting them, as it were.

But it’s also the great ecumenical event of the visit, and there’ll be representatives of all the churches across the United Kingdom, and I hope the congregation of 2,200 people will represent very effectively the diversity of the Christian community, and so there’ll be church leaders being presented to him from all sorts of different backgrounds. So it’s going to be a great occasion.

The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope will both speak and will have evening prayer with a version of choral evensong. So it’ll be a great occasion.

What are your feelings about the Pope visiting Britain more generally, and the Abbey in particular?

Well, I think the Pope is very welcome, and I’m very pleased he’s coming. It seems to me it’s a good thing that the Pope is coming. I know that the papal visit in 1982, before it happened, was marred by a certain amount of uncertainty because of the Falklands War.

But when the time came it was tremendously important and successful, and I think it led to a new stage in the relations between the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church.

But those relations have been difficult, and continue to be difficult: despite the growing friendship. There are still obstacles to our working together and I hope that this will simply remind us of what we have in common, remind us of our common mission to the people of these shores, and of the ways in which we can collaborate effectively in the work of God’s mission, despite the various things that unhappily divide us.

Almost half a day in this four-day visit is given over to ecumenical events with the Church of England. What do you feel is the significance of this focus on relations between Rome and Canterbury?

I’m very glad that the Pope will be going to Lambeth Palace. Obviously Pope John Paul II met Robert Runcie in the old palace in Canterbury, but Lambeth Palace is in a sense the heart of the thing as far as the Archbishop of Canterbury is concerned.

And I understand he’s giving a talk.

They [Benedict XVI and Dr Rowan Williams] will have a private conversation together and there will also be a gathering of all the bishops of the Church of England and indeed of Anglicanism in these islands, with the Roman Catholic bishops as well. And I think that will be a very important and potentially significant.

Then, in a way more interesting for the wider interests of civil society, he’s going to give an address in Westminster Hall, and the Speaker and the Lord Speaker will welcome him, so this is very formal, very important occasion. No doubt Westminster Hall will be full. He’ll be speaking to civil society – not just members of Parliament but to representatives of civil society in the broadest sense.

And I hope that he’s got an opportunity there to talk about the centrality of Christianity within our understanding of the nation, and the deep embeddedness of the Church in our society, and I hope that he’s able to advance the mission of the Church in the broadest sense through his engagement in Westminster Hall.

When he comes here to Westminster Abbey and visits the shrine of St Edward the Confessor he is going to pray in the presence of the saint, canonised in 1161. St Edward, as I’m sure you know, was King of England and established his palace here in Westminster and rebuilt the abbey. Now, we know that there was an abbey here before. There was a monastery certainly from 960, when St Dunstan was bishop of London, just before he became Archbishop of Canterbury.

He certainly brought monks here from Glastonbury where he’d been abbot, so he either re-founded or founded the monastery here. But the great thing was that between 1042 and 1065 Edward the Confessor built his palace here and re-built the Abbey, and we’ve got some remains of Edward the Confessor’s Abbey. Some of the outbuildings remain here.

The great Romanesque church, which he built before the Norman conquest (because his mother, you remember, was a Norman), was almost on the same scale as the current church. The current church was built, of course, from the 13th century onwards.

But nevertheless it enshrines St Edward, who wanted his state, his palace, here to be bolstered, buttressed, supported and underpinned by the Church. And that’s the nature of the state that we continue to be, where the state is in relation to the Church, the Church in relation to the state. And that’s not in a way that makes either in Babylonian captivity to the other, but it’s a genuine engagement – and that’s what we represent here at Westminster Abbey.

That’s what the shrine of St Edward the Confessor represents to us as a nation. That’s the message that people get almost without having it articulated: it’s in the very stones of Westminster Abbey itself. Anyone coming here can’t fail to perceive that, because of the nature of the memorials and shrines, and the people who are here, as it were. This is our national shrine and here is our national saint. I don’t contest St George being our patron saint but St Edward was before and he is a person of great significance.

So all of that is encapsulated on that very significant afternoon. It’s a chance for the Pope to address issues, which I know matter to him, about the embeddedness of Christianity within our culture. They matter to us, too.

What do you feel is the significance of John Henry Newman’s legacy to Anglicans?

Well, I don’t believe it’s possible for someone who’s lived a long time as an Anglican utterly to evade his Anglican heritage. And there is absolutely no doubt in the case of John Henry Newman that he means a great deal to Anglicans as well as to others – not just Anglicans in the tradition of the Oxford Movement. Keble stayed, Pusey stayed, Newman went. That was a painful time for people in 1845: the parting of friends, and we can’t imagine what the parting of friends would have felt like in those days. They would have lived quite separate lives and didn’t see each other again, many of them, ever. Some of them, of course, they saw many years later when Cardinal Newman was welcomed back into Oxford as (I think) an honorary Fellow of Trinity. But nevertheless, that was a moment of enormous significance for him, I think, and indeed for the wider understanding.

So he continues to mean a lot for Anglicans. He certainly means a lot personally to me and I’m very happy he’s on his road to canonisation, because I think he’s also important for the Roman Catholic Church. I think the position he took in 1870 around Vatican I was very significant. Clearly he was also a great inspiration to Vatican II, a great inspiration to the Pope.

It’s extraordinary that the Pope is coming here to beatify Cardinal Newman. As I understand it he doesn’t normally beatify anyone now. They’re beatified by local prelates. So this is a most significant thing. He sees it as such. We see it as such. And I believe that Cardinal Newman can be a sign of our common heritage and our common labour in God’s mission.

So it’s really Newman’s ability to remind us of our shared heritage?

Well, it’s not just reminding us of our shared heritage. That’s all true, but he also, I think, points us forward.

So you think he shows a path to unity.

Well, we all have the goal of unity. The Pope is clear about the goal ultimately being one of unity. How could anyone who reads John 17, who hears the words of our Lord, not have a clear goal for unity, a passion for unity?

What I alluded to earlier was the way in which friendships have grown, whilst obstacles remain between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church and they sometimes appear to be increased by the decisions that are being taken here and there. Nevertheless, subtly, quietly, gently, what I think is sometimes called “the dialogue of life” has developed, and friendships are very strong. I was myself immensely privileged to attend the inauguration of Archbishop Nichols’s ministry as Archbishop of Westminster, and I was there with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of London and then again at the centenary of the consecration of Westminster Cathedral, and again, I sat just behind the Cardinal, very near the high altar, and felt tremendously humbled and honoured but also tremendous thankfulness for the friendship that’s grown up between us. Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey are friends.

Will Newman’s beatification affect this at all?

There’s no doubt in my mind that we have different processes for recognising the holiness, the sanctity of individuals. There’s an Anglican route, which is quite different, and we raise people to the altar by a different process, but the process which the Roman Catholic Church uses is well known and well understood. It’s not universally accepted, or understood completely, but nevertheless it is inevitably influential. We’ve raised Newman to the altar simply by his inclusion in the calendar. Certainly we’ve raised other Oxford Movement people to the altar. We commemorate him on August 11. So he is in the Anglican calendar as a pious, holy person who is commended to our edification. We have him in our calendar as “John Henry Newman, priest, tractarian, 1890”. That’s the year of his death.

The promulgation by the Pope of Anglicanorum coetibus, allowing for the potential large-scale conversion of some Anglo-Catholics, seemed to cause some annoyance in the Church of England. How has this step affected Anglican-Catholic dialogue?

I don’t think fundamentally it has affected Anglican-Catholic dialogue. I remember that it was very clearly said that this was a pastoral response to an approach made by a group of Anglicans. Whether and in what way an Anglican Ordinariate, or a group of Anglican Ordinariates around the world, will be established is a matter for speculation at the moment.

I don’t see myself a great sign of a rush towards such a thing from my friends in the Anglican-Catholic tradition who are not willing to accept the ordination of women bishops. But that legislation process is still going through and no one knows what the outcome will yet be.

There are, as we all know, quite a large number of Anglicans who’ve become Roman Catholics over the years, and quite a large number of Roman Catholics who’ve become Anglicans over the years. So there is a two-way traffic.
Some very dear friends of mine have become Roman Catholics in the past – some parishioners of mine. And some parishioners of mine were Roman Catholics who’ve become Anglicans. And it’s not a difficult process, really. I think it adds to our mutual understanding.

There was a lot of talk in the press about “poaching”, and you don’t feel that’s justified?

I didn’t see the word “poaching” myself. If anything, I think there was a certain feeling that the way had not been sufficiently prepared for the announcement and it came as something of a surprise to people in this country.

From my point of view, we shouldn’t see it as a sort of fundamental assault on Anglicanism, because it was backed by very clear statements here and elsewhere about the importance of the continuing dialogue and relationship between our two churches.

What do you think Anglicans stand to gain from the papal visit?

If the papal visit manages to raise, in the right sort of way, for debate the questions which I’ve referred to earlier about the fundamental relation between Christianity and our nation, then I believe we shall all have gained from it.
We should all see our country as being founded on Christian principles, and the life of the Church is deeply embedded in our country. That doesn’t mean to say that we don’t welcome those of other faiths. Of course we do.

And we want a good respect and proper dialogue between people of all faiths, and indeed of none.

That’s important, but nevertheless, we can’t simply slough off our history, and regard ourselves as a secular state. That is not what we are. We are a state that’s founded on religion. And the papacy was a very strong supporter of that for many centuries.

Since the 16th century things have gone slightly differently, but we’re all talking about the same things. And very often the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England in this country speak with the same voice on issues – not absolutely universally, but very often. And it’s much stronger when it is with the same voice.

So you feel there is a strong possibility of cooperation on moral issues on which both communions agree?

I’ve always believed that. When I was the Church of England’s chief education officer, one of my best colleagues was the director of the Catholic Education Service, and the strongest relationship of my bishop chairman was with Vincent Nichols when he was chairman of the Catholic Education Service. We would all go together to meet Secretaries of State for Education to discuss education matters, and we were stronger together.

Have you read any of the Pope’s books? What is your impression of his theology?

Well, I thought his first encyclical was profoundly moving, and very impressive, and the way he focused on the primary issues. I’ve also read the first volume of his Jesus of Nazareth, which I found very moving and powerful. Clearly there are issues on which we would diverge, but I think his is a powerful voice.

And do you feel he has much to say to Anglicans as a theologian?

I think the dialogue between Anglican and Roman Catholic theologians is extremely important. Because Rowan Williams and the Pope are both devotees of St Augustine, I like to think of them sitting down in a quiet moment having a purely theological conversation around some of the ideas of St Augustine. And I believe that when we get back to fundamentals then we are very close indeed.

And do you feel that you have gained much from reading the Pope’s books as an Anglican?

I think we all gain as Anglicans or Roman Catholics by reading books from slightly different traditions. I think that the Pope has his place within that sort of hierarchy of people it’s interesting to read.

How would you say his theological outlook compares with that of Dr Williams?

I wouldn’t seek to contrast them. I think they both have important things to say.