John Turnbull shares his excitement, confusion and embarrassment as he watched the evening service with Pope Benedict at Westminster Abbey

It goes to show you should never believe your own propaganda. The Romans may be right, we are happy to acknowledge, but we do it better; if they have the words, we have the choreography. Whatever you may say against the Church of England – and there is plenty you might say in criticism – we do worship better. This is almost part of our self-definition.

Or maybe we don’t. We got our comeuppance on Friday evening, 17 September, when the Holy Father came to Westminster Abbey. It was an important occasion, and let us hope that the picture of Pope Benedict and Archbishop Rowan kneeling in prayer before the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor will remain long in our shared consciousness of prayer. I am more than happy to acknowledge that this is what mattered – the occasion, the meeting, the prayer. That will not be lost.


But what a strangely muted, unconfident act of worship it was, stumbling in its nervous disorganization. Maybe the present Dean of Westminster is not very good at liturgy, maybe someone’s dog died, maybe everyone in London knows the whys and wherefores, but watching the service in the provinces, it was … not disappointing, because nothing in the papal visit has been disappointing, but a touch embarrassing.

It was all so badly organized and ponderous. Of course, there were scores of visiting dignitaries to be catered for, and they inevitably restrain the freedom of the home crowd. (The star turn was surely that delightful woman in long flowing hair and dressed as a wiccan, who turned out to be a Methodist.) I was happy to see that the meeting with Dr Jane Hedges was entirely straightforward, with nothing of the shock horror predicted by the press beforehand. It was good to see a woman among the clerics – she was not acting as a priest – it was only a pity not to see any other women among the altar party in a supposedly liberal institution.

Anglican patrimony

Ironic, perhaps. Recently we have been speaking much about Anglican patrimony in response to the Holy Father’s generous offer of the Ordinariate. One of the first items that always comes to mind, and which features in any discussion, is Choral Evensong.

It is true, this was not Evensong, it was A‘ Service of Evening Prayer’, but it was made to look suspiciously like it; but here was the author of this idea of patrimony present at the epitome of what Anglicans have to offer the Church Catholic; and we fluffed it.

That curious bit at the beginning, when they all had to stand around at the back of the abbey, like parents and visitors to a primary school, listening to the children perform their musical piece. It did not seem entirely polite when welcoming an 83-year-old pilgrim.

Sense of awkwardness

Why am I going on about all this? Any event can be criticized if one tears it apart detail by detail. To which I would respond, that I did not feel the same when watching the other services and meetings of the visit. And nor do I think it was about the details.

It was that strange, troubling sense of awkwardness and defensiveness; even a lack of generosity. Praise the Lord for Archbishop John Sentamu, who broke protocol and seemed to flummox those around him by going forward for a final private word with Benedict, before he got into the limousine at the end. I don’t know what he said, but I thanked him for saying it.

No, the reason I was so struck by that service was the grandeur and importance of the occasion (which will not be lost) set against its utterly unexpected failure of organization. It was about us. We believed we could show anyone how to do worship. And when it came to it, we couldn’t. I am not blaming the Dean or Westminster Abbey, I am saying this was an accurate mirror of the Church of England as a whole, myself included.

Humility and gratitude

Why did Dr Rowan Williams look so miserably unhappy all the way through? I don’t know – though he has certainly many burdens and troubles to bear as leader of the Anglican Communion. But I asked myself, ‘Is that how I look, as a member of this church?’ and the answer has to be, ‘Surely, yes.’

We are in crisis. When attacked by outsiders, we may close ranks, juggle the statistics and insist that all is well. But here was a holy friend, come to greet us, and of course we were happy – and the applause was genuine – but somehow we couldn’t get our act together.

One chaotic service is not much of a symptom, but I feel humbler for the Holy Father’s visit, and I do not now think I shall be referring to choreography as part of our shared inheritance. I am deeply grateful for all the Anglican inheritance, but I am also deeply grateful that Pope Benedict has offered the hand of friendship and welcome in these uncertain times. ND