Serenhedd James accepts an invitation to Hampton Court

You know you’ve hit gold when the Protestant Truth Society shows up with a banner. This time it was at Hampton Court on the afternoon of Shrove Tuesday, and its four representatives were protesting about the remarkable events that were about to unfold by the side of the Thames in that royal corner of Surrey.

Remarkable, indeed – and organised by my hosts, the Genesis Foundation, with the permission of Her Majesty the Queen. At 17.30 the three-hundred-or-so people gathered in the Great Hall rose as the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster and the Bishop of London entered and took their places on the dais. Bishop Chartres – in his capacity as Dean of the Chapels Royal – then welcomed Cardinal Nichols to Hampton Court, and the two prelates began a conversation (unscripted, we were assured) titled ‘Faith and the Crown’. To a great extent the discussion focussed on the ways in which the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church are now working together: Bishop Chartres described the evening as à celebration of how far we’ve come and also a celebration of a common agenda’.

The setting could hardly have been more impressive. The carved details of the Great Hall, with its magnificent hammer-beam roof, were moodlit in scarlet; and the Cardinal and the Bishop – seated respectively on plush scarlet and navy chairs – were flanked by a bevy of senior clerics of both denominations, including a number of the clergy of the Royal Household in their scarlet cassocks. Against this formal backdrop, however, the Bishop and the Cardinal addressed and referred to each other as ‘Richard’ and ‘Vincent’.

In his introduction to the souvenir programme, Cardinal Nichols – I have not yet been invited to call His Eminence ‘Vincent’, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time – wrote that the consequences of ‘the period of our history known as “the Reformation” … are being constantly explored and more deeply understood’. He observed in his spoken remarks that cooperation between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England was becoming increasingly necessary on matters of common ground, because traditional values that Britons ‘used to take for granted’ could no longer be relied upon.

Meanwhile, Bishop Chartres said that many people no longer distinguish between denominations – ‘What I see, particularly around London is that increasingly we are living in a post-denominational era’ – and noted the increase of groups of using non-traditional buildings for worship. He raised a chuckle when he commented that many people might think that the Archbishop of Westminster and the Bishop of London – their respective dioceses are almost coterminous – ‘must fight like ferrets in a sack’. In fact, he thought that it was more pressing to ‘look together at the problems facing humanity rather than looking at the differences between us’.

Both bishops agreed that, in an increasingly secular society, warm relations were important. The Cardinal made the point that the contribution of Roman Catholics to the life of the nation was made as a ‘significant minority’; but Bishop Chartres’s reply was telling, and not a little unnerving: ‘We are all minorities now’.

After the talk came the grist to the PTS’s mill: the assembly – which, at a glance, included the Apostolic Nuncio, the Home Secretary, the next Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, and the Editor of New Directions – made its way from the Great Hall to the Palace Chapel, where Cardinal Nichols presided at Solemn Vespers of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in cope and mitre. Most of the service was in Latin, with The Sixteen – on their customary superb form – providing the music. They chanted Psalms 121 and 126, and Benedictus Deus, with their proper antiphons, and during Thomas Tallis’s Magnificat for Five Voices the Cardinal censed the plate-covered altar. Bishop Chartres preached the homily, referencing the Council of Ephesus and referring to the Mother of God as ‘Our Lady’. We even had the prayers from the breviary, with their response ‘May the Virgin Mary intercede for us’. The service closed with William Cornysh’s Salve Regina, an intricate and haunting setting of a troped version of the antiphon, and the National Anthem.

This was, as far as anyone can tell, the first time that a public act of worship led by a clergyman in full and visible communion with the Bishop of Rome had taken place in the chapel since the days of Mary I. For this church historian it evoked a series of what-ifs: would this have been akin to the daily worship of the Chapel Royal today if Prince Arthur had lived; or if Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon had produced a healthy son; or if Mary’s phantom pregnancy of 1555 had been real; or if she and Cardinal Pole had not died by coincidence on the same day in 1558? These are, of course, entirely academic questions – but perhaps they give pause for thought. It will, I think, be a while before I forget the sound of a Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster intoning the BCP Prayer for the Royal Family.

Meanwhile, Hampton Court Chapel continues its round of daily Prayer Book worship, under the supervision of the recently-licensed Chaplain, Fr Anthony Howe. All the services are open to the public, no palace ticket is required, and a Choral Foundation has been established to secure the future of the musical tradition. Much of the well-known Tudor music sung by the members of the Chapel Choir was written by their predecessors, and in some cases for the very building in which they sing.

Fr Howe read from Galatians at Vespers. ‘It is wonderfully encouraging’, he told me, ‘in a world that appears to be increasingly divided, for Roman Catholic and Anglican Christians to come together in this place, to celebrate a common heritage and to join in the worship of God; united by the word, presented in scripture and in beautiful music’. Over champagne and canapés in the Cartoon Gallery afterwards, even the stoniest Low-Churchman would surely have been hard-pressed to disagree. ND