Archbishop Bernard LongleyAs we celebrate the Solemnity of the Assumption of Our Lady this month, I recall her special title as Mother of the Church.  In this rôle Mary is an ecumenical mother to all those who are brothers and sisters in Christ through our common baptism.  She has always united herself with the prayer of her Son that they may all be one.  When we encounter her story in the Holy Land we realise the contribution that she makes to the unity of her Son’s Church.

 A few years ago, with the encouragement and advice of FHL, I experienced my first ecumenical pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  For our group of Anglican and Roman Catholic pilgrims, led by myself and Bishop John Inge of Worcester, it was not until we were side-by-side in the land of the Holy One that we began to realise all that the Holy Spirit was achieving within us.

 The best pilgrimages bring people together, not only to deepen their individual faith but also to strengthen their communion with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.  This was to be our experience on this unique ecumenical pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Galilee.

 Sharing the journeys, the times of prayer, our many visits to the places associated with the birth and death of Christ and with his public ministry, meeting with Palestinian Christians, and eating, drinking and resting together – all of this contributed to deepening not only our friendships but also our sense of communion as members of the Body of Christ.  By the end of the pilgrimage we had learnt so much about one another’s experience of being a Christian within our two Communions and we had come to regard that ecclesial experience with a new respect and gratitude.

 We were also able to witness to our commitment to Christian unity in a way that seemed to be appreciated by our hosts and by many of the groups of fellow Christians that we met.  In Jerusalem we celebrated Mass at the Latin Patriarchate and we were told of a retreat that the Catholic Auxiliary Bishop had given to the Anglican Clergy of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. 

 On the following day we joined the Anglican community at St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem for Sunday Eucharist celebrated by the Anglican Archbishop and we were warmly entertained to lunch by the Cathedral Dean together with members of his congregation.  Throughout our pilgrimage we sought out parishes like Ramallah, where Anglicans and Roman Catholics are working and witnessing together and where their parish clergy have developed good and fruitful partnerships.

 It was also evident from our encounters in the neighbouring West Bank towns of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour that the challenges faced by local Christians have drawn them together and made them determined to serve the needs of the poorest in their local communities whatever their faith or background.  Two visits in particular moved our pilgrims and both were places of hope provided by Christians to serve the local community’s needs.

 The joyful dignity and effective purposefulness of the people we met sometimes disguised the extent of the problems they have had to overcome.  At the School of Joy for children with special needs we saw a range of wonderful services that the local authorities simply cannot provide and which can no longer be readily accessed beyond the dividing wall in nearby Jerusalem.

 Our hearts were moved by the singing and dancing of a group of elderly women at St Martha’s House.  Here at this day-centre we met with mothers and grandmothers many of whose families have migrated overseas because of the troubles.  Now they have a place of their own, with companionship, activities and a source of help to meet the demands of daily life.

 The main spiritual challenge that we knew we would face was how to celebrate the Eucharist as Anglican and Roman Catholic pilgrims together.  At the earliest stages of our planning we agreed to follow the pattern of worship used for many years at its annual residential meeting by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission ARCIC.

 Each day, at an appropriate location, we celebrated the Eucharist as fully as possible while observing the discipline of both our Communions and following the Anglican or Roman Catholic rites on alternating days.  Roman Catholic pilgrims came forward at the time of Holy Communion for a blessing at the Anglican celebrations and vice versa.  We had made it clear from the beginning to potential pilgrims that this would be our practice on pilgrimage so as to avoid misunderstandings or disappointment.

 As the pilgrimage unfolded the moment of receiving the Lord in Holy Communion or through the blessing of his minister was experienced as a great grace.  In an unexpectedly profound way we felt ourselves held together by the Holy Spirit, united in our awareness of all that we hold in common as well as in our sadness at the differences that still impede our path towards full and visible communion.  In each Eucharist we caught a glimpse of what Our Lord had prayed for: that they may all be one.

 On our return we could not forget that we saw the Holy Land and met the Living Stones who continue to witness to their faith in Christ as Anglican and Roman Catholic pilgrims praying and searching for a deeper unity together - and that in the land of the Holy One our prayer was answered.           

 I hope these reflections might inspire you and others to organise an ecumenical pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  As an organisation the Friends of the Holy Land draws great strength from its ecumenical membership as well as from the prayers of Our Lady, Queen of Palestine.  May it continue to draw us all closer to Christ and so closer to his mother and to each other.

+Bernard Longley

Archbishop of Birmingham