[ACNS, by Gavin Drake] The Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, last night led a service of Solemn Vespers in the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court Palace in what was the first Roman Catholic act of worship for 450 years in Henry VIII’s chapel, which was the backdrop to much of the English Reformation.
The service, sung mainly in Latin, was a unique event held to mark the 500th anniversary of Hampton Court and was in recognition of the growing relationship between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic church.
Before the service, Cardinal Nichols and the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, who is Dean of the Chapels Royal, held a discussion in the Palace’s Great Hall in which they talked about the pain and tribulations of the Reformation and the growing unity between the two churches.
The two leaders spoke about John Fisher, who, as Bishop of Rochester, was executed on the orders of Henry VIII for refusing to accept the King’s new position as supreme head of the Church of England; deferring instead to the primacy of the Pope.
As they spoke, they journeyed through 450 years of history until they commented on present day ecumenical relations in England.
Cardinal Nichols told the Bishop of London that there had been a number of “key points in the development” of the relationship between Roman Catholics and Anglicans. One had been the recognition at Vatican II “of the gracefulness of the Orders you exercise”. And the biggest step had come 50 years ago with the publication of a document on religious liberty.
“That recognised the primacy of a person’s conscience to seek for God in the way in which they were called,” he said. “So it shifted the Catholic Church from its classical position of ‘error has no rights’. . . But here now was a sense that said, ‘No – our first commitment was to the work of God. And the work of God unfolds in different ways in different periods and with different people.”
Bishop Chartres spoke of Catholic emancipation in the 1800s, and said that Britain had “ceased to be a confessional state” in 1828 when it repealed laws banning Roman Catholics from holding a number of senior positions, effectively creating “a free market in religious ideas.”
The two leaders agreed that the churches now needed to work together to address growing problems.
The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Dr Richard Chartres and the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, discuss the changing relationship between the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church in the 450 years since the English Reformation
Photo: © Richard Lea Hair
“The task that you and I – and all that we represent – the task that we face is to do our utmost to ensure that the Judeo Christian tradition, values and beliefs that formed the character of this country are not lost,” Cardinal Nichols told the Bishop of London.
“At the moment I think we are losing them by default and we have somehow taken our eye of the ball. . . We have taken them for granted and now we find that they are not as secure as we thought.”
Bishop Chartres agreed, saying that the task was “very urgent”. He said: “It is a matter of life and death that together we point to the true and living God. . . How long we will survive the erosion of that theological foundation is a moot point.”
He said that in going around London he was discovering that “increasingly, we are living in a post-denominational era” in which young people in particular were less interested in the establishment and dissent of the Church of England; but – as was the case with a recent visit to a church focused on university students - instead “really wanted to hear about fundamental mainstream Christian conviction. They wanted to hear about it authoritatively. They wanted to worship and pray together.”
He said: “Now is the moment for the Christian family, for Christian churches not to have a hectoring patronising confidence . . . but now is that time that I think we have been given renewed confidence by the Spirit. There is a truth here that cannot be suppressed: Life in all its fullness flows from discovering a relationship with the true and living God.”
The two leaders spoke of the joint work that the churches are doing to tackle violent extremism, people trafficking and other social issues. Cardinal Nichols said it was time for the country to “look again” and discover that “religion is not a problem to be solved. It is resource to be discovered.”
After the discussion, the congregation of invited dignitaries, church leaders and members of the public who responded to a ballot organised by the Classic FM radio station moved to Hampton Court’s impressive Baroque chapel for the historic service of Vespers according to the Latin Rite.
The music was led by Harry Christopher with two of his ensembles - The Sixteen, considered to be one of the world’s greatest ensembles; and the Genesis Sixteen, which provides a unique free training opportunity for talented young ensemble singers to progress from student to professional.
Before the service, organist Matthew Martin played Thomas Preston’s Felix namque and John Taverner’s setting of Leroy Kyrie, reputed to have been written by Henry IV or Henry V.
The service itself included a number of historical musical numbers including Tallis’s Canon by Thomas Tallis – “Glory to thee, my God, this night” – known internationally for its last verse which is often sung as a doxology as a form of Grace; and Salve Regina by William Cornysh.
The congregation and members of The Sixteen and Genesis Sixteen at a Roman Catholic Vespers service in the Chapel Royal of Hampton Court Palace.
Photo: © Richard Lea Hair
Afterwards, Cardinal Nichols told ACNS that he found the service “very moving.”
“I had a profound sense of the centuries – the last four centuries – and all the consequences of things that perhaps had some of their origins here,” he said. “And that fact that we could do this and listen to music that takes us beyond those controversies and have that appeal to the position of Mary as the Mother of God and to assist in our pilgrimage together – I found it very moving.”
Bishop Chartres described the service as “promising and healing”, telling ACNS: “Music contributes to the healing of memories.
“Talking around the room it is obvious that many people were moved to recapitulate some history and also to reflect on the extraordinary roles of the Chapels Royal in preserving something unique to the Church of England as distinct from a large number of continental Protestant churches.
“What was preserved was a certain ceremoniousness of worship and a musicality of worship as well.
“And this place was the model which had a very profound influence on the whole church. And for a couple of centuries after the Chapel Royal here was built in the 1520s it was the place for the best music, the best liturgical and spiritual music in the whole culture.
“And I think as we look to the future we hope that is going to be more and more the case again; just as, of course, there are huge opportunities now for both churches to address a common agenda in the world which is all about violence, mistreatment of people who are being trafficked – that’s a growing problem and we are together in a campaign about that.”
The service of Vespers was record by BBC Radio Three and will be broadcast in the UK as part of its Choral Evensong series on Wednesday 30 March at 3.30 pm and again on Sunday 3 April at 3.00 pm.