With registration by surname and airport-style security checks (including a request for a recent utility bill), they had a long wait.
Not that the mixture of smartly dressed laypeople and clergy from across a variety of denominations seemed to mind. They hardly seemed to notice the handful of anti-Catholic proselytisers, distributing tracts across the other side of Victoria Street, and parading banners.
Once seated, they were able to watch the Pope’s journey from Lambeth Palace to Westminster Hall, and his speech to distinguished public figures, relayed via plasma screens in the Abbey. The congregation greeted his speech with enthusiastic applause.
The Popemobile arrived at the front entrance of the Abbey in what seemed like little time, the earlier clouds having made way for early evening sun.
The Pope, with the Archbishop of Canterbury at his side, was greeted at the entrance by the Dean of Westminster, the Very Revd Dr John Hall, who paused briefly to point out the 12 Martyrs carved above the Abbey’s entrance.
Dr Hall then welcomed Benedict “most warmly as the first Pope to visit the Church dedicated to St Peter” which, “for 600 years as a Benedictine Abbey, until the English Reformation, enjoyed a close relationship of mutual support with the papacy”.
After retiring to the Jericho Parlour to vest, during which the Abbey’s choir sang, the Pope said a prayer, before being introduced to leaders of the Churches of the British Isles, who included the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Rt Revd John Christie, and the President of the Methodist Council, the Revd Alison Tomlin.
The collegiate procession, together with the Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury, moved to places in the Abbey Quire and Sacrarium as the hymn “Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation” was sung.
Once seated, Dr Williams welcomed the Pope “on behalf of all Christian communities of Great Britain . . . in fraternal love to this great shrine, which has been of such significance for both Church and nation”. Pope Benedict thanked Dr Williams for his welcome and said that “this noble edifice evokes England’s long history, so deeply marked by the preaching of the Gospel and the Christian culture to which it gave birth”.
The Archbishop then introduced the Peace, warmly embracing the pontiff. The cardinals and bishops seated to each side followed suit, with hearty handshakes.
A reading from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 2, verse 5-11 followed, read by the President of the World Council of Churches, Dame Mary Tanner. The reading spoke of Christ’s emptying of himself, even to death, but subsequent exaltation.
The congregation then stood to sing the Charles Wesley hymn “O thou who camest from above”, after which the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Rt Revd John Christie, read from the Gospel of St Mark, chapter 10, verses 35-45, which included Christ’s declaration that “the Son of Man came not to serve but to be served, and to give his life a ransom for many”.
The Archbishop and the Pope then venerated the St Augustine Gospels, after which they each gave short addresses. The Pope said the historic occasion was a reminder “that what we share in Christ is greater than what continues to divide us” and that there is a continual challenge “to present the risen Lord as the deepest response the questions of our time”.
The pontiff’s gentle delivery was not entirely in keeping with his robust language: “It is the word of God precisely because it is the true word. It leads us into obedience that must be free of intellectual compromise and accommodation to the spirit of this age.”
Dr Williams, in his address, spoke of the way “in our society we can see the dehumanising effects of losing St Benedict’s vision”, such as people devoting themselves to work at the expense of relationship, and the worthlessness felt by many who had been made unemployed.
Prayers were led by six different Anglican and Catholic representatives, both clerical and lay, including the Canon of Westminster, the Revd Dr Jane Hedges, and the leader of Brentwood Catholic Youth Service, Leah Wagstaff.
After a collect sung by the Minor Canon of Westminster, the Revd Michael Macey, and the saying of the Lord’s Prayer, a seminal moment was marked when the Pope and Archbishop moved to the Shrine of Edward the Confessor to offer prayers.
The Archbishop prayed for blessing on “all who witness to the gospel’s call in the public life of our countries”; the Pope prayed that God would “heal the divisions among Christians”.
The congregation then stood to sing “All my hope on God is founded”, followed by the blessing, spoken simultaneously by the Pope and Archbishop.
As the Pope, helped by one of his aides, navigated the steps down out of the Sacrarium, the congregation broke into spontaneous applause.