Reflections on the Holy Land Shared Journey

Any pilgrimage is a shared journey, which I find brings me very close to those who are with me and experiencing the same places, while having their own insights and reflections to contribute. The short gathering we had after supper each day was a lovely opportunity to allow the impressions of that day to sink in a little more deeply, helped by the observations and reflections of the others. Part of the richness of this was the ecumenical dimension — the fact that we have so much in common, while having what I might call complementary perspectives which can offer deeper insights than would be available to us on our own.

I felt that there was also something special about having this pilgrimage specifically with the Anglican diocese of Southwark. Our two cathedrals in particular, as well as our two dioceses, do often collaborate on various projects, which gives a certain sense of common purpose. And apart from our shared faith in Christ, which is obviously the most important thing, we do have so much in common with the Anglicans in particular, in terms of liturgy, sacraments and spiritual traditions.

I also greatly valued the particular experience that Bishop Christopher brought to the pilgrimage, in terms of his membership of the international Holy Land Coordination group, organised by our own Bishops’ Conference. This means he is very much in touch with the Christian churches in the Holy Land and the issues that affect them — and this gave an additional depth to our pilgrimage. This helped, for instance, in arranging a visit to the ‘Latin Patriarchate’, which has pastoral responsibility for the Latin-Rite Catholics in the Holy Land and neighbouring territories. We were warmly welcomed by Bishop Kamal Hanna Bathish, who mentioned that he himself is from Nazareth. He was glad to see that we were an ecumenical pilgrimage. He used a rather nice image, that God speaks only one Word (his Son) though we hear the Word of God differently.

Robin has already mentioned the fact that we celebrated the Eucharist as a single group, which I’m sure was the right approach, even though we could not receive Holy Communion together. I also valued the other times we gathered for a short period of shared prayer at other times each day, when we came to particularly significant places. Canon Andrew always seemed to have just the right prayer for the occasion, on a sheet which he’d draw out of a file he carried with him, for himself or for someone else to read. Fr Phil also gave a lovely reflection he had prepared, while we were visiting the Mount of Olives.

The singing was a high point, as Robin mentioned — and it was by no means always solemn and serious. I greatly enjoyed the rendition of While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night, to the tune of On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘at  at the start of the Mass which we had been planning to have at Bethlehem. Canon Andrew mentioned in his homily, the fact that shepherds in the time of Jesus were regarded as disreputable and unreliable — and so would not have been seen as ideal witnesses to a great event. I suppose a more modern equivalent would be the cowboy. Isn’t it strange how they, too, are seen as unreliable? A priest friend once claimed to have seen a builder’s van which had the sign: ‘Patel and Sons. You’ve been let down by the cowboys. Now try the Indians!’

While we were in Jerusalem, I wanted to visit the Anglican cathedral, so I went there towards the end of Friday afternoon. I was saying Evening Prayer as the light was beginning to fade. Then I heard a loud sound of horns, coming from somewhere outside. Was it some strange religious ceremony in one of the nearby churches? Was it some sort of air-raid warning? If so, I had no idea what to do. I felt a little foolish when I found out it was just the weekly signal that the Sabbath was about to start!

Renewing baptismal vows near Caesarea Philippi led by the two bishops

On the day we moved up to Galilee, we visited Qumran (made famous by the Dead Sea Scrolls). Visiting the excavations was very memorable, but not as memorable as the lunch we had at a huge cafeteria-style restaurant. There was a very long queue to get in, taking us past a shop section that offered various sure-fire cosmetic treatments made from Dead Sea mud, plus other items of local interest. We eventually got through and I had lunch sitting next to a couple of Baptist pilgrims from Texas. After visiting the excavations, I bought an ice cream from a stall which advertised itself as ‘the lowest on earth’. As the shores of the Dead Sea are over 1,400 feet below sea level, I think their claim is justified!

Like Robin, I do hope we can find other opportunities for ecumenical pilgrimages in various forms. The most recent ARCIC document has the title Walking Together on the Way, and the image of ecumenism as a shared journey is very appropriate. It seems to me to imply movement on both sides, walking towards a common goal, rather than a static compromise between two fixed positions.

We mustn’t lose sight of the goal of Christian Unity, but neither must we think that the journey towards it is without value. I’ve never done the Santiago Camino, but I’m sure that the experience of arriving at Compostela is all the more wonderful because it’s the climax of a long (and probably difficult) journey. But from what I can gather it’s the journey itself, and all that the pilgrims learn from each other along the way, which truly transforms their life.

Bishop Paul Hendricks