The Rt Revd Paul Hendricks, Auxiliary Bishop in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark writes…

A few days ago, I happened to be reading through the prophet Zechariah and noticed some verses from one of our weekday readings. ‘And many peoples and great nations will come to seek the Lord of Hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favour of the Lord … In those days, ten men of nations of every language will take a Jew by the sleeve and say, “We want to go with you, since we have learnt that God is with you”’ (Zech 8:22-23). This image of them tugging him by the sleeve always makes me smile, just because it’s rather vivid and quaint — but it also started me thinking, with our forthcoming pilgrimage in mind.

In those days, the Jews had returned from exile in Babylon, but much of Jerusalem was in ruins and the Temple hadn’t yet been rebuilt. The idea that people from many nations would one day come to Jerusalem to ‘entreat the favour of the Lord’ would have seemed hopelessly optimistic — and yet, for many centuries now, this vision has become reality, with pilgrims coming from all over the world. We are all too aware of the tensions and conflicts that come from Jerusalem being a Holy City for Christians and Muslims as well as for Jews, and it stands in a land that is perhaps the most contested, anywhere on earth. Still, I find it inspiring that, as pilgrims, we share in an ideal that is so ancient and so all-embracing. ‘I rejoiced when I heard them say, “Let us go to God’s house” and now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem’ (Ps 122:1-2).

Seeing the Holy Places of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee gives me a sense of connection with the roots of our Christian faith — and it’s a wonderful experience to be sharing this with others, as we journey together. As an ecumenical pilgrimage, we’ll also be sharing it with people from different traditions — quite possibly including others as well as Anglicans and Roman Catholics. There’s something very powerful about the idea of going back to our roots, to the time of Jesus and the Apostles (not forgetting the Old Testament as well), to a time before the disputes which divided East and West, Catholic and Protestant.

Not that there was ever some sort of perfect time, when there were no differences and disputes between Christians, as we can see from the Epistles and the Acts of the Apostles. All the same, being in the Holy Land reminds me of the first ten centuries of the Church, when Jerusalem was one of several great Patriarchates which had their own liturgies, laws and institutions, while still being in full Communion with each other. It seems to me that this is increasingly an inspiration for ecumenism, in which we aren’t aiming for uniformity or a single ecclesiastical structure, provided we can recognise the essential features of the one true Church within each other’s denominations.

This is a matter for theologians, but it’s also a matter for Christian life, worship and witness. It does no good simply to dismiss doctrinal concerns — but even if the theologians resolved all our issues, it would make little difference in practice, if Christians had not learned to appreciate and even to love what is good, true and beautiful in each other’s traditions. The image of ‘Walking Together on the Way’ seems very appropriate here. This is the title of the most recent document from ARCIC, our international Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue. Like the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, we’re not only walking together with each other. We’re walking, accompanied by Jesus. We learn from him as we learn from each other, as we journey in faith together. It also seems a very appropriate image to have in mind, as we prepare to share with each other the experience of being on pilgrimage to the place which is at the heart of our faith.