The Pope publicly shook hands with a woman priest for the first time last night as he joined the Archbishop of Canterbury in an ecumenical service at Westminster Abbey.
Pope Benedict XVI greeted Rev Dr Jane Hedges, canon steward of the Abbey and a campaigner for women bishops, as he arrived ahead of an hour-long prayer service.
Dr Hedges was also among those leading prayers – which marked the first visit of any Pontiff to Westminster Abbey
But the Pope extended the hand of friendship to the Church of England last night as he paid tribute to “the heart and the spirit of the English people” and declared: “we are forcibly reminded that what we share in Christ is greater than what continues to divide us.”
The choir of Westminster sang as the Pope and Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, entered the Abbey in procession with other Church leaders from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, led by Dr John Hall, the Dean of Westminster.
The Archbishop wore his mitre while the Pope wore a stole as they proceeded side by side through the nave.
When they reached the sanctuary, Dr Williams welcomed the Pope “on behalf of the Christian communities of Great Britain,” adding: “may your visit be a blessing for all who share with you in pilgrimage and discipleship”.
The Pope responded: “I come here today as a Pilgrim from Rome to pray before the tomb of Edward the Confessor. May these moments of prayer and friendship confirm us in our love for Jesus Christ”.
The Pope gave thanks for the "remarkable progress" made towards ecumenical unity.
Prayers were read before the Pope and the Archbishop performed a joint act of veneration – stooping to kiss the Canterbury Gospels, thought to have been brought to Britain from Rome in 597 AD by St Augustine.
The service concluded as the 2000-strong congregation recited the Lord’s Prayer. The Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury then knelt and prayed for unity at the shrine of Edward the Confessor – the penultimate Anglo Saxon King of England who was canonised by Pope Alexander III in 1161.
Benedict XVI shook incense towards the tomb of the monarch, who is regarded as a saint by both churches.
A concluding prayer was read simultaneously by the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury.