BY SIMON CALDWELL
AN UNPRECEDENTED eight Anglican bishops are planning to make a pilgrimage to Lourdes together to honour the Blessed Virgin Mary on the 150th anniversary of her appearance to St Bernadette Soubirous.
Since the early 1970s Anglican bishops have visited the shrine in the foothills of the French Pyrenees at the rate of about one or two a year.
But for the first time ever, the Society of Mary (SOM), movement of the Church of England, has organised a pilgrimage for a large group of Anglican bishops along with about 400 lay worshippers.
They will fly to Lourdes on September 22 and will celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Walsingham there two days later, before returning to England on September 26.
The bishops are planning to take a statue of Our Lady of Walsingham with them.
Fr Graeme Rowlands, the director of pilgrimages for the SOM, said the purpose of the visit was to help to fulfil the "Christian unity mission". one of 12 objectives of the Lourdes Jubilee year, which began on December 8.
"This is a sign of how well things have gone over the last 30 years and the mutual respect that has built up between the Catholic and Anglican communions:. said Fr Rowlands, the Anglo-Catholic parish priest of St Silas Church, Kentish Town, north London.
"We are the only pilgrimage that is representing the theme of Christian unity and I am very pleased and very humbled by it really," he said.
Many of the bishops who will join the pilgrimage are Anglo-Catholics or traditionalists, and some of them are flying bishops who minister to Anglican parishes which have refused to accept women priests.
They include Bishop Robert Ladds of Whitby, Bishop Keith Newton of Richborough, Bishop Peter William Wheatley of Edmonton, retired Bishop Noel Jones of Soder and Man, Bishop Martin Jarrett of Beverley, Bishop Nicholas Reade of Blackburn, Bishop Geoffrey Rowell of Europe and Bishop Andrew Burnham of Ebbsfleet.
Fr Rowlands said that it was likely that more bishops and lay Anglicans would sign up to the pilgrimage in the months to come.
The Rev Gregory Cameron, director of ecumenical affairs for the Anglican Communion, said devotion to the Virgin Mary had been an important aspect of Anglican spirituality for many years. He said: "I think the attraction of Lourdes, as much as anything else, is that it is a place of healing and part of a ministry of healing.
"A lot of people tell me from their visits that it is not so much the Marian aspects but seeing so much faith and seeing so much commitment to healing that is so attractive about the shrine.
"I know that many Anglicans find this a very helpful aspect of their faith."
Bishop Michael Evans of East Anglia, the chairman of the Department of Christian Unity of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, said he was delighted so many Anglican bishops were visiting Lourdes at the same time.
Bishop Evans said: "Many Christians believe that devotion to Mary is a key way towards the growing unity of Christians and we hope very much that this pilgrimage will further Anglicans and Catholics along the paths of unity."
The pilgrimage will come in a year of celebrations to mark the 18 alleged apparitions of Our Lady to St Bernadette, a peasant girl, in 1858.
The Virgin announced herself as the "Immaculate Conception" and told Bernadette to dig for a spring to which many people would come for healing.
Six million pilgrims, many of them ill, disabled and dying, make pilgrimages to Lourdes each year. To mark the Jubilee year the Church has identified 12 missions which, besides Christian unity, include peace, care for the sick and marginalised, and conversion.
Pope Benedict XVI is also offering a special indulgence for the remission of the sins of anybody who takes part in a public or private devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes on key dates during the Jubilee year, which runs until December 8.