In the midst of all the other bits of paper and notes I have tucked into my Bible, I have the testimony of a teenage girl who visited the Shrine some years ago with her school. I have quoted it often and that reflects the impact it has had upon me and on my thoughts about the purpose of this place in the whole economy of the Church. Though she describes herself as an atheist, of the votive candles and their messages in the Holy House she writes:
‘In the chapel it became easy to understand the appeal and necessity of prayer – of a divine power to guide and be light. Then I lit a candle myself because in such a safe and happy place as the secluded and calm chapel I could believe that someone, somewhere, could see it however small both candle and sentiment were.’
‘Safe and happy’
It is her words ‘safe and happy’ that filled me with joy when I first read them.
I think too of a couple who visited recently, a priest and his wife from a rural parish that they love, but where they are the only ‘traditionalists’. It is lonely and, for the sake of the unity of the parish, they have kept their counsel, as so many have for the same reason. To come here is to come somewhere ‘safe’ and renewing where, in this aspect of their Christian understanding, they can be themselves. But I also think of another priest and his wife. He has been persevering for quite some time in his parish and it has been by all accounts a fruitful yet costly ministry. I don’t suppose much is fruitful without cost. He has hit the buffers a bit. He is a supporter of the ordination of women as priests and bishops. For him too, there is no doubt that Walsingham is ‘safe and happy’, and I thank God it is so.
Generosity of spirit
One of the gratifying and humbling things for the Administrator of the Shrine, and indeed the staff here generally, is how obvious it is that the folk, ordained and lay, who come here find the very ‘succour’ which the medieval Pynson Ballad speaks of as Our Lady’s purpose and desire for this place. If ‘gin, lace and backbiting’ was once a legitimate description of parts of the Catholic Movement in the past, and at times the Shrine too, I have experienced none of it and, while I accept that sometimes when a bishop enters the room the conversation stops, I really believe that there is a genuine atmosphere of calmness and generosity of spirit here. This is always to be hoped for among Christians but it is particularly important in these days in the Church of England.
Of course the Shrine is not just a place for the Church of England or for Anglican traditionalists! To live here is to be constantly reminded that Our Lady and her Shrine must be stewarded but will never be owned in any possessive way. We regularly have Roman Catholic groups staying here, and I am happy to say members of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham for whom the Holy House remains as important as it ever was to them. The truth is you never quite know who is going to turn up! There are the Tamils and the Indians from Kerala in particular, and West African Catholics and the twenty-somethings from France, and there are the Filipinos on Palm Sunday. These are often the pilgrims who literally take their shoes off for they have discovered this to be holy ground. And then there are the Swedes! What a blessing it is to hear a variety of languages spoken here, as it must have been before the destruction.
Administrators of Shrines come and go, and that’s how it should be. Each brings to life some aspect of the charism of Walsingham, and if what he does is found to be true to the charism, what is brought to life should abide and be honoured by their successors. When I came to Walsingham I was already a pilgrim and Guardian and was very aware of the blessings brought to the Shrine through the ministries of my predecessors. If there is an old adage that it is better to follow a failure, I did not choose that better part! So the extraordinary development of the buildings during Martin Warner’s time so improved the standard of hospitality we offer to the pilgrim. The care and attention to detail in the refectory and all our buildings should mirror the care we offer at the altar. All should be beautiful. It is not simply about making a person’s stay more comfortable though that is not unimportant, but it is a way of honouring all who come through the archway, treating them as if they are beloved of Christ.
All of this was further developed by Philip North. The Welcome Centre was his brainchild as the work with young people grew tremendously during his time, providing a sure and strong foundation on which Fr Stephen Gallagher has built. How right in a place that recalls that it all began with a teenage girl! It is crucial that we continue this work as part of the whole offering the Church makes in this area, not least because of our particular emphasis on sacramental encounter, but more because of the relentless attempts of the Evil One to draw them away. How great it was to welcome the current Archbishop of Canterbury to the youth pilgrimage two years ago. He came at his own request, having heard. He too took his shoes off for the holy mile, and described the Shrine as ‘one of the most important spiritual centres in northern Europe.’
Both my predecessors turned the Shrine outwards.
Before I came I asked Fr Philip what he thought might be important next. He spoke to me of the need to attend to the regular pilgrimage experience, and we have tried to do that. While it is a bit like trying to look at a bus when you are sitting on it, I dare to think that there is as much chance as there has ever been of a pilgrim to Walsingham drawing near to Christ through their stay here. As I write that, what an extraordinary thought it is! I believe the renewed emphasis on the healing ministries has changed the whole feel of the pilgrimage. Certainly it has made Saturday evening more demanding, but no one who has experienced it can doubt that the genuine outpourings of needs brings forth an experience of the compassion of Jesus as people make their way to the chapels where the laying on of hands is offered or come forward for anointing. The Shrine Church becomes a ‘safe’ place for touch, for saying how it is, for acts of piety and devotion, for tears. The same is true on a Tuesday evening during the midweek pilgrimage and during the Youth Pilgrimage too.
Sacrament of Confession
This change has also meant that we can offer the opportunity
for the sacrament of Confession within the context of the
healing ministry, and this has
to bishops hangs on my study wall as both an encouragement and a rebuke.
As I look back, my regrets include my failure to engage enough with the leadership of Forward in Faith in earlier days. Exalting a more irenic way, I was too critical of some of their techniques and rhetoric. It meant for example an unhealthy wedge between the Caister retreat movement and the Fan the Flame renewal in the Nineties and first decade of the century in which I was heavily involved and the more political activities of the Catholic movement. The Catholic bishops were not united enough. Egos got in the way, mine included. We would have been stronger together, been better together. We divided the loyalty. It is important to remember that without that relentless fight by Forward in Faith, traditionalists would not have what they have today. Irenicism was not enough. I thank God that we are more united now, but the Devil prowls around.
Stability and assurance
It has seemed important for Walsingham to be a place of stability and assurance for traditional Catholics who have found it hard to call the Church of England home while still seeking to welcome all who come here. While holding fast to the tradition of the undivided Church, so important to the restorers of the Shrine, we have tried to be as open and including as we can, and I hope that those women clergy who come here
served to ‘normalize’ it, if I can put it that way. Confession has always been important here, but I think it is probably true that this is all the more so. To see folk waiting on the
benches in the side aisle, coming often with hesitancy and for the first time, seems both wonderfully normal and tremendous. Sadly, I do not believe there are many places in the CofE where there is a waiting queue for the confessional. And if I remember rightly, the longest queue, almost to the back of the church was during the last retreat pilgrimage for priests and deacons. The revival of that annual pilgrimage in February and the starting of Bible Weeks have filled me with enormous satisfaction and thanksgiving. It is my conviction that the clergy need feeding and loving and to have times of deliverance from the management speak that seems more to depress than animate or renew the Church, and the Catholic Movement needs to grow in its expectancy of the Scriptures as a place of divine encounter. It has been my hope that as the community gathered in pilgrimage explores the Scriptures it truly engages in what Von Balthazar calls the ‘contemplative reading’ of the text, which he suggests is the only thing adequate to the glory of God in Jesus Christ. I pray both will continue and grow.
I have been a bit involved in the encouragement of the Catholic Movement for over twenty years now though that has always been in the midst of serving the whole Church. I must say that I have no more love (or less!) for Anglo-Catholics than I do for Evangelicals or middle-of-the-road folk, though I could never stand in the middle of the road myself! That has always seemed to me the most dangerous place to stand. Augustine of Hippo’s ‘O to love them all’ advice
have found that to be so, though I acknowledge that this will be tempered by some measure of disappointment. There will of course be more issues for the Guardians to face as time goes by.
Every leader leaves things unfinished and there will be plenty of challenges for my successor! But the real unfinished business is ecumenical. There should be one Shrine.
I wish I had kept a diary. I think a published ‘year in the life of the Administrator’ would be both amusing and deep, and give Colin Stephenson’s tales a run for their money! I will not forget my sweating the first time I climbed a ladder wearing our heaviest cope as I struggled to crown the image in the Holy House on Easter evening, and nor will I forget the woman I met in my first week here who just turned up not knowing where else to go because her grandson had committed suicide that morning.
I have been given such wonderful opportunities over my years in ministry so far. The invitation from Eric Kemp to be diocesan Missioner in Chichester and then Area Bishop of Horsham both came by surprise to me, and in the case of the latter, to a good number of people! He told me at my commissioning in what some regarded as a personal testimony, or as close as Eric got to such things, that as a bishop I would experience in letters and the things people say some terrible things but there would be great joy too. He was correct on both counts. He said the only way to live with both these things was to trust in the great doctrines of the Church which speak of God’s love for the world and for me personally.
I had not imagined that I would be the Administrator of the Shrine. I asked Eric’s advice. He said it was certainly better than Australia! On my appointment, perhaps as he had predicted so many years earlier, one of the first comments to me was that it was something of a ‘come down’ for me as a bishop. Not a bit of it. Though it is true that I have at times missed Evangelicals, and West Sussex, I have never felt somehow less of a bishop exercising ministry here. And even if I had, that would not compare to the privileges of ministering to pilgrims, nor to the joy of discovering in a new way what it means to have Mary as a Mother. I know more of that now, and because of that I know more of what it means to have Jesus as my Saviour.
For these things, for great colleagues, and for the warmth and enthusiasm of pilgrims, for England, I will remain so very grateful.ND
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