Walsingham – England’s Nazareth. Here, in the 10th Century, the local lady of the manor had a vision from Heaven in which she was told to build a replica of the Holy House of Nazareth…and in due course this Norfolk village, six miles from the sea, became one of Europe’s great centres of pilgrimage. Destroyed by Henry VIII, it was revived in the 20th Century and there are now two shrines, a Catholic one and an Anglican one. This past week, I’ve been staying in Walsingham and it has been glorious. Norfolk in October is all wide skies and gusty winds, and the walk from the Slipper Chapel to Walsingham village with a group of pilgrims praying silently was extraordinarily beautiful.
I was actually there to take part in a conference at the Anglican shrine, organised by a group of Anglican clergy. The Anglican and the Catholic shrines work closely together, and the walk I have just described was a central part of the week’s activities. We prayed at the Slipper Chapel – the heart of the Catholic shrine – and then walked along the Holy Mile into the village where we prayed at the old parish church (Anglican) and then returned to the Anglican shrine. Our prayers included a renewal of baptismal vows and a sprinkling with holy water.
These are dramatic days for those in the Church of England who seek full communion with the Catholic Church. The C. of E. Synod in London voted in 1992 to ordain women to the priesthood, and at that time arrangements were made for those who could not in conscience accept this: the C. of E. provided them with their own bishops and a structure was established for this. Now all this is to end: the Synod plans to vote on the ordination of women as bishops, and this means that a final frontier will be crossed. It was with this knowledge that last year Pope Benedict XVI made his historic offer in Anglicanorum Coetibus, inviting groups of Anglicans into full communion with the Church – an offer that has been taken up now by some 60 clergy and over 1,000 lay faithful.
Talking and praying with Anglican clergy in the beautiful setting of Walsingham, following the Stations of the Cross with them through the grounds of the Anglican shrine, listening and pondering, brought home the great reality of what is occurring in the C. of E. and the implications of this for the future of Christianity in our country. The Holy Father acted with courage as well as foresight in Anglicanorum Coetibus and the full significance of what has happened in 2011 has not yet been grasped by most people in Britain, including most Catholics. This is not just “some more Anglicans crossing the Tiber”. This is the quiet beginnings of the next era in the long story of the Christian faith in our country.
At Walsingham, you can sense the timelessness of things: the history is all written there in the ruined priory, the ancient well discovered when the Anglican shrine was built in the 1930s, the medieval beauty of the Slipper Chapel out in the fields. Pilgrims come in good numbers all through the spring and summer and early Autumn – there were two or three different groups staying at the Anglican shrine, with much lively chatter at meals and a touching sense of reverence in the church and much browsing in the bookshop and pottering about in the quiet village.
We prayed for Christian unity, and the prayers were real. There are big decisions to be made and the men making them need and deserve our prayers over the next weeks and months.