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Ruling on ‘Our Lady of North Street’

08 February 2013

THE Consistory Court of the diocese of York granted a faculty permitting works to the Lady Chapel in the north-east corner of the Grade I listed All Saints', North Street, York, on condition that, when the works had been completed, the Lady Chapel would not be promoted as a shrine to Our Lady of North Street.

A previous petition for a faculty for the works had to be withdrawn because the diocesan advisory committee, when recommending the proposal, had referred in their minute to the disputed factual basis for what was said to be the "restoration of the shrine of Our Lady of North Street". The Chancellor, Canon Peter Collier QC, asked that the Church Buildings Council (CBC) be served with a notice.

That led to a visit by members of the CBC, who were critical of the details of the scheme and invited the petitioners to withdraw it and come forward with a holistic approach. The CBC was also concerned at the premise that there was a "restoration" of a historic arrangement.

That petition and scheme were withdrawn, and another proposal was presented based on the advice of the CBC. Meanwhile, public notice had been given, and several people put forward objections to the proposal. The focus of the objections was very much on the disputed historicity of the assertions that the works would lead to a restoration of an earlier shrine.

The principal issues raised by the objectors were: the historical basis for saying that this was the reconstruction of a shrine; questions of iconography concerning the image of the Virgin; and matters to do with fund-raising.

The CBC advised the Chancellor that there was no convincing evidence that there was a pre-Reformation shrine; rather, the evidence supported the existence of a pre-Reformation Lady Chapel in the church. There was also an associated anchorite with a clear link with St Mary the Virgin through her reported revelations. Therefore, the CBC advised that on the present evidence there could not be said to be a restoration of a pre-Reformation shrine, but rather the creation of one where there had been a strong historical link with veneration of the Virgin Mary.

The Chancellor sought advice from the House of Bishops through the Bishop of Guildford, who referred the query to the then Bishop of Whitby, Dr Martin Warner. Dr Warner is Master of the Guardians of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, and, from 1993 to 2002, had been Priest Administrator of that shrine.

He advised how "shrines" were understood within the Anglican communion. On the one hand, some people would refer to any altar with an aumbry and pricket stand as a shrine, and in that context a "shrine" bore no greater meaning than that it was a holy place, or a place where God was present. On the other hand, there were a number of places that were recognised across the church as "shrines", such as at Walsingham. Shrines of the latter type were few, with recognised histories, making them properly places of pilgrimage.

The petitioners stated that they would accept a condition that, when the works had been reordered, the Lady Chapel would not be promoted as a shrine, and that was also accepted by the PCC. The objectors were concerned, however, that the petitioners would still, in other ways, maintain their position, and asked the Chancellor to impose further conditions on the petitioners.

The conditions suggested were (1) that the words "shrine church" be removed from all publications, including the church website; (2) that the phrase "Our Lady of North Street" be removed from all their publicity; (3) that they suspend the celebration of the invented "Feast of Our Lady of North Street" on 18 July, and instead confine themselves to those feasts of our Lady authorised by the Church; (4) that they revoke in writing all claims that were made in 2009 in their own website and newsletter, in the Church Times and in Ave; and (5) that they contact all donors to the original scheme, clearly explaining the Chancellor's directions concerning the promotion of a shrine, and offer to refund their donations.

The Chancellor said that to impose those conditions would necessarily involve him in making pronouncements about history which he was not in a position to make, but would also take him into issues of doctrine that were specifically outside his jurisdiction. The Anglican tradition was very broad, he said, and within it there were many views about the significance and interpretation to be put on events in the history of the tradition. It was not for a Chancellor in a Consistory Court to seek to give authority to any one particular interpretation.

It was not for a Chancellor to say that people shall no longer believe, or give voice to their beliefs, about their own history, however speculative those beliefs might be. The matters raised in (2) and (3) of the objectors' suggestions were not matters that concerned a Consistory Court. They were in part matters of doctrine and/or canonical discipline to be dealt with by those with canonical authority. As for (4), it was not within a Chancellor's power to order people to withdraw things that they have said about what they believe.

The Chancellor also declined to accede to the objectors' fifth sugges-tion. There had been no complaint from anyone who had given money in the past, and there was no reason to think that any monies had been raised other than in good faith. All those who belonged to this particular tradition of the Anglican communion were quite capable of carrying out their own research into what they had been asked to fund, and some might choose to accept as a fact that which many, or even most, people regarded as speculative. That was their freedom of choice, the Chancellor said.

The Chancellor was satisfied that the petitioners had made out a case for doing the various works they proposed in their petition. Those included lifting the existing floors, laying a new tile pavement, introducing a new attached half-column in the north-east corner, and introducing a new coloured, gilded, lime-wood statue on top of the column.

The objectors were ordered to bear their own costs.

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