WITH 30 or so fellow pilgrims from North Wales, I spent a few days at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham last month. Its history takes us deep into the early medieval period, and an appearance of the Virgin Mary which led to the existence of what was, for centuries, one of the most famous places of pilgrimage in England.
For those not familiar with the story, Lady Richeldis had a vision in which she received a message to establish a “holy house” like the first dwelling where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus lived. What became known as “England’s Nazareth” drew countless pilgrims to visit the shrine and make their devotions to the Virgin.
The Reformation brought that tradition to an abrupt end, but the story and practice were given new life with the restoration of the shrine in the 1930s, and pilgrimage to Walsingham is now firmly established in the devotional life of many Christians in this country and further afield (we met a priest with fellow pilgrims from Antwerp).
So, what is it like for an Evangelical male bishop to visit a place so obviously connected with a Catholic tradition, and which upholds the discipline of inviting only male priests to officiate at the eucharist? After some reflection, my view is that the shrine can inhabit a space that does not compromise its Catholicity, but also allows it to enrich both Anglican spirituality and the apostolic tradition that it seeks to uphold.
First, we should bear in mind that our Anglican history needs as much affirmation as it does censure. If we give in to the temptation to caricature events such as the Reformation, we end up with a distortion that makes listening and learning more difficult.
The Reformation was not just about a “King who had greed in his eyes” (in the words of one of the hymns we sang). It was also about reasserting the centrality of the cross and resurrection in salvation, and refocusing on the supreme importance of personal faith in Christ. The Church should take care not to lose sight of these themes in order to stay close to the faith of our forebears.
Second, our liturgical life is enriched by one of our greatest treasures: the liturgies of the Anglican Communion. We need not be apologetic about these treasures, but remember that the rhythm and shape of the Anglican Offices ground our devotional life in a spirituality and discipleship that is robust and rounded, with scripture and prayer at its heart.
Third, devotion to the Virgin is always strongest and best when the connection to Christ is made explicit. That is her great gift to the Church — showing us Jesus. I have come to believe that, whatever position one takes on the mediating role of the Blessed Virgin Mary, what is most important is the intention that our devotion and prayer should come before God. This intention requires deliberate thought, so that the connection is strong.
Fourth, the ministry that upholds the practice of male officiants has its integrity, and is within the spectrum of Anglican thinking on the nature of priesthood. I was grateful that female priest colleagues in our pilgrim group were treated with dignity and respect, and, within this practice, invited to attend preparatory meetings and to minister accordingly.
Whether this practice will change is a moot point, but it inevitably means that the eucharist, the place of communion, is fractured, and speaks, tragically, as much about our disunity as our oneness in God.
HAVING said all this, I found that my experience of pilgrimage to Walsingham was a very positive one.
It is a place soaked in prayer to God. Sitting quietly in the Shrine Church or any of the chapels is not only to become conscious of the years of prayer that have been offered there, but to experience this afresh. As you sit there, you are likely to be surrounded by other pilgrims who are reaching out for God in hope and longing.
The pattern of devotion at the shrine moves the soul, and opens it to the goodness of God. Whether you stand at the holy well and drink from water blessed and poured into your hands, or open your life in confession to a priest, you are invited to encounter God with vulnerable honesty. I found it impossible to be unmoved by this, and appreciated the gentle approach of the worship, which was never pressurising or conformist, but was freely welcoming.
Appropriately, the eucharist is at the heart of the worship at the shrine, whether in services held by particular pilgrim groups, or by those who minister there full-time. The care with which the eucharist is celebrated creates worship that is never fussy or false, but reverent and clear.
This is the place where Christ meets us supremely in worship; where the body of Christ meets the head of that body, and is drawn closer together, to become the people for whom he died.
The ministry in Walsingham is focused on the formation of Christian living. Any notion that pilgrimage is a spiritual “bolt from the blue”, or an escape from the realities of life, is contradicted by a visit to this place. The aim is to renew us for the life that we live when we are back home, re-energised for service and mission in the world.
The shape of the pilgrimage, from preparation with song and prayer on the journey, to the final worship at the moment of departure, creates a structure to enable this energy to be sustained in the days and weeks to come.
The pilgrimage programme makes it possible to relax and enjoy fellowship not only with your own group, but with other visitors. Liquid refreshment is an excellent way of ending the day, and allows space to laugh, reflect, and put the world to rights.
The chance to visit the ancient abbey, to walk the road to the Slipper Chapel, to sit in the beautifully kept grounds, to enjoy the tranquillity of the wider area, or simply to sit in quiet, alone, means that you leave Walsingham refreshed, despite its being a long journey for most pilgrims.
A pilgrimage to Walsingham — and many other holy places — offers an excellent way of being drawn closer to God and to others. You may not find everything you experience there to be easy or comfortable, but deepening our faith in God should take us beyond ourselves. That is how we grow.
The Rt Revd Andy John is the Bishop of Bangor.