Brian Hanson discusses Walsingham and the relationship between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church

I made my first pilgrimage to the Shrine in 1956 when I was a teenager. It was a weekend pilgrimage with the Society of Mary leaving by coach from the church of St Magnus the Martyr in London after Mass celebrated by Fr Fynes-Clinton, who was a Founder Guardian of the Shrine having been appointed by Fr Hope Patten in 1928. Of course there were no motorways in those days and the journey took a good four hours or more. On arrival Fr Fynes-Clinton marched us in to the Holy House for our first visit, and then we were assigned to our accommodation. In those days the Shrine had a limited number of bedrooms and I found myself in a council house on the Holt Road—one cold tap in the scullery and a privy down the bottom of the garden! Despite that, I was hooked. I realized that Walsingham was a holy place which was in a real sense the gate of Heaven. I haven’t missed a year since.

I remember thinking Fr Hope Patten a very forbidding-looking figure wearing the tallest biretta I had ever seen. This was something to do with the Community of St Augustine which he had set up and of which he was (naturally) the Superior. I think I only spoke to him once and that was to say ‘good morning,’ and the reply was a grunt.

My parish church was what was called Prayer Book Catholic (in other words high church but very much C of E) so one felt rather daring going on pilgrimage to this very extreme Shrine. I can remember being quite shocked at reading the foundation stone: ‘Restored in the Pontificate of Pius XI.’ You have to remember that relations between the two Churches were not good in those days—we used to refer to the R.C. Church as ‘the Italian Mission down the road.’ And yet that was all to change during the Pontificate of John XXIII and Vatican II.

Colin Stephenson in his book, Walsingham Way, says that Hope Patten had ‘this strange dichotomy in loving the Roman Church passionately but very much disapproving of and even disliking Roman Catholics.’ Whenever a house came on the market in Walsingham Hope Patten would urge some Anglican benefactor to buy it ‘so that the Romans don’t acquire a foothold.’

In 1958, the first episcopal pilgrimage happened, consisting of half a dozen colonial bishops attending the Lambeth Conference; to have bishops on pilgrimage was an important day in the life of the Shrine. And yet, as is well known, it was on this day that Fr Hope Patten collapsed during Benediction, was carried to his cottage and died in his four-poster bed surrounded by the bishops and Guardians. As Colin Stephenson says in his book: ‘With his love of the dramatic he could hardly have arranged a more sensational death.’

  It was to take another 14 years before the Shrine began to be acknowledged as a part of the C of E. Mervyn Stockwood, the controversial Bishop of Southwark, came in 1972 to bless the new south cloister. That was followed by Michael Ramsey coming to preach at the National Pilgrimage in 1978, but that was four years after he had retired as Archbishop of Canterbury. The first serving Archbishop to preach at the National was Robert Runcie in 1980 and, interestingly, he had accepted the invitation whilst still Bishop of St Albans and he was strongly advised by the Lambeth staff to cancel, but decided to honour the engagement. That year there were more protesters than ever in the Common Place. We had to wait until 1985 before a Guardian was consecrated to the episcopate when David Hope became Bishop of Wakefield. We now have three Guardians in the episcopate. I’m sure Fr Hope Patten (who had so many fights with bishops) would be puzzled but amused.

  Returning to Anglican/Roman Catholic relations, it was soon after Hope Patten’s death that a thaw in our relationships was noticeable. In 1960, Archbishop Fisher paid the first visit of an Archbishop of Canterbury to the Pope since the Reformation. Vatican II was convoked by Pope John XXIII in 1962 and the Roman Catholic Church was transformed; this also had repercussions for the Shrine. You have to remember we were taught that the Sacrament should be received fasting and no celebration happened after midday. In my church, if you wished to receive the Sacrament you went to 8 o’clock; at the 11 o’clock sung Eucharist only the old and infirm were permitted to communicate. I can remember before the National seeing every altar in the Shrine church in use as priest after priest said Mass because, of course, there was no such thing as concelebration. We tend to forget the great changes which followed Vatican II both for the Roman Catholic Church and the Shrine.

In 1961, Fr Colin Stephenson, then Administrator of the Shrine, had a private audience with Pope John lasting three quarters of an hour, at which the Pope wanted to know all about the Anglican Shrine. The fact that such a Shrine was able to exist within the C of E made the Vatican realize that there was an important sacramental dimension in the Church which could be built upon in the ecumenical dialogue. Michael Ramsey’s visit to Pope Paul VI in 1966 was an historic milestone because it was at that meeting that they signed the Common Declaration which led to the setting up of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC). It was also at that meeting that Paul VI gave Ramsey the episcopal ring which said so much about their friendship, and maybe his view of Ramsey’s orders? Who knows.

And so it was into this world that I became Assistant Legal Adviser to the newly formed General Synod in 1970. Sir John Guillum Scott was the first Secretary-General, having been Secretary of the Synod’s predecessor the Church Assembly. Oliver Woodforde, the Synod’s first Legal Adviser, retired in 1974 and I succeeded him even though Michael Ramsey thought I was too young; but that’s another story.

Returning to ARCIC, the two Churches soon realized that they held more in common than the things that separated them. As the Synod’s Legal Adviser, one of my tasks was to advise the English ARCIC conversations; one felt that one was living in exciting times and that a rapprochement between the two Churches was on the cards. For example, 1981 was the Golden Jubilee of the Restoration of the Holy House and goodwill messages were sent by Cardinal Basil Hume and Pope John Paul II; something which would have been unthinkable twenty years before.

And then John Paul came to England in 1982, and we all recall that photograph of the Pope and Archbishop Runcie praying together at the Martyrdom of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. All members of the General Synod were invited to the service and the then Secretary General, Derek Pattinson, decided that we should all travel there in a special train paid for by the Central Board of Finance (can you imagine that happening today).There wasn’t time for the Pope to travel to north Norfolk to pay a visit to the national Shrine of Our Lady, as was his custom, and so it was arranged that the image should be taken to the Papal Mass at Wembley Stadium borne jointly by the Administrators of the Anglican and R.C. Shrines.

At the end of the visit, a new Common Declaration was signed by the Archbishop and the Pope in which thanks to God were given ‘for the progress that has been made in the work of reconciliation between our Communions. A dialogue which has as its goal the unity for which Christ prayed.’ Looking back, one can see that this was the high water mark in our relations with the R.C. Church. Women were being ordained priest in other Provinces of the Anglican Communion at this time but the attitude of the Vatican seemed to be that, as long as the Mother Church remained firm on the issue, talks and friendship could continue.

I was invited to become a Guardian of Walsingham in 1984 and I had to go to the Sec Gen to see whether I should accept the invitation. Because of the improving relations between the two Churches, he saw no problem and I have to say no General Synod member ever objected to my being a Guardian. I do wonder whether, in these more political days, it would have been quite so easy for the Synod’s Legal Adviser to be seen to be in sympathy with one section of the Synod’s membership. As Guardians of the Shrine, we became aware that the Church of Rome saw the Anglican Shrine as a strand within Anglicanism with which it could foster friendship between the two Communions. In 1987, the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Barbarito, led a Roman Catholic pilgrimage to Walsingham and there were conversations about the next steps. We began to hear talk of two Shrines within the one domain. And then in 1992 the women priests legislation came to the General Synod for Final Approval and, as someone said ‘it fell to a Guardian of the Shrine to tell the Synod to divide.’ As a result of that vote the C of E found that R.C. doors were quietly closed in a matter of months.

But is all lost? Are we back to the bad old days of the 1950s? Absolutely not. I was one of the Guardians who took Our Lady’s image to Lourdes at the pilgrimage led by Archbishop Rowan Williams in 2008, jointly arranged by the Shrine and the Society of Mary. The goodwill was palpable. Altars were made available to us; the Archbishop was invited to preach at the International Mass in the Basilica of Pius X before a congregation of 5,000 pilgrims. There was an Ecumenical Conference where papers were presented, which were frank but understanding of each other’s standpoint.

And only last year Fr Ramiero Cantelamessa, the Preacher to the Papal Household, preached at our National Pilgrimage. In addition, for a number of years now the Administrator of the Anglican Shrine has been attending the annual International Conference of Marian Shrines as an equal partner. There is much goodwill at Walsingham between the two Shrines and, because of the incredible events of the 70s and 80s, I believe we could never revert to the Cold War which existed between our two Churches in the 50s. But as catholics in the General Synod, I suggest it is your responsibility to be vigilant and promote ecumenical relations with the Roman Catholic Church.

Brian Hanson was legal adviser to the General Synod. A version of this talk was given to the Catholic Group in General Synod at their annual dinner.