Michael Banks asserts that the way to Christian Unity is through devotion to Mary

IT WAS DURING THOSE interesting years immediately following the Second Vatican Council (I963 – I965). Jim Scott and I sat in the presbytery reflecting on the Christian Unity Week just ended. Jim was the (Roman Catholic) parish priest of an ancient northern town and I was his curate. We were full of obedient fervour about Christian unity. This fervour among Roman Catholics had even spread to the terraces of Celtic FC: “Get stuck into y’ separated brethren” was the cry!

The section on ecumenism, Unitatis Reintegratio, had been quickly read and Jim and I had swung behind the local Council of Churches’ plans with vigour. Whether the members of the Council quite understood that we wanted “re-integration” is probably unlikely but that did not effect their joy at our hearty participation. For the first time in his life my parish priest had tasted all the non-Catholic flavours in one week because each evening, with a good crowd of our own folk, we had gone to a different Church for an ecumenical service. It left him in pensive mood. “If I had to go anywhere else”, Jim had said, “the only place I really felt at home was the Salvation Army!”

He looked at me with a smile and I felt bound to give some support to the local (Anglican) parish church. After all I had been brought up as an Anglican and had only become a Roman Catholic during National Service. Yet I understood what he meant. The Anglicans had handled things well and we had had a dignified service in the historic church, but Jim had responded best to the simple piety and informality of the Salvation Army. His comment did not surprise me. In those days I knew only one Roman Catholic priest who had the slightest interest in liturgy (rubrics were simply things to obey) and I had discovered that all devout Roman Catholics have an uncomplicated personal faith. They are evangelicals at heart.

Unsaid between Jim and me that night was the realisation that the huge divide between the Roman Catholic Church and all the rest (including the Anglicans) was not Liturgy, probably not core doctrine and may be not even moral issues, but devotion to our Lady. In those days, it looked as if everything could be smoothed out between us (the Roman Catholics) and the rest – except devotion to our Lady. I thought to myself: “That’s the real hurdle on the journey to Christian unity: devotion to our Lady. We have it. They don’t!” I was an arrogant young priest!

It was July I993. I was supposed to have been in York Minster with all the rest of the members of the General Synod of the Church of England that morning. After lunch, I should have been attending the afternoon session of Synod. Instead I had decided to attend an early celebration, travel further north to visit my mother in the morning and return to General Synod for the afternoon. I was on my way back to York as planned.

The road down from industrial Tees-side to bustling York, a section of the A19, passes through some delightful countryside. The bulk of the traffic that moves up and down that country uses the A1; it is a relatively light amount of traffic which passes through the green lands and wooded hillsides of this part of north Yorkshire on the A19. So it is that the traffic seems to intrude little into the peace and solitude. Signposts in these parts direct the pilgrim to the hidden wonder of Rievaulx and further over to brave Whitby with its harbour facing the might of the North Sea and its Abbey high on the cliff top. The ruin defies the bitter wind in winter but in the summer the views are worth the climb. It is the land of Saint Hilda of Whitby, the poet Caedmon, of Saint Aelred of Rievaulx (the northern Saint Bernard) and outside the beautiful village of Osmotherley, it is said, there is the burial place of that valiant woman of York, Saint Margaret Clitherow.

Margaret Clitherow was crushed to death, as was then the legal punishment, because she neither would confirm nor deny that she had sheltered priests. She was a martyr for the old Catholic Faith.

She died on Lady Day 1586 and it is believed that they carried her body for burial to Osmotherley to the Chapel of our Lady of Mount Grace which lies hidden away above Mount Grace Priory. I did not realise as I drove by on that fine summer’s day that I was about to begin a new phase of my personal pilgrimage, in a surprising way.

Hardly noticing it as I drove south back to York, I had passed the sign for Mount Grace Priory. As the turn for Osmotherley approached, with a sudden compulsion I felt a real need to visit the Lady Chapel on the side of the hill. I took the turning off the A19 and wound my way up the winding lane to the village of Osmotherley.

The name “Mount Grace” is connected with the mediaeval Carthusian monastery. The Priory is below on the floor of the Vale, the Lady Chapel or Shrine above on the hillside. The best access to the Lady Chapel is not from the ruined Priory but from the village of Osmotherley. In the village one parks the car and on foot one follows the sign for the “Cleveland Way” until the track forks with a path leading up to the Shrine. The origins of the Shrine are unknown. It was linked with the Carthusians of Mount Grace Priory after its foundation in 1397 but it pre-dates their arrival. If its origins lie in a vision of our Lady nobody knows to whom she appeared or when it was. To my mind such speculation is unnecessary. You only have to go there to know you are in a place of prayer. It is remote. There is no public access by car. It is a good mile’s walk on a rising track through the bracken. When you get there, there is nothing to do but be with God. I can well envisage the Carthusian monks taking it in turn to spend time there to pray in isolation (as indeed their last Prior did in his enforced retirement upon the dissolution of his monastery). Those who prayed would be in the presence of our Lord and his blessed Mother and all the Saints.

The Chapel is still a place of pilgrimage as it always has been. In fact Catholic pilgrims never stopped coming to the Shrine even in the most difficult times. Not only Roman Catholics, local folk regularly climbed up as their forefathers had done. The reason for the visit may have been long forgotten but the tradition of making the visit remained. In 1665, the Franciscans took up residence and for a time young friars received their training in Osmotherley. The Franciscans ministered to the pilgrims. They remained there until 1832. For some reason the Chapel was then lost to Catholic ownership (though Catholics still visited as pilgrims). The ruined Chapel was bought in 1942 by the Roman Catholic diocese of Middlesbrough and by 1959 was restored. In 1969 the Franciscans returned and the buildings were expanded to cater for more pilgrims and pilgrimages. Later, the monks of Ampleforth Abbey took their place. It was not my first visit to the Lady Chapel that Sunday in July, 1993, but it was my first in nearly three decades.

My last visit had been on a very different occasion. I had quite recently been ordained priest by the (Roman Catholic) Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle and had become friends with a group of young adults, all about my age, from the town where I was a curate. It was with them that I had last come to the Shrine. We had come for an all night vigil to pray for the conversion of Russia in the height of the cold war. I guess I must have said Mass for them but to my embarrassment, I confess I do not remember. It seemed a long time ago as I looked back, for in 1968 I had joined the steady flow of priests who left the Roman Catholic Church and in my case, I had broken off all my friendships as I did so. I had returned to the Church of England which had generously accepted me as a priest and indeed I had been elected to General Synod.

However, none of this was in my mind as I drove into Osmotherley. I was a priest in the Church of England and thoroughly involved in its life and structures. Why this urge to turn in here? I had passed by often enough before without a thought. Why was I heading for the Shrine? I walked along the track, half forgotten, half remembered, and came to some steps leading up to the little plateau on which the Shrine is built. These I did not remember so I supposed they were relatively new. An old man was standing in the open door of the chapel and he greeted me cheerily.

He had been churchwarden, so he told me, for many years in one of the villages in the vale below For over sixty years he had been making an annual pilgrimage “t’ Lady’s Chapel”. As we waited, people emerged from the surrounding trees onto the plateau. Some had climbed up the track I had used. Another group of people emerged from another direction on a path with which I was unfamiliar. There was to be an ecumenical service. Then a larger group joined us headed by someone carrying a banner “Osmotherley churches together”. All the churches were being called together and I was called to be with them.

I have often meditated on that scene. I do not think I am being fanciful but as time has gone on I have felt that whatever good I have done in my life and despite the had I have done in my life, our Lady was calling me that day to re-discover her for myself and then to tell people about her. This I am trying to do.

Jim Scott was a good parish priest. He has long gone to his rest but I trust that in heaven he joins his prayers with mine for unity in the Church here on earth. It was my belief then and it is my belief now that if every Christian would but look to Mary, she would open our eyes to see the way to achieve unity. It will only be when all Christians not only acknowledge her intellectually as theotokos, but also warmly and with evangelical piety embrace her to their hearts as Mother, that unity will come about.

It is a matter of rejoicing and a marvellous sign of the times that Christians are turning to her. Not only among Anglicans are books being published and devotions being encouraged. The consequence is that few Roman Catholics nowadays would say as I did so arrogantly as I those years ago about devotion to her. “We have it, They don’t!” Jesus says to all Christians: “Behold, your Mother”.

Michael Banks is Chancellor and a residentiary Canon of Leicester Cathedral. From 1982 to 1997. He was diocesan director of Ordinands. He is Clerical Chairman of Forward in Faith in the diocese of Leicester).