George Austin was uplifted by a festival in the North

It was standing room only in York Minster as over 2,000 of the faithful gathered for the Northern Provincial Festival of Forward in Faith at noon on Saturday 9 February. Bishop Martyn Jarrett of Beverley presided and preached, supported by the Bishops of Sodor & Man, Whitby, and Burnley, Bishop John Gaisford and Bishop Willie Pwaisiho, assistant Bishop in the Chester diocese, along with Minster Canons and 143 concelebrating priests.

Come they did.

‘Will anyone come?’ is always the worry for such events, whether it be the floods and snows of winter or the fetes, weddings and holidays of summer Saturdays. But come they did, from all over the Northern Province. At an earlier Festival, an unsympathetic Canon-in-Residence once greeted us thus: ‘I welcome you to this Minster as you come here to celebrate YOUR faith.’ Well, celebrate our faith we did, and demonstrated that orthodoxy in the Church of England is alive and in very good heart.

It is easy to become downcast about the Church and such an occasion is an opportunity for clergy and laity, many of them in isolated groups throughout the north, to worship en masse in a packed cathedral – and that itself is enough to lift the spirits of the most depressed. Once again the Stamford Bridge Choir sang superbly, one member having flown over from Holland for the day, just to be there.

One of the abiding and moving memories for me of that great Pentecost 2000 occasion at the London Arena was of the presence of so many younger priests, and this was true too of York. It was moving because they know right at the start of their priestly ministry that it is more than likely that for them life will be far from easy.

Faithful witness

But then that is the reality of the Christian vocation – that it comes with a cross for us to bear. In 1956 when I was ordained priest, we knew this, had been taught it at seminary (in my case by John Moorman, later to be Bishop of Ripon, who was uncompromising on the element of sacrifice in the Christian and especially in the priestly vocation), but if we were honest, the likelihood of suffering for our faith seemed remote. We might have a difficult vicar in our title parish (I did), we might have difficult parishioners to cope with (we all have) and it sometimes feels that God calls someone in every parish to be a thorn in the priestly flesh.

But it in former days it was no more than a minor irritant. Today we know that life has changed, and in the joyful inspiration of the Festival Mass, with a congregation of clergy and laity well aware that they must stand up for the faith once delivered to the saints in the face of indifferent or hostile bishops and fellow-travellers, there was that combination of a sure and certain hope in the grace and power of God alongside a certain trepidation at what may – no, will certainly, come.

I do believe that it was for this day that God, in much headier times, called us older priests and lay folk. But I wondered if I would have had the courage of those younger men, much newer to the priesthood and aware, even before they began their ministry, of the uncertain life facing the orthodox in today’s heterodox and intolerant Church.

Youthful courage

It is not easy to put one’s head above the parapet and even the deliberate act of publicly demonstrating one’s allegiance to a body like Forward in Faith can be for some a putting of one’s head into the lion’s mouth, and for none more so than the younger clergy. Thank God for their courage and commitment.

Of course this is part of why such occasions are important. Yes, we worship God in a place where he was been honoured for more than a thousand years, and we are one with the saints who have gone before us. But we know too from the tangible presence of those who share our faith that we are not alone and, because it must always be the case that for every one who travelled to York there would be many who for one reason or another could not make the journey, we can be sure that many thousands more in our dioceses and deaneries hold the same faith.

Whatever the contrary signs, it is events like the Northern Festival that remind us that there are many Christians who share our vision and hope for a Church of England that is faithful to its roots in Catholic Christendom, firm in its commitment to biblical truth, and determined to give primacy to the sacred rather than conform to the secular.