The Rt Revd Graham James asks why the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham provides such a focus for Anglican unity and looks at the ongoing value of its role in the Church of England

On St Joseph’s Day I licensed Lindsay Urwin as the Administrator of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham and an Honorary Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Norwich.

In true Walsingham fashion, it was not an understated event. Canon Michael McLean, now retired in
Norwich, was present.

He became an assistant Shrine Priest at Walsingham in 1961, and was the very first such priest to be licensed by the Bishop of Norwich, then Launcelot Fleming. That licensing took place privately in Norwich itself. Previously a generation of Shrine clergy had been unlicensed. The chasm between Walsingham and Bishops of Norwich in the first three decades after the Shrines revival was enormous.
An unlikely hero, Maurice Wood, formerly Principal of Oak Hill, became the first Bishop of Norwich to attend the National Pilgrimage. I may be the first to do so as a matter of course and also the first Bishop of Norwich to become an Honorary Guardian of the Shrine but these thingsnowadays excite little comment. The facilities at Walsingham are valued by the diocese. Successive Administrators have played their part in wider diocesan life.

Reversing the trend

The Norwich Diocesan Board of Finance gladly made a substantial donation to the recent Walsingham Appeal. It all seems light years from the age of mutual suspicion a generation or two ago. This is a story that deserves to be better known. At a time when there seems to have been a growing mutual suspicion between traditionalist Catholics and their diocesan authorities, the Shrine at Walsingham seems an exception. Why?

Lindsay Urwin and I were both consecrated as bishops in the Church of God in 1993. He succeeded me at the time as the youngest bishop in the Church of England, then a matter of interest to the Guinness Book of Records. 1993 was a tense year. In the previous November General Synod had approved the legislation to ordain women to the priesthood.

No barriers

It would not be until 1994 that the first women were ordained. Meanwhile, some dreamed that Walsingham would be a secure island isolated from this development in the wider Church of England. Others feared that the battening down of traditionalist hatches would cause the Shrine to shrivel or decay.
As it is, the years since have seen the Shrine grow its ministry develop its buildings and expand its programmes especially with the young. It has continued to be a place where those who think the Church should not have ordained women feel confident that they are understood and valued and not regarded as some awkward minority who should really go away. That’s been very important.

But Walsingham has also been a place where priests and lay people alike who believe the decision to ordain women was right are able to come, and come gladly, because their devotion to our Lord and his blessed Mother draws them to this place of grace.

Those with contrasting convictions on this issue are also united in a common love of Christ’s holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Of course I would like to concelebrate with the other bishops at the National Pilgrimage, but the place of honour given to the diocesan bishop is neither grudging nor marginal. It is also important that those of us who both cherish the Catholic tradition and believe the ordination of women is a legitimate development should sometimes experience what it is to be in the minority.

At the same time we should value the continuing communion we possess across this division. There are no barriers to those who think as I do receiving the sacrament when traditionalists (for want of a better word) celebrate the Eucharist, and we should do nothing to create them. There are too few examples of occasions when Catholic supporters of women’s ordination are willing to be present and are welcomed by traditionalists offering Mass. Walsingham is one where this is a frequent experience. For that I am profoundly glad. It is a witness badly needed in the Church of England at the present time.

ARCIC Report

Is it an accident that this happens at a Shrine where Mary is honoured? I don’t think so. There are too many in the Church of England who have an impoverished understanding of the place of Mary in the economy of salvation.

The ARCIC Report Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ has been too little studied in the Church of England (and, I regret, in the Roman Catholic Church as well). I’m glad to say the College of Bishops in our own church will be debating it in September. To have Bishop Lindsay in that College makes a fresh statement about the significance of the Shrine at Walsingham and the place of Our Lady in the life of our church.
Mary is for all Christians, not simply for those who like Catholic ways. Mary is herself a gateway to faith in Christ. At Walsingham we see how she also brings people on both sides of the division over the ordination of women into a unity they may not experience elsewhere. Should it surprise us that one who is full of grace should draw us to a deeper sense of unity in the body of her Son? No. That is Mary’s vocation, articulated in her words at Cana: ‘do whatever he tells you.’ And when they did as Jesus said, the wine flowed and grace and blessings came in abundance too. There’s a lesson here if we have but ears to hear it and eyes to see it.