(even in Anglican Bristol)

Chris Verity on the origins and development of the Bristol Catholic Societies Assumptiontide Festival

In Holy Week 1968 four nuns, two of whom were from Germany, visited a small country parish church in Bristol Diocese in search of the baptismal record of a member of an old Bristol family. They were delighted to receive the required information, and may well have been pleasantly surprised to learn that proper catholic practices were observed in the parish, for the vicar was Fr Anthony (Tony) Waker ssc, a well-known and respected AngloCatholic. Further, and reciprocal, visits took place, finally resulting in the ecumenical gift to the parish of a statue of Our Lady of Altoetting, one of the Order’s houses in Bavaria.

Solemn procession

The parish was, in fact, St James the Less, Iron Acton, and during the Seventies Fr Waker instigated an annual celebration of the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the Saturday nearest to 15 August, at which the statue of Our Lady of Altoetting was carried in solemn procession. Perhaps it should be remembered that at that time the existence of the Feast of the Assumption was not recognized in the Church of England, apart from in Anglo-Catholic circles.

Despite being ‘unofficial’ and in the middle of the summer holiday season, the Iron Acton festival grew, becoming famous locally as much as for the wonderful tea provided by the elegant Mrs Waker as for Fr Tony’s diverse liturgy. High Mass in the morning and Solemn Benediction in the afternoon (after tea) was the order of the day,.

Bristol Cathedral

In 1996 Fr Tony died in office (Mrs Waker is still happily with us) but the festival carried on, organized by the local Chapter of the Guild of Servants of the Sanctuary, of whom Fr Tony had been Chaplain for many years. The festival had survived the cataclysmic events of 1992, but after an interregnum, St James was combined with another parish, and a lady priest was appointed. Although it has to be said that the lady concerned was not opposed to catholic practice, considerable embarrassment resulted, and the festival began to drift. Help was, however, at hand.

Fr Brendan Clover ssc was appointed Precentor of Bristol Cathedral in 1999; he became the new Chaplain of the GSS, and brought his drive and enthusiasm to the situation. In 2001 the festival was transferred to the Cathedral, and 99 people attended the Solemn Concelebrated Mass held in the quire of the Cathedral. By happy chance, the local GSS secretary, Mr Alan Canterbury, was the Lord Mayor’s Verger; this opened the way to concluding the day with Benediction in the beautiful fourteenth-century Lord Mayor’s Chapel on the opposite side of College Green. By happy coincidence, this Chapel has a side chapel dedicated to the Poyntz family – the same family for whom the Bavarian sisters came seeking information at Iron Acton in 1968.

Steady growth

Under Canon Clover’s guidance, the newly named Bristol Catholic Societies Assumptiontide Festival grew steadily if not spectacularly, and has continued to do so after he left the Cathedral in 2006. The support of the Dean and Chapter and the Cathedral staff has always been unstinting and practical, as has that of Mr Canterbury’s successor. Unfortunately, the Altoetting Madonna has not been able to accompany us from Iron Acton to Bristol, but we are able to carry in procession the impressive modern image of Our Lady of Glastonbury.

The then Dean of Bristol preached in 2007, followed by Monsignor William Mitchell, the former Vicar-General of the Diocese of Clifton in 2008.

Since then, we have invited bishops to both preside and preach – Bishop Edwin Barnes, Bishop David Thomas (Church in Wales) and the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe. We were pleased to welcome the new Dean of Bristol, Fr David Hoyle, as a concelebrant in 2011.

Having managed at first with a cantor and simple settings of the Mass, we first invited a choir, Vox Humana, in 2009, and now are able to make a more adventurous choice of music, which has met with very encouraging approval.

Maintaining the faith

The pattern of the day is very similar to the original Seventies festival. A Procession of Our Lady precedes Solemn Concelebrated Mass in the Cathedral nave at noon, with Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and Solemn Benediction taking place in the Lord Mayor’s Chapel at 3.15. It is significant that our congregation is now drawn not only from Bristol but also from the surrounding area of the west country and from South Wales. The festival is organized on behalf of the Bristol Catholic Societies by the Church Union and the Guild of Servants of the Sanctuary, and incorporates the area festival of the GSS.

The aim of the festival is, of course, the praise of Our Lord Jesus Christ through his Blessed Mother, but it is also an attempt to maintain the traditional Catholic faith, and traditional Catholic worship, in these troubled and uncertain days for our beloved Church of England. All are welcome to assist us in achieving this aim.

The 2012 Festival takes place on Saturday 18 August, when Bishop Robert Ladds ssc will preside and preach. Further details may be obtained from the author on 01275 462927 or . ND