Graeme Rowlands reminds us of the importance of pilgrimage

If you look carefully amongst the chaos of my study you will find a little booklet written by Fr Hillier, my predecessor but one, and published by the London Committee for Walsingham in 1943, when it cost 6d. It’s called ‘Constructing a Decoration?’ Inside there is a fine line drawing of Our Lady of Walsingham wearing her original mantle and crown, and held in a large pair of hands, which are presumably not the hands of Fr Hope Patten but of God. Basically, the books tells us that devotion to Our Lady, as offered at this shrine, is not an optional extra for those who like that sort of thing, but an essential part of the practice of our faith. He writes: ‘True devotion to Our Lady is not like artificial flowers stuck on to make religion look pretty: it is a natural, authentic and luxuriant blossoming that draws its life from the very roots of Christianity from the incarnation.’ This is a shrine of the fact that God became man; Mary invites us into her house to reflect on what that means for us, to carry that truth away with us, to live by it. If we get that right, we shall have discovered a firm ground for our hope which no one can take from us. If we get it wrong, we might as well give up now. That is a faith which we receive from the Universal Church. This shrine was re-established on the basis that we are part of the catholic church throughout the world, sharing the same faith and administering the same sacraments. The foundation stone in the Holy House tells us that it was restored in the pontificate of Pius XI, Hope Patten being parish priest of Walsingham. It also included the name of the Bishop of Norwich, but he asked for it to be removed; how happy I am to see that the cement filling is chipped away and he is there again!

We have moved on since then and, through the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), come to agree that there should be a universal primate for a united Church, and that primate is the successor of St Peter. The level of cooperation between the Anglican and Roman Catholic shrines here is wonderful to see, with the mutual support in ministry and witness secured by an ecumenical covenant to be published later this year. This is a vision which much of the Church of England has lost through further division, fears about validity, lack of confidence as we minister to a world which struggles to understand why we exist at all. We can help the church to recover that hope, to work towards that unity which is essential for our witness. Our Lord prays: ‘May they be so completely one, that the world will realise that it was you who sent me.’ This will only happen if we can also restore that pattern of priestly service and care and that understanding of the sacraments which are the basis by which we live, but this is now often forgotten within the Church of England plc.

I have never been a great one for going to meetings and conferences of clergy, but on those occasions I am forced to go all the talk is about leadership, strategic planning, fresh expressions of being church. There is absolutely nothing about priesthood, about service, about love and care for our people, about the life we need and receive from the sacraments. Those who come on pilgrimage here, priests and lay-people, those who faithfully minister here day by day, have an inestimable treasure by which to teach the church again what we should actually be doing. That is the level of sacrifice which God asks of us. It is no accident that the substitute for sacrificing Isaac is a ram caught by its horns in a thorn bush: we have offered that lamb on this altar this morning. A faith immersed in the incarnation, a vision of what the Church should be, an understanding of priesthood and sacraments, these are the treasures given to us here by Mary, our Star of Hope, our Mother, our Queen. I shall let Fr Hillier speak the last words to you: ‘It is for us, in our home of the incarnation, to resist the rising tide of heresy which threatens to engulf the faith, or what is left of it, in this country, to raise again the triumph song of the Council of Ephesus—Mary is the Mother of God. We must make our voices heard in defence not of a pretty piece of decoration, but of the solid rock of the Godhead of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.’

Fr Graeme Rowlands is Registrar of the Guardians of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. This sermon was preached at the 2018 national pilgrimage to Walsingham. (Photos by Graham Howard)