John Twisleton reflects on the Walsingham Festival in Westminster Abbey


‘Greater in honour than the cherubim, and glorious incomparably more than the seraphim; thou who inviolate didst bring forth God the Word, and art indeed the Mother of God: thee do we magnify’

John Tavener’s setting of the Orthodox antiphon interpolated into the Anglican Magnificat covered the catholic rite of censing the coronation altar by the Dean at solemn Evensong, concluding a memorable day of devotion in Westminster Abbey. Before that altar, on the Cosmati pavement where monarchs are crowned, stood the statue of Our Lady, Queen and Mother, carried from England’s Nazareth at Walsingham. The gentle tone of Tavener’s chant setting was an unarguable statement about Mary that captured the spirit of an ecumenical day of devotion, in which the Walsingham shrines collaborated with Westminster Abbey hosting a day of celebration in Mary’s month of May.

As a Priest Associate of the Holy House at Walsingham, I am committed, with two thousand other clergy and hundreds of thousands of laity, ‘to further, with the aid of Our Lady’s prayers, the conversion of the nations and the reunion of Christendom.’ There are some days when you feel things are moving forward on this and 4 May 2019 was such a day. To see over the head of Mary’s effigy brought into the Abbey sanctuary the words inscribed over the high altar from Revelation—‘The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ’—was deeply moving. They were for a day not just aspiration, but touched on reality there and then as hundreds of people did business with God, bringing the nation on their hearts. 

Bishop Philip North spoke of it being the day we placed Mary back at the heart of our nation through the Abbey’s hospitality. In his address we were reminded of how King Richard II made England Our Lady’s Dowry, the origin of the revived Society of Our Lady of Pew to which I belong at the Abbey. To bring Mary from England’s Nazareth to stand in a Westminster rocked by political uncertainties and at the heart of a church hesitant to evangelize was a countercultural breath of the Spirit. Devotion to Christ’s Mother is nothing private, the bishop reminded us. It explodes outwards in presenting her son countering the ‘lazy universalism’ in the church today, promoting holiness, justice and openness to do what God requires of us.

    To mark a historic occasion, Cambridge history professor Eamon Duffy spoke in the afternoon on ‘Walsingham: from ruin to restoration.’ It was a graphic, amusing talk moving through the origin, ruination and restoration of England’s Nazareth in Norfolk. As one familiar with Fr Wagner’s legacy in Brighton and Buxted, I appreciated Duffy’s picture of the charismatic yet controversial Fr Hope Patten who moved north from Sussex to restore the shrine. His curate, Fr Scott James, went over to the Roman Catholics, setting up a rival shrine; another charismatic who preached with a Siamese cat on his shoulders! Duffy chronicled how the shrines moved closer over the years leading to the 2018 ecumenical covenant. ‘The door of the Holy House opened by Richeldis remains open’ he concluded, reflecting the open heart of God and his home at Nazareth. That statement was repeated by Archbishop Rino Fisichella from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in his evensong sermon ‘The house of Mary is open to all who in the depth of their hearts see the need to seek Jesus.’

Westminster Abbey can feel like a shrine to self-importance with so many epitaphs, but the abbey’s inclusive yet distinctive Christian worship runs counter to this in affirming God as the one in whom we find significance. As Bishop Rino said: ‘We can hide nothing from the sacred face’ whose energising gaze is on us. ‘The Lord is a God who knows all, who lifts the poor… we love and know we’re loved in Mary’s House… we feel part of something greater than us that doesn’t oppress us.’ The towering greatness of the Abbey was made light and spacious that day by the sense of God’s presence in Mary on the coronation pavement and the un-selfconscious devotion of the crowd of which I was a part. As a brother priest said as people flocked to the ‘carousel’ of devotions: ‘To see so many doing individual business with God in a church is hopeful and heartwarming.’

Fr John Twisleton is a Priest Associate of 

the Holy House at Walsingham.