During my lifetime there have been remarkable developments at Walsingham: a substantial building programme at the Anglican shrine and at the Catholic shrine, the new buildings at the Slipper Chapel showing something of the burgeoning interest of the general public. Little Walsingham, a century ago, was practically unknown. In 2003 Radio 4 listeners voted it the nation’s favourite spiritual place.
Properly handled, relationships between the two shrines, their pilgrims and visitors, should be enhanced by the relationship of both to the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. Members of the ordinariate are Catholics, nearly all of whom learnt a great deal of what they understand about the Catholic faith from pilgrimage to the Anglican shrine.
With the withdrawal of the Marist Fathers from the running of the Catholic shrine, one can imagine several possible futures: the ordinariate providing staff for the Catholic shrine, as the Marist Fathers did; joint ventures by both shrines together; an enhanced Roman Catholic presence in the village; an ecumenical venture on the site of the abbey ruins.
Each of these possible futures in turn has lesser and greater possibilities. Joint ventures could be as little as the occasional ecumenical pilgrimage and as much as shared community life. An enhanced Roman Catholic presence in the village might be a religious community providing a locus of hospitality, meditation, and spirituality, or it might be something more large scale – the re-siting of the Catholic shrine within the village, with the Slipper Chapel becoming once more the place to prepare for the last, barefoot mile of pilgrimage. Something in the abbey ruins, should that ever be possible, might be as modest as some shared worship and as grand as the rebuilding of the mediaeval abbey and shrine.
Both shrines have been doing well, even if Roman Catholics still prefer to fly down to Lourdes, and Anglicans come more often in carloads than busloads. The Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, in these early years, is looked upon with nervousness from outside. Fellow Catholics have not all learnt yet that Ordinariate Catholics are no more different from them than Catholics of a different diocese. Some Anglicans remain to be convinced that the ordinariate is the new ecumenical instrument for all they most value to be brought into the full communion of the Catholic Church. The ordinariate is intrinsically a matter of congregations and groups, rather than individual priests, and it is not immediately obvious how a group would generate itself in the right part of East Anglia to focus day-by-day on Walsingham. There are plenty of reasons, therefore, why the vision might grow pale and become a dream. And yet there is certainly a window of opportunity and, as devotees of the Blessed Mother, Our Lady of Walsingham, all attest, “He that is mighty” has magnified her. All generations shall call her blessed. This then is a time for imagination and boldness and for love to conquer fear.
Monsignor Andrew Burnham is a member of the Ordinariate and the former Anglican Bishop of Ebbsfleet