Fr Ed Tomlinson: Reflection on Walsingham

25 09 2011

Fr Ed Tomlinson, a priest of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham and pastor of the Tunbridge Wells Ordinariate Group, gave this short reflection on the Solemnity of Our Lady of Walsingham. Click here.

The text is reproduced below:

Today is the feast of Our Lady of Walsingham, calling us to prayer for Christian unity. Why a connection between Mary’s appearance in Britain and a need for unity? Because Our Lady’s appearance was not accidental but a moment of grace and the start of a chain of events connected to England’s conversion which involves, I believe, the implementation of the Ordinariate today.

To better understand let us travel back to the day it all started. To the year 1061. When under a Catholic banner our nation is known as Our Lady’s dowry and flourishes as never before. This is a time of renewal. Cathedrals are built, churches erected to define the landscape for generations. Catholic devotion suits the English people leading to a great cultural flowering in art and music and architecture.

And in a tiny Norfolk village, not far from where I was raised, we find a Noble Lady Richeldis de Faverches deep in prayer. To her amazement the blessed virgin appears in a vision three times, instructing Richeldis to build a replica of the holy house of Nazereth. Richeldis undertook the work in obedience and a spring of water was unearthed.Once built the Priory Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham became the beating heart of Catholic England. From all over Europe people came to be healed, to pray, to pay devotion to the Lord. Peasants and kings were equal here in this place of profound grace and love. All found favour with God and miracles were said to occur.

Lamentably the horrors of the English reformation, which led to terrible bloodshed on all sides, brought an abrupt end to Catholic Britain. The wily Henry VIII finding opportunity in the wider schism of Europe, to grab the church in this land for the State. Soon the monasteries of England were plundered and Walsingham raised to the ground. And for the next few centuries just a pile of rubble would be found at the place where God’s mother had appeared.

Was the vision over? Had God’s plan been thwarted? Far from it but a time of healing was needed. And it took until the 19th Century for Jesus to reveal what happens next. I do not believe it coincidence that the restoration of the Shrine was largely the work of Anglicans! How ironic but those who ancestors burned the place to the ground were now the ones inspired to restore it! Through Fr. Hope Patten and other members of the Anglo-Catholic movement, a movement started by Cardinal Newman of course, building began in earnest. Was God using Newman to inspire a movement of preparation. Was Anglo-Catholicism designed to soften protestant hearts for a journey home to Peter?

 I believe it to be true. And over the next Century Walsingham would play a crucial role in the work of ecumenism. Here in this place Catholics and Anglicans were brought together in proclamation of their faith in the Lord and a devotion to Mary. It was, and remains, one of the best examples in England of Christians working together for the Gospel.

But however beneficial the ecumenism of the 20th Century, centred as it was on Christian friendship, it had a crucial flaw. Yes Christians came together- but how sad that they then departed once more. When we acknowledge that there still exist separate Catholic and Protestant Shrines do we not see that doctrinal difference remains? That no amount of friendship alone will overcome the barriers that hold us apart? A fresh step was needed. Something to move the debate to a new and radical level…

Cue the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. The next logical step in the ecumenical journey. It is a brave and audacious project for Pope Benedict is making clear that meaningful unity can only come through shared proclamation of truth.  And so he says to Anglicans, come home, come with your patrimony intact,  find a home with us, we will make space for you but only as and when you can sign up to the teaching of the Church throughout the ages…

And that is as far as the story goes… for now. But just ponder that chain today as you contemplate the story of England’s conversion. Mary appears at a time of great Catholic strength, faith is then decimated by schism and violence, Newman inspires a Catholic movement within the Church of England before himself leading where his movement must logically follow, the restoration of the Shrine becomes a work that brings Anglicans and Catholics together and now, through the Ordinariate dedicate to Our Lady of Walsingham, Anglicans are being called home to the rock from which they were hewn.

Pray today that the scandal of Christian schism may be healed. Pray that Jesus would bring us together into one body, as He and the Father are one. Pray for England that it might again be a proud Christian nation in unity with the Church of the Apostles. And pray for the Ordinariate that it might become a true bridge for calling people home. May Our Lady of Walsingham pray for us. Amen.