A Protestant Pilgrimage to the Marian Shrine of Walsingham

Pope Leo XIII memorably stated that when England returns to Walsingham, Our Lady would return to England.

Photo: Norman Servais (EWTN UK)
Photo: Norman Servais (EWTN UK) (photo: Screenshot)

In the east of England lies its National Marian Shrine, Walsingham. From the Middle Ages it was a place of pilgrimage until Henry VIII suppressed the shrine. Forgotten for centuries, it was restored in the 20th Century. Today, it is a place of pilgrimage for Catholics, Anglicans and Orthodox Christians.

Walsingham boasts not one shrine but two – Catholic and Anglican. Despite ecumenical relations, each shrine, needless to say, attracts different pilgrims. It is the Anglican presence, however, which attracts the most vociferous opposition. A number come each year to protest. They must do so; after all, they are Protestants.

Each May sees the occasion for this: the annual Anglican pilgrimage. In years gone by, this act of piety attracted 15,000 souls. Today that number is less than a third. Nevertheless, since the early 1970s, the pilgrimage has also attracted a counter-demonstration. Around fifty people gather at the site of the village pump, having travelled from far and wide, some from East Anglia, others from Lancashire, as well as several from Ulster.

As the banners are unfurled, pleasantries are exchanged between those assembling. Some have been coming to demonstrate for decades. Most know each other; there is a sense of a common cause among this band, no doubt sharpened by the knowledge that they are heavily outnumbered. Their banners have Biblical tracts emblazoned upon them of the type that one would expect. Many of the protestors clutch large, black Bibles in their hands. Only the King James Version is in evidence, however. Whatever they may say about Tradition and Scripture, these Protestants have their own traditions too.

The Anglicans are also assembling — or, more correctly, the self-styled “Anglo-Catholics” are gathering. There are as many cassocks and Roman collars to be seen here as at any Latin Mass. And this is precisely what the Protestants object to: they see these Anglicans as neither one thing nor another, neither Papist nor Protestant. Above all, they claim that they do not hold true to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England.

For those who do not know, the Thirty-Nine Articles can be found at the back of the Book of Common Prayer. They set out the beliefs of the Church of England. Among other things, the Articles state that Holy Mass is a ‘blasphemous fable’ and that devotion to Mary and the saints, to say nothing of praying for the souls in Purgatory, are all heinous practices and beliefs. Today, I have yet to meet an Anglican who knows much of, let alone holds to, these tenets, but that is a matter for them. And for the Protestant protestors who come faithfully each year to Walsingham.

So each year the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham is borne through the village in procession, often led by an Anglican bishop. Proceedings end with a service in the ruins of the former abbey. This year, as the procession started, so too, inevitably, did the protestors. Bibles were held aloft as Protestant preachers took it in turn to harangue those passing. The manner of their admonition was that of a father lamenting wayward children. The rhetoric rises and falls like the Irish Sea, for it is from across that water that many of these accents flow: what is distinctly heard in this particularly English village is the voice of rural Ulster.

Having grown up there, one closer in more ways to the American Bible Belt than to the rest of the United Kingdom, I know these people well. Unlike the vast majority of British subjects, both Ulster’s Catholics and Protestants feel an immediacy about the Reformation that is all but incomprehensible to their counterparts across the Irish Sea. This is understandable. Ulster, perhaps more than any other part of Europe, has felt the painful after-effects of that seismic shift.

Maybe not surprisingly, then, it was an Ulster accent that first boomed out over this very English procession. The looks in response were those usually reserved for a street drunk – a mixture of pity and mirth. The harangue evoked little more. This only made the protestors more determined. They cannot understand the blindness of the processors, their refusal to see the errors of their ways. They cannot comprehend how willfully ignorant they are of what is printed in the back of their own Book of Common Prayer. They fear the judgment for those who will not listen to the truth they proclaim. Their summing up is both final and definitive: “The Established Church is a disgrace.”

As to that last sentiment, I suspect that some of those taking part in the Anglican procession would agree. Over the years, the pilgrimage’s decline has been largely, but not exclusively, due to the emergence of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, established in 2011 by Pope Benedict XVI. The Ordinariate created a home for Anglicans within Catholicism. Subsequently, many of that communion who had, in any case, always considered themselves “Catholic,” made their way into the larger body of Christendom to embrace full communion with the See of Peter. Today, the actual numbers within the Ordinariate are relatively small but in terms of the impact on the Anglo-Catholic wing of Anglicanism, the migration has been devastating. Earlier, as I walked through those arriving for the procession, I heard the word “Ordinariate” mentioned more than once; and, as I did so, I also heard one clergyman comment: ‘My wife won’t let me…’

The procession and its counter-demonstration reach a climax when the statue, is brought to the former abbey. By now, both pilgrims and protestors were trying to outdo one another in hymn singing. The Lourdes hymn was sung with gusto, its Latin refrain adding salt to the wounds of the protestors who, in turn, sang just one hymn that praised sole sufficiency of the Blood of the Lamb. Between verses, the protestors’ reproach continued – still sorrowful, if a little more exhausted than previously.

That was more or less it. The Anglicans prayed in the grounds of the former Catholic abbey – the site of the original Holy House — while the Protestants stood outside praying too: no doubt both sides offered supplication for the conversion of the other.

When I asked the Protestants about demonstrating at Walsingham’s Catholic shrine, they looked hurt. They would never do such a thing, they said. Those who go there are Catholic, in practice and belief: that much is clear. What is also clear is that the protestors’ objection is with what they see as Protestants “playing at being Catholic.” They have no problem – practically at least — with Catholics, if their view of “Rome” is less charitable.

They will be back next year. Both sides that is: one to process, one to protest, neither, no doubt, managing to convince the other of anything. As I watched both groups disperse, I was struck by the thought that, alongside the many Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox pilgrimages to this Marian Shrine, there was another still. Each year, there was a pilgrimage of sorts undertaken by Protestants. Unknowingly, perhaps, and all the more mysterious for that, they too were being drawn to Walsingham.

In relation to that shrine, and its significance in the national drama, maybe this is, after all, not so surprising. Pope Leo XIII memorably stated that when this nation returns to Walsingham, then Our Lady would return to England. Is this what I was witnessing on a dull wet day in rural Norfolk? Namely, all aspects of Christianity – Latin, Eastern, and, even Reformed – returning again to the Upper Room, with all there gathered around a Mother?

As banners were furled and bibles packed, I said goodbye to my “separated brethren” whose company, unexpectedly, I had enjoyed. And, as I watched them go, thinking of that Upper Room, I prayed that one day such a gathering would come, and soon.