In Britain’s ‘Chafing Heat,’ God’s Grace Falls Like a Rain Shower

In the shimmering summer of 2018, the story of the Church in England continues.

(photo: Pixabay/CC0)

Britain recently found itself sizzling in a heatwave. Parks and gardens began drying up, lawns turning brown, farmland and crops endangered. A massive fire swept the moors in the Peak District. There was talk of hosepipe bans and everyone has been urged to conserve water.

Somehow the dryness seems to echo the nation’s spiritual state. The Prime Minister is said to be supportive of a plan to introduce a new form of “hate crime” aimed at religious groups that seek to help people with same-sex attraction to live chastely. There is pressure to force Northern Ireland – where restrictive abortion laws have strong public support – to make abortion widely available. 

These are not issues that can readily be tackled by petitions or lobbying, although there are certainly groups that will campaign and work to defend human values, religious freedom, and the rights of the unborn. We may be able to ensure that immediate threats can be faced and tackled. But the real need is evangelism.

While things seem grim in society, there is hope in the Church. This September will see a great National Eucharistic Congress in Liverpool. The special guest keynote speaker will be Bishop Robert Barron from the United States, and the event will culminate in a great procession of the Blessed Sacrament through the streets.

Summer is the time for ordinations, and one notable batch of ordinands gathered last week at the Birmingham Oratory – founded by Blessed John Henry Newman – to make history. These eight men were ordained for the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, of which Newman is patron. The Ordinariate was established by Pope Benedict XVI for Anglicans who wished to come into full communion with the Catholic Church. Its first priests were former Anglican clergymen, who are now working in parishes around the country. But this summer’s ordinations crossed a new frontier – they include men whose entire formation and training has been within the Ordinariate, ie who began as Anglican lay men and not clerics.

One such is Father Jonathan Creer, who duly celebrated his First Mass with a packed congregation at the Church of the Precious Blood at London Bridge on July 1, having been ordained the day before in Birmingham. This church – where Jonathan has been active as a layman over the years, singing at Evensong on visits – marked the day in style. The children’s choir sang a Mass setting by 16th-century composer John Merbecke, there were hymns by Newman, and afterwards people lined up to receive “first blessings” from the new priest. Then all gathered in the nearby public gardens for champagne and further celebrations.

The Ordinariate is now quietly flourishing and the ordination of Jonathan and his companions brings the total number of priests to 100. 

That evening, a quite different celebration took place at another Ordinariate parish – St Anselm’s at Pembury, near Tunbridge Wells in Kent. This is a rural parish, and the church – built as a small hall some years ago to serve as a Mass centre for local Catholics – has been transformed by Father Edward Tomlinson and his team into a beautiful village church. Sunday’s special Evensong saw the culmination of this with blessing of a stained-glass window, donated by the Worshipful Company of Glaziers, one of London’s ancient Livery Companies dating back to Medieval times. The stained glass, rescued from a church that was being closed, was blessed by Msgr. Keith Newton, the Ordinary, and Bishop Paul Mason auxiliary in Southwark.

The story of the stained glass is poignant: it was created in 1919 to commemorate a young sailor who was killed at the Battle of Coronel in 1914 and depicts Christ walking on the waters. A plaque, telling the story of the glass, was unveiled after Evensong, when the congregation gathered in the church’s paddock for refreshments.

St. Anselm’s is a young parish, with many children. The church now has a new hall for its range of parish activities and the church itself has been transformed with a fine reredos and carved choir stalls, side chapels, and statues and Stations of the Cross. An outdoor Calvary stands at the entrance, and the paddock is surrounded by bushes, shrubs and flowers, with a popular play area for children.

Meanwhile, across to the east in Norfolk, Walsingham, the National Shrine of Our Lady — from which the Ordinariate takes its name — is becoming of increasing importance to Catholics in England. This summer will see the usual pilgrimages there including the popular Youth 2000 gathering which draw crowds of young people from across Britain, and the New Dawn festival which has been running for over 30 years: the grandchildren of its original founders are now among those attending. The shrine was recently declared a basilica and there are plans for a massive new church.

A Eucharistic Congress, the Ordinariate, new chapters of history, the expansion of an ancient shrine – is this enough to bring about massive spiritual renewal? Of course not. But it’s all part of the mysterious reality that is the continuing story of the Catholic Church. Long ago, the dramatic events of Henry VIII’s reign took place in a summer of “chafing heat” back in 1535. On a summer’s day in 1843 in a flower-decked church on the outskirts of Oxford John Henry Newman preached his final sermon as an Anglican.  In the summer of 1982 Pope John Paul II made history as the first Pope to visit Britain, and stood on the balcony at Westminster Cathedral remarking on the unexpected sunshine. In today’s shimmering summer of 2018, the story of the Church in England continues.