I have come to the conclusion that I have a love/hate relationship with the Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham. The first time I visited was about 10 years ago on a parish trip and I served at the altar when we said Mass in the Holy House. It was a very special moment and one I can still remember vividly. I also remember being moved to tears as my friend Shena and I climbed up the steps after sprinkling at the well and stood before the Annunciation chapel with its beautiful altar. I remember adoring the relic of the True Cross and Grahame seeing the thigh-bone of St Vincent. I remember nuns bustling about the paths in the garden, greeting us with smiles and welcome. I remember fondly, and with some amusement, the Ascension chapel with two brown, plaster feet dangling from the clouds painted on the ceiling.
Then, a few years later, going back on another parish retreat and finding it just as evocative. I remember being moved at the Slipper Chapel and lighting many candles for friends in need. There is also some dim memory of a fiasco with the bells at mass and more laughter later on the bus when the sun danced for Shena and I.
Last year I went again with two priest friends after Easter. Oh how different it was to be there and find so many male priests bustling around and to watch a woman priest being shunned by some prickly ordinands at a dinner table. No female voices heard at any of the little altars. We stopped going to many of the services offered, not wanting to watch concelebrations where we were not welcome to practice our priestly ministry. Oh, we enjoyed the quiet and our own private moments in the Holy House and in the garden. But the atmosphere was oppressive and I thought I wouldn’t go back again.
And now I have returned from another Walsingham experience. An experience of mixed emotions – of prejudice and love. This time I was allowed to stay in the College with the other clergy but I’m afraid that was the only concession made. Reactions to my dog collar ranged from observing whiplash as some tried to turn their heads and not catch my eye; hearing that some folk were upset because there was to be a ‘priestess’ on the pilgrimage; snivelling through a eucharist where my friends and others concelebrated while I stood at the back with a comforting arm round my shoulder; and being handed prayer requests from ten people because they had been told to hand them to any priest and wanted to affirm my presence; and hearing that some of the pilgrims had questioned the Shrine Warden as to why one of their priests was not allowed to do anything and getting a waffled reply that it would stop the Anglo-Catholics coming.
It occurred to me as I listened and prayed that God can call Mary; can call the Lady Richeldis to build the shrine that would become one of the most popular places of pilgrimage; can call men to be priests in God’s church… but it would seem that God can’t call me. Or any other women. And it was strange to be caught up in arguements that just don’t exist up here in Scotland any more – or at least only in one or two places. Even my own home congregation, some of whom struggle with where I am now, have asked me to preach and preside at the mass and have never stopped speaking to me. It was like stepping back in time. And not in a good way.
However, it was not all doom and gloom. There was lots of shopping and the purchase of two icons of St Columba, much tat and two beautiful little statues. There was much laughter in The Bull and with my own little flock. There was meeting new friends and clergy and sharing of stories. There was little sleep because of a large snoring priest in the room below and very noisy plumbing. There was much attention seeking by all and sundry. And there was the purchase of a giant image of Our Lady of Walsingham for the Scottish pilgrimage and a journey home with her on the train wrapped up in bubble wrap.
Prayers and petitions were offered, many tears were shed in sorrow and in joy. And Our Lady watched it all. I wonder what she makes of it all?