Walsingham bites back

You may remember, dear readers, that a wee while ago I was reminiscing on visits I have made to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. Many people made some interesting and supportive comments. Today I received this comment from Fr Dominic:

I found all this very interesting and very one sided. The rant of M/s Ruth seems to ignore the hurt that she and her “ordained” friends have done to the English Church.As an Anglican priest I am expected to be polite to the priestess but she can be as rude and nasty as she likes to me. And I have experienced this at Walsingham. They see Walsingham as the last bastion that they must break into and are doing all they pushing well can to achieve this.

Let me make some comments here, in the open, in response.

Fr Dominic, you say it was one sided. Yes, indeed I gave my thoughts. There is one of me. The fact that many of the comments agreed with my opinion perhaps reflects the views of the majority in our Church. But thank you for offering another side.

You say that M/s Ruth (that’s me) ignores the hurt me and my ‘ordained’ friends have done to the English Church. Let me respond by saying that far from ignoring the hurt felt by those opposed to the ordination of women, I have been instrumental in bringing about dialogue in many places between the two ‘sides’. In fact, many people who were once opposed (and I include myself in that group) have got to know women priests and have come to accept their ministry. By putting the word ‘ordained’ in inverted commas I am presuming that you do not believe we are actually ordained. Do you not hold with the Canons of your Church then? Do you not believe that I was called by God to the priesthood? Did I imagine it? And please believe that I have not been near the ‘English’ Church. I am a Scottish Episcopalian, and proud of it.

Next, you say that you are expected to be polite to the priestess… Em, you do realise that using the term ‘priestess’ is not polite at all, don’t you? You can’t have it both ways. And as far as I am aware I have never met you and try not to be rude or nasty to any of God’s creatures.

Finally you say that we are trying to break into that last bastion – Walsingham. Did my wee comment indicate a siege mentality? It is interesting that you use the word ‘bastion’. I have always thought of it as a Shrine to Our Lady. Perhaps you are projecting your own images on to that holy place. I am not sure what you mean by ‘are doing all they pushing well can to achieve this’. Please believe that I have not pushed anyone, nor have I said a peep to the Shrine staff.

I shall continue to pray that one day, Fr Dominic, you and I may stand side by side and share in the presiding of the Holy Mysteries at the altar. Until then, I shall hold you in my prayers.

May St Francis, who recognised the value of women’s ministry in St Clare, pray for us all.

Our Lady of Walsingham

I see it is Our Lady of W’s memorial day today. It brings back mixed emotions. My first trip was with my home parish on an outing and I was asked to serve for Mass by my priest. The nuns in the Sacristy were nun too pleased about me being a women and all that so it was a frosty reception. All I was doing was serving, for heaven’s sake. But, putting aside those feelings of prejudice, we had a wonderful time. I loved the Holy House and remember the candles, the smell of incense, the prayer cards. I found the healing service at the well very moving. And we giggled at the Ascension chapel (two feet hanging from the ceiling!)

My next trip was many years later when I went with two friends (both priests of the female gender) for a post-Easter break. This coincided with the annual retreat from Mirfield and so we were surrounded by handsome young male ordinands swishing about in black cassocks. We were incognito but we did watch one woman priest being shunned by the men and having to sit at a table on her own at dinner. We asked her to join us. She said that she came regularly and was used to being ignored and sometimes overheard rude comments. So, what was to be a spiritual haven of renewal and refreshment became the sour taste of bitter prejudice.

My last visit was on the Annual Scottish Pilgrimage two years ago. I was persuaded to go by the organisers and thought that things were bound to have changed. I knew that I wouldn’t be allowed to do anything in my priestly role but was assured that things were changing. I was even allowed to stay in the Clergy rooms, much to the horror of the Secretary to Forward in Faith in Scotland who was one of our party. Walsingham go in for concelebration in a big way. So hardly a Eucharist went by without all my friends and colleagues being up there at the altar in all their laciest finery while I sat at the back hurting. (I believe that some male priests refuse to take part in these concelebrations until women are welcomed too.) My friends did ask me to take part in reading some of the Stations of the Cross but that caused bitterness with some of the group. Just for reading out words in a book!

So, you can see why I feel ambivalent about Our Lady of Walsingham. Is this what the Lady Richeldis foresaw when she had her vision of building Our Lady’s house at Nazareth in England’s fair land? For me now it is a place of division and prejudice, of alienation and unGodliness. So my prayer today is that Walsingham will be transformed into a Shrine of healing and wholeness for ALL.

Our lady in Asda

As I was wandering aimlessly around my neighbouring HUGE 24-hour Asda today I found myself in the aisle for gardening. It really is like another world to me. Spades and other implements, hoses and packets of seeds, ornamental troughs and Our Lady. Our Lady? Oh yes. In amongst the gnomes and rear-ends of faux stone dogs there was Our Lady. I can see why you would want a lovely St Francis in your garden for birds to perch on and butterflies to flit around. But Our Lady and baby Jesus?

She wasn’t very heavy and I think a stiff east coast wind could have her over in a jiffy. But then again at only £9 you could always buy another. Maybe I’ll go back and get one and keep it indoors. Much nicer.

Or maybe I will make a little shrine out back. A mini Lourdes or Carfin Grotto. Oh yes, I can see it now… I hope they’ve still got some.

Ora pro nobis

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?