Adventures in Anglo-catholicism, Chapter 1.

I have been on somewhat of an Anglican odyssey over the last few months courtesy of Fr. Jeff Woolnough, priest of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, and currently priest in charge at St. Peter's Church, Eastwood. I have been fortunate indeed to make a friend like Fr. Jeff, who has taken the time and care to really help me to understand about the journey of the Ordinariate. 

I think many Catholics, like myself, have been really confused about what the Ordinariate is and what it is about, seeing it as another wave of converts from the Anglican communion, refugees from the onslaught of relativism and surrender to temporal considerations sweeping the communion and washing away Christian dogma. Many Cradle-Catholics undoubtedly harbour concerns that, in fact, they have different beliefs and different practises. I have even heard it said that the parish was being made "Anglican". As Cradle-Catholics we are often blinded to the struggle of other Christian groups because we are safe and secure behind the walls of doctrine and authority provided by Mother Church whose authenticity and integrity is not questioned by any but the most wacky fringes.

I have considered that the Ordinariate could be best explained like a religious order, with it's own charisms and benefices, devotions and history, which add immensely to the richness of the Catholic family.

But when I considered where the Ordinariate has come from, I saw dancing vicars, gay vicars, bubble masses, vicars who proclaim they don't even believe in God at all! The Anglican communion seems very confusing to many Catholics, including myself, as it appears to be a communion where virtually anything goes. The Ordinariate appeared on the scene after it seemed women bishops had become a certainty and many Catholics wondered wether this was merely an exercise in misogyny? After all, the Church of England already had accepted women priests and so many other eroding relativisms, what difference really would one more make?

Perhaps my biggest mistake was in not recognising that the Ordinariate does not come from the Church of England, but the Church in England. Walsingham Shrine is perhaps the embodiment of this fact, and the story of the founding of the Shrine gives us some not small insight into this reality:

The Story of England's Nazareth

The story of Walsingham maybe one you are familiar with. In the 11th century, Richeldis de Faverches, a Saxon noblewoman, married to the Lord of the Manor of Walsingham Parva, was widowed, left with a young a son, Geoffrey. We know that Richeldis had a deep faith in God and devotion to Mary. We know too of her reputation for good works in care and generosity towards those around her.

At this time there was a great deal of interest in the Holy Land and people undertook long and usually dangerous pilgrimages there. The area was victim to Muslim expansionism and Christian armies were called to repel the Muslim invaders in the first Crusade of 1096. In doing this, Christians were responding to an appeal from Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, who requested that western volunteers come to his aid and help to repel the invading Seljuq Turks from Anatolia. It is believed that Geoffrey eventually joined one of those Crusades as an expression of his Christian faith.

For Richeldis, however, the life of prayer and good works was rewarded by a vision in the year 1061. In this vision she was taken by Mary to be shown the house in Nazareth where Gabriel had announced the news of the birth of Jesus. Mary asked Richeldis to build an exact replica of that house in Walsingham. This is how Walsingham became known as England's Nazareth.

The vision was repeated three times, according to legend, and retold through a fifteenth century ballad. The materials given by Richeldis were finally constructed miraculously one night into the Holy House, while she kept a vigil of prayer.

Although we cannot be certain that this story represents all the details of historical fact, we do know that in passing on his guardianship of the Holy House, Geoffrey de Faverches left instructions for the building of a Priory in Walsingham. The Priory passed into the care of Augustinian Canons somewhere between 1146 and 1174.
From the first this shrine of Our Lady was a famous place of pilgrimage. Hither came the faithful from all parts of England and from the continent until the destruction of the priory by Henry VIII in 1538. To this day the main road of the pilgrims through Newmarket, Brandon, and Fakenham is still called the Palmers' Way. Many were the gifts of lands, rents, and churches to the canons of Walsingham, and many the miracles wrought at Our Lady's shrine.

Henry III came on a pilgrimage to Walsingham frequently, making at least 11 pilgrimages between 1226 and 1272. Edward I was a pilgrim on no less than twelve occasions and would stay for several days at a time. Edward II came in 1315, Henry VI in 1455, and Henry VII in 1487. Royal patronage helped the Shrine to grow in wealth and popularity. The royal visitors were generous benefactors themselves as well. The last king of England to make the pilgrimage was Henry VIII in 1511, staying at Barsham Manor and no doubt removing his shoes at St. Catherine's "Slipper Chapel" 1 mile outside Little Walsingham and walked the last mile barefoot to the Shrine in England's Holy Land.

Fr. Jeff outside the Slipper Chapel, Having Just offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass

Erasmus in fulfilment of a vow made a pilgrimage from Cambridge in this year also, and left as his offering a set of Greek verses expressive of his piety. Thirteen years later he wrote his colloquy on pilgrimages, wherein the wealth and magnificence of Walsingham are set forth, and some of the reputed miracles rationalised. He complained that the Chapel of Richeldis was draughty on all sides and we can see recorded that in this year, Henry VIII was paying for the glazing of the windows of the outer chapel which by this point enshrined and protected the original Holy House of Richeldis.

England's Shame.

Of course, the destruction of the Catholic Church in England is a very sad tale of one man's lust and arrogance which is well known to all. Already on September 18th 1534 the Prior and Canons of Walsingham had betrayed their Catholic faith and signed the Act of the King's Supremacy. Shamefully, they were in fact one of the first religious houses in England to submit—thereby cutting themselves off from the world-wide unity of the Christian Church. Not for them the heroic stand against the King's demands made by the Carthusian Fathers of London Charterhouse or St. John Fisher, or St. Thomas More who suffered Martyrdom the following year. In 1537, while the last prior, Richard Vowell, was paying obsequious respect to Cromwell, the sub-prior Nicholas Milcham was charged with conspiring to rebel against the suppression of the lesser monasteries, and on flimsy evidence was convicted of high treason and hanged outside the priory walls.

In July, 1538, Prior Vowell assented to the destruction of Walsingham Priory and assisted the king's commissioners in the removal of the figure of Our Lady, of many of the gold and silver ornaments and in the general spoliation of the shrine. For his ready compliance the prior received a pension of 100 pounds a year, a large sum in those days, while fifteen of the canons received pensions varying from 4 pounds to 6 pounds. The shrine dismantled, the little Holy House was destroyed and the priory stripped of its lead and glass and destroyed, its site was sold by order of Henry VIII to one Thomas Sidney for 90 pounds, and a private mansion was subsequently erected on the spot.

The Elizabethan ballad, "A Lament for Walsingham," expresses something of what the Norfolk people felt at the loss of their glorious shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham:

Weep Weep O Walsingam,
Whose dayes are nights,
Blessings turned to blasphemies,
Holy deeds to despites
Sinne is where our Ladye sate,
Heaven turned is to helle;
Satan sitthe where our Lord did swaye,
Walsingham O farewell!

Fr. Jeff Considers all we have lost at the site of the original Holy House of Richeldis
Me at the ruined East window of the Priory Church.
A view of the ruins from the Holy Well.

The Pain of Walsingham

This site brought me great pain. The pain of the Reformation, of the stripping of the altars, of the desecration of holy sites, of the suppression of the faith of England which was the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter. This pain lives on today in the strange tri-partite religiosity of the Shrine of Walsingham, united in prayer, and yet divided by some historic event that none of the current players were a party to. The Orthodox, the Catholics, and the Anglicans, all dwell here in peace and in homage to the Mother of God, and yet they remain strangely divided by this act of violence which rent our country apart. 
That struck me as extraordinary. The repercussions of that act of violence echoes down through the centuries and we have still not been able to heal it to this day.

Today I have laid the foundations for the story of my pilgrimage, tomorrow I will try and begin to tell you about how it was the Anglicans who revived the Catholic faith and held it against great odds and at great personal cost, and how they still do today. And I will tell you how I felt about it all.


  1. A good beginning. I'm looking to reading more, Mark.

  2. Hi Mark, good to speak with you after Holy Mass today - here's a link to a history of our very own shrine to the Blessed Virgin here in medieval Essex. I also have some recent pictures of the 12th century church which still stand on the North bank of the river Chelmer which I'll Dropbox, or similar, to you when I get a minute. God Bless.


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