England's Nazareth

A sermon preached by the Rt Rev'd Graham Walden, then Bishop of The Murray, at the Dedication of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham at S. John's Horsham on Saturday 23rd February, 1992. (Father David was Rector of Horsham in the Diocese of Ballarat at the time).

"Since the children have flesh and blood, he, too, shared in their humanity". (Heb. 2:14)

The way Jesus did this was to take humanity from his holy Mother, Mary of Nazareth, and being born in the likeness of man to redeem our humanity as the mediator between God and man.

Some years ago when I was at school, I was told, as we all were, by our headmaster, that we should behave toward girls as we would toward our mothers, and we should behave toward women as we would toward the Blessed Virgin Mary. Now, I grant that if you were to say that kind of thing today, especially to a group of schoolchildren, you would be treated like a feral cat! You would be stoned. You would have objects thrown at you across the classroom and you would be rendered somewhat inadequate, powerless, if not ridiculous. And yet, those words have remained with me for many years.

And today, when we come to this service, we are honouring our Lord Jesus Christ in honouring the person whose attitudes he adopted and whose humanity he bore. When we study the attitudes of Jesus in the Gospels we find the influence of the Holy Family, those who had an influence on the bearing of his young life. And so we rejoice that she who had that influence is honoured by the Church, and by this church in the way in which this particular image is being placed here.

Now, I don't want you to think that we are 'bowing down to wood and stone' or anything like that, because the Church in her wisdom has always made it possible for us to have images to remind us of the invisible world, of the great mysteries of our faith. We look around this church and we see stained glass windows, Stations of the Cross, crucifixes and crosses. We are reminded of the invisible by the visible. And we are not worshipping Our Lady, a creature, as if she were the Creator. Far from that! We are worshipping God, who has made it possible for her to be given the highest honour among the Saints as "Mother of God", the "bearer of the Eternal Word" who most graciously magnifies the Lord.

On 11th October, 1521, Pope Leo X conferred upon King Henry VIII the title 'Defender of the Faith' in recognition of a treatise he had written called "In Defence of the Seven Sacraments" against Martin Luther. In 1544 Parliament recognised this as the official title of the English monarch.

The practice of the Faith that Henry defended included many things; but it included PILGRIMAGE . . . pilgrimage to Walsingham. Pilgrimage is a journey to a holy place undertaken as an act of devotion to obtain divine help, sometimes as an act of penance, sometimes as an act of thanksgiving. And we sang in our processional hymn of how people made the pilgrimage to Walsingham for the benefits of healing, the benefits of guidance, and the benefits of being able to join with the prayers of the Mother of God in giving thanks. Now, as a pilgrim, King Henry VIII went to this Village of Walsingham in Norfolk to the popular shrine, known to this day as "England's Nazareth".

It was in 1061 that the first shrine dedicated to the honour of the holy house of Nazareth was built at Walsingham. The Lady of the manor, Richeldis de Faverché, saw a vision of the Blessed Virgin; she was told to build a shrine in honour of the Holy House at Nazareth, and to build it near a spring of water which miraculously appeared. A small wooden shrine was built, and pilgrims started to come there from all over the country.

People found there that God was very real to them, and the things of God, too. They found that they prayed better and that prayer was answered. They believed, too, that wonderful healings and blessing came to them when by faith they used the waters of the well. It was a simple age. But we are told that God gives great blessings to the simple and the humble.

And I can tell you from my many visits to Walsingham through the course of my life that everything I have just said is absolutely true . . . still! In fact one of the prayers that was answered quite recently was when Bishop Robert and Mrs Porter and I were praying there at the Shrine for his successor in the Diocese of the Murray, none of us knowing who was going to be chosen . . . except one, and that was Our Lady of Walsingham. A most incredible experience of wonder, of adoration, so that we do not go there for what we get, but for the sake of the glory of God. And as we glorify God in that place of our Lady's choosing, so we are raised just one step higher on the road to holiness and faith.

For nearly 1000 years that shrine has stood there in good days and in bad, in splendour and in ruins, to remind the English of what took place at the holy house at Nazareth, and to honour the Blessed Virgin Mary, the village girl who became the Mother of God. So closely was her name associated with this Norfolk village that she was and is called by the title "Our Lady of Walsingham".

It is very wonderful to think that monarchs down through the centuries came to this holy place. The first one was Richard the Lionheart. He came there to honour God, to seek the prayers of the Mother of Jesus, and to drink of the water from the spring that had appeared at the time when the Holy House was built. It is said that King Henry VIII journeyed the last mile to the shrine from the slipper chapel (where the shoes were taken off) on his knees!

And yet, it was during the reign of Henry VIII that the shrine was despoiled in order to finance his own coffers for various projects. He required money for the establishment of six new dioceses; he required money for education; he required money for the navy. So the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham helped to make six new bishops, a number of schools, and many more ships! In 1538 the monasteries were dissolved.

BUT GOD IS NOT MOCKED! One of the things that I would draw your attention to is that the image you can see is of the Holy Mother seated, holding her lily sceptre, crowned, with Jesus on her knee. The image reflects the honour given to womanhood. This was a feature of chivalry in the 11th century. And if you study the images of the Blessed Virgin Mary, they reflect the way they reflect the way that people responded to the central image of the grace of womanhood in our humanity.

Just looking back to the cultural background of the eleventh century, we find that knighthood was a very important feature for the religious life of the time. At the age of 21 when he had acquitted himself as a page and as a squire, a man was made a knight. The ceremonies were elaborate, the vows were solemn. After a bath of purification the man would stand or kneel all night in prayer before an altar on which lay his polished sword. In the morning the knight received the Blessed Sacrament. He heard a sermon on his duty to protect the weak, to right wrongs, and to honour women. After worship he was led to the courtyard where his armour was buckled on, his sword fitted, and his shoes and his spurs attached. Then he received the accolade, a light blow on the neck or shoulder from the officiant, a lord or a knight with the words, 'In the name of God and S. Michael and S. George I dub thee knight. Be both brave and loyal." The spiritual and temporal heroes, S. Michael and S. George were named to remind the knight of his duties, and he was given three watchwords: religion, honour, courtesy. The knight was then to take a lady whose honour he was to defend, whether or not if she was somebody with whom he was in love (and usually that was NOT the case), but someone whom he considered to be worshipful. The knight took his lady and went out to seek the honour of womanhood. Many knights took Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and they sought to do duty to honour her. And so they were spiritual warriors above all else, and they were to behave in that particular way. Now chivalry encouraged qualities which gave to human relationships ideal significance: courtesy and honour, which are indeed, thank God, persisting to the present day. And the practice of honouring the Blessed Virgin Mary encourages us in the practice of these particular virtues.

Pilgrims travelled all over the then known world. They went to Jerusalem; they went to Rome; they went to Spain. But that was very expensive, and many who could not afford to do that went to Walsingham, 'England's Nazareth', for the representation of the holy house of Nazareth brought the Gospel home to the people. The Venerable Bede wrote some marvellous words: 'The Mother of God is indeed blessed because she was a temporal minister of the Word Incarnate; but much more than this, because she remained the eternal keeper of his love.'

Now, as I have said, God is not mocked. And in his good purpose, that shrine of Walsingham which meant so much to the culture and the religion of England for five hundred years, has been restored. In 1921 through the efforts of the Vicar of Walsingham, Father Hope Patten, pilgrimages commenced once more. In 1931 the Holy House was rebuilt, the Shrine Church was built, and it has attracted both the common people and royalty. On the left hand side of the altar a candle burns perpetually for the Queen. And it is paid for by Princess Margaret!

During the Lambeth Conference of 1978, the Queen had put on a garden party. But she was not present, for she was in Canada. And the Duchesses were required to entertain the Archbishops while the ordinary Bishops were entertained by lesser mortals.

In the pavilion where the Archbishops were being entertained, Archbishop David Hand of Papua New Guinea was being looked after by the Duchess of Kent. She said to him: 'How is the Lambeth Conference going, Your Grace?' At that particular point it hadn't been going particularly well, and he told her as much.

She said, 'I do wish you bishops would stop talking about the Church and talk about Christ and God.' Archbishop David was up to that one! He said, 'After all, the Church is the Body of Christ, you understand, and we are trying to do what Christ wants for his Church.' She said, 'I know that. But there is a dimension that we lay people want to see in our religion. And I'll tell you from my own life an experience I have had.

'I was pregnant with my last child, and I was very worried because I was over forty years of age, and I hadn't been well. A friend of mine said, "You live in Norfolk. Why don't you go to a village in Norfolk called Walsingham where there is a shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary?" I had never been there, so I went along to this place - you probably don't know it, Archbishop'. (Archbishop David was almost bursting at this point, because as a boy he had grown up in a Norfolk village only five miles away from Walsingham where his father happened to be the Vicar! He was courteous enough not to interrupt the royal Lady, but when she finished, he told her.) She said, 'I went to this place, and there I found great peace as I sought the prayers of the Mother of Jesus and the grace of her divine Son.' Those are the words of the Duchess of Kent.

She said, 'I found a place of peace and of healing, and although I lost my child, I still went back there. In the trauma I found peace.'

Now, I have told you that story because it reveals something of how the hearts of the ordinary people of God are crying out for the sort of faith and personal warmth they can find by associating themselves with the prayers of the holy Mother of Jesus.

Indeed at this time in the history of our Church in Australia we desperately need those prayers, and we must ask her to join her prayers to ours for our Church; and incidentally we must also ask the prayers of King Charles the Martyr, who gave himself for the Church of England. May his prayers and his precious blood avail for its healing, salvation and reconciliation in these dark days.

And so, use this shrine in this church to remind yourselves that Jesus is truly human, as well as truly divine. And also to remind yourselves that we honour God by honouring womanhood, and by responding to the figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Christian tradition.

Pray at this shrine for families that are being torn apart by domestic violence in these days when womanhood is not honoured, and courtesy is not known, and children grow up in a social jungle where the law of tooth and claw seems to be able to prevail.

Pray at this shrine that Jesus may be presented to us, to our own hearts, and to the hearts of those who do not yet believe.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.