Walsingham comes to Liverpool

Saturday, October 10th, 2009 was a red-letter day in the calendar both of Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral
and the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in distant rural Norfolk.
History was made when the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was brought into the cathedral and,
for the whole day,  programme of devotion, teaching and worship occupied mist of the vast building.
A fuller account follows the photos, which show the sequence of this most special day,
from the arrival of the procession to the service of Evensong and Benediction at the end of the afternoon. 
Those familiar with the story of the cathedral's early years and the churchmanship which prevailed
for most the time since its building, will have been amazed and delighted at the
generosity of spirit which inspired the day, and the overwhelming success of the festival.




Photos: Chris Price

When Mary came to Liverpool…
As printed in the November 2009 edition of 'Newslink'
Chris Price

A century ago Liverpool Cathedral was a very different place from the great building we know today. St Faith’s founder, Douglas Horsfall, had in 1906 offered to fund a great crucifix as the centrepiece of the reredos,  then being planned.  Bishop  Chavasse firmly refused, and is on record as saying that those taking communion would be offended and would ‘feel betrayed’ by such an object and so ‘Catholic’ an emphasis. In the early years of the century, when the Anglo-Catholic movement was in full swing, Bishop and Diocese took legal action against such ‘popish practices’ as the reservation of the sacrament and the hearing of confessions in some of the churches in the Diocese. And within living memory, the late Jessie Gale found stewards rushing to pick her up when she genuflected by her pew before going up for communion at the cathedral (and Archbishop Robert Runcie was shouted out of the pulpit at Liverpool Parish Church more recently by ‘Protestants’ accusing him of betrayal by consorting with the Pope and visiting Walsingham). This writer recalls the procession of colourfully robed participants going up to the altar, with at their tail a priest in plain white surplice and black stole… he was the celebrant!

What some of these worthies would have thought when, at 10.00 am on Saturday October 10th, the great west doors of Liverpool Cathedral were flung open, spine-tingling trumpets sounded, and the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was borne in, with incense, genuflection, and sustained applause from the many hundreds gathered to bear witness, is anybody’s guess. The roof did not fall in, not then nor throughout a day of devotion, activity and fellowship throughout the Great Space. To be there on that unbelievable day was to wonder at what the passing of the years and the growth of tolerance have brought to the church, and to rejoice at the amazing breadth and richness of the Anglican experience. 

So what went on? We were welcomed, and queued to drink of the Walsingham water, sipped from labelled, splashed over us in the Shrine fashion… not from the well but from Holy Buckets. The gilded processional statue stood high in the central space, where the CJM musicians sang loud Marian hymns and played their bright festive music. There were workshops and stalls in every chapel and corner. Banners were made all over the floor. Children sang and danced. The place was thronged with priests, and two visiting bishops in purple skullcaps and cummerbunds were on parade (‘no, dear, this is an Anglican cathedral!’ I heard one visitor says to another). Throughout the day, there was a happy holy buzz, not unlike the actual Norfolk Walsingham experience. Bishop James was there, taking a bible study. You could make a finger rosary, and buy all manner of things (even statues of the Sacred Heart!) from the Additional Curates Society table. But two places, and two experiences, stood out for me.

The cathedral High Altar has always seemed heavy and austere (as has much of the surrounding architecture) until that day. Walsingham transformed it. A huge and colourful draped tabernacle stood on the altar for the day-long Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, and before it a great bowl burnt incense. Here we prayed, and lit tea-lights, placing them on the steps up to the altar – and before the day was done there were hundreds of poignant points of light, wreathed in the holy smoke. Never before had I felt God’s presence so powerfully in that towering building.

In the Lady Chapel (where else!) a smaller shrine statue stood. Here throughout the day there were talks on diverse subjects, including praying the rosary. And at noon, standing room only, there was a magnificent and uncompromisingly Catholic Mass (advertised prominently as such throughout the cathedral… not a word often to be seen there!). And if that were not enough, towards the end of the afternoon another amazing ‘first’: Choral Evensong with Benediction, and even more crowded. Canon Myles Davies intoned, the cathedral choir sang as superbly as ever, and to the tinklings of what I still cannot resist calling the Holy Bicycle Bells, the Bishop of Beverley gave Benediction to the faithful. Never before so many servers and acolytes, so many candles, so much fervent genuflection and crossings. Usually the showing of such obvious devotion at our cathedral feels as if it should be done surreptitiously so as not to give offensc: here, as at the Walsingham Shrine itself, it felt natural and right.

The day after, doubtless, all trace of this Holy Saturday would have disappeared, although even in that vast building the incense smell may have lingered. Looking back, it seems a miracle that it all happened at all (and that the roof did not indeed fall in). Liverpool Cathedral has always provided an overwhelming experience for the eyes and ears, and has, thank God, made space for all manner of events and styles of worship. There has always been room for The Beatles, for Hillsborough, for the wilder manifestations of youth praise, and even for what one comment terms the ‘tasteless pink graffiti’ of the Tracy Emin text beneath the west window. And now there has been space for the whole Walsingham experience, and for the manifestation of a churchmanship and a style of devotion probably unfamiliar to most visitors to the cathedral. The famous Anglican Umbrella shelters so many folk and fancies: on October 10th in Liverpool it spread even wider, and thank God that it did so.


When Mary came to Liverpool they opened wide the door
And bore her in with trumpets where she’d never been before.

The Great Space echoed brightly with the tinkling of the bell;
The sounding air was filled on high with incense’s sweet smell.

In skullcap and in cummerbund the purple bishops walked
And down each aisle and on each stair black-garbed incumbents stalked 

And in the Lady Chapel they celebrated ‘Mass’
And many a wondrous ritual came happily to pass.

Before the great High Altar the Sacrament was displayed
With soaring smoke and twinkling lights while queues of faithful prayed.

Workshops and presentations filled the great cathedral’s space
And all was happy festival in this our holy place.

Our Lady sat on high in glory  ‘neath the soaring tower
Her clone was in the Lady Chapel till the evening hour

To hear the word, then sit in state, surveying all the crowd
As choir and congregation for Benediction bowed.

When Mary left her Holy House, to Liverpool she came
And left us feeling that our lives might never be the same.

October 10th, 2009

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