The shrine was first established in the 11th century and destroyed by Henry VIII in 1538. Today's shrine church was built in 1931 and extended in 1938. It includes the Holy House, a replica of the Holy Family's home in Nazareth. Within the Holy House is the image of Our Lady of Walsingham, carved in 1922 and copied from the seal of the medieval priory. Around the perimeter of the church are 15 side chapels, each one dedicated to a mystery of the Rosary.
Pilgrimages to Walsingham are a regular feature of Christian life in the British Isles. Both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church maintain shrines at Walsingham, and there is now an Orthodox presence there as well. Pilgrimages often have a decidedly ecumenical spirit to them. Pilgrims will often visit the Slipper Chapel, built in 1340 and restored in 1897 by Pope Leo XIII, before moving on to the Holy House, maintained by the Church of England, where there is also a small Orthodox chapel.
Little Walsingham is a small village in Norfolk and has been a place of pilgrimage for many centuries. The village contains a number of quaint tea shops and bookshops as well as a few shops selling the obligatory bad taste religious souvenirs.
The Rt Revd John Salt, OGS, retired bishop of St Helena, was the main celebrant and preacher. Bishop John was assisted by a number of concelebrating priests representing the various pilgrimage groups present.
What was the name of the service?Pilgrimage Mass.
How full was the building?
Standing room only! I arrived about 15 minutes before the service and the nave was already about three-quarters full. It was still difficult to find a seat, though, due to the number of people who were saving seats for their friends, but more of that later.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Two people were giving out service sheets. They smiled as I arrived.
Was your pew comfortable?
Chair, not terribly comfortable but I can't complain, as I was one of the lucky ones to get a seat!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There are signs around the building requesting that pilgrims remain silent in the vicinity of the shrine church. This was observed, so there was a very quiet, prayerful atmosphere.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The service began with the Sign of the Cross.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
One sheet containing the order of service and another with the hymns and readings.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ. An invisible (from where I was sitting) soprano soloist sang the Kyrie eleison.
Did anything distract you?
I was behind a pillar that had a candle stand with very dangerous looking spikes sticking out of it. I had to be very careful every time I moved.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This is Walsingham, where the term "happy clappy" doesn't exist! This was full-on bells and smells Anglo-Catholic liturgy. There were three sacred ministers at the altar, and the concelebrating priests were all vested in white chasubles. The incense was smoky; the candles glowed. But even though we were celebrating the feast of the Nativity of Our Lady, I'm surprised that more wasn't made of that.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Bishop John exudes a genuine warmth and has a very relaxed style of preaching. I was impressed that he preached from the nave without notes. The sermon was interspersed with jokes and humourous anecdotes that were relevant to the subject.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Just as Mary said "yes" to God to carry Jesus in her womb, we must say "yes" to allow Jesus into our lives.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Worshipping with other pilgrims from all over the country. I definitely felt a tingle down my spine as we all sang the Sanctus and Benedictus with great gusto.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Quite a large number of people had "reserved" spaces for their friends by placing coats, service sheets, books, etc. on the seats. It reminded me of those people at holiday resorts who place their towels by the poolside before breakfast to ensure they get the best place. Some of those who'd had seats "reserved" arrived late for the service, yet many people who had arrived in good time were relegated to the side aisles, and some were even forced to stand due to this selfish behaviour.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nobody hung around. We all made our way to the shrine refectory for our evening meal.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none (see above).
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
N/A – This isn't really an option. Although I love the worship, the shrine is aimed at those making an annual pilgrimage.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The lingering aroma of incense and burning candles.