The political earthquake of Brexit has raised great questions about the future of the United Kingdom. The vote was split along distinctively national lines, with England and Wales for Leave, and Scotland and Northern Ireland for Remain.
In this country, interestingly, we refer to ourselves as the Catholic Church in England and Wales. Is this a distinctive English/Welsh identity asserting itself? I doubt if the Welsh, successfully recapturing their language as a badge of identity in recent years, may see it as that. So perhaps we should consider an English identity, and ask what is its nature and destiny.
To speak in these terms is often to elicit accusations of being racist, bigoted, imperialist, patriarchal and class-obsessed. Yet it was a Northern Irish poet, Tom Paulin, who once said that the investigation of Shakespeare’s possible Catholicism could lead “to the concealed heart of the English identity”.
For Catholics, the search for England’s heart brings to mind another phrase: “the Dowry of Mary”. This summer, a series of articles in this magazine has examined the “unexpected revival” in English (and, yes, British) Catholicism, its “signs of life”. Many have mentioned the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. One major pilgrimage to the shrine is called the Dowry of Mary pilgrimage: that phrase, like Walsingham itself, dates from the Middle Ages. It was at Walsingham, “England’s Nazareth”, that Our Lady appeared to Richeldis de Faverches and asked her to build a replica of the Holy Family’s home in Nazareth.
As English Catholics remember their past, an ancient “trinity” is now reviving: to be English, to be Catholic and to be devoted to Mary, the Mother of God. The shrine of Walsingham, focused on the Annunciation – when God took flesh at the consent of Mary in response to the angel’s invitation; the very moment of the Incarnation – is at the heart of this.
Only one document survives from Henry VIII’s violent and vandalistic destruction of shrines, abbeys, monasteries and their attendant libraries: the 15th-century Pynson Ballad, which states of the shrine:
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