by Sara Maitland
The Walsingham pilgrimage refreshes the parts that other Anglican practices do not reach.
I first went to the Walsingham national pilgrimage, now gone again for another year, on the late May bank holiday in 1972. I was a newish re-convert (a Presbyterian childhood followed by a long time away from any religious faith) and still richly curious about it all.
I went on a coach to Norfolk with my Oxford parish. Another member of our pilgrimage was a somewhat depressed young man from the Welsh valleys in his first year at university and struggling with Oxfordness. When we finally arrived in the crowded coach park, he looked out of the window, gave a beatific smile and sighed contentedly. "Oh, it's just like Blackpool," he said, "only more religious." And that just about sums it up.
The national pilgrimage is very brash, very noisy, very flamboyant and very un-Anglican, and not simply because it is about the Virgin Mary. The seamless integration of religious practice into quite disorderly pleasures, such as picnics, pub crawls, coach trips and catching up with old friends, is perfectly normal in southern Europe, but does feel slightly odd in the context of a charming little village. (It should not, of course, because pilgrimage in general and Walsingham in particular is an integral part of that fantasy of "merrie England" that forms our nostalgic sense of the countryside. From its origins in 1061 until the Reformation, Walsingham was a major European pilgrimage destination – easily outranking Canterbury and attracting pilgrims from all over Christendom.)
Anglicanism is a practice of great and true beauty and moderation and intelligence and good taste; the national pilgrimage is none of these things. It is a jamboree for people who do not necessarily care much for dignity and good order, but do believe, often quite inarticulately, that joy is pleasing to the Lord.
So, not surprisingly, the shrine and especially the national pilgrimage come in for considerable disapprobation. It is accused of being vulgar (true), drunken (true), cliquey (true), camp (true), superstitious (true in the sense that it is non-biblical and wrapped up in slightly bogus medieval folk narratives, though in my opinion none the worse for that) and irreverent (profoundly untrue). But I am not convinced that even the truest of these accusations make this, or any other, pilgrimage, a bad thing.
Oddly enough many of the people most critical of Walsingham and other kinds of "activity religion" are the very same people who like to complain that Christianity is dualistic, anti-body, anti-pleasure and legalistically restrictive. From the dawn rising, through the long coach journey across beautiful May countryside, the joy of seeing friends expected and unexpected, the over-the-top religious services and long straggling procession, the singing, the dense crowd around and within The Bull, to the sleepy journey back through the night, the national pilgrimage celebrates the Incarnation – God made not simply "flesh" but a drinking, laughing, food-loving, friendship-seeking, party-going human being. It celebrates a child who went on pilgrimage himself and, to the justifiable irritation of his parents, got lost and found again.
The national pilgrimage refreshes the religious parts that other Anglican practices do not reach. I think they are parts that we need to refresh. In the end, of course, it is a matter of taste; no one has to go to Walsingham. But we all have to guard against the lamentable tendency to believe that my taste and God's are broadly similar and that good taste is a moral issue. You have only to look at the creation to see that if God has taste it is a good deal more like the gaudy brashness of the Walsingham national than it is like choral evensong.
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