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AN ENCOUNTER

For most of my early teens I lived with my mother in Norfolk, England. Mother was the district nurse. She visited the sick and delivered most of the babies in a group of villages. She was a single parent mother, struggling to educate me well and manage on a meager salary.She was a hurt and embittered woman who gave herself to me with a devotion which both enabled and hurt me.

I was the only server at the local parish church. The “churchmanship” as we then called it, was very middle of the road. Each Sunday there was an early celebration of the Eucharist. Sung Matins followed at 11a.m except on the first Sunday in the month when there was a Parish Communion. Evensong was sung at 6: 30PM.The parish church breathed the faith of all who had worshipped there for hundreds of years.

Our vicar was called up for six months as an army chaplain. While he was away we were served by Roger Boys, a wonderful old priest in his nineties, who attended Lincoln Theological College when the saintly Edward King was Bishop of Lincoln. Fr. Boys, who I remember daily in my prayers was a living link with the Tractarians. He didn’t impose ceremonial on us. He just lived a sacramental faith with great gentleness.

There came a Sunday when he was away. I arrived at church early to be met by the verger. “Tony” he said, “there’s a Roming Catholic priest in the vestry. Go and tell him this is the parish church. He don’t take no notice of me.”

We robed in the tower, so off I went and there stood a venerable old chap wearing a funny hat with a pom pom, a cassock with more buttons on than there seemed to be available material clutching a crumbled long white robe adorned with the sort of lace one usually saw on the back of chairs in the homes of old ladies.

I gulped and blurted out that this was the Parish Church. “Indeed” he said, “a parish dedicated to our Lady. I have come to say Mass.”  “Our Lady”, I thought. I think I mumbled that he was wrong. This was Saint Mary’s Church.

Our Parish Communion that day was like nothing I had ever seen. I always seemed to be kneeling at the wrong place, offering the wrong cruet, or standing when I should have been kneeling. The villagers were astounded by his antics but won over by his lovely sermon. He had spent his life as a missionary in Africa and now was retired, living in a nearby village.

A few weeks later, he turned up early one morning at our house and informed my mother that he was taking me on a day trip to Walsingham. I had no idea why we were going to such a remote village. I was amazed that the old chap was still wearing his cassock and a funny hat. Off we went.

My day at the Shrine of our Lady of Walsingham was a transforming experience. I have a devotion to the place ever since. There is an extraordinary atmosphere of holiness in that little village. Despite the memories of the destruction of the monastery and shrine by Henry VIII’s commissioners and the subsequent evidence of our “unhappy divisions’ in the presence in the tiny village of three shrines, Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox, somehow an aura of the Presence triumphs in a place dedicated to the Theotokos.

The Anglican shrine was restored by an eccentric, Fr. Hope Patten. He had recently died when I first went there. The liturgical devotions there at that time made the Pope look like a Presbyterian. Despite all its eccentricity there was something there. At the holy well people were healed of bodily and spiritual infirmities. “By their trust, “faith” we say.  Well that was so with Jesus’s healings. “Your faith has made you whole” What is more excellent that that?”  Ritualism and unreformed doctrine some mutter. But are we saved not by right precise doctrine but by faith, by trust in God?

When I was desperately ill a couple of years ago I sent an email to the Anglican Shrine asking for prayers. That amusing encounter fifty seven years ago has left me with an abiding devotion not only to Walsingham but to Mary.

I suppose my devotion is typically Anglican. I am vividly aware in my prayers of the presence of what the Creed terms “The Communion of Saints”.  I am challenged and amazed by the faith of  a young girl who submitted to the Divine Will to be the bearer of Jesus, True God and true Man. “Look at me”, she said, “I am God’s servant.”  Her Son echoed her words when in the Garden he said “Nevertheless not my will but your will be done”. I pray and struggle with that defining act of submission to God. It is at the heart of what evangelicals call a conversion experience.

As an Anglican I remain uncomfortable or shall I say untouched with attempts to make doctrinal definitions about Mary. I find them unnecessary. Was Mary received into Glory when she died? Of course she was. Was she without sin?  Like us all she was wa made true because of her Son’s love, as are we all by the merits of his life, death and passion and his resurrection and ascension. Certainly she demonstrated extraordinary grace by her submission, the role she played as Mother of Jesus, and her faith even when bemused by his ministry and torn apart by his death. In her devotion, even at the Cross, she demonstrates an immaculate devotion which challenges us and draws us closer to her Son. Even after the Reformation our church honored in its Calendar the Feast of the “Falling Asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary” as we did her Annunciation.

Perhaps like the Orthodox I can be drawn into a devotion to her unique role in our salvation without being persuaded by precise doctrinal definitions about her conception or the mode of her reception into Heaven. The terms by which the Angel addressed her are sufficient for me. I love the old tag, “Those who are not Marians are usually Arians.”

We live daily with Mary and the Communion of Saints. I say in the Creed that we believe that we live in that Communion. Communion means an interconnected and inseparable fellowship. I shudder when people use that term to mean a federation of autonomous entities. I belong to the Anglican “Communion”. That term doesn’t mean something like being part of the “United Nations”. “Communion” is a stronger word than “Church”, or rather it articulates practically that which the word “Church” means. If I am in communion, I belong and have a responsibility to submit myself like Mary to that vocation and calling. My little parish is a microcosm of Communion, of fellowship with the saints in light, with all Christians, alive and dead, with the Holy Church of God and with a family called Anglicanism.

Is it possible that Mary’s confession, “Look, I am God’s servant. I will be the person God has called me to be” can be a paradigm of our relationships within our temporary Anglican Communion, as well as an expression of “sweet communion, with those whose work is done.” Who ever had a work, achieved, which the maiden gave herself to and assumed  when the angel said to her that she would be the bearer of the Savior of the World and she said “yes”. And so I kneel and cry “Ave Maria” and pray that I may have the grace to follow her good example as I put God’s will before my autonomy and pray that, despite myself and my falleness, people may find in my faith, the Faith of Jesus which we own, Jesus Himself?

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