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Walsingham in north Norfolk has, architectural historians report, one of the finest extant medieval high streets in Britain. The merchant houses are packed tightly together, some with first floors that overhang the pavement, others half-timbered with leaded windows, many Grade One listed, most restored but a dwindling bunch in a sad state of neglect. 

The story of this time-capsule of a village, buried deep in the lanes of the Norfolk countryside, hinges on a single year — 1537. This was when Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries following his break with the Pope in Rome. Before that date, for almost 500 years since the Virgin Mary was believed to have appeared there to a local noble woman, Richeldis de Faverche, Walsingham had been one of the greatest Marian shrines in Europe, those historic merchant houses the fruit of the trade generated by pilgrims who walked, often barefoot, along a route that stretched back first to Ely and then London. Every English king from Edward I had prayed there, including Henry VIII himself who came in 1519 to give thanks to Our Lady of Walsingham for the birth of a short-lived son. 

And after that date? Well, time effectively stood still. With the abbey and its vast priory church reduced to rubble by royal command, there were no more pilgrims and no more trade, and the high street had only the local farming community to serve. Most of the buildings were mothballed or left to rot. It was only in the 20th century that a modest revival began, with the re-establishment of first a Catholic shrine and then an Anglican one (their separateness is a lingering scar of the Reformation).

Overall, though, little has changed in Walsingham in half a millennium. Walking up its high street, from the roughly triangular Friday Market at the foot of the village to Common Ground, the-not-quite-square at its centre, it takes little effort to imagine myself back in pre-Reformation times. But what, I find myself wondering, would the rest of England look like now if it had remained Catholic?

Catholic camaraderie: Pilgrims across the mud slakes to Lindisfarne (Getty Images) 

It seems I am not the only one asking the question. Last month, more than 700 people gathered in London's Royal Geographical Society to debate the motion "England Should Be a Catholic Country Again". It was, said the Spectator which had organised the event as part of a rolling series, the biggest crowd it had attracted so far. Remarkably, the proposers — headed by a genial but effective Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor — carried the day. Granted, this one result hardly counts as evidence of a major shift in religious sentiment in our officially Anglican but largely secular and sceptical society, but it is arguably a sign that something may be stirring in our
national soul.

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Fred B
May 6th, 2010
1:05 PM
Vincent Egan Your post says more about you than about Catholicism. I pity you.

Jonathan Mills
April 30th, 2010
4:04 AM
There's no doubt in me -- a Methodist -- that the presence of a Catholic minority tradition in English-speaking countries has enrich'd our spiritual cultural literary life, and political government too (no ready way to march everyone along in lock-step). Germany too flourish'd as the "nation of poets and thinkers" with a very large Catholic minority. (Scandinavia has been tolerant, but I wonder if their ecclesiastical monolithicness hasn't been culturally and even Christianly detrimental.) (Hitler abhor'd Germany's division into Protestant and Catholic). Possibly Catholic countries would have been similarly enrich'd too had they better tolerated their Protestant minorities.

April 23rd, 2010
8:04 AM
Don't we think the Catholic Church has quite enough young boys already without having to sacrifice England to them as well?

Vincent Egan
April 13th, 2010
8:04 AM
This article is a magnificient display of utter humbug. The life-affirming aspects of Catholicism in Latin countries reflects the nature of the people, not the archaic and bombastic quasi-feudalism of the institution. I was a cradle Catholic raised by pious parents who in their own way were good people. Catholicism limited their vision of the world in quite the same way as trying to capture reality through the slit of a burqa. Praying for the conversion of England (which my parents had me do) was a pointless, fatuous act and not a day passes where I don't feel relieved to have left that oppressive faith behind. One good thing about it though; having been raised with Catholicism, Catecism lessions, patron saints, and having to profess the transsubstantiation was literally true has made me immune to all other religious proselytising and political equivalents.

April 12th, 2010
4:04 PM
How I love, and have loved, England for nearly my entire life. My twenty-odd visits there have made it seem a second home. I have many friends there and would, if certain things were different, give serious thought to moving there permanently. Mr Stanford's wonderful article, therefore, was like a breath of fresh air. I think it was Mr Belloc who best described in his many writings how England was wrenched away from the Faith. One can see clearly by reading these brilliant works what England would be like if it had remained Catholic. This is where, perhaps, Mr Stanford has missed a few points in his thinking that the current state of affairs is the norm, or somehow the inevitable result of the march of history. He cites the examples, of Ireland, Spain, Italy, etc as a sort of template for how England would look today if it had remained Catholic. Those countries are only Catholic, sad to say, on the surface. Assuredly there are still public devotions like the ones Mr Stanford has described, but little by little the Faith is being sapped from these people by a Rome that has almost completely lost its identity, a Rome that is afraid to proclaim the true Faith, a Rome that is not and has not been governed properly for well nigh on 100 years. The disastrous pontificate of John Paul 2 is a perfect example of this decline. He was a man who refused to govern, from motivations we cannot say or even understand, and the result of this is a Church on the very brink of extinction. And Benedict, a better man in many ways, is still not taking the "tough love" stand that is so desperately needed to bring order back into the Church, and this is said without denying the good he has done. But so terrified by the media are these current Popes that to appease them they have to scandalize the faithful by grovelling in synagogues and protestant temples. Such tawdry spectacles of obsequiosness must stop if the Church is ever again to regain her health. And now Benedict is being insulted and lynched by the media for the sins of all Churchmen who protected the homosexuals in clerical collars who have brought shame and misery upon the souls of innocents, and the Church. While these attacks are outrageous in their ignorance, all this could have been avoided if the Popes of the past had done their jobs, had governed the Church. Benedict could still publicly cashier a number of awful Bishops (and Cardinals) who have protected these sodomites, but he will need guts first, and will have to shed his fear of pressure groups. Still, with all this there is hope and Mr Stanford's article hints at that. That the Church is indeed the one, true Church is borne out constantly by events. There are hopeful signs that some Anglicans are considering coming home to Rome. And some Orthodox. Please God that this is so, because that is the only true unity. And perhaps an influx of these people into the Church if it does happen will act as a medicine, and revitalize the Church and, hopefully, give the Vatican the courage needed to sweep the filth out of the Church. Hopefully, too, it will be the beginning of the end to the horrible Vatican 2 "novus ordo" mass and all the rubbish that flowed from that troubled, misguided Council, and we will see a return of the ancient liturgies that sustained the world for two thousand years. Let us hope (and pray) so.

April 12th, 2010
10:04 AM
The Catholic Church is not a monolith. It's more like a "zoo" with many different "animals": I have seen the Dinka in South Sudan, then the Catholics in the USA and again in Italy and myself, in Switzerland. Very different people and ways of living. And the same can be said for the Saints, the many religious movements, the Popes. Yet, we all share one common feature: Unity with Jesus and Peter, Lino (second Pope), Anacleto (third Pope)... till Benedict XVI. If I can say something about the Anglican Tradition it is this: it has a beautiful liturgy, I love the Church songs and musics. But I don't see much deep, authoritative and universal saying from their leaders (I read the Anglican Church magazine, I read comments from the local Bishop, I hear the radio and Internet, now and then). And more in general, where does their authority come from? I don't see any Thomas Cranmer (the real mastermind behind Anglicanism), Luther or Calvin being raised into Sainthood by God himself through signs and deeds and miracles attributed to them from heaven as it is the case for all Saints. Moreover I ask myself where are all reformed churches leading to since they are exploding into smaller and smaller denominations at free will. This said, the Catholic Church is composed by human beings and so not always perfect in their earthly actions - including for myself of course - Yet, we are not left alone and by the sacraments we get help by Jesus himself, especially through the Communion (real physical "bread" for our souls) and the Confession (real action and effect + very delicate pedagogical meaning). Two major "weapons" you incredibly missed.

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