NOW THE good bits. First, the fabulous skies. As a friend who always looked on the bright side once remarked: “I love Norfolk. No hills getting in the way of the sky”. The evening light in particular was truly spectacular. Second, the bird life – herons and coots, geese (several with a brood of goslings waddling behind) and swans galore. And lots of others that I simply didn’t recognise. What amazed me was the stupidity of local shops and boat hire companies offering duck food, encouraging people to feed them and the swans. Ecologically it can’t be good, and for those who didn’t have a couple of feisty border terriers on board the constant pestering must have been a nightmare.
Third – the move to dry land when we stayed for the last couple of days with a friend in north Norfolk. He’s a priest with a passion – for life, for people, for his faith, and for the churches in his care. All six of them now in an excellent state of repair and with lively, if not large (it is a rural area, after all, serving relatively small populations) congregations. So many of the lovely flint churches we saw this time round (I first visited Norfolk with Malc 20 years ago) were in a state of some decay, smelling of damp and looking sad and not exactly neglected but – what? Well, unfocussed would be as good a description as any.
Greetings cards, book marks and postcards, curling up at the edges with damp. Free tea and coffee in many of them. Even a bowl of water for the dog. All well and good and welcoming to the passing stranger. But a place where we can find some sense of otherness, the numinous – call it God if you like – where we can be quiet, reflective, offer a prayer if we’re inclined, maybe even light a candle for a loved one or someone in need? These were few and far between. So many of them looked as though they didn’t know why they were there any more – embarrassed, almost, by their status as places of worship in a deeply secular society, and so trying hard to be something else. Or is it just me, distracted as I always am by clutter and dust and general untidiness, not to mention a general frustration with the church as a whole?
The fourth good bit – the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, a place of Pilgrimage for nearly 1000 years. Destroyed by Henry VIII in 1538, its restoration began in 1931 by the then vicar of Walsingham and it’s now a place of pilgrimage for people from all over the world.
It drove Ian potty. It drove potty the atheist husband of a woman I met at the Ascension Day service in the parish church. “I love it: my husband thinks it’s like Disneyworld,” she said. Ian found the candles, the statues of Our Lady and other saints, the people wandering round saying the rosary, totally off-putting. “The garden’s lovely. I’ll sit out there. Then can we see the railway?” was his response.
In some ways, I know what he means. It’s not entirely my cup of tea. But the guide was friendly, the new reception area and welcome video were professional and informative, and – most important of all – it looked loved and cared for and offers hospitality and peace to people on pilgrimage. The woman at the boat yard had been – “I’m not particularly religious, but I loved the atmosphere,” she said.
And here’s a quote from the guide book: “The statue of Our Lady of Walsingham is much-loved. It is important to understand that the statue is simply a focus for devotion – a visual aid – and not something to be worshipped in itself. Down through the years Christians have sought the prayers of Mary to support them in their pilgrimage through life. At times in the history of the church there has been controversy about devotion to Mary but in these ecumenical days there are few who would deny a right respect and love to the Mother of Jesus.”
So there we are: not for everyone, but at least it knows what it’s about at a time when the Church of England seems in so many ways to have lost its confidence and its sense of purpose.