30 April 2019

Mary's Month of May, and Sir Nikolaus Pevsner

The happy birds Te Deum sing,
'Tis Mary's month of May;
Her smile turns winter into spring
And darkness into day ...

Number 936  in the good old English Catholic Hymn Book; how very true it all is. But I doubt whether Sir Nikolaus ever had those edifying thoughts crossing his mind.


Pevsner will need no introduction to British readers; our transpontine friends may not all know that he produced, largely single-handed, The Buildings of England  guides which still indicate to the middle-class middle-brow Brit whether that little church behind the trees over there is worth having a glance inside. In this, he is, in my view, a dangerous cicerone: on innumerable occasions I have found fascinations is things and places where (racism trigger warning) his dull teutonic eye saw nothing. He is sometimes referred to as Bauhaus Pevsner, which is not at all the whole truth but gives the general idea. His praise of buildings he liked has not saved at least one brutalist monstrosity from recent demolition here in Oxford.

This is what he gives us for the Anglican Shrine of our Lady of Walsingham: "It is a disappointing building, of brick, partly whitewashed, and looking for all its ambitions, like a minor suburban church."

The Shrine Church was not constructed as a prize entry for an architectural competition in Weimar Germany. It sprouted up organically from the soil of a particular situation within a particular community. So ... Bishop Pollock had ordered Fr Hope Patten to remove the statue of our Lady which he had placed, without a faculty, in Little Walsingham Parish Church [Little Walsingham is, of course larger than Great Walsingham]. So he did. So he reconstructed a Holy House [think Nazareth; think Loretto, think Erasmus at medieval Walsingham] and put her there. With a little chapel around it. People came. There was never enough room. There were never enough altars for all the priests to say all their private Masses ... the building expanded ... and expanded ... our Lady was given a silver crown, the "Oxford Crown", by a parish which was once a daughter church of my last Anglican parish. And people gave relics in reliquaries. And 'Catholic Societies' wanted their own special places, so they sponsored the altars of the fifteen Mysteries of the Holy Rosary.

You can't stride in and enjoy the satisfying vistas because, immediately inside the entrance, unfortunately, your view is blocked by the Altar of the Annunciation with a major relic of S Vincent to your left.

It is one of those irritating buildings where you are constantly being drawn round intriguing corners and surprised by the unexpected. Here a Relic of the True Cross; there a Russian copy of the Ikon of our Lady ton Iveron on Mount Athos; or a Holy Well (discovered by the builders); or the pan-Orthodox Chapel; or the foundation stone naming the reigning pontiff as well as Bishop Pollock ... there's a story in that and there's a story in practically everything.

My memories are of the early 1960s, and the tinkle of bells at the altars and the traffic of servers and priests from sacristy to altars and the queues at the confessionals and the queues of new pilgrims arriving with their priest saying the Prayers upon Arrival.

It is where generations of Anglo-Catholics discovered the awe of Catholic worship and the holy busy-ness and the fun of it all.

"A disappointing building".


4 comments:

william arthurs said...

Recommended reading: Colin Stephenson's Walsingham Way.

I found this in the library classified under England, Topography !

Scribe said...

Dear Father, As an old Oxford man myself, I'd love to know what 'monstrosity' has been demolished. Please say it was St Catherine's College.Thank you for your wonderful description of the unique Anglican shrine at Walsingham. It's a pity that we RCs plug the Slipper Chapel so relentlessly without acknowledging that magical, mystical Anglican outfit. They should both merge at once, forming a kind of Marian Park like they have in, I think, Bavaria. A kind of Marian Taize.

Amateur Brain Surgeon said...

Dear Father. KUDOS.

ABS just learned of the letter accurately accusing the Bishop of Rome of heresy.

God Bless you.

The Catholic Church can not easily survive a Bishop of Rome who is the Vicar of the excluded middle when it comes to morality and Divine Revelation.

jkh said...

And don't forget Sister Mary Phillida, (the erstwhile Lady Phillida Shirley), the anchoress.