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How England took flesh

The Wilton Diptych shows Richard II dedicating England to Our Lady as her dowry

The political earthquake of Brexit has raised great questions about the future of the United Kingdom. The vote was split along distinctively national lines, with England and Wales for Leave, and Scotland and Northern Ireland for Remain.

In this country, interestingly, we refer to ourselves as the Catholic Church in England and Wales. Is this a distinctive English/Welsh identity asserting itself? I doubt if the Welsh, successfully recapturing their language as a badge of identity in recent years, may see it as that. So perhaps we should consider an English identity, and ask what is its nature and destiny.

To speak in these terms is often to elicit accusations of being racist, bigoted, imperialist, patriarchal and class-obsessed. Yet it was a Northern Irish poet, Tom Paulin, who once said that the investigation of Shakespeare’s possible Catholicism could lead “to the concealed heart of the English identity”.

For Catholics, the search for England’s heart brings to mind another phrase: “the Dowry of Mary”. This summer, a series of articles in this magazine has examined the “unexpected revival” in English (and, yes, British) Catholicism, its “signs of life”. Many have mentioned the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. One major pilgrimage to the shrine is called the Dowry of Mary pilgrimage: that phrase, like Walsingham itself, dates from the Middle Ages. It was at Walsingham, “England’s Nazareth”, that Our Lady appeared to Richeldis de Faverches and asked her to build a replica of the Holy Family’s home in Nazareth.

As English Catholics remember their past, an ancient “trinity” is now reviving: to be English, to be Catholic and to be devoted to Mary, the Mother of God. The shrine of Walsingham, focused on the Annunciation – when God took flesh at the consent of Mary in response to the angel’s invitation; the very moment of the Incarnation – is at the heart of this.

Only one document survives from Henry VIII’s violent and vandalistic destruction of shrines, abbeys, monasteries and their attendant libraries: the 15th-century Pynson Ballad, which states of the shrine:

O Englonde, great cause thou haste glad for to be,
Compared to the lande of promys syon…
To be called in every realme and region
The holy lande, Our Ladyes dowre;
Thus arte thou named of old antyquyte.

Walsingham was ranked with Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela in medieval times, and was the only pilgrimage shrine entirely devoted to the Mother of God. Richard II – in an act commemorated in the stunning Wilton Diptych, a treasure of the National Gallery – dedicated England to Our Lady as her “dos” or gift or donation or “dowry”. There is also papal approval or confirmation of this title. Pope Leo XIII asked the English bishops in 1893 to consecrate their country to Mary, the Mother of God, recalling the “singular title” the land enjoyed of being “Mary’s Dowry”.

For many, though, such talk belongs in the past: it is redolent of a “Faith of our Fathers” vision of England, incorporating a lament for a lost medieval unity, a dash of Chesterton and his “rolling English road”, and a kind of Marian devotion which many find rather flowery and excessive.

I have encountered these reservations in my local parish on the Isle of Wight. Ten years ago, a few of us suggested reviving a Marian procession in May for the children’s liturgy group. A fellow parishioner counselled me that the young – and certainly boys – really did not want or need this kind of devotion that could rather impede their own psychological development and maturation.

We still went ahead, as our church has a beautiful small Lady chapel with a shrine from the 19th century. With five minutes to go, we had hardly anyone in the church. But then, to our astonishment and relief, about 15 or 20 people arrived: children, parents and grandparents.

We had the first of what has now become an annual event, with the crowning of the statue in the garden of the church much vied for among the children, and a regular attendance of about 80 processing out from the church, with flowers laid and prayers and poems said.

Marian devotion is not something excessive or affected: it is part of the essence of our faith. And England’s destiny seems to be especially closely connected with Our Lady. Christ we know cared for his mother so deeply, remembering her in his agony to ensure she was cared for by St John. He can hardly have put a whole country specifically into her care as her own possession – for a “dowry” is that part of a man’s estate inalienably set aside for her use alone – without a very clear purpose. No other nation on earth claims this. What is it for?

To understand why England’s status as the Dowry of Mary is so important, we must go back to the beginnings of the nation. Legally speaking, there was no England until the 10th century. There was Offa of Mercia with his coin Rex Anglorum in the 8th century. There were the “English folk”. But we have to wait for the 10th century for “Engle-land”, or the land of the “Angles”, to have official, documentary recognition.

But all histories proclaim there was an England before this: an ecclesial England, a spiritual entity and reality. Schoolchildren still learn of the Synod of Whitby of 665/6, which ensured that the Roman rather than the Celtic method of church administration prevailed.

But in 673 Theodore of Tarsus, the then archbishop of Canterbury, summoned all the bishops of the seven English kingdoms – East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex – and established common canons and Church disciplines. This means that, despite Mercians invading Northumbria or the men of Kent looking hungrily at the downlands of Sussex, the Mass, the priesthood, the Scriptures and the prayers were the same. England was an ecclesial realm before it was a physical kingdom. Its spiritual identity pre-dates its political existence. Not enough research into the importance of this has been conducted. England existed in the heart and mind before it took flesh.

And this “procession” from spiritual to material is analogous to the Annunciation. As the Catechism states, Our Lady “was invited to conceive”. Vatican II says similarly: “The Father of mercies willed that the Incarnation should be preceded by assent on the part of the predestined Mother.”

Mary’s assent or consent pre-dated the Incarnation. She had the liberty to choose. Her choice is the single most critical act of any human being throughout history. And what has England pre-eminently defended throughout history, in her laws, her institutions, in those great epochal points where she has put her person – her people, her powers, her possessions – “in the breach” for human liberty in 1588, 1805, 1914 and supremely 1940? “The cause of freedom” was Churchill’s great cry. For without that how can God be honoured by our choice of life over death? That’s what he sets before us, as Scripture says.

If we have no human freedom, how can we assent as his Mother did? And it is his Mother’s land that, above all, has defended this at all costs. This is the very freedom we have to vote. “Vote” is from the same word as “devotion” – the right to choose the God you worship and you wish to be devoted to. That is what we exercised on June 23 – whether we were Leavers or Remainers.

And just as Walsingham commemorates the Incarnation, so has England, supremely among nations, made real and “given flesh” – in institutions such as Parliament – to forms of governance and society modelled on the values of Our Lord’s Gospel. Given, in the words of her national poet, “to airy nothing a local habitation and a name”. So the “airy nothings” or “things invisible” (Nicene Creed) of the spiritual realm find their incarnation in those institutions whose “long continuity” Churchill believed, in 1940, we were defending.

So justice took form in Magna Carta and the Common Law. So peace is gained by the resolution of conflicts through talking about them (rather than killing for them) in the chambers of Parliament. So change is achieved through the votes of a free people who are governed by their consent, not by the imposition of a diktat. Is this not the story of England at its best, taken to America to root and flourish there?

If the Mother of God is to have a country of her own, would it not be one that upholds, defends and proclaims the values of her Son? To make incarnate in its very institutions the principles of the Gospel, of the peace and justice and love between people that are the focus and purpose of Christ’s kingdom? England is only England, is only true to herself, if she does this, if she is Christian, if she is faithful.

Our task now is to step out without fear to reclaim our fellow countrymen and women for Christ. Our beloved country can regain its role of past centuries, and take the message of the Gospel to a Europe that has lost its way. That, I believe, is the meaning of the Dowry in our time.

The greatest years of England lie ahead.

This article first appeared in the November 18 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here