Over the past decades, a religious revolution has taken place almost akin in its significance to the Reformation. The British have been quietly dropping their Christian faith, practices and church connections. A new secular culture, atheist and indifferentist, has been embedding itself. In the past when you asked someone their religion, they were likely to say they belonged to the Church of England; today, they are more likely to say they don’t believe at all. Half of the population now say they are “nones”, meaning they do not identify with any religious tradition.
This cultural shift is having a huge impact on Catholics. True, it makes our mission to spread the Gospel even more urgent. Millions of souls are religiously and spiritually adrift. Furthermore, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has pointed out, the loss of religion dissolves the foundations of ethics, making a “dictatorship of relativism” increasingly inevitable.
The loss of faith also destabilises reason. In promoting busyness and having a good time, secularism fosters scientism: the false belief that scientific reasoning alone is valid, and that religion and ethics are therefore just a matter of personal taste.
The secular culture is having a huge impact on the internal life of the Church. We see this in collapsing Mass attendance, the loss of the young and fewer vocations to marriage and the priesthood. There is a growing crisis of faith. Instead of being the centre of our lives, going to Mass is becoming like a hobby, something to be fitted in between sports, shopping and family commitments.
At the same time, the persuasive liberal values of secular culture pressurise Catholics to conform and make it difficult for them to stand apart.
This is why I believe that the re-dedication of England as Mary’s Dowry (even if it has to be done at home because of the coronavirus crisis) is a fantastic opportunity. It reconnects us with our ancient Christian patrimony. It invites us to deepen and renew our faith, once again giving everything to Christ through Mary. And it emboldens us as Catholics to be countercultural people – yet people always full of love for others, dedicated to their service.
On March 29, the Sunday closest to the Solemnity of the Annunciation, we are invited to take part in a public re-dedication of this country to the Blessed Virgin. The re-dedication marks the conclusion of a national tour of the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham from the Slipper Chapel of the National Shrine. The statue has visited every cathedral in England.
As a child, I was occasionally taken to Benediction. I used to like the tune of the Tantum ergo and I’d occasionally hum it on my way to school. But there was a prayer to the Blessed Virgin that I didn’t know. Later, I learnt it was called “the Prayer for England”. It begins with these lovely words: “O blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and our most gentle Queen and Mother, look down in mercy upon England thy Dowry and upon us all who greatly hope and trust in thee …”
In medieval times, Merrie England had a great devotion to the Blessed Mother. The shrine of Walsingham was famous throughout Europe and many of our parish churches were dedicated to St Mary.
To call England “Mary’s dowry” implies something deep. A dowry is a sum of money put aside for a wife in the event of her husband’s death. The title “Dowry of Mary” goes back to the 11th century, but it became best known after 1381. It was then, in the midst of great political turmoil, King Richard II visited the Shrine of Our Lady in Westminster Abbey to seek her help and direction. Upon his return, as an act of thanksgiving for guidance and protection, he dedicated England to Mary as her dowry.
The re-dedication of England later this month is not just about connecting us with our ancient Christian patrimony. It is also a timely opportunity to deepen our faith today. Mary is the best-loved member of the Church. She is our Sister in Christ. She shows us how to be a disciple of her Son and what it means to enjoy a passionate personal relationship with Him. Lumen Gentium, Vatican II’s document on the Church, speaks beautifully of Mary’s importance for us and how her example should inspire “all who work together in the Church’s apostolic mission for the regeneration of humanity”.
In the 21st century we are faced with unprecedented upheaval on many levels. The re-dedication inspires us as Catholics to transform England, to serve the poor and the needy and to reach out to the religiously adrift. There are many practical ways we need to help. But humans are also innately spiritual. Everyone wants salvation, love, happiness, immortality and a sense of belonging. None of this is possible without a relationship with God. By the re-dedication, we seek the help of Our Lady in order to build a solid foundation for the new evangelisation of our land.
The Rt Rev Philip Egan is the Bishop of Portsmouth