Getting into parish life did nothing to soften my parents’ Anglo-Catholic fervour.
My father never seemed to be out of his 39 button cassock with berretta on special occasions. David and Irene were both Oblates at CSMV, the convent where mum had been a nun, and they made regular pilgrimages to the Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham.
After a second curacy in Doncaster, he and mum moved south to High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. He was priest in charge of the church at Downley, a daughter church of the infamous parish of West Wycombe where Sir Francis Dashwood founded the ‘Hellfire Club’ in 18th century and carved caves out of the chalk beneath the parish church for their hedonistic rituals.
The church of St James the Great at Downley Common was much less salubrious. The initial builders planned a huge church, but only the Sanctuary was ever built which left one whole side of the building sheeted in wood and corrugated iron as a makeshift wall. Nevertheless life on the Common was a long way from the industrial north and they embraced this new environment. Irene took on her role as vicar’s wife and David served the village community as parish priest but kept close to his roots by joining the Labour Party.
There was one thing missing from their lives however. Irene in particular longed for a baby but they tried without success. Long term medical concerns about the health of her womb did nothing to encourage them and they began to wonder if they would ever have children.
Then in 1962, they made the journey to Walsingham with a special intention. They drank the water from the sacred well and lit a candle at the shrine of Our Lady. They asked for a child.
The thought of not having children grieved Irene deeply and I am reminded of Hannah praying for a child in deep anguish “pouring out her soul to the Lord” (1 Samuel 1). Hannah made a deal with God, that if her prayer was heard and God gave her a son, she would dedicate him to the Lord for all the days of his life. I sometimes wonder if Irene made a similar deal with God.
Whether she did or not, their prayers were answered. From Walsingham, they went for a short holiday in Swanage, Dorset and 9 months later I was born in January 1963 at The Shrubbery in High Wycombe – a most peculiar name for a maternity unit.
Just as Hannah named her son Samuel ‘because I asked the Lord for him’, Irene and David chose a name with meaning. They named me Benedict which means blessing. Every year in my childhood, we would make the trip to Walsingham to give thanks at the Shrine of Our Lady. Often this was during the big annual pilgrimage in May, joining the other pilgrims in the great procession and the open-air Mass, singing the Walsingham hymn as we processed past the demonstrators from the Protestant Truth Society who were condemning such idolatry.
As an Evangelical Christian now, I am not sure what I think of such overwhelming devotion to Mary, but I can never forget that I was born after heart-felt prayer before Our Lady at Walsingham. Sometimes it feels like a secret joke between me and God when I hear fellow evangelicals being disparaging about a more Catholic spirituality but it has also taught me an important lesson. We do not always understand the faith and spirituality of others and sometimes we are too eager to dismiss other expressions of faith as mistaken or wrong. If God is happy to be at work through different expressions of faith, who are we to condemn them?
Much later in my teenage years, I remember hearing a South American Pentecostal preacher called Juan Carlos Ortez talking about his children when he returns home from a preaching tour. His son would come up to him and ask him to play tennis, “Oh dad, I’ve been waiting for you to come back so I can play tennis again.” Then his daughter would come up to him, “Oh dad, I’ve been waiting for you to come back so I can play tennis again.” So he would ask them, “Why don’t you play tennis with each other?” but they each had their reasons why they wouldn’t play together. Reasons like “He always hits the ball too hard” and “She always loses the balls”. So he would play tennis with his son and he would play tennis with his daughter – but he would also long for them to play tennis with each other.
So often that is what we are like as Christians, all wanting to play with God but full of excuses why we won’t play with each other. We separate ourselves from other Christians or other Churches and choose who we will play with, work with, pray with. In the end, of course, we are all children of God.
So I thank God that I am a Walsingham baby, even if it does not fit neatly into my carefully worked out theology. It reminds me that walking with God is much more messy than our well-ordered categories and that being a Christian is, above all else, about walking with God.
Sadly, my parents still had this lesson to learn. Within a few months of my birth, their closed minds to other Christians would turn our lives upside down, and it would take 3 years of upheaval for them to understand the wideness of God’s grace.