Two faiths become one at Norfolk shrine

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It was a small gesture bridging the religious divide. Twenty Anglicans, marked by their striking blue capes, joined nearly 1,900 Catholics to mark 100 years of modern pilgrimage to the tiny shrine at Walsingham, Norfolk.

Their presence would have been unheard of in 1897 when 40 Catholics held the first public pilgrimage to the village's Slipper Chapel after a break of 350 years.

As recently as the late 1920s, Anglicans were not even allowed to enter the chapel whose name derives from the pilgrims' habit of leaving their shoes and walking a final further mile to Walsingham's ruined priory on foot.

But yesterday, it was as if the boiling sunshine had brought out a warm spirit of religious tolerance. Fr Martin Warner, the administrator of a nearby Anglican shrine, said everything was going "magnificently".

"This says quite clearly that Walsingham is a place of ecumenism," he said. Whatever divisions there are in doctrine elsewhere, he and his counterpart at the Catholic shrine, Fr Alan Williams, work together often.

Admittedly some of the guardians of the Anglican shrine have gone one step further - they actually converted to Rome. And other pilgrimages have faced fierce anti-Pope demonstrations. But yesterday Fr Warner insisted: "The experience of coming to Walsingham is one of healing. I think that's what motivates people to come here and I think that's what they discover."

As pilgrims arrived with white cotton hats, picnic hampers, garden chairs and umbrellas as parasols, the celebration had the air of a garden party rather than a religious service. The level of excitement at a sighting of the former primate of Ireland, Cardinal Cahal Daly placed him in the minor film star league. He led the open-air mass, then the procession through the tree-lined lanes of Norfolk to finish the pilgrimage.

As in days gone by, some pilgrims walked with bare feet on the scalding tarmac. Others hobbled bravely on sticks or travelled by wheelchair, reciting prayers and clutching rosary beads. A young Irish boy refused his brother a drink from his water bottle. "John Paul, it's only mineral water, let him have it," said his mother. "No it's not, ma," he replied. "I filled it up with the holy water."

A party from St John Bosco church in Blackley, Manchester, had left home at 6.30am to get to what is regarded as Nazareth for Britain's Catholics, their most important religious site. Agnes Lewis, 58, a retired teacher, came because she has been recently widowed after caring for her sick husband for some time. "It was just something I felt I wanted to do," she said.

Sheila Pawson, 47, a medical secretary, comes regularly with the diocese. Pauline Millington, 50, also a medical secretary, was on her first visit. None had known the Anglicans were invited, though all thought it a good thing. "I think it's good we're all together," she said. Ms Millington agreed. "Things are changing."

Peter Brogan, 43, a deacon from Lincoln, was on holiday with wife Mary, 37, and three of their children. "I think we've got to be more ecumenical now," he said. "The one important thing that we've got to realise is that we're a Christian country."