A Guardian's review of Fr Colin Stephenson's two classic books about Walsingham and himself


I was hesitant when asked if I would review these two books.
Surely some of the older Guardians who knew the author personally would be better placed to do so? Would I unknowingly make some out of place comment or show my historical ignorance? Ruth Ward

But perhaps it is it is a good thing after all. Those who perhaps once had and have since lost or lent out earlier editions of these two books will find their way to the Shrine Shop to buy these reprints irrespective of this review. But are they worth buying by a younger generation of readers who have never heard of of Colin Stephenson, or know him only as a photograph from the Walsingham archives?

Focusing first on historical fact, The Reverend Colin Stephenson was Father Hope Patten's successor as Master of the Guardians for the period from 1958 until his death in 1973 and Priest Administrator of the Shrine from 1958 to 1968. Walsingham Way focuses on Father Patten and the restoration of the Shrine and was published first, in 1970. Merrily on High, a memoir of his own life's ministry in Walsingham, Oxford, across the South of England and at sea, followed in 1972.

What these two books are not, however, are dry historical records. They are, first and foremost, stories: highly readable and often hilarious personal reflections on people and places that shaped Walsingham and the Anglo- Catholic movement, in the middle part of the last century. They are books more for reading on your summer holiday than on a silent retreat – in his new preface to Merrily on High, Gordon Reid recounts John Betjeman's admission to Father Stephenson that his loud guffaws on reading Merrily on High nearly caused him to be evicted from a train compartment. But they are nevertheless Godly books, and convey very strongly – as Father Reid also notes in his preface – Father Stephenson's "deep love of God and his neighbour and a genuine humility".

In Walsingham Way, Father Stephenson paints an affectionate yet vivid picture of what Father Patten was like and, through the scenes he describes, it is possible to begin to understand how Father Patten came to drive so much change and innovation. An anecdote of Father Patten's early years as parish priest at St Mary's, Walsingham recounts him never introducing anything new but rather prefacing it with the words "As is our custom we shall ….". One also gets a sense of the political as well as practical difficulties Father Patten then faced in re-establishing the Shrine – with extensive quotations from forthright exchanges with the then Bishop of Norwich and others. Father Stephenson concludes that "perhaps his most remarkable characteristic was the power he had of communicating his enthusiasm to other people and achieving extraordinary things through them". There are many attempted changes and innovations recounted in Merrily on High too – many of them not so successful. But Father Stephenson also conveys a sense of the humour to be found in his everyday ministry, whether that be the perils of cycling in a cassock or a flower-fight at a funeral.

from Walsingham Review
Assumptiontide 2009
Ruth Ward