John E Barnes, George Ratcliffe Woodward 1848-1934, Priest, Poet and Musician(1996)
a review by Fr Peter Cobb in the Walsingham Review no 118, Assumptiontide 1996


Father Barnes has produced a lively and readable account of the life and work of a former vicar of Walsingham (1882-1888), 'priest poet and musician,' as the subtitle describes him.
Little survives in the way of letters or personal reminiscences of him but Father John has managed to track down some family correspondence, preserved by his step-great-nephew and one letter pasted into a second hand book bought by Dr Graham Leonard, as well as some striking photographs from his Walsingham days, one showing Woodward in soutane and Father Brown hat and another of him playing the euphonium outside the old vicarage.

Woodward's name will always be associated with carols, mostly Christmas carols but also some for Easter. He collected and published a large number which he discovered in medieval manuscripts, mostly in the British Library, his most substantial and popular collection being the Cowley Carol Book.

His other substantial work was a hymn book, Songs of Syon, consisting largely of items drawn from the Greek, Latin and German sources, the third and definitive edition of which appeared in 1908. It was no match however for the English Hymnal.

Woodward had only two incumbencies, each of six years, at Walsingham and Chelmondiston near Ipswich. He left Chelmondiston in 1894 after the early death of his wife, Alice, the daughter of one of his predecessors at Walsingham, Septimus Lee Warner, and returned to St Barnabas, Pimlico where he had served his title. After a few years, he gave up full time parish work to devote himself to his musical research and writing, but continued to say mass and help in various parishes. In the last fourteen years of his life he was associated with St Augustine's Highgate.

Most of us will be particularly interested in Father Barnes' chapter on Woodward's time in Walsingham. It is rather a mystery why Henry James Lee Warner appointed a priest from such a markedly ritualistic parish at St Barnabas Pimlico and so introduced the Catholic revival into the parish. We know the sort of things he would like to have introduced in Walsingham from what he allowed, if not encouraged, his curate to do at Houghton. The curate, E. F. Elvin, later a Cowley Father, left a record of his innovations, daily mass with vestments and lights, plainsong and a robed choir. Unfortunately Woodward left no record. All that is known for certain is that he started a celebration every Sunday and feast day, and introduced the use of plainsong almost immediately. There was also a choir by 1887, if not before.

Woodward could not but be aware of the existence of the medieval shrine of our Lady in Walsingham as it was his patron who had excavated the ruins in the Abbey grounds. In later years he intentionally filled a gap in J. M. Neale's work of translating the hymns of the ancient and medieval Church by producing Marian hymns. He did this for both doctrinal and devotional reasons. In 1897, he wrote in the preface to one of his works that his labours would be worthwhile "if they help in any way to emphasise the doctrine of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ and the worship due to him, (and) if they tend to the honour of His mother Mary". He always had a great affection for Walsingham and often described himself on the title page of his publications as 'sometime Vicar of Walsingham'. Father Barnes judiciously sums up Woodward's contribution to the revival of pilgrimage to Walsingham by saying "There is no evidence that Woodward himself encouraged (Marian) devotion at Walsingham during his own incumbency, but insofar as he introduced the Anglo-Catholic revival to the parish, he may be seen as having prepared the way for the work which Father Patten ... later accomplished. The importance of this preparatory work ... should probably not be underestimated."


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