BY ANGUS MACDONALD
THE CATHOLIC HERALD has learned that the second most senior member of the Anglican Shrine at Walsin,ghain is to join the Catholic Church the latest in a series of developments which have prompted speculation that the entire shrine could defect "en masse" or merge with the existing Catholic shrine.
Fr Peter Walters, the shrine's assistant priest, is to give up his post at the end of the year, and intends to seek full communion with the Holy See in a ceremony in Colombia, where he has been working with street children.
He joins the Vicar of Walsingharn, Fr Michael Rear, wtio has already announced his intention to become a Catholic priest. Five other Anglican priests connected with the shrine are known to be considering conversion.
And this week, Fr Rear confirmed that a series of "parish meetings" were being held in his parish to discuss "the Roman option". But he added: "Until the New Year it would be premature to say how many we are talking about".
Tens of thousands of pilgrims every year visit the centuries-old Marian shrine, restored in 1921, taking part in Masses, Stations of the Cross and processions.
As probably the most visible symbol of the Anglo-Catholic tradition in the Church of England, the defection of the shrine would be a significant boost to traditionalists.
An estimated 1,500 are associated with the shrine through the Priests' Associate Society and the Friends of the Holy House of Our Lady of Walsingharn.
Earlier this year, shrine authorities banned women priests from officiating at official Masses.
Meanwhile, it was confirmed this week that the Guardians, or trustees, of the shrine including the Bishop of London, Dr David Hope have held "preliminary discussions" about the shrine's future.
Bishop Graham Leonard, the former Anglican Bishop of London and an honorary Guardian, would concede only that there was "a general desire to work as closely as possible" with the Catholic shrine.
"No decision has been taken. We're waiting to see what new guidelines the Catholic bishops agree in November," he said.
Fr Geoffrey Kirk of Cost of Conscience, the group opposed to the ordination of women, said the role of Walsingham would be "crucial" and confirmed that he was involved in discussions with the Master of the Guardians about the shrine's future.
But there has been opposition in some quarters to the idea of a merger.
The General Secretary of the ecumenical Society for the Blessed Virgin Mary, Fr Alberic Stacpoole, said: "The word 'ecumenical' is more important than the words 'Catholic' or 'Anglican' here. If Walsingham is not a bridgeplace for Our Lady, then we are losing half our horsepower."
A spokesman for the Anglican diocese of Norwich, in which the shrine is located, said that a merger would be "a loss to many Anglicans".