Churches and Pilgrimage: How to Get Britain Going Again

Published: Thursday, September 27, 2018


William Parsons sets out the British Pilgrimage Trust’s vision for pilgrimage, and explains how it can help make churches accessible to new audiences.

My first pilgrimage, made in my earliest twenties, was an epic failure. An hour out of Winchester I got lost for three weeks. My guidebook, written for Edwardian bicyclists, was well-illustrated but largely false. There were no great Elms at which to turn left, every river lacked a ferryman, and the unmarked roads were six lanes wide.

With nowhere to sleep, when it rained I got wet. I finally reached Canterbury, confused, damp and hungry, to find the Cathedral was locked.

The profound dissatisfaction of this experience galvanised me. How hard could it be to get a decent pilgrimage around here? To answer this question, I spent the next 10 years onfoot in Britain (up to nine months per journey) seeking thewhats, whys and wherefores of British pilgrimage.

Then four years ago I met Dr. Guy Hayward, and together we founded The British Pilgrimage Trust (BPT), a charity dedicated to renewing pilgrimage in modern Britain. We’ve tried many British classics – Walsingham and Whitby, St Andrews and Anglesey, Cornwall and Canterbury. We’ve licked sundry shrines, bathed in diverse holy wells, and
followed rivers from source to sea. Within the British Isles, weeven managed a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (the song – written on the Sussex coast).

What we have discovered is that pilgrimage today offers Britain a tremendous opportunity. Look to Spain, where the Camino de Santiago de Compostela is a booming global attraction with over 300,000 people per year walking at least 100 km. The Camino provides physical health, community cohesion, rural regeneration, and space for spiritual seeking.

Banned by Thomas Cromwell

Pilgrimage was once Britain’s favourite leisure activity too, until it was banned by Thomas Cromwell. However, 500 years have passed and this ban has certainly expired. So why not pilgrimage in Britain today?

With our public footpaths, diverse natural beauty and deep cultural history, and with our ancient architecture of villages, pubs and churches, it looks like a matter of simply joining the dots. But it has not proven so easy. Over the last 100 years, many pilgrimage routes have been developed in Britain – and yet pilgrims, in significant numbers, simply have not come. The BPT has identified two main reasons why.

First is the religious identity issue. This is hardly news: five hundred years ago pilgrimage was banned for being part of ‘the wrong religion’, and the taboo has lingered. Also, according to recent census data, traditional religious identities have never been less popular.

These are issues we cannot fix, so instead we bypass them by promoting British pilgrimage as ‘Open to All’, an activity in Britain unowned by any faith or non-faith group. This entirely avoids the problem, and is common sense when you consider that humans have been making journeys on foot toholy places (aka pilgrimage) since history began.

Pilgrimage no more belongs to a single faith/non-faith group than ‘singing’ or ‘meeting’ do. As a word, it comes from the Latin ‘peregrinus’ meaning ‘stranger/outsider’ - which in turn comes from ‘perager’, meaning ‘through fields’. And ‘Holy’ derives from the Old English ‘Halig’, meaning ‘Wholesome’ or ‘Healthy’. Neither term, at root, contains any particular
religious identity.

Holy places

We describe the waypoints and destinations of British pilgrimage as ‘holy places’, which we present in two categories: built and natural.

‘Built’ includes standing stones and tin tabernacles, the churches, chapels and cathedrals (of all faiths and none). ‘Natural’ includes hilltops, trees, river sources and confluences. Nature provides universally accessible holiness, but within the setting of pilgrimage, we have found village churches also share this ‘naturalness’ of appeal, even among people who don’t normally visit them.

We have seen time and again during our events that special moment when a pilgrim realises that they actually do like churches, after a lifetime of not realising. It’s like the sudden receipt of a surprise inheritance.

Bring Your Own Beliefs

By telling pilgrims to ‘Bring Your Own Beliefs’ (BYOB), permission is granted for people to encounter British churches as holy places without prescription. Our recommended pilgrim ‘use’ for churches is as still quiet places to reflect on their journey’s intention. This is one of the key ligaments of pilgrimage - setting an intention - which is as crucial to the practice as choosing a destination and walking there. This activity excludes no-one, and in practice, it evenlooks a lot like prayer.

We thus avoid the first hurdle. But there remains a second blockage to the British pilgrimage renaissance. When the Monasteries were dissolved, Britain lost her low-cost pilgrimage accommodation. This makes pilgrimage only available today for people who can afford B&Bs.

During my 14 years of pilgrimage I have slept in stately homes, public houses and hollow trees, in boats, barns and  buses, castles, caravans and caves. But in my opinion, there exists no better venue for pilgrim sleep than churches. No Travelodge comes close. Churches offer the deepest sense of shelter, of resting in profound peace. Church sleeping also helps dissolve the cultural objections to these buildings some people think they have. Sleeping in church makes it feel like home.

These two solutions can seem contradictory, promoting British pilgrimage as unowned by any faith/non-faith group, while also encouraging pilgrim sleep in churches. But it is simple practicality. Thousands of British churches are starved of income, use and relevance, and almost all lie empty overnight. Meanwhile, pilgrims lack accommodation. Little investment is required to host pilgrims, who carry home on their back (see our ‘snail’ logo) with air-mats and sleeping bags. All pilgrims require is access, a tap and toilet.

Adding value

In practical terms, there is nothing to stop any parish from providing pilgrim church sleep right now, with an AirBNB account, a number-pad key-locker, a portaloo and some 20  supportive neighbours. Communities might add further value by providing laundry, showers, packed lunches, and morning coffee. It is an opportunity whose potential for growth is great.

Obviously, for churches housing priceless treasures this will not work. But for those with less to lose, pilgrim sleeping offers financial sustainability while providing a bold gesture of welcome that is surely aligned with core purposes. It is clear that Britain’s churches should not be empty. So why not fill them with pilgrims, by day to share the peace and beauty, and by night to shelter under ancient walls?

We find this a beautiful prospect. And as any pilgrim knows, to reach such prospects you can only walk toward them. So to make our intentions real, we are embodying them in our flagship pilgrimage route, the ‘Old Way’ from Southampton to Canterbury, a recently rediscovered 250 mile path that follows the ancient ports of the South Coast through diverse unspoilt landscapes, via a wealth of holy places built and natural.

We launch in 2020, and hope to see you on the path.

More details:

This article was first published in the National Churches Trust's Annual Review 2017 - 2018