RISING interest in pilgrimages has led to a five-year EU-funded project to promote eco-friendly and sustainable ways to enjoy the ancient practice.
A conference held at Canterbury Cathedral last week marked the beginning of the Green Pilgrimage project. Delegates heard that many of Europe’s historic pilgrimage routes were drawing unusually high numbers.
Pilgrims on the Way of St James, which ends at Santiago de Compostela, in Spain, have risen from 5000 in 1991 to more than 277,000 last year, and are forecast to almost double again to 464,000 by 2021.
Less well-known routes are also growing in popularity. These include the Way of St Olav in Norway, which had 165 pilgrims in 2010 and has 10,000 today.
The Church of Scotland’s General Assembly was expected this week to close the door on centuries of suspicion and hostility by voting to affirm the place of pilgrimages in spiritual life. At least six new pilgrimage routes are under development across Scotland.
The Green Pilgrimage project will not only work to encourage more people to join in pilgrimages, but also provide funding for local councils and church organisations so that they can ensure that the increasingly busy routes enhance, not harm, the environment.
The conference, hosted by the diocese of Canterbury and Kent County Council, was organised with pilgrimages places around Europe, as far afield as Italy, Romania, and Sweden.
The Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Trevor Willmott, said at the conference that the renewed interest in pilgrimage, particularly from non-Christians, was to be welcomed.
“Pilgrimage is not just about getting from A to B, but about the invitation to accept encounters; encounters with oneself, with others, with God, and with the environment,” he said.
“This project presents an exciting opportunity to work together to develop pilgrimage that emphasises the ‘green’ values of care for the environment, engagement with local products and services, and tolerance through welcome and hospitality; values so important in these uncertain times.”