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Celtic saints inspire voyage of faith around the British Isles

18 May 2018


The first crew of the Navigators of Faith voyage, aboard the Rival Star, enter the Severn estuary

The first crew of the Navigators of Faith voyage, aboard the Rival Star, enter the Severn estuary

A VOYAGE around the British Isles, retracing the steps of the early Celtic saints, has set sail from Bristol.

Six men and women cast off down the River Avon on Thursday of last week aboard the 42-foot yacht Rival Star. They form the first crew for what will be a three-month seaborne pilgrimage, known as Navigators of Faith.

The voyage is the idea of the Revd Dr Howard Worsley, the Vice-Principal of Trinity College, Bristol. Standing on board the Rival Star as it slowly chugged down the River Avon, under Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, he explained that the project married three of his passions: sailing, the Celtic saints, and mission.

“These guys are forgotten, and their legacy has been submerged, deliberately,” he said of those who first brought Christianity to Britain, 1500 years ago. “I’m trying to capture the imagination of people and think carefully about how the faith arrived. And then think what is the authentic Christian faith.”

TIM WYATT/CHURCH TIMESThe cramped cabin of the Rival Star where the rotating group of six crew members will be living for the next three months

Plying the ocean seas was a spiritual experience, he said. Sailing “brings you very much in touch with nature; it pushes you to your limits; your whole means of travel is the power that’s coming from the elements. And, if you haven’t prayed before, you will find that prayers come quite naturally to you.”

When not plying the waves, Dr Worsley teaches on mission at Trinity. His dream, he said, was that the Navigators of Faith voyage would take inspiration from how the Celtic saints brought the gospel.

“My metaphor as a Christian is that, as I set the sails, God blows me through life. The Celtic saints had a word for this: peregrinatio. It means someone who wanders with the wind.”

St Columba, for instance, was said to have simply set out in a small boat from the Irish coast and gone where the wind blew him, ending up on the island of Iona, where he founded a religious community and ultimately introduced Scotland to Christianity, Dr Worsley reflected. “He went where the wind was taking him, and it’s a lovely model of our faith: we go where God calls us.”

The voyage will take in about 60 ports as it meanders from Bristol around Wales, then across the Irish Sea to Belfast, back to the west coast of Scotland, around the Northern Isles, and then back down the east coast of England, ending finally, in three months’ time, at Weston-super-Mare.

TIM WYATT/CHURCH TIMESThe Rival Star, the 42-foot yacht which the Navigators of Faith will sail around Britain

At each stop-off, Dr Worsley and his crew, who will change throughout the voyage, will hold poetry evenings, preach sermons, visit charities, engage in debate and public theology, and, most significantly, retell and ponder the myths and stories of the Celtic saints.


THE day began with a service of commissioning at Holy Trinity, Hotwells, a short walk from the harbourside where Rival Star was later to cast off.

Dr Worsley told the congregation that, besides rediscovering the lost tales of Celtic saints, they would “give a Bible to every port, whether they want one or not”, and “listen to the story of Jesus, and then apply it to some of the most difficult questions of today”.

Then Dr Worsley’s wife, the Rt Revd Ruth Worsley, who is the Bishop of Taunton, commissioned the roughly 30 people who were going to join the voyage at some point. There was muffled laughter when she asked them: “Do you understand the risks that you are undertaking, and therefore go forth in faith?”

Many had joined the project after Navigators of Faith placed an advert in the Church Times. It read: “Men and women wanted for hazardous journey sailing around UK in 2018. No wages, bitter cold, long hours, and under public scrutiny. Safe return possible but not assured.”

TIM WYATT/CHURCH TIMESCharts mapping the first days of the voyage’s route beneath decks onboard

The service ended with the nautical hymn “Eternal Father, strong to save”, each verse ending with a lusty rendition of “O hear us when we cry to thee For those in peril on the sea.”

Despite an inauspicious start, when the Rival Star’s owner and skipper, Andy Carnegie, had to fix a malfunctioning part of the engine with a plastic cable-tie minutes after the voyage began, the first few hours down the River Avon and out into the Severn passed by without incident.

Crew members busied themselves coiling ropes and manoeuvring fenders, mostly with practised ease, as among the initial crew were several people with maritime experience. Catherine Nancekievill, who works in the Ministry Division at Church House, Westminster, explained, while confidently steering the 42-foot yacht down the Avon, that she had been interested in sailing for years when she first heard about Dr Worsley’s plans, and knew she had to get involved.

Susanna Paynter, the youngest of the crew at just 19 years of age, also has sailing in her blood. Having worked her way through the Sea Cadets, she was now volunteering with a maritime charity thattaught children in care, or those struggling at school, how to sail as a therapeutic activity. “I love sailing. I’m about ten times happier when I’m out on the water than not,” she said.

Mr Carnegie bought his first boat more than 30 years ago, although it was lost during Hurricane Hugo while he was living in the Caribbean. His insurers refused to pay out, saying that the devastating storm was an “act of God”, he said ruefully. This new voyage — which, it was hoped, would be less destructive — would also be an act of God, he said.

TIM WYATT/CHURCH TIMESThe boat approaches Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge as it leaves Bristol

Another crew member was the Revd Matt Thomson, the Vicar of two rural parishes in north Somerset. He, too, was an avid seaman, and was currently four years into the painstaking restoration of his own wooden yacht.

One of the villages he serves, Congresbury, was named after, and founded by, St Congar, one of the forgotten Celtic saints that Navigators of Faith seeks to recall. Mr Worsley also ministers in Congresbury, and recapped the story of its founding, in which St Congar thrust a yew pole into the earth, where it immediately burst into flower.

“I don’t know what that story means, but I’m really interested in it,” he said. “I don’t take it literally, but it’s telling us another meaning. This is a fertile place, a good place that God is telling us to be blessed.

“We read about how Aaron’s staff budded in the Old Testament without blinking an eye. Maybe we just need to unlock our overly cynical minds, that think these people were very stupid to believe stories like that. I think they were stories, and they were telling us something. Tell the story, and find out what it means.”

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