‘Turn cathedral visitors into pilgrims,’ says British Pilgrimage Trust

05 October 2018

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Canterbury Cathedral, a popular pilgrimage destination

Canterbury Cathedral, a popular pilgrimage destination

PEOPLE are being asked to devise pilgrimage routes that would take a single day to each of the cathedrals in Britain.

“It’s the most accessible way to engage with pilgrimage before you do a really long one,” Guy Hayward, of the British Pilgrimage Trust, said. “You might ask whether a one-day pilgrimage actually counts as long enough, but the thing about pilgrimages is mainly the intention behind the journey. What do I want to bring into my life? What do I want to let go, or what question do I need answering?

“If you set your intention at the beginning of the day in a holy place — kneeling by an altar, an ancient tree, or a river source — and then walk through the landscape, holding that intention, visiting holy places as you go, arriving in time for evensong at the majesty of a cathedral, it’s a brilliant way of connecting to the Church.

“It is something which the Church should promote to create a whole new way of engaging with cathedrals, not just as tourist places, but turning tourists into visitors and visitors into pilgrims. They could light a candle at the end of the day, or cleanse themselves with the water in the stoup, or lie down in the nave and look up at roof — do things in the building that are ways of experiencing the place, not just learning about its history.

“Cathedrals are, in some way, holy magnets: they draw you towards them, especially visually; they are very often the only thing you can see on the horizon.”

The list of routes on the trust’s website (www.britishpilgrimage.org) already includes Salisbury, Winchester, Canterbury, Lichfield, Chester, and Hereford Cathedrals. It also has Cuddy’s Corse, from Chester-le-Street to Durham — about seven miles — following the final leg of St Cuthbert’s community’s tenth-century journey carrying the saint’s body to its final resting place.

“It’s not rocket science,” Mr Hayward said. “You just pick a cathedral, and there will be an obvious starting-point. There are about 80 Anglican and Catholic cathedrals in Britain, and there are other locations, such as Buddhist temples, which could be included in the future.”

The idea came from the Trust’s patron, the biologist and author Dr Rupert Sheldrake, who has taken his godson on a birthday cathedral pilgrimage every year since he was 14. “He sees it as a wonderful way of doing his job as a godparent,” Mr Hayward said, “literally leading him to God for the day.”

Dr Sheldrake explained: “I have stopped giving people stuff for presents because most people have too much stuff, and now try to give experiences instead. The idea that sprang to mind was to offer to take him on a one-day pilgrimage to Canterbury, by taking the train to Chartham, then walking on footpaths through fields, meadows, and orchards to the Black Prince’s well, at Harbledown, and then on to Canterbury.

“When we arrived, we walked around the cathedral clockwise before going in, to make it the centre. We lit candles, and said our prayers, then had a cream tea, went to choral evensong, and took the train home. For both of us it was a blissful day.”

Since then, they have followed the same routine at Ely, Lincoln, Wells, and, this year, when his godson turned 18, at Winchester. Dr Sheldrake said: “These pilgrimages are one of the highlights of the year for me, and I think many other godparents might find that this is an inspiring way to spend some time with their godchildren.”

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