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Can pilgrimage be evangelistic?

23 February 2024

Adapting rituals for a post-secular age can connect people with God, says Anne E. Bailey


Pilgrims hear a singing mistle thrush during a silent walk along the Pilgrim’s Way last year

Pilgrims hear a singing mistle thrush during a silent walk along the Pilgrim’s Way last year

MY FIRST understanding of pilgrimage came to me, when, in school assembly, the hymn “To be a pilgrim” suggested that being a pilgrim meant living a good Christian life. Later, when Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales entered my education, I became aware of another kind of pilgrimage, but one firmly located in the medieval past. As for many others of my generation, pilgrimage in Britain had long been relegated to history.

Today, a practice once reviled in Protestant circles is being revived, reinvented, and returned to a culture that, in other ways, is reportedly becoming increasingly godless. Much of this is due to the British Pilgrimage Trust, a charity established in 2014 to “advance British pilgrimage as a form of cultural heritage”.

With more than 250 pilgrimage routes listed on its website, the Trust has created an impressive network of pilgrim paths around the country, besides offering guided walks and other related activities. It places great emphasis on the natural environment, outdoor walking, religious diversity, and spiritual heritage — the latter encompassing a wide range of prehistoric and historic sites, along with other loosely defined “sacred” places.

This, then, is not an attempt to recreate medieval pilgrimage, nor a desire to return Britain to saint veneration and the Catholic faith. As the Trust’s website explains, it is, rather, an opportunity for the public to experience “an ancient tradition in a modern way”. One of the Trust’s strengths is that its pilgrimages engage with some potent values of our time: for example, encouraging inclusivity and promoting the well-being benefits of walking in nature.

IN FEBRUARY last year, I had the opportunity to take part in a British Pilgrimage Trust walk myself, when, at the invitation of the Church Times, I joined a small group of pilgrims on a one-day “Silent Pilgrimage” along the Pilgrims’ Way to Canterbury (Features, 10 March 2023). Although the event was open to all faiths, it transpired that almost half of my fellow walkers identified as Christian. The largest category after “Christian” was, perhaps unsurprisingly, “Spiritual, not religious”.

As a pilgrimage researcher, what particularly intrigued me about the event was the way in which traditional Christian rituals had been adapted for new post-secular audiences. These began with candle-lighting at the start of the walk, representing not prayers to the saints, but our own individual “intentions” for our pilgrimage. Other rituals were played out as the day progressed. We reclined atop the ramparts of an Iron Age hill fort for a quiet moment of meditation, took the waters at a healing well, and removed our shoes outside a medieval church, turning the Christian tradition of barefoot walking from a penitential exercise into a pleasurable sensory experience.

It could be argued that, in “modernising” pilgrimage and turning it into a “spiritual” rather than a “religious” practice, the British Pilgrimage Trust is moving a much cherished religious tradition too far from its Christian roots. “Where is God in all this?” we might well ask, as have critics of post-secular spirituality, who have derided the spirituality movement as “a religion of the self”.

Rather than take the public further away from Christianity, however, I would argue that the British Pilgrimage Trust plays a little-appreciated part in reintroducing secularised generations to Christian culture. Ironically, unfamiliarity with Christianity has created a new and receptive audience for pilgrimage: one with few religious preconceptions or prejudices, and characterised by openness to new, immersive experiences.

It is here, I think, where the Trust comes into its own, having the means to re-educate — perhaps even evangelise — a largely religiously illiterate public. Christianity, and particularly Christian heritage, is a recurrent theme of the Trust’s guided events. Many of its one-day pilgrimages end with an opportunity to attend choral evensong in some of the country’s most impressive cathedrals, while pilgrims are encouraged to experience other history-rich churches in a “safe” and unintimidating way. It is an approach that, in the words of my Silent Pilgrimage guide, Dawn Champion, “allows pilgrims to explore their spirituality without feeling like they must participate in a specified way that they may not be familiar with”.

For some of the Trust’s clients, a guided walk is a first encounter with lived Christian religion. “I’d never been to evensong before, and didn’t know what to expect,” one pilgrim wrote on their feedback form. “Although it was quite formal, I’m glad that I went. It was a beautiful end to the day.”

WHAT it is “to be a pilgrim” in post-Reformation Britain has changed in directions no one could have foreseen when I was a child in the late 1960s. Pilgrimage is no longer just a metaphor, nor a medieval practice confined to believers of a Catholic tradition. It has spread beyond its conceptual boundaries and sprouted new shoots, both in Christian society and further afield in mainstream culture.

Christian and non-Christian influences are strongly present in the pilgrimages created by the Trust and no doubt contribute to their popularity. What is less often recognised, however, is the part played by the Trust in introducing, and perhaps even promoting, Christian culture to a spiritually hungry post-secular generation.

Dr Anne E. Bailey is an Associate Member of the History Faculty, University of Oxford, and has published on medieval and modern pilgrimage.

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