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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 97 (Suppl.), April 2005 




Rev. Keith JONES

Chairman of “The Pilgrims Association”

Great Britain


The suppression of the monasteries in England by King Henry VIII produced the end of popular pilgrimage in England and Wales for about four hundred years. The Reformation in Scotland from 1560 had the same effect; and even in Ireland where the Reformation took effect only in the towns and big estates, pilgrimage became a more local activity around the holy places in the countryside. There is therefore no continuity of tradition of large scale pilgrimage in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. At Walsingham, the great shrine of Our Lady, which had attracted visitors from all over Europe, the abbey was left in ruins. At Canterbury, the other major shrine of St Thomas Becket was entirely demolished, so that Canterbury Cathedral to this day has at its heart the open space behind the throne of St Augustine of Canterbury where the shrine once stood. At St Albans, the shrine was broken up and the stones used to build a wall within the cathedral, leaving only the watching chamber to look down on the vacant space. The huge abbey church of the prime Abbey of England itself narrowly avoided demolition, and the body of Alban, the protomartyr of England, was buried in an unmarked place where it would not attract devotion.

In most of the British Isles, therefore, the modern pilgrimage tradition is a recent revival. I shall refer here to three particular places where there is pilgrimage today, and the ecumenical significance of the places where it takes place for the Christian faith. And I shall add some observations about the relationship between pilgrimage and the ministry of the great cathedrals, particularly in England, where there is strong desire to turn the tourists who come in huge numbers into pilgrims.

In the Church of England, the desire to recover the reverence due to the places where holy lives have been led, and to their mortal remains, came in the twentieth century. At St Albans, for example, the fragments of the marble shrine were partly reinstated, and in the mid 20th century pilgrimages were arranged, with pilgrims scattering roses around the place where the body used to lie. The actual fate of the body of Alban is unknown. Similar ceremonies are to be found, for example, at Durham and Chichester for Cuthbert and for Richard. But none of these ranks as a centre for great pilgrimages of the kind found elsewhere in Europe.

The only exception to this is at Walsingham, in Norfolk. Here, an Anglican priest with a passionate devotion to Mary established an elaborate and controversial cult, which led to the construction of an Italianate shrine, and a holy house for the image of Our Lady. Situated across the road from the remains of the vast mediaeval abbey ruins, the Anglican shrine of our Lady is unique in Britain. The village of Walsingham (a place of great beauty) has thus attracted great numbers of visitors throughout the year. Some 250-300,000 people come to Walsingham each year and the numbers are growing. Of these, some 10-12,000 are resident pilgrims, taking part in the worship at the Shrine.

Walsingham has also seen the development of an Orthodox church and community, and at the National Pilgrimage, held at Pentecost, the procession of Our Lady around the village is attended by them in noticeable numbers. There is also in the village a Roman Catholic parish church as well as an Anglican parish church, and the ancient Slipper Chapel at Walsingham (where pilgrims used to remove their shoes) is now a beautiful pilgrimage centre for the celebration of Roman Catholic liturgies.

But Walsingham is a place of division. Many of the pilgrims to Walsingham visit the various churches and join in the worship. Particularly important is the Feast of the Assumption, when there is an ecumenical procession from the Roman Catholic parish church to the Anglican Shrine. But one of the priests at the shrine has told me that in spite of the personal friendliness in the village, there has been a growing anxiety to observe the rules. He spoke of a comparative winter in ecumenical relations, because there seems now no way forward in sight. He expressed the hope that the new work done by ARCIC on Mary may once again provide the focus for Anglicans and Roman Catholics to share their devotion towards the Mother of God, whose presence is so warm and clear at Walsingham.

The many visitors to Walsingham reveal a new importance in British society for Pilgrims. Britain feels a profoundly secular society, with church adherence nearly everywhere in decline. But in such a setting, a holy place is very attractive to those in search. They can come, they can taste, they feel free to decide without pressure. In addition, such people understand the idea that life is a journey, an exploration, a process; and holy places to visit may be for them of great influence and the start of faith.

This was remarked to me by a member of the community of Iona, based on the remote Scottish island where Columba landed from Ireland in the sixth century, and where the ancient Kings of Scotland are buried. This is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and feels deeply holy. Some 200,000 people visit Iona as tourists and day visitors; but throughout the summer months, some 100 per week come to stay and share in the life of the community and catch the spirit in the air. There is also a group of Benedictine monks there, and a warm friendship exists there; and when there has been, for example, a major Roman Catholic pilgrimage to Iona, the community was welcoming and the atmosphere very good.

For Iona was founded by a remarkable man, George MacLeod, as reconciler aware of the vicious sectarian strife that even now marks some of the cities of Scotland and Northern Ireland, and which has done such dreadful damage to the whole cause of religion in the United Kingdom. The Iona community is made up of people whose background is varied, and belongs to no church. As such, it is regarded with great suspicion by many Protestants in Northern Ireland, and knows that it stands outside the rules – they would say as a prophetic sign to the churches of the damage done.

They too speak of the many who come and discover Christian worship and living for the first time, associating the worship of Christ not with restriction and anger but with freedom and generous living.

I have spoken of Walsingham and of Iona because they are very different from each other, and yet sharing a profound concern for the needs of our time. Interestingly both have experimented with pilgrimage in reverse. The community of Iona has established a presence in central Glasgow, and its songs and style have reached many places in the world; I have myself over the years found their plays and music among the best available for use in parish life. Walsingham has in the last year taken the image of our Lady out of her shrine and taken it to surprising places. For example, she recently went to Aldershot, the military town in southern England to meet, in a very ordinary room, the wives of men serving in Iraq: the robed image of Mary in the midst was at once the means of their sensing the love of God among them. These were people largely without a coherent religious background, but they recognized that God had made a pilgrimage to them for love’s sake. The recent visit to York Minster by the guardians of the shrine, with the image of Mary, was an occasion of great jubilation for many people.

My life over the past decade has been as Dean of two great cathedrals, at Exeter, capital of the West, and York, capital of the north. These institutions rely on tourists for their survival, and struggle with the need to raise revenue from our visitors or die. We are not, as I have insisted, Pilgrimage places as you find them in Europe. And yet the organisation I chair, the Pilgrims Association, knows that we are trying to turn visitors into pilgrims. We do so by the quality of our literature, our education teams, and our guides. We are inventive and enthusiastic. We are ecumenical. These days, Anglican cathedrals too are as ecumenical as possible. On special occasions we delight in inviting other traditions to celebrate the Eucharist within our walls, and all of us have volunteers from a wide range of Churches – and clergy and lay people of those churches will refer to Exeter or York as “our Cathedral”, even though the divisions remain so evident. Many of our visitors are even unaware and not very interested in the fact that these Cathedrals are of the Church of England. But we see from the innumerable prayers they leave that these holy places affect them deeply, and draw from them many signs of faith.

In the last ten years, ecumenical hope has gone backward. This has been discouraging for us, because it has meant that we cannot at present see where progress can be made, and we want to obey the rules. If we cannot find a sense of hope, people will simply disobey the rules, or ignore them. Our prayer is that when people come in search of the God revealed in Jesus Christ, by visiting our holy places, they will see Christians healing and embracing and sharing, and not living in the shadow of rules that inhibit that witness.