If Christian Britain is fading away, what will survive of it? One answer seems to be pilgrimage. In the past decade, 30 pilgrimage routes have been created or rediscovered; holy places have seen a 14 per cent growth in visitor numbers since 2013. These figures are recorded by a new organisation, the British Pilgrimage Trust, which wants to ‘revive the British pilgrimage tradition of making journeys on foot to holy places’.
The BPT stresses that not all pilgrims are religious: ‘Bring your own beliefs’ is the slogan. Guy Hayward, who co-founded the BPT with Will Parsons, observes: ‘We have to tread very carefully around the language of spirituality and religion.’ But he thinks pilgrimage has a universal appeal: it connects you to the world, and to other people. ‘You’re walking in the land, in nature, you’re talking to people. It’s not complicated, but at the same time it’s very tangible.’
Perhaps, then, pilgrims should leave their smartphones at home? ‘No, no!’ Parsons is emphatic. ‘We think that modern pilgrimage requires modern technology to make the most of it.’ Phone maps are better than a fold-out when you’re lost in a wood. The BPT plans an app to link pilgrims with accommodation spots — churches, fields, village halls.
Britain was once a land of pilgrims. In the Middle Ages, the shrine to the Virgin Mary in Walsingham, Norfolk, was one of Europe’s most-visited pilgrimage destinations. Then in 1538, Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell banned pilgrimages. The shrine was demolished, the famous statue of Our Lady of Walsingham dumped on a bonfire, and the site turned into luxury housing. An Elizabethan balladeer sighed: ‘Bitter, bitter, O to behold/ The grass to grow/ Where the walls of Walsingham/ So stately did show.’
The grass grew for another 300 years, until, at the end of the 19th century, first Anglicans and then Catholics reclaimed the shrine. Today Walsingham attracts 250,000 visitors a year, and is expanding. The Catholic shrine has just launched another building project.
Many of Britain’s pilgrims are Christians. But many are simply curious, or historically minded, or keen to walk somewhere beautiful. The BPT points out that Britain is full of holy places; it’s creating a database of pilgrimage routes. The shortest on their list is a ten-mile trip from Abingdon Abbey to Christ Church cathedral, Oxford. The longest — whose route the BPT is in the process of developing — is a 21-day walk from Winchester to Canterbury, taking in three river sources, nine holy wells, 61 pubs and 78 churches.
The BPT was partly inspired by the huge success of the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. (Last year more than 5,000 Britons walked it.) Leslie Gilmour, who runs the Camino Adventures website, has often asked pilgrims if they’re religious. ‘Most jump straight in there and make the distinction between religion and spirituality. There’s spirituality that a lot of people believe in who have no affiliation with religion.’ What kind of spirituality? ‘There’s more connection with other people on a day-to-day basis on the Camino than I think most people have at home,’ he says. Pilgrims naturally turn to one another for help, and treat one other equally. ‘The ego is very much stripped away when you’re just walking and there’s no BMW in the car park, or big houses or whatever.’
The ‘Camino family’ is easily sentimentalised, as Jean-Christophe Rufin registers in his recent Camino travelogue, The Santiago Way: ‘Filthy, exhausted, forced to carry your burden in all weathers, you know the simple joys of brotherhood in the same way that prisoners do.’ But Gilmour draws an agreeably medieval parallel. ‘I would compare it to the Canterbury Tales. You get all sorts: people who are out for adventure, people who are out to have a few beers every night, and others who are more pious perhaps.’ Pilgrims learn that it takes all sorts to make a world. As Guy Hayward puts it: ‘When you meet strangers on the path who support you, you realise, gosh, maybe the world’s a better place than I thought it was.’
The BPT’s philosophy emphasises personal fulfilment — on pilgrimage, says their website, ‘You are free to be the best person you can dream of being’ — but also social conscience: they encourage pilgrims to give something back, whether by picking up litter, buying locally or talking to a stranger. They also promise that ‘You will rediscover your relationship with self and Nature. Engaging with the world in the way your body was designed to do is a sure path to feeling grateful for being alive.’
It is, in short, a very 21st-century kind of spirituality. It has much in common with the atheist church the Sunday Assembly, whose slogan is ‘Live better, help often, wonder more’. Which sounds very much like the self-help tradition — a term Hayward happily applies to pilgrimage. ‘It is a self-help technique, as much as anything else. But religion, of course, is a self-help…’ He checks himself. ‘I mean, would it call itself self-help?’
It’s a complex question, but as far as Christianity goes I think the answer is probably no. Jesus provoked not so much ‘a sense of wonder’ as fear, astonishment, fiercely personal hatred and even more fiercely personal love. He spoke about individual fulfilment, but said that the only way to it was a slow death by crucifixion. He showed compassion, but often in startling ways — negotiating with devils, controlling the weather, raising the dead. It was not your average Ted talk.
In the West in the past 50 years, Christianity has sometimes forgotten its more dramatic claims. It has preferred communitarianism and social justice and a fuzzy spirituality. Churches have often given a magnificent witness of solidarity (think of how much the network of food banks depends on them) and provided an alternative to empty consumerism; but their message has also become harder and harder to distinguish from ‘Live better, help often, wonder more’. The BPT’s vision is attractive, but it does sound a bit like the next stage in Britain’s steady de-Christianisation.
Parsons doesn’t agree: he thinks pilgrimage can be an opportunity for a beleaguered national religion. ‘The Church in Britain desperately needs to find a way to invite people in,’ he says, and he has a point. But whatever impact pilgrimage has on Christianity, it is an appealing image: the land crisscrossed by phalanxes of pilgrims, drinking locally-produced ale, zipping up their sleeping bags in church halls, and retreading paths which were nearly abandoned for good half a millennium ago.
Daniel Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald.