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What makes a journey a pilgrimage?

Travel may broaden the mind, but pilgrimage can nourish a soul.

Graeme is a vicar of Marsden and Slaithwaite in West Yorkshire. He also cycles and juggles.

A country lane runs down a gentle hill between green and yellow fields under a cloud dappled sky.
The fields of Hertfordshire
Graeme Holdsworth.

On the recent anniversary of Chaucer’s pilgrims setting off to Canterbury, the British Pilgrimage Trust held a symposium on apocalyptic pilgrimage and spiritual tourism, in a London church – St James Clerkenwell. Nick Jones, the Editor of Seen & Unseen knows of my predilection for a spiritual aspect to travel, and recommended I go along. The only problem with his recommendation was that I live in West Yorkshire, and London seemed like an expensive journey for an evening sat quietly on church pews. 

My nearest church is St James in Slaithwaite, and as St James is the patron saint of pilgrimages, it seemed obvious to turn the journey into a pilgrimage. The shortest walking distance is 185 miles and would take me a month to walk. Kosuke Koyama wrote that the speed of love is three miles an hour, the speed God walks. However, God has an eternity to travel, and I had to be back to lead Holy Communion the following Sunday. Cycling (the cheapest, easiest, and finest form of travel) would take me two days, if I took it easy and stayed in a hotel halfway. 

I love the isolation of these high places, the wilderness-ness; it is a place for crying out, and place where only God is listening. 

Not every journey is a pilgrimage. Sometimes people are just travelling. What would make this a pilgrimage rather than simply a long bicycle ride? I believe it is the intention of the heart that makes the difference - what are pilgrims hoping to achieve? Travel tends to broaden the mind, but a pilgrimage is something that might nourish a soul. There is no suggestion that every pilgrimage is religious, but when people undertake pilgrimages they are making a statement that they’re looking for something beyond themselves. For those who are religious, they’ve made space to meet God in the full knowledge that they may be disappointed. Dr Paula Gooder wrote that Christian faith sometimes focusses rather heavily on the state of a person’s soul, neglecting the state of their body. I hoped to enjoy some beautiful cycling, to re-engage with physical-prayer, and to worship God with my heart, soul, mind and strength in a whole body way. Racing cyclist Jens Voigt famously said, “Shut up legs” when the lactic acid began to burn, but what if my legs are speaking a non-verbal language understood by their creator God? Then let them shout: let the hydrolysis of adenosine triphosphate be my body praying ceaselessly, without words. 

The beginning of my pilgrimage took me south and east along the edge of the Peak District. In my planning I had relied on cycling heat-maps to find the roads cyclists preferred. As I climbed a steep hill, I remembered that cyclists are a stupid bunch who often go out and find the hardest roads to cycle. I paused for breath at the top of the climb from High Bradfield; where the Agden, Dale Dike, and Strines reservoirs were stacked up into the distance, and the call of peewits pierced through the noise of the wind. I love the isolation of these high places, the wilderness-ness; it is a place for crying out, and place where only God is listening. 

Bolsover castle was the last serious climb of the day, and from this point on the landscape became a lot gentler. Along the ridge after Bolsover, skirting around the west of Mansfield, I noticed the call of Skylarks, and that the fields had changed from drystone walled moorland to green and yellow crops, surrounded by hedgerows. Houses now had thatched roofs rather than the slate tiles of West Yorkshire. I also began to notice churches: Cottage-core villages with pretty gardens and pubs-on-the-green, their church buildings that seem well-kept, giving rural communities a sense of identity. It was around 7pm when I reached a Peterborough hotel. 

Pilgrimages are often built around the destination, but I’ve found a real joy in the interim moment; the time between setting off and arriving.

Getting up in the morning after a long day of physical exercise is not easy. Although this day would bring an end to my mini-pilgrimage, I was looking forward to the symposium and meeting other pilgrims. Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral was to begin at 5pm, and needed an early start to make sure I would arrive in time. 

I passed a roadside marker with the distances to Huntingdon and London painted black on a white stone. The Milestone Society’ seeks to preserve these way markers which have a history stretching back to Roman times. I felt a sense of historical connection to those who would have travelled before me. 

There was next to no traffic and I was alone with my thoughts and the songs I sing to myself when I’m happy. One of the lovely things about cycling is the activity itself: we’re doing the thing we want to do, and when we’ve finished we will no longer be doing the thing we want to do. Pilgrimages are often built around the destination, but I’ve found a real joy in the interim moment; the time between setting off and arriving. 

I’m glad I didn’t just catch a train to London. I felt that I’d remembered the diversity of English countryside, the freedom of long-distance cycling, and made connections with like-minded pilgrims.

The traffic was increasing as I closed in on London, and I noticed another change in the housing. Here in the home counties the houses were getting a lot larger, further back from the road, and protected by gates and security systems. The sense of community that came from closely packed thatched cottages around an ancient church building was disappearing. Then suddenly there was an exponential shift in the cycling experience as I entered Enfield: cars, scooters, cyclists, motorbikes. The sound, and visual intensity of city living humanity swamped my senses. 

 I’m glad I didn’t just catch a train to London. I felt that I’d remembered the diversity of English countryside, the freedom of long-distance cycling, and made connections with like-minded pilgrims. I also refreshed my spiritual practice of physical prayer, and time alone with God in the wilderness. 

It was about 2:30pm when I checked into my hotel near Kings Cross, unpacked the clothes I’d brought with me and freshened up before taking a walk south to the Thames embankment. After a pie and pint in a London boozer, on the banks of the River Thames, I walked to St Paul’s Cathedral for Evensong, then joined a walking-pilgrimage back to St James in Clerkenwell. St James Slaithwaite to St James Clerkenwell completed, arriving in time for The British Pilgrimage Trust’s symposium of talks and singing. Among the wonderful speakers, it was a delight to hear historian Tom Holland as he spoke to the apocalyptic call: to be a pilgrim. 

He spoke about Chaucer, pandemics, black death, and the community aspect of pilgrimages. He joked that academic historians tend to be squeamish about attributing too much credit to religious or spiritual experiences as driving forces behind historical events. However, spiritual and religious drivers are significant: in 1033 there was a massive pilgrimage from all over Europe to the holy land, which came with an apocalyptic anxiety as 1,000 years had passed since the death and resurrection of Jesus. I reflected that contemporary anxiety of apocalypse is less focussed on the return of Christ and more on trigger happy world leaders in Russia, Israel and Iran…but I wonder if there will be a similar Christian pilgrimage in 2033. 

 

Read a full account of Graeme’s pilgrimage ride on his blog.  

Find out more about the British Pilgrimage Trust’s routes and resources.  

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Everyone comes from somewhere

Why young people need to understand the religious landscape.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

A young person stands in front of railway station platfrorms and below a large informaton display.
Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

I had never been so self-conscious of being British. I had flown into Denver, Colorado and for the first time I realised that I had an accent. I had gone to study and a Canadian instantly knew I was a Brit. The locals were less clear. Some had me down as an Aussie, others guessed a South African.  

But it wasn’t only accents. I quickly learned the differences between us went much deeper. Private health care, guns and the separation of church and state were a whole new cultural landscape. They felt very strange to my British sensibilities that were accustomed to the welfare state, the absence of guns and an established church.  

My exposure to all things American began in the early 1990s. The sociologist James Davison Hunter had just published his prophetic commentary, Culture Wars: the struggle to define America. For those I was beginning to get to know, the campaigns to reverse Roe Vs Wade and ban abortion, along with active attempts to introduce prayer into the public school system highlighted the cultural differences between us. 

Likewise, they found it hard to comprehend that in England Religious Education (RE) in state-funded schools was mandated by Act of Parliament. That I considered this a bad thing mystified them. 

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime.

Of course, RE itself had a chequered history. The 1902 Education Act provided state funding for denominational religious instruction, mostly benefiting the Church of England. Nonconformist churches were outraged at the thought of the established church indoctrinating their children. Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists withheld their taxes and, by 1904, 37,000 summonses had been issued, thousands had their property seized and 80 had gone to prison in protest.   

Thankfully things have moved on. During the twentieth century denominational instruction evolved through several stages to the present world religions curriculum. 

Still, over the years I have consistently felt that our approach in the UK was in danger of proving ‘the inoculation hypothesis’ with regard to faith. That is, providing a small harmless dose of exposure to religion in childhood can effectively prevent the real thing developing in adults. 

Of course, faith-based schools and RE remain hot topics. Only this month the government launched a public consultation on removing ‘… the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions’. Warmly welcomed by providers like the Catholic Schools Service, it was condemned by Humanists UK and others advocating a fully secular provision.  

This line of contention has become a familiar one. On one side sit around a third of mainstream state schools that are church or faith-based, most affiliated with the Church of England. On the other are groups like the National Secular Society who correctly point out that the privileged position of church-sponsored education is not reflective of wider society. 

These positions have become entrenched over the years. Arguments are laced with rhetorical hyperbole and are often either ill-informed or merely raise strawmen arguments to symbolically knock down. We can no longer afford to be so self-indulgent.  

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime. It is now more important than ever that we have a handle on it.  

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism. 

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia is no mere materialist land-grab. To fail to take into account the theological dimension compromises any understanding of what is going on. The history of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Russian Orthodox Church help define the Russian identity that sits behind this conflict. 

In Israel, the bloody atrocity enacted on Israeli citizens by Hamas, and the brutal devastation wrought in Gaza by Netanyahu’s Israeli Defence Force are beyond words. But this conflict is theologically as well as politically fueled. Hamas embraces a militant interpretation of extremist Sunni Islam, while Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition sees his Likud party kept in power by ultra-Orthodox parties and far-right religious factions.  

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, 970 million voters this year participate in an election stretching over six weeks. Yet this formally secular state has been travelling on a different trajectory. Yasmeen Serhan observed in The Atlantic that under Prime Minister Modi the ‘Hinduization of India is nearly complete’. 

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism.  

A leading newspaper recently carried instant opposition to the thought of Kate Forbes being a potential First Minister of Scotland because of her ‘traditionalist’ views. Somehow, her commitment in a BBC interview to defend the right to same-sex marriage even though it clashed with her personal views was insufficient. 

Across one of my social media feeds as I was writing this piece came a plea, ‘I’m proud to be British. I’m proud to be a Muslim. I am not a terrorist. Why don’t they get it?’ 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars. 

But always there is America. And here’s where a penny unexpectedly dropped for me. If you keep religion out of schools, for many young people you deny them the tools, the ideas, and a framework with which to understand the religious dimension of life. This can have catastrophic implications.  

As G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have observed, ‘when people stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.’ 

Then, for those living within a practising religious home, the absence of religion in school heightens the possibility that their thinking is siloed purely in their own rarefied tradition. 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars.  

If it's true that whatever happens in America inevitably makes its home in Britain, we need to sit up and take notice. More than ever, we need our young people to be adept at understanding the religious landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, the unseen influence of echo-chamber algorithms and the nefarious activities of those bent on radicalising the vulnerable, we need them to have the tools and skills to be aware, see and understand. 

This is what has caused me to think again and, surprisingly, change my mind. We need to draw a line in the sand on our historic arguments, disagreements and differences of conviction. The situation is more pressing. We need a reset.  

If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward. 

The encouraging thing is that the groundwork for such a step change is already in place. In 2018 the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) proposed a reconceiving of the subject as Religion and Worldviews. Their intention was to make it more appropriate and inclusive for the twenty-first century. For them, the ‘complex, diverse and plural’ landscapes of different religions and worldviews deserved both understanding and respect. Yet, students also needed to develop the ‘necessary critical facility to ask questions and challenge assumptions’. 

Such an approach embraces the insights and philosophical commitments of non-religious worldviews too. ‘Everyone has a worldview’, said the report. Nobody stands nowhere was the title of an excellent animated short film on YouTube produced by the Theos think tank. 

The truth is, ‘everyone comes from somewhere’. This is as true for secular humanists as it is for cradle-to-grave Anglicans, majority-world Pentecostalists and British-born Muslims. Helpfully CoRE defines a worldview as: 

… a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world. 

The report maintained that it was vitally important that different worldviews were understood as ‘lived experience’. This was not just about abstract beliefs, doctrinal understandings and theoretical convictions. This was about real people, the lives they live and what is important and gives meaning to them. 

If living in a genuine democracy is about learning how to rub along together. If it is about understanding and respecting those who have a different take on life than we do, no matter how ‘odd’ it seems. If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward.  

Given the challenges that face us, it seems to me that not to change our approach to RE would be negligent. Yet to remove all reference to religion from our schools risks our young people falling prey to manipulation, subversion and control by bad actors, misinformed activists and cranks. 

These would be the seeds of our very own culture wars.  

Personally speaking, I’d rather not go there.