Pilgrim people

by Jennie Hurd

According to the July 2017 issue of Country Walking magazine, pilgrimage is the fastest-growing sector in the European tourism market. Similarly, more than two million people participate in a recognised pilgrimage in Scotland every year, and over 330 million people across the world make a pilgrimage of some kind annually. Pilgrimage in Britain has possibly not seen such popularity since its fourteenth century heyday, when Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales gave insights into pilgrims’ motivations and the kind of activities they got up to as they travelled the medieval roads.

I confess to having contributed to these figures within recent weeks. With a group including some Methodist District Chair colleagues, I walked a version of the Peak Pilgrimage from Ilam to Eyam over two days in May. On the way there, I found myself making an unplanned visit to Englesea Brook Chapel and Museum, which turned out to be an almost-accidental pilgrimage of great blessing. In addition, as I write, I have today made a pilgrimage to the chapel of St Peter’s-on-the-Wall at Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex. I have wanted to visit St Peter’s for many years, and spending an afternoon there in glorious weather to think, pray and reflect on ministry and vocation has been humbling and inspiring. I cannot imagine it will be too long before I go on some kind of pilgrimage again. I am a child of the age. I am one of the 330 million.

Given that an intention of pilgrimage is to spur the pilgrim forward on her spiritual journey of life and faith, it seems ironic that it almost always involves travel back in time to an historic site, a place of significance because of its heritage and what has happened there in the past. It seems illogical and counter-intuitive that something that is intended to inspire forward-movement and looking to the future should have such a strong characteristic of retrospection and revisiting times gone by. Wouldn’t it be better to go on pilgrimage to a place where God is doing completely new things, where the visionary and the innovative are taking place?  The very resurgence in the popularity of pilgrimage could be seen as retrospective, resonating with the growth of new monasticism as written about in these pages recently by Roger Walton. Why this looking to the ways and places of the past, and what are we hoping to gain by it? Is it of God, and if so, what is God wanting to give us through it?

Andrew Jones reminds us that Rowan Williams speaks of the importance of “remembering for the future”[1] and of how “memory is central in moving on, with hope and expectation…”[2] Every Sunday in worship, and especially in every celebration of Holy Communion, we look to reconnect with our roots and origins and to be strengthened and renewed for travelling on. So with pilgrimage: it is not merely a nostalgic, sentimental journey but, rather, travel to review our life’s story and to meet again with God in Christ, anticipating that same but deeper encounter at our ultimate destination. The journeying can be important for its own sake, as for the Celtic missionary monks who set off simply as an act of witness with no particular destination in mind. However, the place to which we travel usually holds deep significance: as Jones says, the difference between a tourist and a pilgrim is that a tourist passes through a place, but a pilgrim allows a place to pass through her[3].

If it is paradoxical and ironic that pilgrimage involves travelling back in time in order to move forward, there is further irony in the way in which it ends back where the pilgrim started – at home, dealing again with the ordinary stuff of life. Yet this is where the true value of pilgrimage is seen and where its worth and impact is proven, when the healing, renewal and resurrection born of the pilgrim encounter with God makes a difference to the daily routine. It is a continuous process of looking back in order to move forward, participating in a way of life where “Getting to where we need to go often means finding a new language for where we’ve already been.”[4] Renewed by looking back in order to move forward, God’s pilgrim people travel on.

[1] Williams, Rowan 1994, Open to Judgement: DLT quoted in Jones, Andrew 2011, Pilgrimage: BRF: 33

[2] Jones, Andrew 2011, Pilgrimage: BRF: 33

[3] Jones, Andrew 2011, Pilgrimage: BRF:35

[4] Lane, Belden C 2015, Backpacking with the Saints: OUP: 15

6 thoughts on “Pilgrim people”

  1. Thank you Jennie. As someone who has made several pilgrimages to Iona over the years and been renewed amongst all the history, thanks for making me think in a very positive way.

    As a local preacher I am struggling with the harsh reality that ‘traditional Methodist worship’ is not ‘hitting the spot’. I am also searching for something ‘new and exciting’ to energise the worshipping community I am part of. Thank you for encouraging me to constructively consider the next step of my ‘personal pilgrimage’.


    1. Thank you, Nick. Paradoxically – and I’m not sure how – we might be finding ourselves called to find the ‘new and exciting’ as we quarry into the rocks from which we were hewn. I think it’s an irony worth exploring. Safe onward travel foryour pilgrim journey.


  2. Thank you Jennie. I am enjoying thinking about these issues.

    One immediate question I am asking myself, as one who doesn’t particularly enjoy travel or journeying in a physical sense, is whether finding space in time for memories or to remember is of similar importance to finding physical space. Are some forms of reflection or even meditation a form of pilgrimage?


    1. Undoubtedly, Ken. I wonder if some of the psalms would be worth mining on this particular theme as aids to prayer and refelection? Psalm 63 comes to mind, for example, especially verse 6. You’ve set me thinking – thank you.


  3. Thankyou Jennie. Having watched the film’The Way’, about the Comino from St Jean in France to Compostela de Santiago. I would have loved to have done it, but alas my knees have gone due to arthritis. Whilst on holiday a minister said he had done the cheats version with 150km minibus ride, with stops at various points to get your card stamped. I am not sure if that would give the same degree of renewal as walking. It is the thought of sharing the walk with so many other people from different countries & the experience. It doesn’t matter that we are travelling to things in the past. I do get great pleasure & can reccomend going round the different churches in Bruges and the distance is not great. Between October & March, from Hull with food & parking + 2 nights ferry it costs about £100.


    1. That’s wonderful, John. You’ve taken me back to a frosty February weekend about twenty years ago, maybe, when I visited Bruges, travelling there on the ferry from Hull. The canals were frozen, the streets were quiet, the hot chocolate was delicious, and the churches were marvellous. A real blessing. The memory is very precious. Thank you for helping me revisit it. Pilgrimage doesn’t have to take you far from home – or maybe even away from home at all, as we’re saying here – but the positive impact of the experience can be strong and enduring, wherever it takes you, thank God.


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