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” and of how “memory is central in moving on, with hope and expectation…” 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.
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.” Renewed by looking back in order to move forward, God’s pilgrim people travel on.
 Williams, Rowan 1994, Open to Judgement: DLT quoted in Jones, Andrew 2011, Pilgrimage: BRF: 33
 Jones, Andrew 2011, Pilgrimage: BRF: 33
 Jones, Andrew 2011, Pilgrimage: BRF:35
 Lane, Belden C 2015, Backpacking with the Saints: OUP: 15