On Foot to Canterbury!

The Road to Canterbury | canterbury-cathedral.org

By Weston Curnow

Though now the iconic image of British pilgrimage, The Canterbury Tales is just one part of an ancient spiritual practice, now thriving anew in the United Kingdom, with help from tourism. Bishops traveling to this year’s Lambeth Conference, which meets in the southeastern English see city, follow thousands of seekers from past generations.

Many historic British pilgrimage routes, including the one trod by Chaucer’s colorful company, began as hunting and trading paths, taking on new meanings as shrines were established in various places across a Christian land. First, pilgrims trod the path to martyr shrines at various abbeys and cathedrals, and especially to “England’s Nazareth,” the home of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk.

But Thomas à Becket’s 1170 martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral and the miracles that began shortly afterward gave rise to a journey that would surpass them all. According to the British Pilgrimage Trust, medieval pilgrimage was not only an outlet for religious devotion, but was a way to sightsee and relax.

Although pilgrimage, especially to Rome and Jerusalem, remained popular well into modern times, the practice ceased in Britain during the Reformation, after King Henry VIII banned it and ordered the destruction of most shrines in the 1530s. Centuries of disruption by warfare and new trends in spirituality left long-distance pilgrimage a historic relic for nearly all Christians by the mid-20th century.

In 1957, scholar Walter Starkie published The Road to Santiago: Pilgrims of St. James, an account of Spain’s Camino de Santiago, which was largely forgotten, even among pious Spaniards. Starkie’s book sparked a new interest in pilgrimage. The Franco government began developing housing and guidance for pilgrims. It promoted the Camino as an icon of a nation unified by Catholicism. The project was phenomenally successful, and the number of Camino pilgrims increased from only 690 in 1985 to over 345,000 in 2019.

British church leaders and the tourism industry, noting the Camino’s success, are working to renew their own storied history of pilgrimage. The British Pilgrimage Trust formed in 2014, to  “advance British pilgrimage as a form of cultural heritage that promotes holistic wellbeing, for the public benefit.”

“A pilgrimage can be to many places — churches, cathedrals, ancient trees, holy wells,” said Dr. Guy Hayward, the trust’s director and cofounder. “All of these places are everywhere in Britain. It is our job to connect the dots.”

The trust has tracked and marked 156 medieval pilgrimage ways, connecting historic sites with footpaths. These range from “Cathedral Day” trips to the Old Way, a three-week, 250-mile journey from Southampton to Canterbury. Rediscovered in a volume of 14th-century maps, it is one of the trust’s most historically accurate journeys.

The trust also offers advice about spiritual practices for pilgrims, such as circling a church before entering, carrying a memento along the journey to cast off at the destination, and lighting a candle in each church along the way. It offers advice about equipment and food, and is working to create a network of “sanctuaries,” akin to the Camino’s albergues, or hostels, where pilgrims may rest and rejuvenate overnight.

The Rev. David Peters, rector of St. Joan of Arc Episcopal Church in Pflugerville, Texas, made a pilgrimage to Canterbury along one of the trust’s routes with his son in 2019. Upon arriving in the city, Peters said, he experienced a feeling of spiritual peace. “To me, the cathedral is a unifying structure, but the archbishop even more so.”

Bishop Cathleen Chittenden Bascom of Kansas said she looks forward to returning to Canterbury for this year’s Lambeth Conference. Bascom, who first felt her call to ordained ministry in Britain, said she hoped the gathering would capture something of the spirit of camaraderie that marked Chaucer’s motley crew.

She expects “faces of many hues, the minds of many cultures, a rich landscape of humanity drawn together. Chaucer, for all his bawdy irreverence, did capture the truth that individual pilgrims become a community and ordinary time and space is suspended.”

Weston Curnow is an English and philosophy student and Episcopal peer minister at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas.


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