Religion

By Christy

 

One of the interesting things about being a pilgrim is being asked “Is this a religious thing?”

From the perspective of our partners and sponsors Projects For All the Listening Pilgrimage is not religious. Projects For All is not affiliated with a religion. Its projects are secular and inclusive. Similarly, our friends at The British Pilgrimage Trust take an inclusive approach to pilgrimage, encouraging pilgrims to BYOB — Bring Your Own Beliefs.

We are all sensitive to the divisive potential of religious labels, so this is a theme that we have to approach thoughtfully from the very start. For the record then, here is my personal response to the question, ‘Is this a religious thing?’

The Millennium window at Barham Church

I was baptised and confirmed in the Church of England. I grew up in a series of villages in rural Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. My family would go to church sporadically, especially for Easter and Christmas services. The church played a big role in the social life of the village, as it has done throughout England for many years. I attended a Methodist school and studied A-level Theology. I had my atheistic tendencies, inspired by ‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins, and managed to shrug off habits of worship that I had grown up with but never examined. In recent years I have come back to faith with an open mind, and now I can say without blushing: I am a pilgrim.

Is pilgrimage religious? It depends on the pilgrim.  

There are forms of pilgrimage in all religions, and some that are purely secular. If you wish to understand pilgrimage, pick a destination that means something to you, that calls you. It could be a temple, a spring, a battlefield, a football stadium, whatever.

Yew Tree tunnel to the door of St Mary’s, Patrixbourne

Now get there, under your own power if possible, or with the help of friends. If you can, walk.

Be open to your surroundings and welcome all encounters. Go in the spirit of giving, not taking. Learn from each meeting and every challenge. Reflect on the history of those who have walked the path before you. Trust in the way and the kindness of strangers.  

When you get to your destination, you will know something of what pilgrimage is.

Bring your own beliefs, be open minded, and don’t be afraid to enter places of worship.

In just two days walking we have been in or around nearly twenty churches and one cathedral — the spiritual heart of a global religion. As we progress, we intend to visit synagogues and mosques, temples and meeting-houses. We set off to collect stories about refugees, but at the same time we are exploring the history and state of faith in these islands. The two strands are intertwined.

Spire of St John the Baptist, Barham

 

British Pilgrims

By Christy

The sun struck rainbows through the millennial stained glass window. We woke and washed and drank tea and discussed the benefice with church wardens John, Brian and Stephanie. Will Parsons arrived, original British Pilgrim and our guiding angel for the day. Will took photos of us, and fed us with local granola, raw milk and hard-won, freely given knowledge from his powerful fountain of wisdom. He really believes in pilgrimage, as you can see if you contact him through The British Pilgrimage Trust. Flatteringly, he really believes in us too.  With his fold-away saw I cut myself a hazel staff for the journey, to keep me in touch with the earth in spite of my rubberised shoe-soles.

At Bishopsbourne we met Liz and Andy, beaming in their sun-kissed allotment, now burgeoning with Spring life. Liz is a therapist who has just returned from working in Malta to ease the arrival of African refugees who find themselves there, often in the belief that they have arrived in Italy. Read more about her remarkable insights here.

More churches, pre-Raphaelite and medieval art, saints and holy wells, skinnydipping, singing, striding out over fields and through parks and forests and over burial mounds of Saxons and Jutes and every age of man and woman. More chance encounters: a genealogist fresh from Canterbury, our destination that night. A conservationist contemplating trees and fields under the doom of future housing. Elephants and a leopard. Spring lambs. A man and his daughter in an empty church, playing piano and enjoying the acoustics. Swinging from an ancient beech tree riven with initials of lost generations of youth.

We arrived in darkness, the lit cathedral looming orange between black trees. The Cathedral garden smelled of blossom. The empty cloisters echoed in the darkness. Tales of knights and poor Nel buried alive. A final circumambulation and then home to London, 60 miles an hour on the old pilgrim road feeling very strange indeed.

So much to reflect on. So many connections made. We look forward to picking up where we left off and walking a three cathedral route from Canterbury to Southwark via Rochester and Medway, City of Sanctuary.

To be continued…

Thanks to all those who are making this journey possible: Projects for All, The British Pilgrimage Trust, Kati, Monika, Roland, Ellie, Will, Brian, and all our supporters.

Thanks to Isabel, my fellow pilgrim, and to the Way.

Onward to Iona.

On the way…

By Christy

On 1 March we set off North from Dover beach on foot, the first day of our pilgrimage.

Dover was windy and cold. Isabel had met Caroline at Samphire the day before, a charity which supports migrants nationwide who have faced detention. Caroline works with communities to build awareness respect and support for migrant groups. They spoke of the “hostile environment” for refugees, cultivated deliberately somewhere in government?  Bubbling up fearfully in the media echo chambers?

The man who sold us fish and chips was 38, disillusioned about the decline of Dover, muttering about “immigrants” but saving his rancor for “the council”, whom he blamed for his  woes.  We mentioned last year’s riots when far-right and far-left clashed on the streets. “That was a bit of fun,” he quipped. The rioters, he asserted, were out-of-towners.

A homeless man in the underpass by Dover beach begged for money for lunch.  He was from Rome. He wanted to go back. The cold wind cut through the underpass and gulls cried. We sympathised and I gave him a two pound coin and smiled, “Arrivederci”.   He smiled too and replied, “Arrivederci Roma”.

Leaving Dover via St Mary’s Church and the “Maison Dieu”, an ancient Pilgrim’s Hospital, we passed the Pilgrim’s Hospice Charity shop sandwiched between vape suppliers and struck the sunny banks of the crystal clear River Dour, busy with trout and plastic rubbish.

                                  

It was a day of churches, muddy ploughed fields, friendly dogs, bread and butter, showers and sunshine. Stained glass and playgrounds, a ducking pond, ornate Norman carving, cows and calves, Britain’s largest virgin oak, “Majesty” (see above), yew trees, tawny owls, The Wrong Turn micro pub, hunger, daffodils, St David’s Day, Ash Wednesday, belated pancakes, a late arrival, a hearty dinner in The Duke of Cumberland, a warm welcome by Church-Warden Brian and his dog Molly, a deep and wonderful sleep in St John the Baptist’s Church, empty but for us and the bats and the bodies beneath.