Gathered Knowledge

CORAB policy recommendation for an Open-Faith British Pilgrimage Future

On December 31 2014 the ‘Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life’ (CORAB) closed its National Consultation.

CORAB is tremendously important, described by some as ‘a Beveridge report for the non-material’. Its policy recommendations will go straight to the new government.

For us it was an opportunity to have British pilgrimage discussed at the highest levels. It took a King (Henry VIII) to shut down pilgrimage in Britain – it may well need a similar top-down approach to revive it.

Our CORAB recommendation is that pilgrimage in Britain should be renewed as an open-faith spiritual tradition, accommodated and hosted without religious prescription by the Church of England.

We believe there is room for people of all beliefs and backgrounds to make sacred journeys together through our green and pleasant land.

Thank-you to everyone who contributed to our  policy recommendation. It was a last-minute push at a very busy time of year, and we are exceedingly grateful for the wide-ranging support and advice we received.

Read on for the text we sent to CORAB.

Policy Recommendation for the Commission on Religion and Beliefs
Written by William Parsons (with Guy Hayward), Founding Directors of the British Pilgrimage Trust, in consultation with:

Peter Owen-Jones (Vicar and BBC Presenter);

Marion Marples (Secretary of the Confraternity of St. James);

Satish Kumar (Writer, Vice President of RSPCA, Editor of Resurgence Magazine); 

John Rowley (Trustee and Project Manager of the Gandhi Foundation);

Rupert Sheldrake (Biologist and Writer);

Robert Jackson (former Minister & MP);

Caroline Jackson (former MEP);

His Honour Judge James Patrick (Ordinariate of England and Wales);

Martin D Locker (Doctor of Pilgrimage History);

Mark Vernon (Philosopher and Journalist);

Jules Evans (Public Philosopher);

Catherine Lloyd (Green Pilgrimage Project Officer);

Casper ter Kuile (Non-religious Minister-in-training)


We hope to draw the Commission’s attention towards British Pilgrimage, responding to questions of ‘Dialogue and Engagement’ with the following practical recommendation:

We recommend that pilgrimage be revived in Britain as an open-faith spiritual tradition, and that pilgrims be accommodated by the Church of England.

Pilgrimage we define as a journey on foot to holy places. It is a core practice in many of the world’s religions with numbers involved growing yearly. But in Britain this physical spiritual tradition remains dormant since its Reformation suppression five hundred years ago, when the dissolution of the monasteries removed Britain’s overnight pilgrimage accommodation.

Thankfully much has changed since this era of extreme religious intolerance. Today we live in a bolder, kinder nation, rich with religious diversity. There are in Britain, however, few open spiritual practices within which all different beliefs can co-exist and co-operate freely.

Pilgrimage is potentially one such practice. It removes people from their normal socio-religious context and places them on an incredibly simple journey through the land. Pilgrims are both set apart and unified by their shared experience of moving slowly, thinking expansively and experiencing physical freedom. Onto this experience people of all (and no) faiths can add their own layers of devotional purpose. Pilgrimage has room for all, side by side.

The constant chance encounters of pilgrimage create increased opportunity for cross-cultural and cross-faith engagement, not just between fellow pilgrims but also with the communities they walk through. Each individual pilgrimage is a step forward in Britain’s sacred journey toward a more harmonious future society.

The main issue stopping this revival is the lack of low-cost overnight accommodation for pilgrims.  The requirements are basic – access to shelter, water and toilet facilities. In our consideration the Church of England is uniquely positioned to fulfil this role of host, to open its doors, without proselytising, for pilgrims to sleep in and around its holy places. In urban parishes during winter months this practice is already common when shelter is given to people suffering homelessness. We suggest that pilgrims might be extended a similar invitation. The Scriptural precedent is strong:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28)

Moreover, the opportunity is timely. Many rural churches suffer under-attendance and are often empty or locked. This makes them targets for theft and vandalism, creating a vicious circle of decline. Also, our established Church is suffering a reduction in its perceived relevance to the population, and struggling to sustainably maintain its extensive fabric. Yet at the same time we are currently witnessing a large increase in the number of walkers stepping out onto Britain’s footpaths.

This moment of kairos – if met with vision and boldness – could bring renewal and growth. For example, during our recent pilot of a South Downs pilgrimage route from Winchester to Canterbury we secured initial agreements from five churches to become ‘Pilgrim Churches’ that will host pilgrims at night, demonstrating how local communities on the ground see the value of this scheme.

Whilst safeguards need to be implemented to protect our national spiritual treasures, the example of the Camino to Santiago de Compostela offers ample encouragement. Every year this Spanish city hosts up to 250,000 ambulatory pilgrims, preventing abuses with little more than a passbook and stamp scheme. Half its participants claim varied religious motivations and the rest declare no spiritual intent, yet religious disharmony is rare and nearly all participants report positive transformative experiences.

We hope that by opening this discussion Britain can move forward in creating a new pilgrimage tradition of maximal openness. As well as promoting cross-faith dialogue and engagement, pilgrimage can help celebrate and integrate our British identity and heritage, reinvigorate rural economies, improve our physical and mental health and reduce our carbon footprint – all through the straightforward act of walking to and between holy places.

We should like to thank the Commission for the opportunity to offer this recommendation. We believe that pilgrimage can offer a healthy and safe step toward sharing Britain’s sacred places.