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.


8 Responses to “CORAB policy recommendation for an Open-Faith British Pilgrimage Future”

  1. Neil Comley says:

    I have wanted to be involved in developing a pilgrimage network on the island of Britain for several years – and I agree with CORAB’s diagnosis that the main obstacle to a major pilgrimage revival is the lack of dedicated, low cost pilgrim accommodation. I also agree with CORAB that “it may well need a similar top-down approach to really revive [pilgrimage in Britain]. The churches, esp. the CoE, are the main institutions that can make it happen if they had the vision and the will (which in my experience they don’t – there is only a certain degree of local, parochial interest.

    However, make no mistake there would be a great danger if this initiative were ever done in a primarily top-down way because it would certainly to be designed in a way opposed to the true spirit of pilgrimage. By that I mean it would be done in a bureaucratic, controlled and commodified way with closed pedagogical goals in mind. .

    One of the greatest dangers facing pilgrimage, which one can see in the discourse surrounding the Green Pilgrimage Network project and on existing major pilgrim routes e.g. to Santiago, is that pilgrimage becomes a form of (commodified) tourism. I have spoken with many clergy (and written to ARC) about reviving pilgrimage in Britain and whenever I have mentioned the problem and danger of touristification I have been looked at as if I’m mad. Tourism (and its close cousin – commodification) is something such people clearly they have no problem with themselves.

    The best way this initiative could be done is top-down AND bottom up: for religious institutions to define the routes and provide the means and support for pilgrimage – especially provide the land and infrastructure needed for accommodation, and then (within a tolerant framework) leave it up to non-profit, bottom-up, grassroot initiatives to develop a network of pilgrim hostels such as exists with municipal, religious, and charitable-run ‘albergues’ on the Camino de Santiago. As for the State, it should be allowed to have as little involvement as possible. I’d be interested to know if anyone is interested in this idea.

    • Branching Arts says:

      That’s a very thorough and pertinent response, Neil. You are right, people talk to us about the Disneyfication of the Santiago Camino, as opposed to the ‘good old days’ when people had to work things out for themselves. Danger exists in the commodification of pilgrimage.

      But in Britain we are so very far behind, there is a remarkable lack of awareness of pilgrimage, despite our great network of public footpaths and village amenities.

      We like the wild-camping approach – because if done right, it causes no problems, and it allows a flexibility to routes that setting albergues on paths denies. Wild camping enshrines the risk and excitement of sleeping outside, it requires more from pilgrims than merely turning up, paying and carrying on. It adds an element of nighttime nature immersion, sleeping outdoors, carrying your own basic kit and working out how to use it well. It also encourages invisibility, which is I think very important to the growth of pilgrimage – no impact journeyers, clad in green, who follow their own routes and travel off-grid. The ecological benefit is obvious. There is no need for a big concrete structure to be built, plumbed, electrified etc. just so people can sleep cheap for a night.

      A further possible solution to the accomodation network is to avoid the albergue model entirely, but to win permission for certain CCT churches and CofE churches for overnight shelter in churches, and also for camping in graveyards. Many churches we have spoken to are up for this, but require credentials to prove pilgrims’ validity.

      To complement this network, we would like to ‘acquire’ scraps of unwanted land with no road access, corners of fields we can hedge, perhaps create a compost loo and a standpipe for water (or have water a manageable walking distance away). These could become enduring pilgrims’ England, cold-harbours, wild shrines, beautiful sleeping spaces for pilgrims on the path. No road access or structures would mean no problem from planning permission, caravans turning up and staying, or kids partying. But ther ewould also be no problem from trespass, or any of the potential fears of wild camping.

      I think you are right – bottom up and top down need to work together. Anyway, there is almost no chance that a top-down approach will happen without a significant groundswell anyway, or without pilgrims causing some sort of ‘problem’ that needs ‘remedying’ by officialdom.

      It is a fascinating problem. Henry, Thos Cromewll and Elizabeth did thorough work in attacking pilgrimage consciousness in Britain. It will take much to bring the opporutnity back. We look forward to the journey ahead…

      • Neil Comley says:

        Thank you for your detailed response. There is much that I agree with. I can understand that some people (pilgrims) are attracted to the wild-camping approach (for reasons such as you mention) – and I think ideally pilgrimage should be able to accommodate ALL types of pilgrims and their different needs (qua pilgrims). However, I don’t believe that there’s much potential for growth in pilgrimage through wild-camping and/or permitted sleeping in churches/churchyards. That will always only appeal to a very small minority of VERY dedicated (and physically capable) pilgrims. In addition, as soon as it became TOO popular it would start causing problems (or at least perceived problems) – and, the way things tend to be, the official response is not that likely to be a positive one.

        Personally I’m not against pilgrim hostels (albergues/ refugios) if done in the right way. On the less crowded Camino de Santiago routes, and even on the Camino Frances, many hostels manage to retain their positive social character and practical value. One should remember that most Medieval pilgrims probably stayed in pilgrim hospices most nights, so it’s not as if they’re some modern invention.

        Hostels in my experience are good for helping to develop communitas (and comradeship) on a pilgrimage, and they definitely help open it up to a much wider population. Just walking day after day, carrying one’s own pack, meeting other pilgrims on the way and in the evening in hostels is not to be dismissed as too easy and inauthentic. There are certainly things one would ideally want to avoid – like having large impersonal hostels, having the wrong type of hostel ‘staff’, tolerating asocial behaviour, and above all charging too much. I have always thought pilgrimage should be financially accessible to everyone.

        Personally I would like to see hostels here in Britain run on a voluntary basis, established with a combination of church, community and charitable resources and funding, run by a variety of church and community associations, and with connections to local religious communities and buildings, and truly accessible to all. There would also be room for this to be supplemented by other hostel and camping accommodation on/near routes offered by places such as ecological farms or communities. It would be great in fact if there was a confluence of community eco-living and pilgrimage hospitality. I have noticed some signs of this beginning to emerge in Spain.

        I think there may be ways to get the ball rolling in this country without waiting for church officialdom and other top-down initiatives. I am shortly about to go abroad on a very long pilgrimage (that incidentally will involve a lot of camping including wild-camping) so when I get back to England I might hopefully be reinvigorated with the desire to try (with any others interested) to initiate something.

  2. Peter Mills-Baker says:

    Pilgrimage and Holiday should be synonymous.

  3. Allan Brown says:

    Fully behind this vision – I’d love to be of assistance. I urge the Commission to look seriously at how we can help revitalise pilgrimage on our island.

  4. What a great initiative, and articulated perfectly in the Policy Recommendation above.

    I have little to add, except to note that pilgrimage brings yet further subtle benefits – the weaving together of increasingly disconnected communities and regions; an opportunity for an increasingly urbanised population to reconnect with the land; and a socially recognised way for people to make space in their life for purposeful contemplation that is neither a ‘holiday’ nor simply ‘time off’.

    Please feel free to add “Dr Stephen G. Wheeler (Writer and Pilgrim)” to the list of the letter’s signatories!

  5. Your next pilgrimage has to be to Walsingham! N.

  6. Jules Evans says:

    Sign me up! Good luck with it, Jules

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