The Temples of Britain:
Cathedrals, churches, chapels, whether in use, redundant or ruined – Britain has thousands of houses of worship, of all different shapes and sizes…
Though a wide range of different faiths practise in this land, the vast majority of religious buildings are Christian, reflecting Britain’s long history of Christianity. A growing number of people in Britain find the identity of these holy places troubling. They can find churches tribal spaces, heavily embedded with symbols of their racial history and social assumptions.
The BPT suggests different ways of thinking. If you are of another faith or denomination, consider what all Churches essentially strive to do. They are places to make connection with a higher truth. They link us to something beyond our petty human differences. Your God is certainly there too.
If speaking of God does nothing for you, consider the many generations of local people who have shared silence and song in these places. Think of Churches as living community hubs, places of common welcoming (baptism), joining (marriage) and saying goodbye (funerals). In them, something simply echoes.
It is important to engage with all kinds of holy places. Ignore any flags decorating them, simply close your eyes, breathe and feel the place. You may be surprised how welcoming they can be. If you have other rituals, and they do not impact on other pilgrims, then you know what you must do.
You may also want to attend the glorious musical service of Choral Evensong performed free of charge in churches and cathedrals across Britain and Ireland – to coordinate your church visit with Evensong, click here.
The BPT believes churches are uniquely important focal points of community spiritual experience, and as houses of God they should have room for all, without judgement or hatred. It would seem that the core purpose of religion is in its name – re-legion, to undo separateness – from ourselves, each other, nature and God. The tendency for religious experience to create separation – tribal boundaries, discrimination, anger and war – seems to indicate that some are doing it wrong. Modern British pilgrimage would like to provide a ritual experience that can reverse this tendency. And churches – public temples – are the perfect holy places for this to occur.
Of course, this is not always possible. Many British churches are locked, for reasons of security or logistics. This is a problem, and as a pilgrim you have a clear mandate to open them up. Look to the noticeboard and ring phone numbers given. If asked why you want to go in, say you want to pray. It opens doors.
Britain was once famed through Europe as a land of water. Our freshwater springs were sweet and ever-flowing, providing mineral richness and clean drinking for all inhabitants of the land.
For a long time, water emerging from the ground was revered as holy. It was seen as a gift, a living mystery and clear evidence that we are blessed by a powerful and generous force. Then we invented taps, and became more casual about water.
But the tradition of respecting water has endured. Well-Dressing in Yorkshire is a famous example, where people annually decorate well-heads with beautiful flowers and cloths as an act of veneration and gratitude. There are also long-standing traditional beliefs that water responds to music, and can be used to give and take blessings from it.
The BPT recommends holy wells, river-sources, springs and confluences as holy places for its routes. These are sites of flowing goodness that draw people to them.
A classical pilgrimage form would be to follow a river from sea to source (and/or vice versa). Likewise, confluences – places where the water from one river joins another – have long been regarded as sacred. But many holy wells and springs have not survived. They have been diverted for industrial purposes, tapped by water companies, poisoned by nearby landfill burial sites, or simply lost in the undergrowth. Some holy wells are conspicuous in their absence, like the Well of St Thomas at Canterbury Cathedral, once the centre of the great pilgrimage cult of Thomas, responsible for thousands of healing experiences – but no longer anywhere to be found…
When you do find holy water, the BPT recommends getting as close as possible. Immersion is best, safety permitting! At the least, put your hands in the water. Drinking is recommended, but in most instances you’ll need to filter water for safety with a reputable filter.
A Holy Land
Holiness is as much as anything a willingness to engage with a place – with respect, love and joy. This means that though certain places are perma-holy, holiness itself is a portable quality. Do it right, and it can follow you down the footpath. After all, temples weren’t made to lock God in!
Certain trees in Britain pre-date the birth of Jesus, and are indeed the Elders of our landscape. They are tremendous reminders of the beauty and strength of creation.
Some of the oldest trees in Britain are Yews, which often are found in churchyards, and are usually far older than the church itself. It has been often suggested that before churches were made of stone, communities gathered under Yew trees to connect with higher truths beneath these powerful trees. Something to sit and ponder…
Perhaps it’s because they are hard to climb – or maybe our ancestors thought God was above us, and they wanted to get closer. Whatever the reason, something of British humanity’s ancient hill-dwelling days still resonated, and we are drawn to the windswept places. Holy hills are often adapted by humans in various ways, with defensive ramparts, or carefully planted trees, or tumulis. In a few cases, whole hills are even built by ancient people.
As such, hill tops are often considered today to be holy places, where people find an ability to contemplate more deeply.
All over Britain can be found the markings of British people long dead. Long barrows, dolmen, stone circles, tumuli, standing stones, avenues, earthworks…the sheer effort of creating these structures, and the fact that they have survived, makes these structures holy. Often without decoration, encountering them is more visceral than intellectual. You feel them.