There are simple ways to shift the culture of cathedral visits, as reflected in what people do and experience after they enter. A visit becomes a pilgrimage with little extra effort. An approach based on experiencing rather than informing could help bring about a cultural shift to bring cathedrals back in line with their ancient purpose as a place of pilgrimage.
Holy Water stoups or Font water – encourage pilgrims to engage directly with font water in a meaningful and playful way.
Candles given on entering along with ticket, and an accompanying leaflet letting pilgrims know which stations around cathedral at which to light them.
Anniversary/birthday visits/name days to cathedrals – encourage people to make an occasion of it!
Cairns of Pebbles/Stones/Shells – at the beginning of their pilgrimage pilgrims could be encouraged to pick up a pebble or shell or some sort from their starting holy place, and carry it with them on the journey having ‘charged’ it with something they personally want to let go of, and give it to a stone cairn on arrival.
Lying down in different parts of the cathedral – look up at the ceiling of areas of the cathedral such as the nave, chapter house and lady chapel lying on a prayer rug or yoga mat – without craning your neck standing up, or looking at a mirror. The converse is putting forehead to ground as well as looking up at ceiling, heaven and earth. Outside, people can lie down and look at the spire into the sky, and call it a sky meditation.
Feel the space – pilgrims can try standing in different places in the cathedral, e.g. nave vs. quire vs. altar, close their eyes, and feel how they feel in each place.
Healing – Have spaces dedicated to healing demarcated within the cathedral, and advertise when healing sessions are available.
Guiding spiritual experience – through audio guides and re-training cathedral volunteer welcomers, visitors could become pilgrims by engaging directly with the cathedral in many of the experiential ways suggested above, as opposed to ‘historical’ tours.
Other related ideas:
Godparent pilgrimages – Take your godchild on a day pilgrimage to a different cathedral each year, culminating in cream tea and choral evensong!
Music Festival Pilgrimages – from the festival to the nearest cathedral – e.g. from Glastonbury festival to Wells Cathedral or Glastonbury Abbey. Even a fraction of pilgrims from festivalgoers would be a very large number. See map of UK music festivals.
School pilgrimages – rites of passage at major transitional moments like primary to secondary, and A-level to university, children could make pilgrimage to the Cathedral from their school? Maybe they could sleep in the cathedral overnight for some dream incubation?
Annual pilgrimage days – all the parish churches in a cathedral’s diocese within walking distance make a pilgrimage to a special patronal festival service for the cathedral on a particular day of the year Westminster Abbey do this for their National Pilgrimage Day on the Saturday around October 13, its patronal festival. Thousands of people come, and people walk in from all over London. St Alban’s already do this on Easter Monday. Another option is to focus attention on a particular short 5-mile route to the cathedral on a certain day of the year, opening the churches along the way.
Sacred Space services – please see Lincoln Cathedral’s example for a new service format for exploring the cathedral space in your own way.
Conference-then-Evensong Events – perhaps encourage conferences taking place nearby to take a break from their proceedings and visit the cathedral for Evensong, before the drinks reception or dinner afterwards.
Patron saint-named local charities or institutions– organise pilgrimage days for these new audiences during a cathedral’s patronal festival. For example, St Cuthbert’s Hospice in Durham.
‘Become a Pilgrim’ friends scheme – maybe pivot from tourist or visitor or ‘become a friend of the cathedral’, and help people identify as ‘pilgrims’, which is arguably what they are even if subconsciously.
The BPT collaborated in 2019 with the Association of English Cathedrals and made at least 1-day pilgrimage route for each of the 45 cathedrals in England, Wales and the Isle of Man!
These routes appear on our directory. If you would like to create a new one, we have written a template to assist you. Or if you would like to volunteer in a different way… not all of the cathedral day pilgrimage routes have been test walked yet, and whilst the routes have been remotely plotted, we are looking for volunteers (local or not) to physically test walk these routes and feedback, using this form.
Pilgrims can also arrive in time for Choral Evensong – a 45-min service of music sung by world-class choirs, for free.
We are seeing a spiritual awakening in society all around us. Cathedrals are already facilitating this awakening, and there is much scope for talking this process further. Pilgrimage and Choral Evensong have a wide appeal. With an experience-based reframing, these traditional practices can become powerfully contemporary.
For any questions, please email us using the Contact page.