The new way of the pilgrim—non-believers included

While the contemporary interest in the practice of pilgrimage started later in England than in other parts of Europe, it is now attracting a growing number of people there, though with a variety of motivations going beyond the classical Christian model, reports Markus M. Haefliger in the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung (March 29). When it comes to pilgrimages in Europe, Santiago de Compostela (Spain) has been an amazing success story. While in the 1980s there were apparently less than 500 pilgrims a year following in the footsteps of their medieval predecessors walking across Europe to the famous Spanish shrine, the number had reached more than 250,000 in 2017. At a more modest level, the renaissance of pilgrimage has now spread to England, where the British Pilgrimage Trust (BPT), formed in 2014, is reviving the practice on great routes, such as the “Old Way to Canterbury,” a 350-km journey from Southampton to Canterbury (18-day walk).

The goal of the BPT is to “advance British pilgrimage as a form of cultural heritage that promotes holistic wellbeing, for the public benefit.” As Haefliger remarks, these modern pilgrims “bring along their own beliefs with them.” Some are Christians of various denominations while others are “spiritually interested,” or may even be non-believers. Interest in historical sites or in the beauty of nature motivates some, while others see pilgrimage as a spiritual experience. The BPT actually wants “to help pilgrimage become an open spiritual activity without religious prescription.” It has designed an “Open To All” (OTA) symbol, which holy places are encouraged to use as a way of promising a “universal welcome into the holy place that bears it.”

(British Pilgrimage Trust,