Pilgrims Prepare for their Virtual Journey

Pic: Emma Collins Photography

By Catherine Pepinster, 17 June 2020

They were the origins of holidays and the way that religions went on the move. Now in the time of coronavirus lockdown, pilgrimages are being reinvented as virtual experiences. An experience that would once have involved sandals, a staff and a pilgrim’s badge, now requires 21st-century equipment such as a laptop or a mobile phone and is joined not by walking a footpath but via Instagram or You Tube.

Lockdown has been a particular blow for cathedral staff that had embraced 2020 as the Year of Pilgrimage to try to attract more people to visit their churches. Now that programme has been put on pause and special events planned shifted to next year.

But some cathedrals are reimagining pilgrimages as digital experiences. Leading the field is St Albans Cathedral in Hertfordshire, where the pilgrimage has attracted huge crowds to the city in recent years to watch a re-enactment of the life and martyrdom of St Alban that involves giant puppets.

This year, rather than a procession through the streets, there will a special eucharist service from the shrine of St Alban, livestreamed on YouTube on Sunday 21 June, with the Rev Richard Coles preaching. And nearly 500 years after Thomas Cromwell ordered the dissolution of monasteries and their destruction of martyrs’ shrines, the cathedral is working with the city council to encourage digital pilgrims, with a video demonstrating how to make and display red roses, symbolising Alban’s martyrdom, and self-guided pilgrim walks and trails also online.

Alban, beheaded in the third or fourth century for protecting a priest and refusing to take part in pagan rituals, has long been promoted by St Albans Cathedral as Britain’s first saint, while Richard Coles describes him as “my point of entry to faith”, because he first took Christianity seriously at a church dedicated to him. The cathedral’s canon chancellor, the Rev Dr Kevin Walton, said that this year’s adapted pilgrimage was an opportunity. “Through livestreaming our service and other activities, we will be able to reach out more widely across the country and indeed the world,” he said.

Other cathedrals that had been planning events this year to mark significant anniversaries have also had to adjust their plans. Canterbury Cathedral had been planning a year of events,  Becket2020, to mark the 850th anniversary of the murder of Thomas Becket in the cathedral by Henry II’s knights and the 800th anniversary of the transition of his body to a new shrine. A series of religious services in July, including solemn vespers, evensong and the main Becket anniversary service, have been cancelled, as well as the display of  a blood-soaked tunicle relic, due to have been sent over from the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

Some events will be moved to next year, with the anniversary of Becket’s murder on 29 December now the first event rather than the last in a series of commemorations. Cathedral spokesman Nathan Crouch said: “We would have attracted many more pilgrims this year because of the anniversaries. The pilgrims would have been of tremendous financial benefit and instead during the lockdown we have lost £2 million in revenue. We are able to help people have virtual pilgrimages but we have especially lost our international visitors.”

Another cathedral that had been planning significant events was St Edmundsbury in Bury St Edmunds which was marking the 1,000th anniversary of the abbey of St Edmund, the Saxon king of East Anglia who was killed by Vikings when he refused to renounce Christ. Instead it has set up History and Holiness, a virtual pilgrimage via the cathedral website exploring the history of the history of the original abbey and the relevance of the Rule of St Benedict (rules, vows and practices of Benedictine monks) then and now. Other events, including bringing Benedictine monks from all over Britain to the cathedral, have been postponed until next year.

With churches opening on 15 June for private prayer and the lockdown eased to allow people to venture further afield for walks, interest in pilgrimage trails is expected to grow. According to Guy Hayward of the British Pilgrimage Trust, thousands of people have been accessing its website searching for pilgrim walks throughout the coronavirus lockdown. The trust has devised several circular walks, taking in cathedrals, which people can begin and end easily by car.

“The interest despite lockdown has surprised me. Pilgrimages have grown in recent years, not just among practising Christians but spiritual seekers,” he said. “They like the sense of place, the sense of continuity, and they get a sense of peace which is very appealing.

“Maybe now that people have had time to pause during lockdown, perhaps asking about what they are doing with their life, and have also experienced sadness and loss, they find the idea of a pilgrimage appealing. They like the physical path and the momentum.”

The trust is also going to continue offering people ideas for virtual pilgrimages as well via digital media such as Instagram. “We offered these during lockdown as an alternative because people couldn’t do the usual pilgrimages but now we know that these are intermediary steps,”  Hayward said. “People can do the virtual ones and then plan where they will go once lockdown eases even further.”

Meanwhile, Muslims are still waiting to see if the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, will be possible this year. It was due to take place from 28 July to 2 August, but the coronavirus lockdown has made travel impossible for many pilgrims and there is a possibility that Saudi Arabia might cancel the entire event. An announcement is expected in the next few days.

The annual pilgrimage, which all able-bodied Muslims are expected to undertake at least once in their life, usually attracts about 1.7 million pilgrims to Mecca. The Muslim Council of Great Britain has urged people to be cautious about attending. Two Muslim-majority nations, Malaysia and Indonesia, have barred their citizens from attending because of the health risk.

The pilgrimage usually includes praying in the Grand Mosque, walking around the Kaaba, a cubic structure in the mosque’s courtyard, a visit to Mount Arafat, and animal sacrifices.

Sean McLoughlin, a professor of the anthropology of Islam who has made a study of the Hajj, said: “The writing does seem to be on the wall for British pilgrims attending this year. However, modern Muslims are unique in being able to go. Their ancestors would often have had no prospect of doing so, so this is not rare.”

Professor McLoughlin said he expected many Muslims would watch a livestream if the Hajj went ahead in any form.

“There is a strong sense of longing prevalent in Islam and I think people will find solace in their own private space at home if they cannot go as planned. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has also made use of social media to connect people to holy places and this will also help people at this time.”