Church membership is dwindling – and Britons with no religious affiliation now outnumber Christians in England and Wales.
But while local church pews are emptying, England’s cathedrals are bucking the trend by attracting growing crowds. Over a quarter of adults in England visited an Anglican cathedral at least once in the previous year. Over 40 per cent of these visitors came from faiths other than Christianity or had no religious affiliation.
At the same time, thousands are walking or cycling ancient pilgrimage trails across the UK, Europe and further afield. The Archbishop of York recently completed a six-month pilgrimage in the north east of England.
So, in a country that seems to be rejecting organised religion, why are we attracted, in growing numbers, to shrines and sites of religious significance? And how do these shrines meet the challenge of engaging people of all religions – and none?
Social science partnership
Historians at York, led by Dr Dee Dyas from York’s Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture (CSCC), are working with social scientists to research the reasons for these spiritual shifts in a three-year AHRC-funded project Pilgrimage and England’s Cathedrals, past and present.
The research is focused on four cathedrals – York, Canterbury, Durham and Westminster – some of the most visited heritage sites in the UK.
The project examines the experience of medieval pilgrims and tracks the rise and fall of pilgrimage and the role of shrines through history. But it will also provide practical advice and resources to help cathedrals cope with the sheer number of visitors filing through their sacred spaces today.
“For some people, visiting a cathedral today is about the art, architecture and the music,” says Dr Dyas.
“For others, cathedrals are a space where they can explore spirituality, whether that’s just stepping back and looking at their lives, or helping them to think about difficulties such as bereavement or illness.
“People are not necessarily interested in formal religion but many are still drawn to spirituality and finding meaning in special places. It seems you can take away formal religion but you can’t take away a very deep-rooted human attachment to sacred places.”
Reversing the Reformation?
Suppressed in England at the Reformation, pilgrimage began to re-emerge in the 19th century, as cathedrals also began to revive in importance. Today over 200 million people worldwide go on pilgrimage each year and many others find meaning in visiting ancient sacred sites. England’s cathedrals are reflecting this growing interest.
“Many people are in search of quiet places to just ‘be’ and cathedrals are one of the few places where it is possible to sit quietly without attracting attention or questions. But a pilgrimage also offers a sense of direction rather than simply a religious activity,” says Louise Hampson, a member of the project team.
“It has a point to it with the added advantage that the places or shrines along the route are really interesting.”
Lighting a candle
The research highlights the importance of carrying out an action as part of a pilgrimage journey or a cathedral visit. The action could be lighting a candle, writing a message or touching a holy object.
“Lighting a candle can signal a response to the space and offer a way of acknowledging issues in your own life,” says Dr Dyas. “It seems to be an increasingly important part of a visit to a sacred space – and it is another practical aspect for cathedrals to consider.”
It’s a growing trend, says Dr Dyas, illustrated by the death of Princess Diana in 1997 when national grief was expressed by people gathering at sites around the country to light candles, leave flowers and messages.
“This has now become an expected response to mark or commemorate an event or a life. We look for a focus for grief or reflection. Sometimes it’s the site of an accident or a crime but often it is a church or cathedral.”
So how should cathedrals and pilgrimage sites respond to the growing need to visit, to reflect and to remember?
Dr Dyas explains: “As part of the project we have leading researchers in the fields of social anthropology and religious studies interviewing cathedral visitors, asking them what is drawing them into the building, and what they hope to find when they are there. We are also talking to staff, guides, volunteers and local residents.”
The project team will use this research to produce resources and information to help sacred heritage sites meet the needs of today’s pilgrims and visitors.
The team is also working on research-based 3D digital visualisations recreating pilgrim visits to Canterbury Cathedral in the Middle Ages. There will also be books, a website, conferences and contributions to a pilgrimage exhibition at Durham Cathedral.
Researchers will discuss their findings with leading church figures at a meeting hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace.
“We aim to help our religious heritage sites respond to the renewed interest from visitors and work with them to balance the needs of congregations and the local community with those of pilgrims and visitors,” says Dr Dyas.
“This is an important issue for the Church, but it has wider economic implications. Tourism inspired by visits to sacred sites is a growing trend with benefits for local communities. Our research will help to make sure the visitor experience is a positive and stimulating one.”
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