Not all of the modern-day pilgrims are Anglicans; many of them are Roman Catholics,
and some these days are Buddhists. Some may not have any particular spiritual beliefs.
Canterbury is a focal point for English Christianity, its name invoking images of pilgrimage. This city in the southeast of England is a place people from all over the world aim for in their quest to experience the Pilgrims' Way.
Those whose beliefs are firmly rooted in faith might question whether postmodern beings who trek the Pilgrims' Way are tourists rather than pilgrims, but perhaps the lines are blurred. Communist atheists have been known to make pilgrimages, so the matter of faith in pilgrimages may not necessarily be spiritual. Yet Canterbury's role in English history of earlier times and in literature helped stamp its pilgrim identity.
"There is probably no other road or trackway in the whole of England that can boast such a literature as does this path, around which myth, legend, history, enthusiasm, and tradition have combined to weave such a tangled web," says the British writer Derek Bright in his book The Pilgrims' Way: Fact and Fiction of an Ancient Trackway.
Canterbury is a small, charming city in which many people believe resides the archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, the head of the Church of England, Britain's biggest church. Williams is the spiritual leader of approximately eighty million members of the Anglican Communion and was enthroned at the cathedral in 2003. Archbishop Williams does not actually live in Canterbury, although he has a residence there. He lives in London but visits Canterbury about twice a month, although he has no direct say in the running of the cathedral.
The city's outstanding landmark is the spectacular tawny towers of Canterbury Cathedral, which has been designated part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a place where international visitors line up each day.
Visiting the cathedral at certain times of the day could give the impression that it is just a tourist attraction, with people coming to visit the stunning architecture and the artifacts that the Christian citadel has accumulated over centuries.
"But this is a place where people also come to pray and express their faith," says Christopher Robinson, the public relations manager for Canterbury Cathedral, noting that two thousand services are held in the cathedral each year. "People do not come here just to look at the building," he adds. The cathedral's own Web site attests that it is "foremost, a place of continual worship. There are at least three services every day: matins, holy communion, and evensong [Anglican evening prayers that are accompanied by singing]."
The cathedral charges a visitor fee, as it gets no state subsidization, as many other churches in European countries do, but locals and those who genuinely want to worship do not have to pay. "We can get up to five hundred or six hundred people in an evening service, although some of them may be visitors who take part in the service," says Robinson.
Some one million people enter the cathedral each year, but that pales against the thirteen million Muslims who visit Mecca each year or the millions of Catholic pilgrims received annually at the Papal Basilica of Saint Peter at the Vatican. Still, it is worth noting that the Islamic prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca in 570, at about the same time that Augustine was getting ready to do his mission work in England.
Canterbury Cathedral is the mother church of the Anglican Communion and the seat of the archbishop of Canterbury. It was also the first seat of Christendom in England and played an important role in medieval England. The cathedral precincts account for about nine hectares (nearly fifteen acres), or about one-sixth of the city area, which is in the garden county of Kent, famous for apples and, more recently, for English wine.
The city of Canterbury has a population of only about forty-three thousand, but it has the oldest cathedral in England. Canterbury has three universities and a historic cricket ground for the Kent County team, one of England's top teams. The city is close to the port of Dover, one of Britain's closest points to France, and was settled in Roman times. It has a number of ferry connections with France and is where the tunnel across the channel separating the two countries surfaces.
Historians have recorded that the Black Death hit Canterbury in 1348. At that time Canterbury had a population of ten thousand, making it England's tenth-largest city. By the early sixteenth century, the population had fallen to three thousand, so this pilgrim center has had its ups and downs.
Missionaries to England
In medieval society, pilgrimage was important for many people, and the definitive destination was Jerusalem. Within England, however, Canterbury is a place where Christianity has been present since 597 CE. That was the time that the kingdom of Kent converted to Christianity and Saint Augustine founded an episcopal see in the city. Augustine became the first archbishop of Canterbury in the days when Rome was sending missionaries to Anglo-Saxon England, considered dangerous at the time.
Local Anglicans boast that Canterbury has more saints associated with it than any other place in England, including Saint Dunstan, Saint Alphege, and Saint Anselm (all archbishops in the early Middle Ages), as well as Augustine, who are all buried in the cathedral.
The modern pilgrimage is considered a benign practice, but Canterbury has had its fair share of strife. In 842 CE and again in 851, many people died in Canterbury during Danish raids. The abbey in Canterbury was rebuilt in 978 at the calling of Archbishop Dunstan, who again started building on the work begun by Augustine, and named it Saint Augustine's Abbey. Yet the Danes attacked again in 991, and again in 1011. The cathedral was razed and Archbishop Alphege was killed.
In more modern times, during the Second World War, a total of 10,445 bombs were dropped on Canterbury during 135 separate raids in which 731 homes and 296 other buildings in the city were destroyed and 115 people killed. The roof of the cathedral was partially damaged in the raids but the archives next to it in the church precincts was totally destroyed.
Today the atmosphere of a market or pilgrim town prevails. Robinson says that not all of the modern-day pilgrims are Anglicans; many of them are Roman Catholics, and some these days are Buddhists. Some may not have any particular spiritual beliefs.
"There is a general searching for spiritual values even if people are not overtly Christian," says Robinson, adding that Canterbury embraces such pilgrims and stating, "We are part of the Via Francigena route to Rome." This was the major medieval pilgrimage route to Rome from the north, commencing in Canterbury, which continues to be followed today.
As with many words in the English language that are often global but not specific, pilgrimage is one that often conjures up images rather than a precise definition. A journey with spiritual or moral significance is often thought of as a pilgrimage, and concerted movement from one place to another is also associated with pilgrimage.
In medieval times pilgrims would journey to cathedrals that preserved relics of saints, as they believed these held miraculous powers. Pilgrimage was strongly linked with Christian striving to get to heaven after life on earth. Yet engaging in a pilgrimage is certainly not restricted to Christianity.
One saint who had such miraculous powers for Canterbury was Thomas Becket, who was also known as Saint Thomas of Canterbury as well as Thomas à Becket. He lived from 1118 to December 29, 1170. Becket was archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his murder in 1170. In the days when church and crown were intertwined, Becket was assassinated in Canterbury Cathedral by knights of King Henry II because of a disagreement with the monarch. The quarrel centered on the rights and privileges of the church. Despite the Protestant Reformation, which was a revolt against the doctrines, rituals, and ecclesiastical structure of the Catholic Church, both the Church of Rome and the Anglican Communion venerate Becket as a martyr and a saint. Soon after Becket's death, stories of miracles connected to his remains emerged, establishing Canterbury Cathedral as a popular pilgrimage destination.
It was the pilgrimage associated with Becket that provided the material and inspiration for Geoffrey Chaucer's fourteenth-century literary classic The Canterbury Tales. The tales were mainly written in medieval verse, although some are in prose. Some say the themes in the tales and some of the bawdiness can be compared to Japan's The Tale of Genji, attributed to the Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu in the early eleventh century, although Chaucer's pilgrims are not normally in the same social echelon as Genji's main protagonists.
The culture of The Canterbury Tales provides an inspiration for many of the touristic pilgrims who visit Canterbury, but many spiritual pilgrims also connect the literary with the spiritual, and the city promotes Chaucer in tandem with the religious side.
Christopher Marlowe, a sixteenth-century contemporary of William Shakespeare's - who was never as productive or as acclaimed as his contemporary, maybe because he was stabbed to death at the age of twenty-nine - wrote plays in the city in the sixteenth century. The son of a shoemaker, he was educated at the King's School, which is said to have been founded in 597 CE by Saint Augustine, who it might be said laid the foundations for Canterbury's pilgrimages, having made a substantial journey himself to get there. Marlowe went on to Cambridge on a scholarship.
"The name Canterbury still has resonance," says Robinson. "A lot of people who come know the story of Thomas Becket and Henry II and the murder and what went on around it and want to see what is left. Of course, there is not a lot left because it was destroyed in the Reformation," when Christians who are now known as Protestants broke from the church in Rome.
Bright, in The Pilgrims' Way, writes about how the Reformation and the era of Puritanism dramatically changed the nature of pilgrimages. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, monasteries were pulled down and the city's priory, nunnery, and three friaries were closed. Saint Augustine's Abbey, which was the fourteenth richest in England at the time, was surrendered to the English Crown, and its church and cloister were flattened. Over the next fifteen years, the rest of the abbey was taken down, although part of the site was converted to a palace. The shrine to Becket was pulled down, and all the treasures there were taken to the Tower of London. The images of Becket were demolished, and his name and activities were discredited throughout the kingdom of England. Pilgrimages were ended.
Another Reformation casualty was the cathedral's medieval library, which was mostly dispersed or destroyed. Now the cathedral library is managed jointly with the University of Kent and has more than sixty thousand books and pamphlets.
"It is now nearly five hundred years since Thomas Cromwell's and Cranmer's contribution to the Protestant Reformation effectively put an end to pilgrimage to Becket's shrine," wrote Bright. "Together with the abolition of saints' days and the display of relics, a new personal relationship between man and God was forged, which precluded a role for intermediaries such as Saint Thomas. So as to ensure that no room remained for confusion, decrees were issued to eradicate all memory of Becket's existence to the extent that his name was removed from records, his image forbidden, and his bones removed and the shrine destroyed."
Yet he writes that many people still come to walk the Pilgrims' Way and visit Canterbury, noting, "Of these modern-day pilgrims, many seek a deeper secular or spiritual meaning from their journey."
The visit of John Paul II in 1982, the first such visit by a reigning pope to the United Kingdom, attests to the ecumenical nature of contemporary Canterbury. During his visit the pope also met Queen Elizabeth II, the supreme governor of the Church of England.
The city of Canterbury has very close ties with the French town of Bec-Hellouin, in Normandy. Each Thursday the communities pray for each other and for the unity of all Christians. In the times of the Norman conquest of England, two bishops were sent from France, including Saint Anselm. Bec Abbey was the most influential abbey in the Anglo-Norman kingdom of the twelfth century, and it has a Benedictine monastery.
Robinson points out that ecumenical ties are not only with Catholics. A French church was established in Canterbury during the reign of Elizabeth I for Huguenot refugees, Protestants who fled persecution by Catholics in France and other places in western Europe. Every Sunday afternoon a service in French is held at Canterbury Cathedral. By the seventeenth century, of Canterbury's five thousand people, two thousand were French-speaking Protestant Huguenots who were fleeing persecution.
Keeping Lead on the Roof
As indicated earlier, members of the public who enter the Canterbury Cathedral area pay a small fee, which assists with the massive maintenance costs. Robinson says Canterbury Cathedral can normally pay its own way, its main sources of income being visitor admission charges, rents, and donations from individuals and charitable trusts. It also gets profits from the cathedral gift shop, while the International Study Centre and the Cathedral Lodge boost funds. But when the cathedral has to replace its lead roof, as it does now, extra funds have to be raised.
The cathedral roof weighs sixteen hundred (British) tons and has twenty-five hundred tiles. This is the equivalent of having twenty-six British army tanks or two hundred double-decker buses parked on it. There are also twelve hundred square meters (about thirteen hundred square yards) of stained glass in the cathedral, which could almost cover a football pitch.
Writer Derek Bright is skeptical that religion underpins the Pilgrims' Way; he says, "Today many still come to walk the Pilgrims' Way and visit Canterbury. Of these modern-day pilgrims, many seek a deeper secular or spiritual meaning from their journey. For the journey can fulfill a basic human need for elemental feelings."
Robinson states that in 2010 Canterbury Cathedral had fifty-four groups of pilgrims, or about one a week, with the numbers in the groups varying between twenty and seventy. There are also a number of individual pilgrimages, and the number of groups has been growing gradually over the years. "Some of them are almost cultural pilgrims rather than religious," admits Robinson.
He notes that because the cathedral was a monastery in the early days, it is difficult to use the whole building. "We want to enhance music facilities," he says, and he also notes that "until a few years ago, people knew better about churches. That cultural knowledge is not there anymore," so there is a need to explain to people how the ritual of religion works. As at religious sites throughout the globe, people sometimes wander around the inside of the cathedral as if it were an art museum, something worshippers can find offensive.
When asked how he might sum up the essence of Canterbury Cathedral pithily, Robinson says he would like to borrow a quote from Baron Roy Hattersley, a former deputy leader of Britain's Labour Party, who despite being an avowed atheist is a strong supporter of the cathedral. "This is England set in stone," is what Hattersley says. Still, Robinson also points out that the most enduring aspect of Canterbury is its community, which has been ongoing since 597 CE. The oldest building still standing is one thousand years old.
Peter Kenny writes on religion and other matters through an international prism from Geneva. Until December 2010 he was editor-in-chief of Ecumenical News International. Under Kenny, ENInews was in 2010 awarded the Associated Church Press award as the top news agency covering religion. He worked for Agence France-Presse in southern Africa for five years. This was followed by nine years in Europe and Asia with United Press International, where he served as its Tokyo bureau chief until he left the wire service in 1999.
This article was originally published in the January-March 2012 issue of Dharma World.