AND DID THOSE FEET in ancient times, walk upon England’s mountains green?”

Glastonbury claims to be the oldest shrine to Mary in the land and its association in legend with Joseph of Arimathaea and the child Jesus is immortalised in the popular Blake poem so loved by Promenaders and the Women’s Institute!

The Abbey, whose ruins stand proud in the town centre was the largest in England after Westminster and its Abbots held influence over the development of the Faith here for many centuries, until the Dissolution. It was a great centre of pilgrimage and many thousands travelled to worship and pray for healing and miracle.

After the Dissolution, the story of the Abbey is a sorry one. It passed into private ownership, its stones were looted to build and repair town houses and barns, but the familiar remains of the chancel arch and walls, and the poignant roofless Lady Chapel over Joseph’s original shrine stood to give silent testimony to man’s and the Church’s vicissitudes.

In 1923 the Bristol Branch of the Guild of Servants of the Sanctuary organised a pilgrimage to Glastonbury. It was meant to be quite local, but word got around and newspapers reported that 30 priests, 400 ‘vested’ and 1500 lay pilgrims took part in a procession from St. John’s church for Vespers in the Abbey ruins, and that coaches from as far away as Salisbury converged on the town. From this modest beginning the “West of England Pilgrimage Association” was born.

No doubt the organisers were inspired by three earlier events at the ruins. In 1897, 130 Lambeth Conference Bishops travelled on the 9:40 from Waterloo at the cost of a guinea, had lunch and afterwards attended Evensong in the ruins at which the Archbishop of Canterbury presided and the Bishop of Stepney preached. In 1907, after the ruins had been purchased by a Mr. Jardine, the Tory Candidate for East Somerset, on behalf of the Bishop of Bath and Wells for £30,000, a service of thanksgiving was held before a congregation of 2,000 following a procession from St. John’s. On 22nd June, 1909, the Prince and Princess of Wales visited the town to open the new Abbey entrance as part of the Diocesan Millennary celebrations. The deeds of the Abbey were formally presented to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Davidson, before 30 bishops and a large congregation. The success of the first GSS Pilgrimage encouraged the newly-formed Association to hold a pilgrimage annually “to declare our adherence to the Catholic Faith as received by the Church of England and to deepen the community of faith and love with those who lived and worshipped at Glastonbury Abbey and other religious sites in past centuries”.

The afternoon procession from St. John’s to the ruins became popular but the Abbey trustees were not happy about celebrating the Eucharist there until 1953 when Bishop Bradfield agreed to preside and preach at a High Mass there in the morning. So began the present Pilgrimage “Day” which has grown and drawn pilgrims from an ever wider distance around the country, to the extent that this year the Council has changed the name to “The Glastonbury Pilgrimage Association” to recognize its now national appeal.

The first pilgrimage was arranged to bear witness to our ancient Faith in a time of indifference or hostility to it. In 1992 the vote of the General Synod to ordain women to the Priesthood presented another threat to the unity of the Church and the Association council voted to uphold the traditionalist view in its resolution “Having regard to the aims of the association, the council considers it inappropriate to invite women priests to celebrate or officiate at any Pilgrimage service. This state of affairs shall continue at least until and including the pilgrimage in 2000”.

It is intended by this resolution to keep the doors open for a clear indication of the will of the Holy Spirit during this Period of Reception without compromising the ancient tradition of the Church. Only those Bishops who do not ordain women to the Priesthood are invited to preside or concelebrate, but there is no distinction made amongst those male priests who wish to do so. In every other respect all are welcome to attend and enjoy the fun of the annual gathering of the faithful around God’s altar to witness to the faith of the Saints of these islands.

Pilgrimage is both a personal matter and a corporate one. Many individuals walk long distances to arrive for the day and they are honoured in the procession and given a certificate to mark their achievement. There are familiar faces each year in the procession not least the lady from Norfolk with her dogs – the dogs with bandaged feet after their ordeal but their mistress looking as fresh as a daisy. (She started walking years ago after having been given only a short time to live because of cancer!)

Many blessings derive from this day, as indeed they do at most pilgrimages. Corporately, the Glastonbury gathering gives encouragement to small parishes who wallow in the sheer beauty of a large outdoor offering of the eucharist as a sign of the church of God of which they can only be a small part. It confirms us in our understanding of the God who is, who was and ever shall be, in spite of what the ravages of time and idiosyncrasy try to do to him. It is a very English day, although our brothers and sisters from Wales are always there and we are glad to see them! It is a day to rejoice with the Saints who established our roots of faith, based on the Christ who died and rose again, and his apostles whom he called to proclaim his gospel of reconciling love and against whom the gates of hell will never prevail.

This year our theme is “The Saints of England and Wales”, particularly appropriate because of the celebration of Augustine’s landing in Kent and Columba’s death in Iona. We shall give thanks for the great debt we owe to all the pioneers of Christianity who struggled in their day against seemingly impossible odds to establish the Faith in these islands.

Further information can be obtained from the Secretary, Pilgrimage Office, 37 Devonshire Buildings, Bath BA2 4SU. Tel. & Fax 01275 462927.

Peter McCrory is an Honorary Canon of Southwark Cathedral and Vicar of St. Anne’s, Kew.