Chris Verity invites us to join him on the Glastonbury Pilgrimage on Saturday, 3rd July


Saturday, 3rd July 1999

The main events of the day will be:

12 Noon: Solemn Mass of St Benedict.

President: The Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe

3.30pm: Procession of Witness followed by Solemn Evensong and Benediction

Everyone will be welcome to attend.

Men may leave all gamys
That saylen to Saint Jamys

SINCE THE EARLY DAYS of Christianity, as Chaucer puts it, “….longen folk to goon on pilgrimages”. The above couplet from a Middle Ages song refers to the shrine of St James at Compostela, but those whose curiosity or piety could not withstand a sea voyage might have set their sights on Canterbury, Walsingham — or Glastonbury.

Glastonbury, the ancient Avalon, is a small country town set in the beautiful countryside of central Somerset. It was a already a “holy” place to the Druids when Joseph of Arimathaea is said to have brought the young Jesus with him to Glastonbury on a trading visit; this same Joseph, according to legend, was sent by St Philip as a missionary to convert Britain, and founded the first church at Glastonbury, and to have brought with him the Holy Grail – the chalice used at the Last Supper – which he buried for safety. His staff, which he thrust into the ground on Wearyall Hill, is said to have flowered as a thorn, and to have continued to flower twice a year until it was destroyed by Puritans in the seventeenth century. Thorn trees grown from cuttings from this original still flourish in the area, and still flower at Christmas and in the summer. St Joseph’s connection with Glastonbury, as that of King Arthur somewhat later, is the stuff of legend, but ……….

While it is almost impossible to date accurately the actual beginnings of the Abbey, Celtic remains of the fifth century have been discovered, and a monastery seems to have been founded early in the eighth century, and the Benedictine rule established some time later. The monastery and abbey flourished under the great St Dunstan in the tenth century, but the entire abbey was destroyed by fire in 1184. Rebuilding began almost immediately, and building work carried on almost up to the Reformation, resulting in one of the largest, and richest, abbeys in the kingdom. As might be expected, the abbey was suppressed by Henry VIII; the last Abbot was hanged on the nearby Tor, the great church fell into disrepair and ruin, the stones were pilfered for secular buildings, the place became a wilderness.

Strangely enough, there were a number a religious services in the ruins; among them, in 1866, there was a service to mark the opening of the forerunner of the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway, and in 1897, 1908 and 1909 there were services to mark, respectively, the Lambeth Conference (!), the transfer of the abbey from private ownership to that of the Church of England, and a visit of the Prince and Princess of Wales. Significantly, each of these three latter services was preceded by a robed procession through the High Street from the parish church. Mass, however, does not appear to have been celebrated!

It was in 1923, after the misery of the First World War, that there came the beginnings of the move to restore the religious life to Glastonbury. Mr H.B. Salter, Hon. Secretary of the St Brendan’s, Bristol, Chapter of the Guild of Servants of the Sanctuary, had the idea to write to the Vicar of St John, Glastonbury, Fr Lionel Lewis, proposing “The Bristol Anglo-Catholic Glastonbury Pilgrimage”. At virtually the same time, Fr Knapp, Secretary of the Salisbury Diocese Branch of the English Church Union, wrote to Fr Lewis with a similar suggestion. Eventually, all agreed on the date of 28 June 1924 (Saturday in the Octave of St John the Baptist); people, mostly from Bristol, travelled by charabanc, car and train to Glastonbury, and the procession from St John’s to the abbey numbered 30 priests, 400 ‘vested’ and 1500 lay pilgrims. At a service of Vespers in the Abbey ruins, Fr Lionel Lewis preached on “Let us build again the walls of Jerusalem” (Nehemiah), and the procession returned to St John’s to sing Te Deum. Thus was born the Glastonbury Pilgrimage; to this day we process down the High Street to the Abbey – a witness to the power of Christ. in a secular, even pagan, world.

A second Pilgrimage took place in 1925, and in 1926 the West of England Pilgrimage Association was formed, with the Earl of Shaftesbury as President, the redoubtable Mr Salter as Organising Secretary, and an all-lay committee. As well as the procession, Evensong and Te Deum as before, low Mass was said in St Patrick’s Chapel in the Abbey grounds, and High Mass celebrated in St John’s at 1100 am. A request was made to the Abbey Trustees that the High Mass be held in the Abbey ruins, using a temporary Altar, but this was turned down.

So the pattern of the day, the last Saturday in June, was formed. Low Mass at 0800 in St Patrick’s Chapel (afterwards in the crypt of the ruined Lady Chapel), High Mass (non-communicating) in the Parish Church, and the great procession followed by Evensong and Te Deum, in the afternoon. Despite another attempt to have the High Mass moved to the Abbey ruins (in 1932) – a petition signed by 128 clergy and 3,012 laity was presented to the Diocesan Bishop, but was unsuccessful – this format for the day remained until the 1950s.

During the years of the Second World War, the indomitable Fr Lewis kept the Pilgrimage alive by saying Mass, for the intention of the Pilgrimage, in St John’s on the Saturday in the Octave of St John Baptist, and it was through his enthusiasm the Pilgrimage was revived, albeit on a small scale, in 1946.

In refusing the request for the High Mass to be held in the Abbey in 1932, the then Diocesan stated that, in the open air, “this most solemn of all services becomes a spectacle, and of its being, subject to irreverence.” By 1953, however, attitudes had changed, and Bishop Bradfield allowed the renewed request, and himself presided at the first High Mass to be held in the Abbey church since the Reformation. For the next 40 years, this would be the pattern of Pilgrimage day.

The period 1953-1991 was one of comparative stability. The sometimes rather conservative attitude of the Council did not preclude the smooth progression from BCP High Mass (with English Missal additions!) to Series 1 and 2, and finally to ASB Rite A, which is still the rule. Perhaps strangely, Evensong has remained staunchly BCP – one attempt to introduce the ASB version proving decidedly unpopular, to say the least. For some of the period, lectures were given in the URC on Glastonbury themes, and up to 1992, a concert was always given by St John’s Choir in their church. The procession back to the Parish Church for Te Deum was discontinued in the early 80s due to the steady increase in numbers. The most significant development during this period was, however, the gradual shifting of the day’s emphasis from the afternoon Procession (the origin of the Pilgrimage) to the Mass. General communion in the 1950s was followed by concelebration in the 80s; a set of concelebration vestments was purchased in 1992.

The Pilgrimage has always been in the forefront of the ecumenical movement. In 1961 the Orthodox Churches joined the Procession, and have held services in the Undercroft in most years since. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Clifton has organised a Pilgrimage for some years, and since 1985 it has been on the Sunday following the Anglicans, with many facilities shared. Relations between Anglicans and Romans could not be better.

The then Archbishop of Canterbury (Dr Fisher) had been invited to the 1948 Pilgrimage, but he declined. Forty years later, Dr Robert Runcie accepted the invitation to celebrate the Millennium of St Dunstan (a unique Glastonbury/ Canterbury connection), arriving and departing in spectacular fashion, by helicopter. Over 8000 people attended the 1988 Pilgrimage.

In November 1992 the General Synod of the Church of England voted to ordain women to the priesthood. Over the following months, it became obvious that there were factions in the Pilgrimage Association both in favour of and against this decision, and in September 1993 the Pilgrimage Council met to decide on the Pilgrimage’s attitude. After a long, rancour free, debate, the following resolution was carried by a small majority., “Having regard to the history and 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 up to and including the Pilgrimage in 2000.”

A few officers and about one fifth of the membership resigned. The Bishop of Bath & Wells remained ex officio President of the Association, but, sadly, the Vicar of Glastonbury withdrew his support and denied the Pilgrimage the use of St John’s Church. This was a great pity; Pilgrimage and Parish had united in organising the event since its inception in 1924.

Since 1993, the number of pilgrims has, predictably, dropped, but, significantly, the number of concelebrating priests has remained the same at between 50 and 60, with 40 odd Lay Administrants assisting in the distribution of Holy Communion. The Bishops of Basingstoke, Chichester, Ebbsfleet, Sodor & Man and London have presided since the vote, usually assisted by between three and eight other bishops. Bishop John Richards, formerly of Ebbsfleet – the Provincial Episcopal Visitor for the region – has been a tower of strength, and is now a Vice-President of the Association.

The six years since the vote have provided an opportunity to take stock of the situation, to examine carefully where we may be going wrong, to decide what changes may be necessary and, just as important, how best to implement them. In this respect, we are facing exactly the same problems as is the Church of England – indeed, the Church of God – generally. Liturgically, we have ensured that the worship is modern Catholic in emphasis, great efforts being made to balance the traditional with the contemporary. A statue of Our Lady of Glastonbury is now carried in procession. The 08.00 low Mass has been discontinued and a Vigil Mass on the eve introduced, and Evensong is now followed by Benediction, bringing the day to a glorious conclusion.

A feature of the Pilgrimage since its beginning has been the great conviviality which often marks “one-off” events of this sort. Pilgrims in their thousands picnic in the vast grounds of the Abbey, and the town is well served by various coffee shops, pubs and restaurants – even car parking is reasonable.

In the Constitution of the Glastonbury Pilgrimage Association, the primary Purpose is:

“To declare our adherence to the historic Catholic Faith as received by the Church of England [and] to maintain this Faith … ”

We look to all Catholic minded people to assist us in this aim; by God’s grace, we will achieve it.

John Hext (Hon. Sec 1985-92): A brief history of the Glastonbury Pilgrimage.
Prof. J.C.J. Metford: Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend.
Ivor R. Dowse:The Pilgrim Shrines of England.

Chris Verity is the Liturgical Steward of the Pilgrimage and lives in Bristol