Chris Verity concludes his history of the Glastonbury Pilgrimage

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 organized a Pilgrimage for some years, and from 1985 until recently 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. This year was also significant for a major change in the structure of the Procession. Parishes were invited to process as a party, instead of the old rigid sections of priests, religious, servers, etc.

Resolution on women’s ordination

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 oofficiate at any Pilgrimage service. This state of aaffairs 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 and 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 organizing the event since its inception in 1924.


In the Nineties, after the vote, the number of pilgrims predictably dropped, but remained fairly constant at around the 2000 mark. It is significant that the number of concelebrating priests was usually between 50 and 60, with about 30/40 lay administrants assisting at Holy Communion. Bishops who presided included Basingstoke, Chichester, Ebbsfleet, Sodor and Man, London, Europe and Ballarat. Bishop John Richards was a tower of strength, and on his retirement as Bishop of Ebbsfleet (the Provincial Episcopal Visitor for the region) joined the Council.

The last years of the twentieth century (since the vote in 1992) proved to be a period of retrenchment. The Pilgrimage became the flagship of orthodox Anglo-Catholicism in the west country. The need to maintain a balance between the traditional and the modern resulted in the discontinuing of the 0800 Mass on Pilgrimage Day, replacing it with a Vigil Mass on the Friday evening; a statue of Our Lady of Glastonbury was commissioned, and was carried at the head of the Procession of Witness; and, after seemingly years of discussion, from 1998 Evensong was followed by Benediction, bringing the day to a glorious conclusion.

In 2000 Fr David Cossar, who had chaired the Pilgrimage through the turbulent post-vote days, retired.

He was succeeded by Bishop John Richards (‘JR’), the recently retired Bishop of Ebbsfleet. He was a leader of substance – aggressive, yet politically aware of the difficult situation in which the Pilgrimage found itself, with a happy knack of uniting people in the common aim.

Robust leadership

In 2000, the Resolution not to admit women priests was re-confirmed by an overwhelming majority, and Bishop John dealt with the dreadful foot-and-mouth epidemic in 2002, when the Pilgrimage was nearly cancelled. Unfortunately, he died suddenly in 2004. He was succeeded by another retired Bishop, David Silk, who had been a regular at the Pilgrimage before being appointed Bishop of Ballarat, and had presided in 1998.

Gentle modernization

In common with many similar events in the Church’s calendar, attendance at the Glastonbury Pilgrimage had been falling, albeit slowly, and there was an almost imperceptible feeling that the day needed up-dating in some way. A working party under the chairmanship of Bishop David Thomas was formed, and, after much discussion, it was decided to discontinue the historical afternoon Procession of Witness and BCP Evensong; Benediction was retained. It was hoped that this move would attract many parishes which were thought to be opposed in particular to the ‘old-fashioned’ Procession.

A further change was forced upon us by circumstances beyond our control. It was discovered that the great towers of the ruined Abbey were unstable, and as a temporary safety measure, the Altar was moved down into the nave, nearer the people. This proved to be an outstanding success, not least in that it enabled the liturgy to be gently modernized; the Altar position has been retained ever since.

In an attempt to maintain the presence of the Pilgrimage on the streets of Glastonbury, the Procession of Witness was moved to the morning, forming the entrance procession for the Mass. This move was not an unqualified success; neither were the changes to the afternoon worship, apart from Benediction .


Bishop David Silk retired as Chairman in 2009 and was succeeded by the Bishop of Plymouth, the Rt Revd John Ford, the first serving bishop to Chair the Pilgrimage. Sadly the 2011 Pilgrimage was cancelled due to reasons beyond the control of the Council, and it was decided, when planning the 2012 Pilgrimage, that we needed to do some radical new thinking in order to build upon the past but also look forward to the future.

A daring and forward-thinking decision has been reached by the council to partly restore the Procession of Witness, moving it to its former position in the afternoon, and encourage parish groups together with their banner, but also to build upon modern Catholic teaching and doctrining and place all under the banner of Jesus, our Eucharistic high priest who will leadus in the procession for Benediction in the Abbey grounds.

The Council also decided to try and make the whole day feel part of the same act of worship and in the hope that pilgrims will remain for both morning and afternoon worship, an invitation has been extended to all Catholic societies to be part of our pavilion that celebrates the contribution of our constituency to the wider church. There will be two homilies, one part of the Mass and a devotional address for the afternoon Benediction.

All concerned with the well-being, and indeed the future, of the Glastonbury Pilgrimage, hope and pray that these changes will be acceptable and successful, embracing both old and new.

The Glastonbury Pilgrimage has always been well supported by Catholic-minded South Wales parishes, a support which increased dramatically following the appointment of Bishop David Thomas as Provincial Assistant Bishop in the Church in Wales.

Well supported

Bishop Thomas’s wise counsel on the Pilgrimage Council was much appreciated. While it has to be said that the discontinuance of the afternoon Procession did not bring about the hoped for influx of London and Midlands parishes, support from South Wales parishes was maintained.

For years the Association donated excess funds to a number of charities, but early in this century it was decided to concentrate on one particular charity, WaterAid. This has proved highly successful, the first year’s target being comfortably exceeded. In fact, in the years 2006 to 2010 a total of just under £30,000 was raised, and the Pilgrimage now finances a clean water project in Uganda.

The Pilgrimage has always held out the hand of friendship to our brothers in other branches of the Catholic Church. Until recently, the Roman Catholic pilgrimage took place on the same weekend, using our Altar and plant, and branches of the Orthodox churches have celebrated a service in the Undercroft on Pilgrimage Day.

Vitally important

A feature of the Pilgrimage since its beginning has been the great conviviality whichoften marks ‘one-off’ events of this sort. Many pilgrims 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. The close proximity of our pilgrimage to the General Synod of the Church England’s debate about women bishops makes this pilgrimage so vitally important as by our presence we can powerfully help to show the strength of our constituency. To this aim the Church Union has made a generous grant that will enable a subsidy to be offered to all parishes organizing coach parties of up to 50% of the coach fare.

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. Full details, booking forms and posters can be found on our website: or to book please call 01373 832767.

In the first part of this article reference is made to verses of a medieval couplet. These did not appear in last month’s article. We print them here for our readers’ interest:

Men may leave all gamys,
That saylen to Saint Jamys. ND