Glastonbury Pilgrimage, 1924–2012

Chris Verity brings right up to date the history of the Pilgrimage planned once again this year for 16 June, labelled as a great Anglo-Catholic jamboree celebrating all that our constituency has to offer the wider Church

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.

Early history

Glastonbury, the ancient Avalon, is a small country town set in the beautiful countryside of central Somerset. It was already a ‘holy’ place to the Druids when Joseph of Arimathea 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, to have 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…

Rebuilding and disrepair

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, and the place became a wilderness.

Strangely enough, there were a number of 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.

Beginnings of restoration

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 1,500 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.

Mass in the Abbey

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 11a.m. 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 8a.m. 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 the Baptist, and it was through his enthusiasm that the Pilgrimage was revived, albeit on a small scale, in 1946.

Establishing the pattern

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 a 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.

Time of stability

The period 1953–91 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 (mercifully by-passing Series 3) to ASB Rite A. The transition to Common Worship, Order One, was smoothly negotiated in 2001. Perhaps strangely, Evensong 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 Eighties 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 Fifties was followed by concelebration in the Eighties; a set of concelebration vestments was purchased in 1992.

Next month we will look further at the history of the pilgrimage bringing it up to the present day. Until then we encourage you to consider attending this year’s pilgrimage and give witness to our catholic faith. Full details, booking forms and posters can be found on our website: or to book please call 01373 832767. ND