The Canterbury Pilgrims by Thomas Stothard (1755–1834)


… to go on pilgrimage

About five minutes’ walk from where we live in Greenwich there is a very ancient road. It was built by the Romans. Once called Watling Street, nowadays most people think of it as Shooters Hill Road or the A2. This particular stretch of it runs from New Cross, over Shooters Hill and beyond in a dead straight line, proceeding via Rochester and Canterbury down to the coast at Dover.

If we had stood beside this road in the late 14th Century we should have been struck, not just by the sheer volume of traffic (that was a problem long before the present day) but also by the groups of people travelling together, on foot or on horseback. Every day hundreds upon hundreds of people journeyed to Canterbury on pilgrimage ‘the holy blissful martyr for to seek’ (Thomas Becket). The journey took about five days on horseback, much longer on foot of course, and people preferred to do it in company, partly no doubt because they got Group Rates at the hostelries where they spent the nights, but also for the companionship which they gained by doing so.

The poet, Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales has left us a wonderfully graphic description of such a pilgrimage 750 years ago. Some of you have signed-up for the pilgrimage to Glastonbury on July 9th. Let’s consider, then, what pilgrimages are, so that those of you who are going may benefit more from your experience, and those who haven’t made up their minds will decide to do so. As we shall see, much of what Chaucer wrote about his fellow-pilgrims is just as true today.


One of the ideas behind a Christian pilgrimage is that our life upon earth is like a journey or progress from this world to the next. The word ‘progress’ means literally ‘putting one foot in front of the other’ – stepping forward, in other words. Whenever we go on a journey, unless we are prepared to pro-gress, the certainty is that we shall never reach our desired destination. The going may be easy or difficult, but ‘going’ there must be!

But the Christian journey can rarely, if ever, be a solitary one, if only because there are just too many other people going on the same road for any of us to suppose that we can avoid their company throughout the journey. Sooner or later we shall find ourselves so to say ‘sitting at the same table’. That’s always important to remember. God has so created his Church that, like pilgrims, we are thrown together whether we like each other or not. No doubt we shall like some more, some less than others. But the fact is that ‘we’re all in this together’: like Chaucer’s pilgrims who, by any standards, were a very mixed bunch of people.

St John tells us that the only way we can learn to love God (whom we cannot see) is to love our brethren whom we can see. Not surprisingly Chaucer’s pilgrims fell out with each other from time to time. The Clerk of Oxenford was one of those pious bores, occasionally found in churches; the Summoner was drunk most of the time; the Miller and the Friar had it in for each other from Day One; the Wife of Bath was an incorrigible flirt; the Prioress was accompanied by her yappy little hounds whom everyone else was expected to adore. Yet all those Canterbury Pilgrims somehow learnt to accommodate each other’s shortcomings as they progressed on their journey.

What held them together? It must surely have been their common belief that all Christians are ‘strangers and pilgrims’ in this world, and that we are always pressing onward together towards the high prize of our calling – the vision of God.

Our ungodly friends and neighbours simply do not ‘get’ this. They imagine we practise our faith because of some emotional comfort it provides. ‘If it helps you, then by all means do it, but please don’t bother us with it, thank you!’ is their give-away line – which, incidentally, proves beyond doubt that they haven’t the faintest idea what the ‘faith once delivered to the saints’ is all about.

So far from our faith always being ‘a help’ in our everyday lives, most of us find that from time to time being a Christian, is a tiresome nuisance – not to put too fine a point on it. It means finding a church to attend where the faith is properly taught and practised; it means caring for our unlovely and near-unlovable neighbour; it means being honest when it’s inconvenient to be so; it means constantly having to fork-out money for this appeal and that; it means going to endless meetings which usually end by setting up yet another committee to consider what we’ve already discussed from every conceivable angle, rather than having to reach a painful decision then and there.

And yet, and yet – we know only too well, don’t we, that those things in life which in the end are most satisfactory and profitable for us are precisely those involving the most effort and self-discipline on our part? Whether it’s getting married, starting our career, becoming a parent, passing an exam, acquiring a skill, or something as morally unimportant as improving our game of golf, there will always be some type of self-discipline demanded of us which ‘goes against the grain’; however, once we’ve succeeded in our objective, those disciplines, in retrospect, don’t seem to have been so ghastly after all. As it was with some of Chaucer’s less likeable pilgrims, once we have got to know them in the way a Pilgrimage makes possible, we realise that even the most reprobate or tiresome of them has an amusing, perhaps even admirable, side to their nature.

Every year the Glastonbury Pilgrimage offers us an opportunity to exercise that discipline in company with hundreds of other pilgrims. There are colourful, Chaucerian characters, saints as well as sinners, in every Christian assembly – and Glastonbury, like Benhilton and Lewisham is no exception. If you come on this pilgrimage with us, you will find yourself rubbing shoulders with many fellow saints and sinners from other congregations. Who knows but that God intends to use such an occasion to throw us together with equally colourful people whom we would otherwise never have met, in order to influence them, and even ourselves, for the better?

This can profit us in two ways.

It can help us understand just what some of our fellow-christians have to put up with in the way of fellow-worshippers in their local church – so we say to ourselves ‘I never realized how fortunate we were until I learnt what St Grizelda’s by the Gasworks is like!’; and

Every now and then we shall meet someone who turns out to be an obvious saint-in-the-making. Meeting people of that kind will often, if not always, enable us to see our own faith in an entirely different light.

Coming to Glastonbury will present you and me with both those kinds of opportunity.

So my advice to everyone here this morning is… ‘Come and get it!’

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