Pilgrimage and England's Cathedrals, Past and Present

2014 - 2018

Funded by the AHRC, Pilgrimage and England's Cathedrals was a three-year project that employed a ground-breaking combination of interdisciplinary perspectives and methodologies to identify and analyse the core dynamics of pilgrimage and sacred sites in England from the 11th to 21st centuries. It sought to assess the growing significance of English cathedrals as sacred/heritage sites today and inform the management of public engagement with these iconic buildings.

Set against the background of the worldwide growth of pilgrimage and increasing importance of sacred sites, the project's innovative approaches and timely research agenda also contributed substantially to the emerging field of Pilgrimage Studies. At the heart of this project was a new, wide-ranging analysis of the meaning and breadth of 'pilgrimage' and the role of sacred places past and present. Why did pilgrimage matter in the past and why does it still matter today? In exploring these issues, the project focused attention on the role of cathedrals: places where, uniquely, national and local history and identity, material culture and traditional and emerging religious practice can be encountered together.

Cathedrals in England are the group of sacred sites visited by the largest, most diverse group of people. A recent report reveals that 27% of adults resident in England visited an Anglican cathedral at least once in the previous year (THEOS, 2012). Moreover, over 40% of those visitors came from faith traditions other than Christianity or had no religious affiliation. This suggests that cathedrals are seen as shaped by, but transcending, Christianity, offering unique access to the 'spiritual' within the context of history, heritage and culture, and providing meaningful spaces for people of all faiths and none. These developments demand fuller, rigorous, multi-disciplinary investigation so that implications for cathedrals, visitors and communities can be explored in detail.

The project used four cathedrals, Canterbury, York, Durham and Westminster (chosen to represent a range of historical, social, geographical, cultural and denominational settings, and varying policies on charging for entry) as historical and contemporary case studies. Research methods included analysis of architectural and visual material, archives and contemporary documents. Interviews, photo/audio-diaries, and participant observation were employed to gather and examine the experiences and views of cathedral staff, volunteers, pilgrims, tourists and local residents (of all faiths or none).

English cathedrals face multiple challenges as they seek to balance meeting the needs of congregations and pilgrims with being accessible to wider communities and tourists, and funding the maintenance of their historic buildings. This project provided key insights into the historical and contemporary significance and use of spaces in and around cathedrals and analysed the specific connections between spiritual practice, cultural and historic interest, and individual, local and national senses of belonging. Outputs include books, journal articles, conferences, a website, and an interactive animated visualization of medieval pilgrim experience. Findings have been widely adopted by cathedrals across England to enhance visitor engagement, tourism strategies and heritage management.