This article is the first in what will be a regular, monthly reflection emerging out of the work, life and experience of Wesley House. Each article will be written by a member of the community here and will reflect something of our seeking (at times in new ways, but in real continuity with our past) to be a reflective and cross-cultural community of scholarship and prayer in the Wesleyan tradition.
We have a very varied life at Wesley House. We relate ecumenically to the other 10 institutions which form the Cambridge Theological Federation – from Orthodox to Reformed, and many Christian shades between. We relate to Methodist structures, bodies and institutions in Britain and internationally. And we offer courses and degrees that range from not-for-credit learning right up to doctoral-level research – increasingly adding online learning into this mix.
Two aspects of that varied life over the last year both centred on the theme of Christian pilgrimage. The first was a visit to Wesley House by Gill Baker the Vice-President of the Conference for 2017-18, as part of her visit to the East Anglia District. This visit took the form of a conversation between Gill, members of the Wesley House community, and people from across the East Anglia District. The conversation was based around pilgrimage, something of the theme for Gill’s vice-presidential year.
The other recent aspect of our life here which has involved the theme of Christian pilgrimage is an online course we ran this year, and which runs again this autumn, called Walking the Story. This course draws on our Principal Jane Leach’s experience of making a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago – the ancient pilgrim route to the shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain – and her writing and reflection on that experience. Walking the Story invited participants to reflect on the idea of pilgrimage as an aspect of Christian spirituality – whether in its traditional form as a concrete, physical journey, or as an image of metaphor for the life of faith itself.
One of the discussion questions for participants in the online course on pilgrimage was ‘What is the value of pilgrimage for Christians and for the Church today?’ Pilgrimage has experienced something of a recovery in recent years – among believers, but also among people with little or no faith commitment. Additionally, from being a practice that was really only widely practiced in a few Christian denominations, pilgrimage is now being thought about and undertaken by Christians from a wide variety of backgrounds. The discussion question about the value of pilgrimage to the Church was an invitation to explore more deeply something of the ‘Why’ of this resurgence and broadening of interest and engagement in pilgrimage.
In the conversation that took place here between Gill, Wesley House staff and students, and members of the East Anglia District during Gill’s visit, a really interesting question was asked – as often happens – just as we were running out of time and drawing the conversation to a close. It was along these lines: ‘Pilgrimage has not traditionally been a part of Methodist spirituality and practice; how might Methodists begin to make connections between a growing interest in, and practice of, pilgrimage, and what we might think of as a recognisably ‘Methodist’ theology and spirituality?’ It was a tantalising question…
This piece is an attempt to offer some initial reflections about that ‘Methodist’ question about pilgrimage, in the light of the broader one about the value of pilgrimage to Christian people and to the church.
A central and guiding idea in Methodist theology and spirituality is the call to holiness. John Wesley is clear that the call to holiness involves a process that isn’t instantaneous, but rather involves time and the concrete reality of daily living, usually in company with others.
If the call to holiness involves the kind of growth and change which are frequently tied up with the necessities of time and of movement or transition – from the place where I am in my Christian life and experience to the place to which I am summoned, or to which I aspire – there may be something here which chimes with aspects of the experience of pilgrimage. The pilgrim knows about time and movement and transition in and across a physical landscape, from where they are to where they are directed, or are seeking to reach. The Methodist brings a similar kind of wisdom about the road that is travelled by those seeking to heed the call to a deepening holiness of life: that it involves time, and slow, patient work.
It may be that there are points of connection here between the way Methodists have thought about the nature of the religious life and the practice of pilgrimage. Methodists bring to their thinking about the life of faith this Wesleyan conviction that genuine spiritual growth is not essentially something that happens ‘overnight’, but rather – as Wesley insists in his Plain Account of Christian Perfection – is ‘constantly both preceded and followed by a gradual work’. Pilgrims learn something similar, arguably, in their own experience – in their feet and their legs and aching backs: they learn the necessity of taking time; of slow, patient progress along a road that may seem never-ending.
Then there is the role of others. People who have made a physical pilgrimage often reflect on the impact on them of those people who ‘walked the way’ with them, and realise, when the journey is over, that their lasting memories are often of fellow-pilgrims: their kindness, their stories, their companionship on the way. There are recollections of shared conversations and burdens, of being questioned and challenged.
Wesley’s conviction was that the life of faith was not a life for ‘holy solitaries’: that however attractive it might be to think of the religious life as a set of personal, private experiences between the individual and God, such religion was at best partial, and at worst, deceptive. The kind of transformative learning to which Wesley was pointing in his thinking about the call to holiness involved the challenges and growth which come from a shared life, a commitment to live with and alongside others, in a willingness to learn from and be challenged by one another.
It’s clear that for Wesley, this mutual learning and challenge could involve some tough stuff! Think of Wesley’s rules for the Bands, and the injunction to ‘confess your faults to one another’; or his demanding question, ‘Do you desire to be told of your faults…?’. But for Wesley, this was clearly a mutual process of self-searching, a solidarity in imperfection as well as in a desire to be changed. Methodists might differ as to what exactly he meant, and about how central it was to his thought, but when John Wesley claimed that the Gospel knows of ‘no holiness but social holiness’, he clearly assumed that holiness was something which involved others.
This may not be a million miles away from the kind of solidarity that pilgrims speak of in the shared experience of helping carry one’s burden, often over slippery ground and in difficult conditions, alongside others who are also involved in that simple struggle. So Jean-Christophe Rufin can write, in The Santiago Pilgrimage: Walking the Immortal Way: ‘‘Filthy, exhausted, forced to carry your burden in all weathers, you know the simple joys of brotherhood in the same way that prisoners do.’ Something of that same pilgrim-spirit of mutual burden-bearing and solidarity in the journey is expressed in Charles Wesley’s hymn Thou God of truth and love, together with the sense of a genuine journey in the life of faith: that as believers we are seeking something, growing towards or into something: have a ‘blessed end in view’.
Didst thou not make us one,
That we might one remain,
Together travel on,
And share our joy and pain,
Till all thy utmost goodness prove,
And rise renewed in perfect love?
Then let us ever bear
The blessed end in view,
And join with mutual care,
To fight our passage through;
And kindly help each other on,
Till all receive the starry crown.
One question for many participants in the online course on pilgrimage was about what meaning pilgrimage could have in their own lives if they weren’t able – for whatever reason – to travel physically on a pilgrimage route. How might it be possible to ‘be a pilgrim’, if one is prevented from making an actual pilgrimage? Perhaps these insights from Wesleyan perspectives on the call to holiness begin to offer the beginnings of a response.
This article was first published in the Methodist Recorder on 21st September 2018