How to set up a pilgrimage route
Creating your own pilgrim path is a wonderful way of bringing congregations and communities together, both within towns and villages and beyond. The Pilgrim Path Project was initiated by Chipping Norton Deanery, but other Benefices and Deaneries have taken the idea and made it their own.
Oxford Diocese produced a map illustrating some interesting churches within the Diocese. Some have decided to design a map which simply shows how all the churches in an area can be reached by footpaths. Some have designed circular routes which include every church in the area in one long path – see Deddington Deanery for example.
If you are beginning your own Pilgrim Path Project, here are some things you might like to consider:
1. What is the purpose of the project?
It might be to bring local people together, or something to offer tourists. It might be to share the Christian faith with people or encourage practising Christians in their journey. It might be to highlight your buildings or your communities.
2. How many people do you have to help you?
(The more the merrier!)
3. How long should each walk be?
The average walking pace is 2 miles an hour on broadly level ground. Extremes of age (older or younger) lengthen the time.
4. Do you want to link two churches together, or more?
5. Should the walk(s) be circular?
6. Will you provide route directions/illustrations/maps/reflections?
Be careful of copyright infringements. Although Pilgrim Path Project material is available free, permission must first be sought from the Project Director, and copyright acknowledged.
7. Will you offer guided walks?
If you have queries, the Project Director will be delighted to help, and can occasionally offer to visit a location and facilitate meetings and discussions (see Contact page). Priority will be given to places within the Oxford Diocese.
How we did it
Chipping Norton Deanery is a rural benefice in the Diocese of Oxford. It has 32 churches and currently six stipendiary priests.
There are the issues common to everyone who lives in rural areas: Isolation, hidden poverty, lack of affordable housing, lack of access to resources – healthcare, transport, schools, shops etc. As well as the issues specific to rural churches: Not enough clergy support, small, aging congregations, larger churches attracting active members away from smaller parish churches, crumbling buildings, inadequate facilities.
The deanery also faces the national challenges of a growing group of people who are ‘spiritual but not religious’ – those seeking some spiritual resource but unwilling to engage with formal church or unaware of what churches can offer.
Sunday mornings are also becoming more problematic for potential churchgoers – in Chipping Norton deanery sport is a powerful alternative to hymn singing!
On the other hand, the communities in the deanery have a lot to offer: The belief that we have a part to play in the life of our communities – that God is working his purpose out in rural communities as much as in urban and suburban contexts. The acknowledgement that new ways must be found to tell our story. A group of active, engaged Christians, committed to sharing the gospel with those around them. Beautiful buildings, the majority of which are open every day, available for all who wish to find peace and space in which to reflect. A community awareness of the potential role which church buildings and members can play in supporting and enriching the whole community.
As well as thriving towns, friendly settlements, wonderful countryside, space to reflect and recharge, and generous hospitality.
We wanted to use all these assets in the most productive way possible – and came up with The Chipping Norton Deanery Pilgrim Paths Project .
We aimed to link a church to one or more other churches in the Deanery, building up the pattern until there was a network of pilgrim paths within the area.
We began by recruiting Pilgrim Champions – representatives from every benefice who were interested in walking or pilgrimage. We gathered and each chose our favourite walk. The walks had to be circular and between 4 and 8 miles. Some people took a Day Walk Leadership course which covered navigation, basic first aid, route making and safe leadership.
Once the walk had been plotted and trialled by the group, guidebooks were written. These had fully comprehensive route instructions, but also contained reflections which complemented the landscape and explored passages from the Bible. These guides can be used by individuals, but regular guided pilgrimages are offered throughout the summer months.
In addition to route-specific guides, a number of generic ‘pilgrim companions’ were written (see resources section of this website)
The results were exciting. The deanery was undertaking mission in a new, rural way, bringing an increased understanding of our faith and the spirituality of the outdoors to a new cross-generation group of people. The walks encouraged deep conversations as well as times of silence and prayer. Young and old engaged in an activity together, enabling different generations to get to know each other. Hospitality was offered by those who couldn’t take part in the pilgrimage itself- and gratefully accepted!
This pattern can be duplicated in other benefices, deaneries and even dioceses – all it takes is a group of people, enthusiasm – and a good walk!