Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Pilgrimage and the City: Studying English Cathedrals

Simon Coleman, Tiina Sepp and Marion Bowman describe their ongoing collaboration on the "Pilgrimage and England’s Cathedrals" project. By exploring the links between space and different kinds of subjectivities, they propose 'cathedral consciousness' as a means to understanding the diverse functions of modern English cathedrals.

MLA citation format:
  Coleman, Simon, Tiina Sepp and Marion Bowman
"Pilgrimage and the City: Studying English Cathedrals"
Web blog post. Material Religions. 27 July 2016. Web. [date of access]  

What are cathedrals for? This is a question that we have been thinking about for a couple of years, as we collaborate on a project called “Pilgrimage and England’s Cathedrals, Past and Present.” [i] Our research explores English cathedrals as sites of pilgrimage but also as culturally, architecturally and socially significant locations within urban contexts. Three of the cathedrals we’re focusing on are both Anglican and ancient: Canterbury, Durham, and York. One is Roman Catholic and much more recent: Westminster Cathedral—a Victorian building whose construction in London between 1895 and 1903 boosted the public profile of Roman Catholicism in a country where it was still viewed with some suspicion by Protestant evangelicals. [ii] 

Fig. 1 Courtyard leading to entrance of Westminster Cathedral, London. (Photo: Marion Bowman)
One answer to our question comes from a distinguished sociologist of secularization, Steve Bruce, who published a book in 1996 called Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults. The first chapter of the book includes a kind of sociological eulogy for what Bruce calls “the great Christian cathedrals of the Middle Ages,” [iii] which have now given way to a very different kind of faith. By definition, the cult does not dominate space as a cathedral does. It flourishes by catering to the diffuse sovereign consumerism of an individualizing society. 

But what are we to make of Bruce’s argument in relation to our project on cathedrals? Has our question already been answered? Let us juxtapose his view with the writing of another sociologist of contemporary religion, Grace Davie. In a recent piece, entitled “Thinking Spatially about Religion,” she notes that “in the 1970s these iconic buildings were frequently referred to as dinosaurs, large and useless.” [iv] What is striking, however, is that current evidence tells us that the constituencies for cathedrals are now growing rapidly, consisting of both regular and less regular worshippers, as well as “more transient communities of pilgrims and tourists.” Davie suggests that cathedrals appeal to the senses as much as to the intellect: they are “places that pay attention to aesthetics of worship, to music, to art, to liturgy, to worship”. In addition, she notes, they are “places where the individual can find space to reflect” in contexts of relative anonymity, thus avoiding the sometimes overly warm embrace of a parish church; and, finally, “these are places where…the nation… articulates its past.” 

Davie’s claims for the continued salience of cathedrals are backed up by the statistician Peter Brierley’s 2005 English Church Census, which revealed a 21% rise in attendance at Anglican cathedral services between 2000 and 2004. [v] Furthermore, a 2012 report, significantly called ‘Spiritual Capital’, dangles a tempting sociological morsel in front of those who would see cathedrals as centres of Anglican revival, suggesting that “their impact on and significance for English life extends far beyond their role as tourist destinations.” [vi] Indeed, a frankly astonishing 27 per cent of the adult population of England visited an Anglican cathedral at least once in the year before the Report came out. [vii] This number adds up to around 11 million adults, covers the entire demographic spectrum, and includes Christians, non-Christians, and non-believers. What is more, many visitors say that their interest is not just about tourism and heritage, but also about getting in touch with the spiritual, however that is defined. [viii] 

It is under such circumstances that pilgrimage represents a fascinatingly problematic and yet fertile practice in relation to cathedrals. The religious buildings that we are studying are not remote shrines, where much of the pilgrim’s focus might simply be on the arduous and exceptional journey to get there; they are located in urban centres. Nor is pilgrimage necessarily the main rationale of each institution. Indeed, as a practice, it touches on many points of uncertainty for cathedrals and established Christianity in the UK: For instance are cathedrals as opposed to more isolated shrines the best places for pilgrimage? Where does worship end and heritage begin—not just metaphorically but materially—in spaces that house worship, tourism, art, musical performances, and university graduations? How public should a cathedral space be in the context of anonymous, urban spheres of interaction? And is gaining access to a cathedral a commercial or a spiritual transaction? 

Fig. 2 Researchers’ table in the south transept of York Minster in July 2015. (Photo: Tiina Sepp)
One of things we find interesting about juxtapositions of such varied practices is that they are describing a deeply flexible kind of religious sociability and framing, one that—adapting the phenomenologist Alfred Schütz—inhabits the ambiguous social space between Nebenmenschen (contemporaries) and Mitmenschen (consociates), where Nebenmenschen are people “only known as types, that is, distantly, formally, and solely by their roles, whereas Mitmenschen are those known as specific and idiosyncratic individuals.” [ix] Or, as we see in much tourism literature, the presence of unknown others may be vital to one’s experience of place, in positive as well as negative terms; and cathedrals can accommodate both the romantic gaze of the isolated aesthete as well as the collective gaze of the day-tripper. 

Fig. 3 Entrance charges to Canterbury Cathedral, London. (Photo: Marion Bowman)
The kinds of social, semiotic and spatial flexibility that we have been describing touch on, but do not really fit, two of the previously dominant theoretical models of pilgrimage that have been important in anthropology. The ambiguous space between contemporaries and consociates at cathedrals is scarcely covered by the Turnerian notion of communitas: [x] in the latter, identity is stripped away and levelled, as the temporarily formed fellowship of pilgrims pursues broadly common or at least commensurate goals. This notion, useful as it is, does not address the baroque multiplicity of goals and performance frames, let alone agendas, that emerge in cathedral spaces. Similarly, Eade and Sallnow’s notion of contesting the sacred can take us only so far, as it only points to one, predominantly agonistic, dimension of the forms of ritual and cultural articulation that may occur in pilgrimage, wherever the shrine is located, but most certainly in urban conurbations. [xi] We would add here that Ian Reader’s recent book on pilgrimage in the context of the market is extremely helpful in the way that it highlights the role of planning in pilgrimage, but again the central analytical metaphor is not quite flexible enough: it runs the risk of replacing sacrality with a notion of market relations as the ultimate “bottom line” of the organization of pilgrimages. [xii] The cathedrals we look at are not only in some ways deeply incoherent, they are also contexts where no single person knows what is going on in and around the numerous spatial and temporal frames of activity (though head vergers probably come the closest). There is no single bottom line, no single dimension of sociality or ritual. Indeed, as we are increasingly discovering, the rules and assumptions made by one cathedral may be very different from those evident in another. In this respect, at least, English cathedrals recall the medieval world rather than the streamlined rationality of the modern one, even as their staff are attempting to grasp what it means to be religious ‘professionals’ in a world where pilgrimage and tourism management often blend so seamlessly. 

Modalities of Pilgrimage 

So what kinds of pilgrimage-like activity take place in cathedrals? Rather than present an overview or a survey, we are simply going to explore some of the themes we have uncovered by introducing you briefly to two informants, both of whom were interviewed at Canterbury by Tiina in 2014. 

Michael the Methodist: Adjacencies and Translations 

Michael is a middle aged family man whose Methodist home congregation was located around 30 kilometers away from the cathedral. He is well acquainted with Canterbury Cathedral as he goes there four or five times a year. Here’s what he said when Tiina asked him what he thought of the cathedral—what kind of space he thought it was: 

It’s a combination. I think it’s certainly a working church. I have… friends in the diocese office here… and I know the work they do…For me it’s a spiritual place to come. ’Cause this is not my home church….I enjoy the spiritual presence that is here. I’m intrigued by pilgrimages, something in the back of my mind, that maybe in the future we may do more…. I suppose it’s also good as a religious tourist place because it brings people in…who wouldn’t come normally …I don’t see that as an important part for me….I think all faith we have and spirit has to transfer into work. 

Michael sees the cathedral as having many functions that co-exist, some of which he prioritizes over others, and one of the things we would emphasize here is how pilgrimage emerges in dialogue with other activities and spaces with which it is adjacent. Are Michael’s regular visits to the cathedral away from a congregation with a different theological emphasis classifiable as pilgrimages? There’s no simple answer to that question, but we know that the notion of pilgrimage is important to Michael’s conception of himself from what he says here and elsewhere. What’s also striking is Michael’s use of the notion of work as a kind of praxis that unites much of what goes on in the cathedral, but which seems to separates off tourism from more worshipful labours. 

Fig. 4 Tourists in Canterbury Cathedral, London. (Photo: Marion Bowman)
When Tiina asks Michael if he’s drawn to any particular part of the cathedral, he is ready with a response: 
I think there’s this… the little prayer chapel… the Martyrdom chapel. Because as you walk by, it’s quite dark in a sense but alight inside… so it’s quiet and because there’s a sign saying it’s reserved for prayer, people tend to respect that and they don’t come in talking. So for me… I can go there and I can be silent in it. And that’s a place that drew me. 

This expresses a trope that we have often come across so far: the cathedral being capacious enough to house not only large numbers of people, but also spaces of temporary retreat and silence, involving awareness of, but distance from, others, who may be contemporaries or consociates in Schütz’s terms. 

Clearly we see a kind of ‘cathedral consciousness’ emerging in this interview, related to Michael’s separation from everyday life and his home congregation and his journey to a large-scale, multi-dimensional liturgical space. This sense is reinforced as Michael’s interview then ventures away from Canterbury itself, and presents an array of linked cathedral experiences that covers his biography as well as his experience of Britain as place of both indigenous and personal history and powerful landscape. We can only hint at the complexity of what I think he is saying here, as he weaves together walking in the wilderness, Holy Island in the North East of the country, St David’s cathedral in Wales, and finally York Minster—the latter located near to Michael’s birthplace and, as he puts it, “the one that really centres me”. But it is St David’s that contributes to a radical change in his life:

Yes, I was on holiday and something was happening in my life to change and serve and God gave me a message from Matthew 25, about the lambs and the goats … to serve him and I’d been to the cathedral and sat on the cliff top and looking at the most spectacular view you can imagine on a quiet day…and God giving that message. “Think of what I’ve given you, Michael, haven’t you been blessed? I want everyone to have the blessings, and I want you now to be a messenger of these blessings…” And I left my job in London. I sold the house…I don’t look at the architecture that much now or the stained glass windows… I sense that those hundreds of thousands of prayers... and it calms me down and it centres me…. 

Is this describing a pilgrimage? Yes and no—it takes place in and adjacent to the cathedral, on a holiday that turns into a holy-day. Is this a Protestant testimony? Again, yes and no: it is given in an interview but it contains the classic themes of conversion, of biblical text combined with God’s direct voice. And what is the cathedral doing here? It seems to be a medium for a shift in both subjectivity and work; and if so, it is an effective medium because its materiality is not all-encompassing: Michael goes to the cathedral but then sits on the cliff; and, most strikingly, there is the image of stained glass windows being converted, translated, into words, into thousands of prayers. 

Yvonne the Cleric: A Journey Through the Building 

Michael found his inspiration through his negotiated relationship with cathedrals, finding spaces to be on his own as well as engaging in journeys whose power may have come from the fact that it is difficult, and possibly futile, to decide whether they “were” or “were not” pilgrimages. After looking at his responses we then found a very different interview in our Canterbury files. Yvonne is a cleric, a religious professional, a person working with pilgrimage groups who come to Canterbury. In the first part of her interview she talks of the gradual emergence of a set of strategies to organize pilgrims, and then she talks fascinatingly about the experience of leading pilgrims through the cathedral space. Again, we can only hint at some of what she says, but here are some of her reflections on leading a candlelit pilgrimage: 

I try as we go round, I say: if you’ve clearly made Christian profession of faith, you might like to think about this. If you haven’t, you might like to think about something which is I guess [is] less Christian language but may actually end up being the same thing, really. So we start at the back and then we literally journey…. And so…before I took a group round on my own I spent some time thinking: How does the building speak of a Christian journey of faith? How can I use the building in different places to make myself a route? 

As with Michael we see here a link between space and subjectivity, but also the strategies of somebody who, unlike him, cannot dismiss the tourist as not engaging in the proper spiritual labour of praying within the cathedral. The route that Yvonne then describes is not only one that seems meaningful to her—as she remarks elsewhere she allows spirituality to prevail a little over historical detail—but also one that uses each part of the fabric of the building to make a different point: the Nave prompts talk of the almightiness of God, the arches are presented as marking one space from another and so give a sense of being in sacred space, and so on. The shrine of Becket is part of this route but only one part of a wider journey—and one that in the cathedral tour does not stop with him as historical figure but reflects instead on the hope of resurrection. This is an ambulatory ritual designed for people of faith but also those of no faith, but in any case it seems a well-considered attempt to shift from the vagaries of the journey to a precisely directed movement through architectural, historical and theological space at the same time. 

Fig. 5 The north-west transept (also known as the Martyrdom) of Canterbury Cathedral. On the left, the Chapel of Our Lady Martyrdom. On the right, exit to the Undercroft. In the centre, the Altar of the Sword-Point, commemorating St Thomas Becket’s death. (Photo: Tiina Sepp)

One kind of space that these narratives suggest is indeed the classic one of the liminal, as we see how cathedrals provide opportunities for removal from the mundane world: as Michael periodically moves from his home congregation, or as Yvonne takes believer and non-believer alike on candlelit journeys through a cathedral space that has been emptied of other people. But there is also evidence of what one of us, Simon, has elsewhere called laterality: the creative construction of liturgical or at least symbolically charged behavior parallel to but at one remove from official tours and official spaces, [xiii] such as Michael’s use of the Martyrdom chapel, both rooted in the cathedral space and crucially reaching beyond it. Michael draws himself to the side of the actions of others, creating his own frame of ritual practice that again is adjacent to, possibly even echoes, those of others, but is still separated from them. 

Our brief comments and examples have been emphasizing the continued religious salience of cathedrals as places of pilgrimage, but have also been blurring theological and theoretical edges and worrying at sharp boundaries: presenting the city cathedral as urban and liturgical space at one and the same time and the pilgrimage as both strategy and improvisation, both following and straying from well-worn paths. We want to finish with a final blurring of the boundaries, and it relates to our project itself. Where are we as researchers located in the capacious liturgical, bureaucratic, and socially flexible spaces provided by cathedrals? We are of course both observers of cathedral strategy and inevitably part of it. In reporting what we observe to such sophisticated caretakers of sacred buildings, we become research objects and subjects ourselves, providing further means through which cathedrals can identify new spaces of action in the twenty-first century. 


i. For details of the project, go to Researchers on the AHRC-funded project are Dee Dyas (PI), Tiina Sepp (Researcher), John Jenkins (Researcher) (all York University), Marion Bowman (Co-PI, Open-University), and Simon Coleman (Co-PI, University of Toronto). Note that all interviewees’ names are pseudonyms.

ii. Canterbury Cathedral was the leading pilgrimage centre in medieval England and large areas of the building were shaped by and still show the influence of the cult of St Thomas Becket. Durham Cathedral contains the shrines and remains of St Cuthbert and Bede, and Cuthbert holds a unique place as a symbol of the region. York Minster contains the tombs of two archbishop martyr ‘saints’, William FitzHerbert, nephew of King Stephen, who was murdered in 1154; and Richard Scrope, executed for treason in 1405. Westminster Cathedral has the shrine and relics of the seventeenth century English martyr, St John Southworth. 

iii. Steve Bruce, Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). 

iv. For this and other quotes in this paragraph, see Grace Davie, “Thinking Spatially about Religion,” Culture and Religion 13, no. 4(2012): 486. 

vii. Ibid.: 15. 

viii. Mathew Guest, Elizabeth Olson and John Wolffe, “Christianity: Loss of Monopoly,” in Religion and Change in Modern Britain, eds. Linda Woodhead and Rebecca Catto (London, Routledge, 2012), 57-78. 

ix. Michael Carrithers, “Anthropology as a Moral Science of Possibilities,” Current Anthropology 46, no. 3 (2005): 433-456. 

x. Victor Turner and Edith Turner, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Anthropological Perspectives (New York, Columbia University Press, 1978). 

xi. John Eade and Michael Sallnow eds, Contesting the Sacred: The Anthropology of Christian Pilgrimage (London: Routledge, 1991). 

xii. Ian Reader, Pilgrimage in the Marketplace (London, Routledge, 2014). 

xiii. Simon Coleman, “Ritual Remains: Studying Contemporary Pilgrimage,” in Michael Lambek and Janice Boddy eds, A Companion to the Anthropology of Religion (Oxford, Blackwell, 2014), 294-308; also Simon Coleman, “Pilgrimage as Trope for an Anthropology of Christianity,” Current Anthropology 55, suppl. 10 (2014): 281-291.