Pilgrims’ Progress in a Pandemic Christmas

Added about 6 months ago by Gavin Wakefield

GUEST BLOG: As part of our December #ThemeOfTheMonth Gavin Wakefield, author of Saints and Holy Places of Yorkshire: A Pilgrims' Guide to God's Own County, reflects of the significance of pilgrimage to the Christmas story and the ways we can go on metaphorical ‘pilgrimage’ even in the midst of a global pandemic.

Author PhotoPilgrimage is trending: cathedrals, churches and everyone else want a piece of the action it seems. You can go on pilgrimage to a famous church or historic holy well but also your favourite football stadium or the ‘shrine’ of Elvis Presley. Even if we are still some what restricted in how far and easily we can travel, pilgrimage is still possible.

I reckon pilgrimage “is about making a journey with a purpose and an openness to personal growth and development”. If necessary, because of our own infirmity or because of pandemic restrictions, we can make that journey in our minds, or very locally. After all, as we’ve approach Christmas once again, we have remembered the familiar story with its many journeys – Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, the shepherds leaving their fields, the wise men travelling from afar, the flight of Mary, Joseph and Jesus to Egypt – in our minds and through nativity plays.

Christmas gives a particular focus to pilgrimage, with the vulnerability and helplessness of a baby in view. It sharpens the feeling of risk that a pilgrimage journey can entail. Even when the pilgrimage has to be taken in the mind there is risk if it’s to be a real pilgrimage: we are opening ourselves to the unpredictable, even wild, wind of God’s Spirit, to change us and re-make us.

I want to promote this kind of pilgrimage by helping us find our place in the local Christian story in a deeper way, to see our neighbourhoods with fresh eyes. In slightly grand terms, I have called it “re-sacralise the familiar”. In Saints and Holy Places of Yorkshire I “re-sacralise the familiar” by telling the stories behind familiar places, largely through the lives of Christians who have been significant in those places.

Besides it being a guide to the many visitors, I want people who live in these places have their eyes opened, to see beneath the surface, to know we are part of a continuing story of faith, which often goes back centuries. As we become just a little nostalgic at Christmas, I want us to recognise that the story goes back further than our own lives to those of many Christians who have walked this way before us.

In the north east of England where Sacristy Press has its home, this is quite well established with Lindisfarne and Durham and a multitude of pilgrim trails and events. I have tried to highlight some of the Christian saints and sacred sites in Yorkshire, for many of them as not as well-known as those in the north east.

It is all too easy to lose sight of what has gone before, particularly in our industrial cities, and so I have set out to develop a greater appreciation of our Christian heritage in stories of people and places.

Here is a range of people from over the centuries who have made significant contributions to the life of Yorkshire and often beyond. In many cases these are characters whose stories have inspired or challenged me for a long time, while a few are relatively new to me and been a delight to add to my own appreciation of Yorkshire’s history.

All of the people in this book understood themselves to be Christians, and some of them have been officially designated as Saints. However, God’s People go beyond priests, nuns and monks: you will also meet a king and a housewife, a lawyer and a plumber, a few business entrepreneurs and a politician. They represent many other people who have helped to form the Yorkshire character and landscape in ways that reflect their Christian commitment as they understood it in their own time. As I tell their stories I have tried to include a few thoughts on how their lives have something to say to mine and I hope to yours too.

We all know that Christmas is not schmaltzy tunes, unwanted presents or too much food. For many of us the journey through Christmas has some deep and difficult moments. In a similar way a true pilgrimage and connection with past Christians is not about plaster saints, scenic places or historic buildings. True pilgrimage connects us with God in our deep and difficult moments.

Past Christians had to deal with their own issues and find God in them. So I have written about Hilda who brought together feuding factions, in her society and in her Church too. William Wilberforce who was brought up in the busy port of Hull, working with others to end the salve trade. The now nearly forgotten Richard Oastler in the Bradford area, agitating to reform the factory system. Joseph Rowntree and his work in the chocolate and sweet factories of York, trying to promote a better way of life and work for the many. Polly and Smith Wigglesworth from humble working backgrounds who lived and shared the good news of Christ in Bradford and then throughout the world.

I have been humbled by the dedication and integrity of these people. They weren’t perfect but each of them had deep commitment to follow God’s way through Jesus Christ. Their struggles and dedication continue to challenge and inspire me on my own pilgrimage, and not just at Christmas!


Gavin Wakefield is Director of Training for Missional Ministry in the Diocese of York, overseeing a team responsible for lay and clergy development. His book Saints and Holy Places of Yorkshire is being featured as part of our December #ThemeOfTheMonth: Approaching Christmas as Pilgrims – you can get your copy here!

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