New project investigates role of pilgrimage past and present

The award of a major grant means that an innovative three-year research project will analyse the role of pilgrimage in the past and its renewed popularity today, exploring parallels with the decline and revival of interest in England’s cathedrals.

The £806,000 Art and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project is based in the Centre for Pilgrimage Studies, an international, interdisciplinary centre within the History Department at the University of York. 'Pilgrimage and England's cathedrals, past and present' will involve researchers from York, the Open University and the University of Toronto.

'Pilgrimage and England's cathedrals, past and present' will centre on historical and contemporary case studies of four cathedrals – Canterbury, York, Durham and Westminster – chosen to represent a range of historical, geographical and social settings.
Using a ground-breaking combination of methods, researchers will examine pilgrimage and engagement with sacred sites in England from the 11th to the 21st centuries, assess the growing significance of England’s cathedrals as sacred/heritage/tourist sites today, and suggest ways to enhance visitor experiences in the future.

Principal Investigator Dr Dee Dyas, Director of the York Centre for Pilgrimage Studies, said: “This project is set against the background of the worldwide growth of pilgrimage and the increasing importance of sacred sites. Today’s cathedrals are increasingly refocusing on and reinstating shrines, reflecting an international multi-faith phenomenon in which an estimated 200 million people across the world are undertaking various forms of ‘religious’ pilgrimage annually.”

As well as seeing growing congregations, England’s cathedrals are visited by a large and diverse group of people. A recent report revealed that 27 per cent of adults resident in England had visited an Anglican cathedral at least once in the previous year. Of those visitors, over 40 per cent came from faith traditions other than Christianity or had no religious affiliation.

As part of the project, two post-doctoral researchers, Dr John Jenkins and Dr Tiina Sepp, will be carrying out detailed case studies of the four chosen cathedrals. They will be looking at questions such as how cathedrals were shaped by pilgrimage in the past; the motivations and experiences of today’s visitors; and what cathedrals can mean to individuals and communities in modern society.

Co-investigator Dr Marion Bowman, from the Religious Studies Department at the Open University, said: “Working in partnership with visitors and service providers, we will get a clearer picture of what is happening in relation to cathedrals - and indeed the broader socio-religious scene - in 21st century England. Not only will our combined findings inform (and possibly challenge) a range of academic disciplines, we hope to play a part in enhancing visitor experiences and provision, tourism strategies and heritage management in English cathedrals.”

Co-investigator Professor Simon Coleman, from the Department for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto, added: “Cathedrals are amongst the most visible, distinctive and longest-lasting buildings in our cities, and this project is a fantastic opportunity to trace their shifting but continued significance in English urban and religious life. We look forward to working across academic disciplines but also with those who work in cathedrals every day to increase our understanding and appreciation of these meeting-places for so many parts of society.”

The research will result in books, journal articles, conferences, a website and resources for schools and the general public, as well as an interactive animated visualization of medieval pilgrims’ experience at Canterbury Cathedral. See the project website for more details: