A deliverance proposed and accepted at last year’s General Assembly of the Church of Scotland reversed centuries of the Church’s hostility to the ancient practice of Pilgrimage and affirmed its place in the life of the Kirk. Congregations were asked to explore the opportunities for pilgrimage locally, in a modern-day setting.
The tradition of pilgrimage is seeing a resurgence in Scotland, with six major Pilgrim Routes under development, and the popularity of spiritual journeying is increasing yearly. Pilgrimage offers a way to explore spiritual values in the context of our surrounding landscape, heritage, art and devotion. Pilgrimage is recreation and re-creation, for all tastes, ages, cultures and backgrounds.
Scotland is well placed to offer opportunities for contemporary pilgrim journeys. Our surroundings are varied – expansive, austere, urban, rural – steeped in thousands of years of spirituality, from stone circles to modern-day churches, mosques and temples. At a time of declining Sunday church attendance, pilgrimage offers a way for people to reconnect with their spirituality and with the church.
Christian pilgrimage can be traced to the 1st century AD, when Jerusalem and other biblical cities became popular destinations. Known as “People of the Way” – a title used by the 2016 Moderator, the Very Reverend Dr. Russell Barr, as his theme for that year’s General Assembly – these early Christians were instructed to travel in order to spread the good news. As a result, saints and their journeys became associated with special places: in Galloway for example, Saint Ninian and Whithorn; Robert the Bruce, who is said to have suffered from leprosy, travelled twice to Whithorn to pray for relief from his illness.
The Middle Ages was a time of popular pilgrimage, but during the Reformation people rebelled against abuses such as selling pardons for sins and making money from supposedly sacred objects such as saints’ clothing, hair or bones. Pilgrimage fell out of favour, but now this way of worship is attracting many more “People of the Way”. The journey is as important as the destination.
With this background in mind, what I am proposing is that we at Max West Church respond to the remit from the General Assembly and actively explore the opportunities for pilgrimage locally. My local pilgrimage proposal is based on the Ruthwell Heritage Trail. This attractive (particularly in Spring) and interesting walking route visits the Brow Well and the Savings Bank Museum along the way, featuring quiet lanes and tracks, a woodland walk amongst bluebells and a path along the Solway Merse, finishing at Ruthwell Church with its magnificent Ruthwell Cross.
This cross is thought to date back to around 680 AD and is one of the most famous and elaborate Anglo-Saxon monumental sculptures, a rare treasure surviving from the Dark Ages in Britain. Ironically, the General Assembly of 1664 ordered that the cross, “this idolatrous monument”, be completely destroyed. Courageously, the Reverend Gavin Young hid the cross in the clay floor of the church. In 1818, the Reverend Dr. Henry Duncan recognised the relevance of the fragments and restored the cross in the Manse garden.
In 1887, the Reverend James McFarlan built an apse in the church to house the cross. Now, after an extensive renovation, the Ruthwell Cross has been restored to its former glory, featuring intricate inscriptions in Latin, and, more unusually for a Christian monument, the Runic alphabet.
If you are interested in joining this initial pilgrimage, which does not necessarily have to be completed on foot, and would like to hear more, please get in touch either at church, by telephone or by email.
Plans for future pilgrimages include Glenluce Abbey to St Ninian’s Cave and Garlieston to the Isle of Whithorn. DJ