History of the Glastonbury Pilgrimage

Before the annual Pilgrimage started in 1924, there were three great occasions in Glastonbury, all worth recalling. After the 1897 Lambeth Conference, when the Abbey was still owned by the Austin family, 130 Bishops including 32 from the United States came to Glastonbury, many taking the 0940 from Waterloo on the 3rd August at the cost of a guinea, and arriving three and a half hours later.

After lunch, they repaired to St John’s to robe and at 3.15 processed to the Abbey for Evensong. The Archbishop of Canterbury presided and the Bishop of Stepney preached. After tea with the Austins at what is now the Abbey Retreat House, their hosts collected them for the night and next day attended services at Wells Cathedral.

The next occasion in 1907. followed the purchase of Abbey House, Ruins and Gardens for £30,000 by Mr Jardine, Tory candidate for East Somerset, on behalf of the Bishop of Bath & Wells. On the 11th October, 1908 after the money had been raised by Dr Kennion, a service of Thanksgiving before a congregation of 2000 was held in the Abbey, following a procession from St John. The last great pre-Pilgrimage event was on 22nd June 1909 when the Prince and Princess of Wales, (later King George V and Queen Mary) visited Wells to celebrate the millennary of the founding of the Diocese.

In Wells it rained. After lunch they came across to Glastonbury and the sun shone. The Prince and Princess opened the ‘new’ Abbey entrance. Following the procession from St John, a service was held in the Choir and Nave, seats in the former costing 10/-, 5/-, and 2/6d or in the Nave at a 1/-. Standing room was 6d. The deeds of the Abbey were formally presented by Dr Kennion to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Davidson, before their Royal Highnesses, 30 Bishops and a large congregation.

So to 1923, after the First World War and depression, as industry suffered from the ‘Peace Dividend’, Mr Salter, Secretary of the Chapter of St Brendon of the GSS in Bristol wrote to Fr Lionel Lewis. Vicar of St John, Glastonbury proposing The Bristol Anglo Catholic Glastonbury Pilgrimage. This coincided with an approach from the Church Union in Salisbury. All agreed on the 28th June 1924. So charabancs (coaches) principally from Bristol but also from as far away as Salisbury converged.

After a blessing from Fr Arnold Pinchard, Sec. Gen. of the E.C.U. pilgrims took tea, as many as were able crowding into The George and The Crown. Newspaper reports said that the procession from St John to the Abbey comprised some 30 priests, 400 vested, 1500 lay pilgrims. A service of ‘Vespers’ was held, the Revd Lionel Lewis preaching on a text from Nehemiah, Let us build again the walls of Jerusalem. Singing Hark the sound of holy voices, a procession returned to St John, where the Te Deum was sung as an act of Thanksgiving. This was the first Pilgrimage, essentially an afternoon affair.

We have no records of the 2nd Pilgrimage but we know that the preacher at Evensong was Bishop Wynne Wilson of Bath & Wells.

In 1926, the West of England Pilgrimage Association [W.E.P.A.] was formed under the Presidency of the Earl of Shaftesbury. Interestingly. all the Committee was lay. Mr Salter continued as Organising Secretary. Supported by 17 local Secretaries covering many towns including London, Salisbury Birmingham, Bristol and Exeter. Holy Eucharist was celebrated at 8 am in St Patrick’s Chapel and again at 11.00 am in St John.

Two letters to the press were typical of the period. One complained that it was a waste of time and that the money would have been “more profitably spent through the medium of the political platforms to secure for posterity better conditions for humanity” … the other from a Glastonbury Roman Catholic parishioner resented constant references to themselves as “the Italian Mission”.

For 1927, perhaps because a request to hold the Eucharist in the Abbey Church had been refused the year before, W.E.P.A. decided that Winchester should be the venue. So a Eucharist was sung in the Cathedral at 11am. Later a procession left the Guildhall at 3pm for Evensong in the Cathedral at which Bishop Talbot, the recently retired Bishop of

Winchester, preached. Numbers were obviously well down, under 1000; so in 1928 the Pilgrimage switched back to Glastonbury. For book and badge the charge was 2/- and a tea ticket cost 1/6d. By now the Committee comprised 8 clergy and 22 laity.

In 1930 the Earl Halifax became President and it was decided to take the pilgrimage to Cleeve Abbey. No reasons are recorded for the switch back to Glastonbury in 1931 so one must assume that the attendance was again poor. The Pilgrimage has been to Glastonbury ever since, save for its suspension during the Second World War.

In 1931 the Abbot of Nashdom celebrated at the 8am Eucharist in St Patrick’s chapel, the first time an Abbot can have celebrated in the Abbey grounds since the Dissolution.

The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. (Wiki Commons)

In 1932 a petition was presented to the Diocesan Bishop signed by 128 clergy and 3012 laity reinforcing a request first made in 1926 for permission to hold a Eucharist in the ruins, on a temporary altar on the site of the original High Altar. This was again refused, the principal reason being that “this most solemn of all services becomes a spectacle, and of its being, subject to irreverence”.

The 1935 Pilgrimage on the 6th July. was the first at which two Bishops preached, Bradford and Bristol, whilst in 1936 three attended; Taunton at 8am, Accra at 11am in St John and Llandaff at Evensong in the Abbey Church.

The total revenue for the year was £79.00 of which £11.00 came from members’ subscriptions, £41.00 from the sale of books and badges and £27.00 from collections. In 1937 and 1938, the St Martin’s Players from Bristol presented plays taken from The Little Plays of St Francis!! by Laurence Housman.

War broke out in 1939, after the Pilgrimage. Therefore the 1940 event was limited to a Eucharist held in St Joseph’s Chapel at 9.00 am and another in St John’s at 11.30, The Diocesan Bishop was celebrant at both services. There were no more processions until after the War…. During the war years “Mass was said on the Saturday within the octave of St John Baptist, in St John, Glastonbury. for the intention of the Pilgrimage”. Thus Revd Lionel Lewis kept it alive.

Through his enthusiasm the Pilgrimage was revived in 1946, though on a small scale, (12 coaches from Bristol). The Bishop of Trinidad presided.

Elected Chairman of W.E.P.A. was the Revd A.H. Luetchford of All Saints, Clifton, Harry Sharpe became Secretary, Roland Harvey, Treasurer, and Bob Godfrey. Chief Steward. News that the Archbishop of Canterbury would visit Wells in May 1947 led Lionel Lewis to invite him to lead Pilgrimage that year (elastic dates) or 1948. Dr Fisher declined as the latter clashed with Lambeth Conference. Newspapers reported 2000 pilgrims in attendance and the BBC broadcast its first radio programme lasting 15 minutes in 1948.

By 1949, our Bishops. Bradfield of Bath & Wells and Thomas of Taunton were fully involved again. A year later Lionel Lewis retired. He died in 1953, well over 80 years old. In 1950 the BBC Television Unit made the first film of the Pilgrimage. 1951 was Festival of Britain year. Before a crowd of 2000, in the evening after the Pilgrimage, there was a pageant in 10 episodes depicting the History and Legends of Glastonbury.

Thousands also attended the Roman Catholic pilgrimage at which 14 crosses, each weighing 160 lbs were processed and erected in the Convent field. The Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Godfrey, the Archbishop of Birmingham and the Bishop of Clifton attended.

Up to 1953 the pattern of the Anglican pilgrimage had been an 8am Holy Communion in St Joseph’s Chapel, a sung Eucharist (High Mass) in St John, followed by the afternoon Procession and Evensong in the Abbey. Now, Bishop Bradfield gave his consent and presence to High Mass in the ruined Abbey Church. Reports stated that 6000 pilgrims participated and the current tradition was born.

It is sad that the Minute Book of all meetings of Council and AGMs prior to 1959 has been lost, nor do we have any material on the years 1 954-1958. Thereafter there is a wealth of matter, which will be condensed here.

We have been fortunate in the support of so many Bishops, especially our own Diocesans. In the mid ’80s we conceived the idea of a ‘lead Diocese’. In 1986 our Bishops came from Salisbury, in 1987 from Gloucester, in 1989 from Oxford and 1990 from Truro. This boosted attendance from parishes, which might not otherwise have come. Successive Chairmen have invited the Archbishop of Canterbury. but without success until 1988 when Fr Peter Hawkins persuaded Dr Robert Runcie to celebrate with us the Millennium of St Dunstan, a special Glastonbury/Canterbury occasion. The Archbishop’s concern that he could not spend the evening before the Petertide ordinations with his candidates, was overcome by flying him from Manston to Yeovil ‘fixed wing’ and then direct into the Abbey grounds by helicopter provided very kindly by Westlands, for the Noon Mass. Leaving early afternoon, he was back in Canterbury by early evening. Improved motorways. faster and more comfortable coaches have brought more pilgrims from further afield.

From the ’60s to the ’80s, average numbers attending have increased from 5,000 to 8,000 and the coaches from 60/70 to 110/120. Where there were 2.000/3,000 communicants in the sixties and 3,000/4,000 in the seventies, there are 5,000 today. This has required more communion stations, the purchase of our own vessels. the need for more priests to administer.

Though some were troubled when Concelebration was introduced in 1981, it has proved acceptable. Likewise there were many debates over the form of the Mass until Series B and Rite A became our standard in 1982. The music of Dom Gregory replaced Merbecke in that year.

In 1974, the Council voted against women playing any part in the Mass, neither reading nor serving. Sentiments changed for in 1980 St John, Glastonbury provided servers, many of whom were ladies. In 1983 a young lady read the OS. lesson at Noon. At the same service licensed lay assistants, robed, of both sexes administered the chalice. Now many women deacons organise and bring parish parties to the Pilgrimage.

Ecumenically, the Pilgrimage has steadily broadened, Archimandrite Denis Kiwitz of the Orthodox Church joined the Pilgrimage in 1961 and since, in most years, the Orthodox have held services in the Undercroft, morning, afternoon or both.

Until the ’80s there was little contact between the organisers of the Roman and Anglican pilgrimages until the Convent and adjoining field was sold and the Romans chose to hold their service in the Abbey. Traditionally this was on a Sunday, so it made sense for both pilgrimages to be held on the same weekend, sharing facilities. This has happened since 1985 when all Glastonbury clergy have processed together in the afternoon at each others pilgrimages in a show of Christian unity.

From 1990 – 1992 the Bishop of Bath & Wells and the Bishop of Clifton have similarly witnessed together. Supplementary to the Pilgrimage have been the lectures which were given in the ’60s and ”70s in the U.R.C. on Glastonbury themes or a subject associated with the Abbey. by well known people like Raleigh Radford, the Revd Dr Jalland, Dr Robert Dunning. our County Historian, R.F. Treharne whose work was published in the “Glastonbury Legends” and so on. These were discontinued in 1979.

Contemporary with these were the plays. sometimes written or adapted from mediaeval plays and produced by Kenneth Janes with his “Miracles at Glastonbury” Company. These also finished when Janes returned to America in 1979.
A regular feature from 1972-1992 was the Concert given by the Choir of St John under

Robin Walker. From 1987- 1992 the Hardwicke & Quedgley Group sang modern Christian music to us. From its small beginnings the Pilgrimage has become a Holy day of praise and fellowship for all Pilgrims who attend.

On the 25th September 1993, the Pilgrimage Council voted by 15 votes to 13 that in the event of the ordination of women to the priesthood (an extract from the minutes of that meeting reads):

“Having regard to the history and aims of the Association, the Council considers it inappropriate to invite women priests to celebrate or officiate at any Pilgrimage service, This state of affairs shall continue at least up to and including the Pilgrimage 2000.”

It is the hope of the present Council that the Pilgrimage will continue to be a Celebration of the Catholic Faith of the Church of England, and a witness to the ‘integrity’ recognised by the Bishops which upholds the Catholic tradition of Holy Order of an all-male priesthood.

by John Hext, Hon. Sec., West of England Pilgrimage 1985-1992

At the Annual General meeting of the Glastonbury Pilgrimage Association on the 28th October 2000 the following resolution was carried: “Having regard to its history and aims, the Glastonbury Pilgrimage Association resolves that it remains inappropriate to invite women priests to celebrate or officiate at any pilgrimage service.”