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Archbishop hosts conference on Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

Monday 1st October 2012

Today’s conference on pilgrimage to the Holy Land followed on from the July 2011 Lambeth Palace conference on Christians in the Holy Land.

With participants from Church of England dioceses, pilgrimage tour operators and Christian organisations linked to the Holy Land, the conference aimed to share ideas, resources and connections to help deepen the pilgrimage experience. The day sought to foster pilgrimages that make connections, using the resources and landmarks of the past to engage with the present, and encountering the present to transform understanding of the Bible.

Conference participantsThe participants shared their own experiences and insights on how to engage with the life of the churches and Christians in the Holy Land, how to connect across the Abrahamic faiths and with current realities experienced by different communities. The discussion reflected on ways to create an integrated pilgrimage experience, rooted in worship, that is neither a solely spiritualised experience located in the past nor a solely politicised experience focusing on contemporary issues – but rather a pilgrimage that holds both in tension in a way that stimulates searching questions and reflection on faith and the world.

Listen to the Archbishop's introduction to the Holy Land Pilgrimage Consultation [20mb, 14 mins] or read the transcript below.


Introduction to the Holy Land Pilgrimage Consultation

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams

Lambeth Palace, 01 October 2012

Welcome, everyone. I hope very much that this will be a day of stimulus and enrichment for everybody here, and that we will all be able to bring to our discussion vivid and particular memories of pilgrimage, hopes for pilgrimage, thoughts about where it has taken us, and where it might take us. In these introductory remarks I just want to offer a few very general thoughts on what pilgrimage to the Holy Land is fundamentally about, and explore a little how trying to answer that question suggests the sort of perspectives in which we might now approach it.

Why do people go and visit the Holy Land? Obviously, through Christian history, there have been very many different motives, and some of those motives are not ones that we would easily identify with these days. The sense, certainly, that there is something just intrinsically closer to God about this bit of earth and these bits of stone than anywhere else, is one about which we might rightly scratch our heads.

But we go because we are aware, as Christians, that our faith has roots in a particular time and a particular place. This soil, these stones, have been touched by the reality that has made us alive and set us on fire. We go to the Holy Land, I suggest, partly to reconnect with what has brought us alive in a particular way. The events that brought us alive happened here; we go there because of that. And we go there in the hope and the prayer that that life will be renewed in us.

That seems to me the most fundamental level at which pilgrimage works, whether it is to the Holy Land or to other holy places. Something has happened here which has made a difference. It is a difference that has touched us and changed us. We want to make sure that we are really inhabiting that difference, understanding it, praying through it, getting our heads and our hearts around it more fully. And so we go and we do all those not very rational and not very modern things – kneeling in particular spots, rubbing our hands on particular bits of stone. Just one of my memories from the very first pilgrimage I led to the Holy Land was of watching a very average group of Anglicans from South Wales increasingly “going native” as the week went on, rubbing stones a bit more and kneeling down a bit more and crossing themselves a bit more and kissing things even. Gradually finding that the very material they were encountering was reminding them of the difference at the heart of their own faith. So we go there looking for a better understanding of that. Something has made new things possible on this spot in this way. There is no way of being a Christian without recognising that very particular local dimension to our faith.

Then of course come the complications. When I was a student I was taught by a very remarkable and rather complicated philosopher called Donald MacKinnon. He used to give lectures in Cambridge on tragedy, and they were very hard work indeed. Among the things that he often underlined was one theme that he came back to again and again: the events of the life of Jesus make possible the life of grace. They also make possible a whole lot of other things. In a rather important sense, they make possible the history of Christian anti-Semitism.

How an earth do we get our minds and our hearts around that? But that is the second dimension of pilgrimage, especially to the Holy Land. The events that took place here on this soil and these stones made possible the new life for us, but because history is never simple and never innocent, they also set off a chain of other events. Among those events is indeed, as Donald Mackinnon used to say, the tragic history of the conflict between Christianity and Judaism – the failure of Christians and Jews to find a way somehow of inhabiting that land together, inhabiting God’s promises together in a way that wasn’t violent and contemptuous and mutually rejecting. All of that comes from those same events.

In so far as the rise of Islam is part of Jewish and Christian history – that is a very slanted way of putting it, but that is one way of reading the story – then that too feeds into ‘what did all this here on this spot make possible’ and the rest of our history. History, I said, isn’t innocent. History moved on and the purpose of God expressed radiantly, uniquely, transcendently in one moment, is constantly captured by the agenda of human beings with all their capacity to rivalry and to violence.

Now I underline that, not just to wring hands over how difficult it all is, but simply to say that in going on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, in a very particular way we are up against that tension between the act and purpose of God and what human beings do with it. If we are going to go more deeply into what God did to change the world in Palestine, we also have to go more deeply into the ways in which we and others have taken that gift and made it often something toxic, something destructive, and at the very least something deeply conflict-ridden.

So there is no way in which we can ignore the Holy Land and there is no way in which we can ignore, when we go to the Holy Land, that great trail of history that begins with the events of scripture, the events of the gospels. So when we go, we need not just to take several pairs of spectacles, we need almost to take several hearts. ‘Jerusalem for the testing of hearts’ says the old rabbinical saying, and I think those of us who know Jerusalem a bit will know a little of how that feels when you go there. It’s still the place where you are tested in your compassion, your understanding, your patience, your faith, your trust, that in spite of all that confused history, what happened there really was the pivot on which everything turns and is.

It’s because of all that, that when we visit the Holy Land we try to avoid that kind of pious theme-park approach, which is only interested in what happened 2000 years ago, or in some slightly sanitised and Sunday School version of it. But we also try and avoid the equal and opposite error of saying we are faced with a whole lot of incomprehensible, insoluble contemporary political problems – and we let our attention be sucked into that without understanding what the gospel is that draws us there in the first place. The challenge for any pilgrim, I think, is to be there in the spirit and reality of the gospel which was proclaimed and realised in that place; to be there with our eyes fully open. Simply having our eyes open to the problems without the roots in the gospel isn’t any good; simply thinking that the gospel is a sort of theme-park isn’t any good either.

Now, there are any number of things that will make attempts to distract us from that demanding balancing act that pilgrimage involves. There will be immense pressures, very understandable and real pressures, here and now, to take a stand – to be there simply as advocates, simply as partisans. I am not condemning advocacy or partisanship at all, but I am suggesting that pilgrimage is something a bit different. Equally, it is no good coming back with that sanitised picturesque version of what is going on, which ignores what has been made possible since. All of us, I think, will have experiences to share about that ‘tightrope’ as I call it, and the ways in which we’ve felt those diverse pressures.

Thinking back to another of my experiences, I led a pilgrimage there 12 years ago with a very large group from the Church in Wales – a millennium pilgrimage, which was partly so that we could go and visit the project that we supported in Gaza, a mobile dental clinic. In that large group there were many people who had little knowledge of the background, but liked the idea of a trip to the Holy Land. After one day in which we had been both to Yad Vashem and, thanks to the good offices of Sabeel, to one of the villages devastated by the Nakba, several people came to me at dinner and said, “Can we just sit and talk after dinner about this? Because our emotions are in chaos.” We sat on the roof of the hotel in Jerusalem, nearly a hundred of us, trying to make corporate sense of all this. It was a long and hard evening. But having one’s emotions in chaos is no bad place to be, at some point at least, in the Holy Land. That was the moment when I realised, perhaps more than ever before, just how essential it is to make the connections and talk them through as part of the pilgrimage experience, and just how essential it is not to rush to whatever conclusion your emotions are suggesting to you any one moment. Because, like London buses, there will be another emotion along in a moment and it will be a very different one.

We all in this room have views about those emotionally-charged issues – about the occupation, about anti-Semitism, about Zionism, about settlements. So we should; and we should be willing to think, explore, pray and articulate all of that. But as I say, in thinking simply about pilgrimage to start with, we are thinking about the process of journeying into what is there, rather than instantly looking for what we bring out of it.

I am actually not one of those who think it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. The point of travelling hopefully is you have to get there, and part of what we are thinking and praying about when we are in a context like the Holy Land, is that our judgement and our vision on the far side of it will be more just. Just, in every sense – just to the purposes of God, and just to the needs of God’s human creatures. That is part of what is in the distance. But we will get to that kind of justice, I think, by the patient absorption of all those conflicting emotions, all of those difficult experiences of the diverse, tangled history that the events of 2000 years ago made possible – just as they make possible our own faith and hope and love.

So perhaps one of the questions that might be around today, especially for those who have got a fair bit of experience of travelling in the Middle East, is: how have I experienced the gospel when on pilgrimage? In what ways and at what moments have I sensed the active presence of the good news when I have been travelling? That may be in an experience in a traditional pilgrimage site, it may be in a conversation with somebody in a clinic, it may be in the desert, it may be in the streets of the Old City, it may be in any number of contexts. But perhaps that is just something to draw out as a way of orienting ourselves to the other more complex questions that we are after.

© Rowan Williams 2012


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