Pilgrimage is a phrase that tends to be associated with a more catholic spirituality. But it’s the best term I can find to describe the people who every week return to St Michael le Belfrey Church to thank God for touching their lives. These people came to faith here. Or experienced God’s Spirit in a new, deep and profound way. Or saw a vibrant model of church that gave them fresh vision, passion and hope. I meet many of these pilgrims and feel profoundly grateful to be the leader of a church with such a great legacy. May it continue in the coming generations!
I was lecturing in Nottingham yesterday at St John’s College, on the spirituality of David Watson. I only just made it in time, having a difficult journey through snow and rush-hour traffic, but what I shared was well received and it prompted some interesting questions. One question was about pilgrimage and travelling. I had mentioned in my lecture how David had visited the Anaheim Vineyard Church in the USA in 1981 and had been radically challenged as he observed amazing miracles of healing and people dramatically encountering the Spirit of God. I was asked whether it was ok to go to a different place to seek some kind of blessing from God, or should we wait to receive at home?
David Watson’s experience is interesting. It was whilst away in the United States that he had a fresh experience of God – so much so that his wife Anne told me he returned ‘a different person’ with fresh faith, boldness, courage and conviction! That came to him whilst he was away. Read the Acts of the Apostles, and you’ll see that well over half of the people recorded who encounter God do so whilst away from home. Sounds to me like pilgrimage.
Go back to 1964. David had not yet come to York. He was a much younger man, in his late 20’s living in Cambridge. He was being used to help others find faith and yet he knew his experience of God was lacking. He studied revival history and longed to see more of that in his day. He read the Acts of the Apostles and sensed a huge gap between the life of the earliest church and the church of his day. He looked again at the Beatitudes (in Matthew 5) and sensed God tell him that if he wanted to see revival, revival needed to started in him. So he prayed. He called out to God. He devoured the Scriptures. And after a few months God met with him and filled him with his Spirit, pouring in his love and power in a way that shaped his life and ministry for the coming years. He didn’t travel. He didn’t go somewhere. He stayed at home. However it was a pilgrimage of sorts – a spiritual pilgrimage. He knew he needed to go on a journey in his life with God. A journey, interestingly, that took some months.
So pilgrimage is important. Journeying to a new place with God and for God. That can happen at home. But for most of us at some point that will involve discovering something fresh about life, faith and discipleship by travelling to a different place. That was David Watson’s experience in 1981. It was the experience two thousand years ago of the many visitors in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) when God’s Spirit was poured out in great power. And it can be your experience and mine, if we’re willing to go on pilgrimage.
But what’s it for? Is it just so we feel better about our faith? Or stronger in ourselves? No. It’s for the sake of a bigger purpose – a greater vision. It’s for mission. It’s for others. It’s for the transformation of the church and for the world. Writing in 1978 David put it like this: ‘How many seriously long for and pray for a powerful spiritual renewal or revival? How many understand that only this will save the church from death and the world from disaster?’
Are there women and men in our day who are willing to go on the timely and costly pilgrim journey, for the sake of renewal and revival in our region and in our nation?
A pertinent and powerful piece – which invites a fresh consideration of where we are on the journey of faith. I am sure we need to recover the sense of pilgrimage as integral to the Christian way – not least in respect of the instiutional church: our forms and structures are never more than provisional – for we are called to be a people on the move, discovering ever more of God’s grace and power.