Thursday, 21 March 2013

A pagan and a pilgrim

This week BBC Four is showing a beautifully filmed programme looking at the lingering holiness to be found amid trees and mountains, the third part in the TV series based on my book. It contains some surprises and fascinating insights into the way Britain became a Christian country, as presenter Ifor ap Glyn (pictured above at Roche chapel in Cornwall) continues his journey.

The BBC decided to call its series Pagans and Pilgrims: Britain’s Holiest Places, and this week we do actually get to meet a pagan at last, Philip Carr-Gomm. He is a druid and author whose extensive list of books bears an uncanny similarity to my own smaller list of works. Philip’s input proves worthy of being honoured in the programme’s title, an intelligent and sympathetic account of the way Christianity adapted itself to Britain’s sacred landscape.

When 6th century missionaries arrived in England from Rome, there were pagan temples across the country, with henges, sacred trees, mountain crags and holy springs that had long been revered by the people of Britain. The word ‘pagan’ was originally a term used to describe country people, rustic believers rather than sophisticated thinkers from the cities. Another term for paganism would be ‘folk religion’.

Such local spiritual expression found a rather more sympathetic hearing from the new religion of Christianity than one might expect. The most striking example I encountered while researching my book is one we visit in the programme, a mysterious henge church at Knowlton in Dorset. Philip and I are pictured at Knowlton above.

Some beautiful aerial shots – beyond my means as a humble guidebook writer – demonstrate the spiritual continuity of this alluring sacred site. Knowlton is a pre-Christian earthwork henge with the remnants of a grove of ancient yew trees at one end, just visible beside my left ear in the photo above. This is a sacred site from pagan times where unknown ceremonies were conducted.

And in the middle of the sweeping henge circle stands a church, now fallen into ruin. Two of our country's main religions have been and gone here, yet a sense of them still lingers strongly, a story of continuity etched rather deeper in the landscape than we might credit.

At the end of our programme, presenter Ifor ap Glyn visits Pendle Hill, where the inspirational Christian leader George Fox had a founding vision of the Quaker movement in the 17th century. Ifor reflects on the sometimes troubled relationship between Christianity and the remnants of pagan spirituality to be found in our landscape.

George Fox’s antipathy towards traces of pagan superstition is now commonplace in Christian thinking. Yet it wasn’t always like this.

Rather than abandon our pagan holy places, Britain’s early missionaries were instructed on no less an authority than the Pope himself to assimilate them into Christian places of worship, destroying only the idols contained within. Such a deeply held sense of belonging, of place, of community and of continuity with the past are the cornerstones of any religion. They satisfy a human need and remain almost universally appealing to people of any faith and none.

Yet such witness is almost never heard in the language expressed by the church today. Are we richer or poorer for withdrawing from Britain’s outdoor holy places, abandoning these spaces to the National Trust and English Heritage to interpret?

As always, I would encourage people to look, to visit, to experience… and make up their own minds. Our landscape is broad enough and old enough to provoke any number of opinions and reactions.

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