John Sentamu: A pilgrim’s progress in the company of Christ

Whitby's St Mary's Church, in front of the ruins of the abbey founded by St Hilda, is the starting point for the Archbishop of York's six-month long pilgrimage on foot around the diocese.
Whitby's St Mary's Church, in front of the ruins of the abbey founded by St Hilda, is the starting point for the Archbishop of York's six-month long pilgrimage on foot around the diocese.
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ON Tuesday, I will be setting out on a six-month Diocesan Pilgrimage of Prayer, Witness and Blessing across the Diocese of York, an area which spans the Humber to the Tees and from the A1 to the coast.

I will begin on Tuesday with early Morning Prayer at St Mary’s Whitby, and will be walking a fair distance each day from the coast, over moor and dale, along highways and byways and through both rural and urban communities.

I will finish at York Minster on Trinity Sunday (May 22, 2016). Throughout, I hope to meet all kinds of people, to pray with them, and to encourage them to encounter Jesus Christ, and bless what God is doing.

I did something a little like this once before. Back in 2005, I set out to complete a 280-mile trek around the Diocese of Birmingham where I was a Bishop at the time.

Starting out near the Lickey Hills, having arrived riding pillion on a motorbike, I walked through Longbridge, Northfield, Bournville, Edgbaston and on to Birmingham Cathedral for an Ash Wednesday service. The service was to mark the centenary of the founding of the Diocese of Birmingham. I found, just as his first disciples discovered, that it is a great adventure and privilege, as well as a challenge, to set out “on the road” with Jesus.

The vision for my Pilgrimage lies in the roots of our Christian Heritage. As I have prayed and waited on God, I have been inspired by the great Northern Saints, such as Aidan, Cuthbert, Hilda and Paulinus, who took to the road to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. As part of his life Aidan had to work out a balance between the sanctuary, the refectory and the road. Prayer, shared food, and journeying marked out the rhythm of his days. When Aidan met someone on the road, he would ask them if they had encountered Jesus Christ. If they said “no”, he would talk with them until they were ready to start their own journey to get to know the wonderful Saviour. If they said “yes”, he would pray with them and teach them a Psalm.

There are many reasons for these journeys, but most are generally connected personally with an important life event or a once-in-a-lifetime event taking place.

A cup final at the amazing Wembley Stadium for many is something to be treasured and remembered long before and after the game takes place, even if one’s team loses out on the big day.

Of course pilgrimage is not unique to the Christian faith. Setting out on journeys of faith is something as old as humanity itself. It is a striking feature of all the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

I would like to think that in my journey I am in some way identifying with all who set out on journeys, looking for a land of promise where God’s rule of justice reigns supreme; for freedom from oppression, for justice, or for peace.

Whether we journey as pilgrims or as refugees, God is there for us, and will meet us as we set out, as we travel on, and as we reach our journey’s end. At every stage of the journey, God is with us. It is not surprising that in the first days of the Church, before the name “Christian” was used, Jesus’ followers were called “followers of the Way”.

In Christian baptism, we are given a chance to enter a new creation made possible by Jesus’s death and resurrection. It is the start of an adventure, a journey in which God promises to be with us, no matter what. He is there in the good times and in the bad times. But the decision to start again, to embark on this journey, is a bold step to make.

Many of us also don’t like change. We like things to be familiar. But restoration and renewal are essential for life, and this can mean being ready to venture out, to take risks, for the sake of what lies further ahead.

As the winter sets in – and I am going to experience that winter in a way I have never done before this year – I shall be longing, as I walk each day,for the year to turn, for longer, brighter days to come, and for the welcome signs of spring!

Cuthbert and Aidan had good reason to encourage people to learn the Psalms and recite them day by day. The Psalms are like a treasure chest of prayers that you can dip in and out from. There’s something in them for everyone, wherever we are up to in life. There are laments for when everything seems to have gone wrong, and these go side by side with Psalms of praise.

Recent world events may well lead us to a place of lamentation, even of apparently inconsolable grief. But somehow the Psalms help us to find a place of praise even in the midst of lamentation.

When all seems lost, God is still there, and because of Jesus we know that love will win through. For me the Psalms are like a familiar home, a place of belonging.

It will be reassuring to know these words have been said for thousands of years and that their message of God’s love, which Aidan and other Northern Saints proclaimed as they walked across the North of England, is just as relevant today as it was then.

I am setting out to pray for and with everyone I meet on my Pilgrimage in this fantastic place that we call God’s Own County! I want to share the possibility for a real encounter with Jesus Christ.

It is many years now since I set 
out to follow him. On my journey, I 
want to encourage others to do the same. I am looking forward to a lot 
of laughter and shared friendship 
along the way, as well as some 
struggle, as I seek to bring God’s blessing to people and make God’s loving welcome known to everyone I meet along the way.

I’m not afraid of the unknown because I know that God is already there. If you find taking risks very challenging, just try it.

We may never know what is on the horizon, but with God in our lives, we can be filled with hope that something better lies ahead.

See you on the road! 


Dr John Sentamu is the Archbishop of York. To follow and share in his journey, please visit http://pilgrimage.archbishopofyork.org from Monday.