Those travelling with Geoffrey Chaucer can scarcely have imagined that 600 years later they would have been remembered for all the stories they told each other while on their pilgrimage to Canterbury. But in 2019 a pilgrimage is still as much about people as places. Those you travel with share their stories, their lives, and those you meet en route will often do the same, with you personally or with the whole group.
We started on a snowy morning at Luton airport on the first of February. Enough of us to fill a sixty seater coach. Led by the avuncular Bishop Stephen (only his mother can call him Steve) we were from parishes all over the diocese plus one or two from further afield - a retired solicitor from Rugby and Manasses, a priest from Ruanda. Low church, high church, extremely high church, and the not quite sure church, a typical sample from across the C of E.
Why were we all there? Many reasons. The buildings and places we visited criss-crossed Biblical tradition and Palestinian history, ancient and modern. The ruined stones of King David's city 3,000 years old were within sight of the great barrier wall started only twenty years ago to control the movement of Palestinians in and out of Israeli controlled territory. There were remarkable people: the nuns of the home for abandoned babies in Bethlehem; the elderly Christian Palestinian ladies at a day centre who danced for us. In the evenings we met more: the new principal of the Anglican theological college in Jerusalem, full of his ambassadorial role liaising with the leaders of Orthodox, Catholic, Moslem and Jewish groups; the two fathers, one Jewish, one Palestinian, members of the group Family Circle who travel round Israel and the West Bank pleading for peace and reconciliation. Their qualifications? The loss of daughters in the conflict aged 14 and 10.
Days were punctuated by services. Morning prayers on the bus, Eucharist on the shores of Lake Galilee, reflections at the Stations of the Cross.
Things are calmer now in Palestine than when I last came three years ago. So there are more tourists. Many more. From all over the world: Chinese, Koreans, Colombians, Poles. The major sites are a babble of different languages as groups hussle past eachother.
Perhaps that is what this pilgrimage has been most, a chance to rub up against humanity, from near and far, and think for a few days on what we all have in common. Is it curiosity, is it faith, or is it just a capacity to challenge ourselves while sharing our own stories for a few days?