The Christian faith in Britain stretches back as far as the third and fourth centuries AD. While not as old as churches in the Middle East, there is still a vast history of places which have had spiritual significance over the generations.
God is everywhere, of course, but certain places come to be associated with experiences of God – what the Celtic Christians described as 'thin places'. There are also other locations which have been significant in the Christian history of the country.
American readers may note that the pound is currently at a low ebb and may be eyeing a trip across the pond. For visitors from near and far, here is a list of 10 places to visit which have a spiritual significance...
Iona is an island in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. In 563AD a monk called Columba arrived from Ireland with 12 or 13 followers where he founded a monastery. Columba was a key part of the conversion of Scotland to Christianity, while the isle of Iona itself became a renowned centre of Christian learning and prayer. By the 12th Century a large Abbey had been built and it continued to be a powerhouse of Christian faith until it was abandoned during the Reformation. In 1938 a Church of Scotland minister, George MacLeod, started an ecumenical community on the island which has thrived in the years since. The island's beauty and history make for a potent combination.
Whitby Abbey shares some of the historic trajectory of Iona, yet arguably its place in Christian history in Britain is even more important. Whitby, now in North Yorkshire but in the 7th Century AD a part of the Kingdom of Northumbria ,was chosen to house one of the great Benedictine monasteries. The poet Caedmon was based there, as was St Hilda of Whitby – the driving force behind much of the missionary activity of the age. The Synod of Whitby was a gathering which eventually ensured that much of the British Church would follow Roman practices, rather than those favoured by Celtic Christians. The magnificent ruins of the Abbey remain overlooking the North Sea coast.
Historic Christian sites have great value, but it's also good to visit places where God is doing new things. Ffald-y-Brenin is described as a 'House of Prayer and Retreat Centre'. It's a remote place in south Wales which welcomes visitors on retreats but also has an active prayer ministry. Director Roy Godwin has written about the experience of the Holy Spirit which is often described by visitors, in books such as The Grace Outpouring. The centre's website also links it into the heritage of Christianity in the area, "The rich heritage of Christianity in Wales is evident all around, including ancient Celtic crosses, holy wells, and pilgrim routes focussed on St Davids (only 22 miles away). Blaenannerch Chapel, where Evan Roberts encountered the Holy Spirit so powerfully in 1904, is also nearby."
St Enodoc's Church, Cornwall
This remarkable little church has a compelling history. Built in around the 12th Century, it's thought to be situated at the site of an early Celtic saint – Enodoc – who was a hermit. The church is surrounded by sandbanks and for several hundred years was virtually buried by the sand. In the 19th Century, the sand was cleared away from inside and the church began to be reused – a sign of resurrection if ever there was one!
Canterbury has been an important place in British Christianity since St Augustine settled there in the late 6th Century. His mission from the Pope was to convert the English people to Christianity. In 597AD, the Cathedral at Canterbury was begun and although it later underwent major changes, it has been a place of Christian worship ever since. St Thomas Becket was murdered in the Cathedral by the forces of King Henry II and it became a place of pilgrimage. From the time of the Reformation onwards it has served as the mother church of the Church of England and of the entire Anglican Communion Worldwide. It remains a stunning place to visit.
After travelling from Ireland to Iona, the Celtic Christians made inroads into Scotland and the North of England. A monastery was founded on Lindisfarne by monks from Iona. From early on, Lindisfarne became the base of missionary activity in surrounding areas. The Gospel spread further away too – St Cedd came from Lindisfarne down to Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex to evangelise. Lindisfarne itself acquired the name 'Holy Island' owing to its influence on Christian faith in Britain. The Lindisfarne Gospels are astonishing works of creativity and craft.
Glastonbury, in Somerset, is probably best known today for its giant music festival. Yet its fame goes back much further... It was a place of ritual before Christianity came to the area. When the area became Christianised, an Abbey was founded. It has since become a place with various different Christian traditions and denominations. Glastonbury Tor, a nearby hill, has been important in all sorts of pagan and other faiths but also retained churches on its summit.
It might well be known as the place the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge met, but it also has a significant Christian history. St Andrew the apostle is the patron saint of Scotland. The settlement named after him on Scotland's east coast is important in the present day too. In the early centuries of Christinaity in Scotland, it was the centre of the church – with a Bishop and a Cathedral. But the Scottish Reformation (which unlike in England, got rid of cathedrals and bishops) had a major impact. However, the fortunes of St Andrews are now linked very closely with its university – and its world renowned faculty of divinity, where the likes of Steve Holmes and NT Wright lecture.
Another site in Scotland with a very different story is Wigtown. In 1685 two women associated with the Covenanters (Presbyterian Protestants) were sentenced to death. They were tied to stakes and as the tide rose, they drowned. Although the debate may seem arcane to some now, at the time in Scotland questions of ecclesiology (church government) and theology raged. Margaret Lachlan and Margaret Wilson were killed because they defied Royal control of the Church – tantamount to treason. Their martyrdom gained them a place in the history books of the Church of Scotland (which developed out of the dispute). They are remembered in several memorials in the town.
On the edge of London's financial district, The City, stands a chapel where John Wesley regularly preached. Still a working church today, the site also hosts a museum of Methodism – the movement started by Wesley, his brother John, George Whitfield and other evangelicals in the 18th Century. The chapel hosted Margaret Thatcher's wedding and for many years, Labour Peer Lord Leslie Griffiths has been the minister. Just over the road from the chapel is Bunhill Fields burial grounds. Numerous influential figures are buried here including John Bunyan, William Blake, anti-slavery campaigner Thomas Buxton and hymn writer Isaac Watts.