20 February 2014 10:22

A new business has been created to take people on spiritual journeys around the UK and Europe.

Lancaster University religious studies masters graduate Andrew Walker is taking his experience and passion for pilgrimages to help others visit sites of spirituality – such as monasteries and retreat centres.

Mr Walker, 36, who lives in Lancaster but is originally from near Glasgow, has started Metapilgrim to provide guided spiritual tours to individuals, organisations and to school groups.

He has travelled extensively to spiritual sites in Europe and believes there is a growing interest among the wider public in spirituality and pilgrimage, as demonstrated by the popularity of recent BBC television series such as The Monastery, The Big Silence, and Pilgrimage by Simon Reeve.

“It is something that is definitely growing both here in Britain and in Europe,” said Andrew. “Television programmes are certainly helping to generate wider interest in visiting sites of spirituality. Some people are inspired by this and are seeking out similar experiences for themselves.

“We have a declining church attendance. The existing model for spiritual reflection or discovery isn’t sustaining itself anymore, but the festivals and events are growing. People are looking at other options and visits to monasteries across Europe are increasing.

“The monasteries are not offering a prescriptive form of belief, they offer spaces for silent reflection and spiritual development, away from the distractions of modern life, and I think more people are finding that option interesting.”

Andrew was raised in the Scottish Episcopal Church, where he was baptised and confirmed, before first visiting the Taizé Community in Burgandy, France. He is particularly interested in ecumenism – building bridges and dialogue between different faiths and denominations.

His experiences at Taizé were very influential for Andrew, who embarked on his religious studies masters degree following a 15-year career in IT.

“Going to Taizé as an older teenager was a revelation for me,” he said. “It wasn’t about easy answers, but dealing with questions and doubts over longer periods.”

He also believes groups from schools could benefit from his pilgrimages. There are around 500 Church-affiliated secondary schools in Britain, though Andrew believes the tours could also appeal to non-faith schools.

“I am looking at offering bespoke packages to families, groups and churches, however another major area is schools and supporting their Religious Education courses. A week in Taizé would be among the cheapest school trips out there, and it fits well with the educational goals of RE. It's not only for learning about religion, but also giving the space and equipping young people to reflect on how to make life meaningful, as a journey of self-discovery within the context of community.

“The tours are not just for Christians. The atmosphere within the sites is very open and respectful, and appropriate for people of all faiths and none. I hope to be able to offer the experience of pilgrimage also to those who might not otherwise have the chance to benefit from it, including young people in particular.”

Metapilgrim helps travellers to prepare themselves before they visit by offering advice and getting them thinking about what they are looking to get out of the trip. Andrew is also able to draw on his experiences of visiting sites of pilgrimage to help visitors to settle into the life of the monasteries smoothly.

Metapilgrim will be taking its first travellers – a group from Lancaster University’s Chaplaincy Centre - to Taizé this summer.

Other locations he is offering as destinations include Iona, in Scotland, Lindisfarne, in Northumbria, and the New Valamo monastery in Finland.

Andrew was assisted in setting up Metapilgrim by the Lancaster University Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Enterprise Centre.

More information is available by visiting www.metapilgrim.com

For more information on religious studies visit http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fass/ppr/