In March 2020, the Medieval shrine at Walsingham announced all services would move online in response to the threat of Covid-19. Two months later, and the news of the “first world e-pilgrimage” at Lourdes in May made headlines around the globe. Thus “virtual pilgrimage” arrived as a pandemic neologism, along with “furlough”, “social distancing” and the ever malleable “new normal”. But what kinds of innovation does this phrase describe, and what insights does the rise of ‘virtual pilgrimage’ offer into broader changes in religion and ritual in the pandemic?
In a time of considerable uncertainty, it is not surprising that most commentary in the media has emphasised continuity. Medievalists remind us that pilgrimage has always been virtual: acts of imaginative journeying, steered by purposeful engagement with cultural tools, such as maps or texts, and not so far removed from online practices we are seeing so much of today. Recognising the authenticity of engaging from afar, however, should not discourage us from reflecting on the changes we are seeing and asking about their trajectories. Lourdes’s impressive web infrastructure has been cited by scholars of digital religion for years. It moved its rituals entirely online in 2010, when a bomb scare caused an evacuation of the site. The first comprehensive academic review of virtual pilgrimage, in 2002, found a “booming” online pilgrimage culture, growing alongside internet adoption. Have we been caught in the stage lights of ritual change – what kind of transformations have happened in the realms of virtual journeying?
The sudden luminosity of virtual pilgrimage has allowed more of us to discover the power and presence of online pilgrimage (and religion) for the first time. The pandemic did not originate these practices, nor revo+lutionise their digital architectures. In the years leading up to 2020, with public interest in pilgrimage practices booming, we can point to various initiatives that have pushed those tech boundaries, such as the multi-media St Thomas Way site or the 3D visualisations of the St Thomas Beckett shrine or its artefacts. No doubt, people have reaped the benefits of these fruits in lockdown. The pandemic has accelerated engagement, as online participation figures suggest. The translation of the immensely popular Camino pilgrimage route onto Google Arts & Culture itself is recognition of an advanced market for virtual journeying. “Innovation” is then too weighty a term to describe the tech transformations within pilgrimage during the pandemic. Like so much of the Covid-19 response, what we are talking about is proliferation and acculturation.
Covid-19 has given us an unprecedented opportunity to appreciate the considerable variation, and subtleties, of these practices, as they arise to meet individual and social needs. Virtual pilgrimage has its own genres: some have been highly individual. “DIY pilgrimage” as Professor Kathryn Barush has called it, often has a virtual dimension and has evidently (and exponentially) increased with the need to extend the boundaries of back gardens or local parks in whatever way we can. Digital methods are by no means the only tools to use. One interviewee for this project described tracing the Camino in her memory as she embarked down a local canal path – a journey of recovery from long Covid. However, the widespread use of smartphones and wearable technologies, and the emergence of new software services, has made it easier for more people to map local steps to well-known routes and, importantly, to do so with others.
This helps explain why pilgrimage, despite the restrictions on international travel, and Covid-19’s impact on shrines and route infrastructures, has remained so (virtually) resilient. Twitter traffic discussing or referencing pilgrimage fell 11% compared to 2019, but pilgrimage retained a significant presence. The nature of the conversation changed. Peaks of high traffic, which would usually accompany important dates in the ritual calendar, were more pronounced and extended – evidence of the shock in response to the cancellation or closure of routes. Yet, for the most part, the regular chatter around pilgrimage looks remarkably like that of the previous year. This was largely not due to the efforts of the ‘DIY-ers’, nor of solo pilgrims engaging online: the communal enterprises, which communities have made and undertaken together, has maintained pilgrimage in the social media landscape.
Social media and media database research hint at the extent of this genre. During the first 8 months of the pandemic, UK communities created upward of 80 pilgrimages online, many replacements, or consolations, for the real pilgrimages that had been planned for 2020. These were rapid responses to communal crises, and placeholders for future visits. Few of these relied on anything more than ready-made tech tools. Catholic dioceses constructed online journeys to Lourdes or Walsingham using social media sites and video conferencing platforms, drawing together memorabilia and images from previous visits on PowerPoint, making new guidance material in the form of pdfs. Anglican cathedrals have constructed virtual pilgrimages for 2020’s planned ‘Year of the Pilgrimage’, posting content on You Tube or embedding videos in existing sites.
Whilst there is remarkable creativity evidenced here, we should note how related virtual pilgrimages are to the UK’s existing pilgrimage infrastructure. The relative accessibility of online platforms has inspired individuals and communities to create their own pilgrimages, but this still costs money and labour. The diocesan networks, both Catholic and Anglican, which have generated 77% of this activity are increasingly media savvy, deploying cross-platform communications in a religious world where such expertise is now a requirement, not a choice. Virtual pilgrimage under Covid-19 thus keeps in motion the impulses and strategies deployed in the ‘real world’ – religious and economic. They demonstrate increasing domestication, not globalisation, of pilgrimage in the UK and the rediscovery of Christian heritage sites and landscapes: 45% of all destinations were UK shrines, cathedrals or churches.
This does not mean that the virtual pilgrimages under Covid-19 cannot re-create “communitas” - the mysterious sense of togetherness that evolves within the fluid sociality of the pilgrimage route. Pilgrimage online is reliant on existing community feelings and structures; if it doesn’t invoke existing social ties, it creates them through the “mythscapes” of shared cultures and beliefs. Social media, which, as Suzanne van der Beek has shown, already plays a critical part in binding pilgrims together, sharing meanings and experiences, has been similarly important for online contexts – an important area of ritual continuity. Arguably, the journeying we have all done during the pandemic has been to rediscover our tribes online: that we are not exactly the same can make the experience profoundly disappointing. For others, that new sense of the globalising possibility of online tools has had a considerable impact. The Community of the Cross of Nails, for instance, has made strides to realise its global vision of peace and reconciliation through online means, which has enabled greater engagement with partners across the world.
Whilst institutional and communal contexts matter to virtual pilgrimage experiences, there are broader cultural and social changes that have transformed the sociality of these routes. Digital exclusion remains, but there are many older people who have upskilled and engaged more in these online cultures, which were developed primarily as youth evangelising opportunities. Researching user comments and community in the Magdala Experience, Rev Ruth Dowson and I have been struck by how many older people have engaged with Magdala’s 40-day Lenten pilgrimages. Users reference their age, sharing the pilgrimage experiences with generations of family members, in schools, with congregations, and in care homes. They advocate for greater accessibility of content to meet their needs, such as captioning.
As we look ahead, what learning can we draw on for the future? High engagement figures for virtual pilgrimages, and its increasing pan-generational reach under Covid-19, will justify investment in future projects; soon, they will draw in, and enhance, the rapidly evolving smart technologies, such as virtual and augmented realities. And there are many benefits to be drawn from such creations. As Professor Catherine Clarke has argued in relation to AHRC-funded St Thomas Way project, online platforms or multi-media applications can render remote rural communities and landscapes more accessible; they have the potential to create new audiences for heritage and tourism; they hold possibilities for social cohesion and personal wellbeing. These are tools for place making and identity shaping, which are increasingly open to all.
This must be welcomed, but to create pluralistic communities around pilgrimage routes, and to keep step with UK culture and experience, entrepreneurs should innovate in project partnerships as much as in tech. The ideas and experiences of pilgrimage circulating online in the UK are increasingly non-Christian: Hajj, for instance, is the most influential single pilgrimage in the arcs of UK social media discussion. Those conversations highlight how the sacrifices made in the pandemic have not been shouldered equally: in this case, then, ‘virtual pilgrimage’ has deepened fissures in our multi-faith landscape.
Technology may not offer the same sense of recompense or comfort for many UK Muslims as it has for many, if not all, Christians in times of Covid-19, although many software developers have hoped that the pressing circumstances of the pandemic may contribute to a reappraisal of its utility in pilgrimage. Yet, virtual pilgrimage does present other opportunities to congregate UK communities in new ways. Scholars have pointed to the limitless potential of pilgrimage online, but a shared experience can only come from shared enterprise. We need dynamic collaborations: between multi-faith communities, software developers and creatives, charities, academia and heritage, who together can build new routes for communication between faith and secular, old and young, which may lead to new visions of the places we inhabit. Journeying in the realms of the “disembedded” might then allow us to interweave and better understand our different stories of the spaces we share and find the sacred we might hold in common.
 Mark W MacWilliams (2002), “Virtual Pilgrimages on the Internet”, Religion, 32:4, 315-335.
 Thanks to Dr Paula Kolata for sharing insights from her research with me.
 This is based on an analysis of 41,381 UK-based tweets harvested from Pulsar Platform searching for the keyword ‘pilgrimage’ and a Nexis UK search of 2020 news coverage in the UK.
 Oren Golen (2017), “Religious live streaming: Constructing the authentic in real time”, Information, Communication & Society, 22:3, 437-454.
 Catherine Clarke (2020), “Introduction” in C Clarke (ed), The St Thomas Way and the Medieval March of Wales: Exploring Place, Heritage, Pilgrimage, 1-21.