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Catholics learns to live with Europe’s cult capital in English countryside

June 23, 2016
Jonathan Luxmoore

GLASTONBURY, England – On Magdalene Street in this southwestern English town, proud parents gather before the stone facade of Our Lady St. Mary Church, as their offspring, smartly attired, prepare for first Communion.

Along the thoroughfare, near the walls of a ruined monastery, the Goddess Temple offers sessions in tarot reading and bio-resonance, while up ahead a traveler with beads and dreadlocks window-shops outside The Speaking Tree.

Welcome to Glastonbury, Europe’s hippie capital, where ancient churches stand alongside New Age bookstores and shamanic restaurants.

“It takes some getting used to, but we have long experience of living together here,” said Catherine Woolmer, administrator of the Shrine of Our Lady of Glastonbury at the church.

“Whatever their differences, people of all faiths and none make every effort to get along and work for the community,” she told Catholic News Service.

First settled in Neolithic times, Glastonbury was a well-established village a millennium before Jesus was born. Today’s population stands at less than 9,000.

It’s famous for its links with energy points and ley-lines, Celtic mysteries and Arthurian legends.

In the Middle Ages, when it was surrounded by marshlands, local monks said it was the mystical Avalon, final resting place of King Arthur, and even claimed, in 1190, to have discovered the grave of Arthur and his queen, Guinevere.

Glastonbury Abbey, where the remains were reburied, was endowed in the seventh-century by King Ine of Wessex and enlarged by its best-known abbot, St. Dunstan.

But some chroniclers claimed it was founded by St. Joseph of Arimathea and that Jesus visited Glastonbury as a child – a legend which inspired Romantic poet William Blake’s poem, “Jerusalem.”

Research has shown how such legends were promoted to make the abbey profitable as a pilgrimage center. But remnants of the Glastonbury Thorn, which supposedly grew from St Joseph’s staff, can still be seen in the town.

The abbey, by now one of England’s richest, was brutally suppressed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII in 1536, when its last abbot, Blessed Richard Whiting, was hanged, drawn and quartered as a traitor. He is one of 19 Catholics with local associations who have been beatified by the church as martyrs.

“Glastonbury draws people for all kinds of reasons, but what underpins its attraction is that it’s an ancient, dynamic place of prayer,” explained Father Christopher Whitehead, evangelization director for the Catholic Diocese of Clifton, in which Glastonbury is located.

“Everyone is welcome, and there’s harmony and tolerance here. Most people, whatever their backgrounds, have something of the joy of faith written on their faces.”

The ruined abbey is linked to Glastonbury’s Anglican St. John the Baptist Church, which runs an open forum with other denominations to foster “sharing and fellowship.”

It also shares the town with at least 70 sects and cults from the International Order for Krishna Consciousness to the Ancient Order of Druids. Many such groups converge for the annual Glastonbury Festival, a performing arts event that attracts 200,000 fans in late June.

Glastonbury’s Christian links are highlighted each July with an ecumenical pilgrimage and procession. Father Whitehead said he is impressed by the warm reception given by Glastonbury’s non-Christians.

“The pilgrimage is a very public witness, which takes in the whole town, and though we get the odd taunt, this isn’t intended anti-religiously,” he said.

“It’s a wonderful gathering under Our Lady’s patronage of the peoples and cultures who’ve made their home here, walking the same cobbled streets where the faith has been upheld over centuries.”

The area’s mystical links are most vivid on Glastonbury Tor, a hill rising sharply just east of the town that commands views towards Stonehenge and the Anglican cathedral of Wells. Early writers cited the tor as location of the Holy Grail, while some researchers say it represents Aquarius on a gigantic astrological zodiac.

What’s certain is that it was the site of a church destroyed in a 1275 earthquake, of which only the tower, dedicated to St. Michael, now survives.

The Rev. Diana Greenfield, an Anglican priest who advises on “alternative spiritualities,” said her own church has “robust and healthy relations” with Glastonbury’s cults and sects, seeing them as part of the area’s “rich spiritual heritage.”

Phil Gibbons, spokesman for the Clifton Diocese, agrees.

“Glastonbury gains vibrancy from all the spiritual things on offer, but we practice the Catholic faith here as we would in any other town,” Gibbons said.

“We welcome everyone who wishes to join with us, and we count on other groups welcoming us too. I’ve never heard of any interfaith tensions.”

Our Lady St. Mary Church, built in the 1930s to replace a Marian shrine destroyed in the Reformation, is hosting a Holy Door for the Jubilee Year of Mercy.

Along the road, a couple of gray-haired women in black cloaks stride past shops with names such as Moon Mirrors and Ying and Yang, while a bearded man in a gold bowler hat emerges from Glastonbury’s Labyrinth bookstore and heads into the Wonky Broomstick cafe.

Woolmer doubts that Catholics have much inclination to dabble in Glastonbury’s alternative faith scene, but says sect adherents routinely visit Our Lady St. Mary Church in search of peace and quiet.

Father Whitehead is similarly relaxed. He thinks Glastonbury, in all its strangeness, is just a microcosm of society.

“I think we’re still exploring our spiritual natures, and it’s the yearning for a deeper sense of meaning which draws such an eclectic group of people here,” Father Whitehead said.

“The church’s role is to live alongside society in all its diversity, gently accompanying it on its path of discovery. Some may find Glastonbury odd, but I’m sure there are odder places.”

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