Glastonbury Academic Symposium

April 17th 2011
Glastonbury Pilgrim Reception Centre (The PRC) undertook responsibility for funding and organising an academic symposium and for taking forward any suggestions that arose. The PRC retained the services of Dr Liz Williams as coordinator of the symposium.  

Objects of the Symposium
The objects were to look at various issues arising from the concept of research work in Glastonbury, including 'The nature of pilgrimage in Glastonbury', what Glastonbury has to offer to support such study i.e. people, places, buildings, beliefs, energies etc. and exploring whether some form of active support service in Glastonbury for such research would be helpful.

The original concept of the Symposium was that the event would provide a meeting place for academics, local researchers and those involved in the spiritual communities of Glastonbury to discuss the eventual viability of establishing a research support centre in the town.


This was an idea that had been coalescing for some time, given the increasing amount of academic interest both in Glastonbury as a functioning spiritual community, and in the ‘spiritual economy’ itself. Institutions such as Bath Spa University already send students on a regular basis, primarily at undergraduate level, but visits to the town from a number of postgraduate visitors as well as independent researchers are increasing. It was thus felt that a series of presentations by academics who are interested in Glastonbury as a focus of study would be of interest to the wider community involved in the study of history and contemporary spirituality.



Professor Ronald Hutton - Bristol University
Glastonbury as a Place of Pilgrimage

Prof. Hutton gave a presentation and discussion on the history of Glastonbury as a centre for pilgrimage, beginning with the Abbey as the principal destination of pilgrimage within the town throughout the Middle Ages: this came to an end with the Reformation. Professor Hutton gave a brief elaboration of local reactions to the dissolution of the Abbey. Pilgrimage revived in a different form during the early years of the 20th century, with the

emergence of interest in Glastonbury as a spiritual and esoteric centre and the interest and publicity given to the town by practitioners such as Alice Buckton and Dion Fortune

Prof. Hutton spoke about the relative lack of archaeological finds in the vicinity and invited speculation from participants as to why this might be, touching upon various theories relating to ways in which the Tor/island may have been seen by our ancient forbears.

John Wadsworth - Kairos
The Imaginal Landscape – Sacred Landscape and Pilgrimage.

John Wadsworth’s discussion focused on the power of intention in working with and creating the landscape. The primary focus of his talk was the Glastonbury Zodiac envisaged by Katharine Emma Maltwood. Wadsworth was careful to note that although this may not possess an objective reality within the landscape, it nonetheless remains a powerful tool for spiritual experience and transformation. Epistemologically, this is a most valuable point, as there are a variety of ways in which we can assess spiritual experience and evaluate their ‘truth’ accordingly. Wadsworth spoke about the role of intentionality in imbuing the landscape with meaning - visualising, holding the vision, enlisting support, sustaining the vision, and materialising the vision. He commented on the curiously numinous quality that the Zodiac produces – that whilst the ‘monument’ itself has very little basis in established geology or archaeology, it nonetheless produces profound spiritual effects in those who engage with the journey that it offers. 

Dr Denise Cush - Bath Spa University 
Bath Spa University’s Programme of Student Placements in Glastonbury.

Dr. Denise Cush introduced the Symposium to the system of academic placements which BSU now have in place for undergraduate study. She elaborated on the programme in relation to Glastonbury, where BSU have been placing students for some time. This has been a successful part of the programme, and her presentation centred on introducing us to a number of case studies. Students at undergraduate level undertake a visit to Glastonbury as part of their core compulsory course (study of contemporary spiritualities and the methodology of religion), plus a one-week placement of second year students. These students visit sites such as the Chalice Well and the Goddess Temple, and their experience of these spiritualities is intended to be direct but objective.

Dr Marion Bowman - Open University
The Unique Facilities of Glastonbury as a Pilgrimage Centre.

Dr. Marion Bowman spoke on the concept of Glastonbury as a pilgrim centre, elaborating (coincidentally) on the theme of the area which is contested in spiritual and theological terms, with a number of sites being ‘multimythological.’ She also cited the landscape as a crucial character in Glastonbury’s narrative – therefore revisiting a concept commented upon by both Hutton and Wadsworth. She commented on the nature of Glastonbury as an information centre and as a centre for the spiritual economy. Pilgrimage centres are contested places with a particular economy: Glastonbury is a centre which is particularly varied and diverse. She drew the analogy of Mind, Body and Spirit Fairs, in which there are different truth claims but the modus operandi is primarily relativistic and tolerant, with an emphasis on working together. She commented upon the Pilgrim Reception Centre, which in many ways exemplifies this communitarian spirit – a microcosm of contemporary pluralism which may not be as easy to see as ethnic diversity, nor which is typical, but which is indicative of current trends. It functions as a one-stop shop for the contemporary spiritual seeker. In addition, Dr. Bowman spoke of the role of observing students and the possible tensions inherent in their role when studying a particular community, a tension which is lessened in the case of Glastonbury due to its tolerance. She cites Glastonbury as a pilgrimage centre par excellence

 Dr Miguel Farias - Oxford and Dr Sarah Goldingay - Exeter University
Organisation and Development of an Academic Support Research Centre in Glastonbury.

 Dr Miguel Farias and Dr Sarah Goldingay gave a brief outline of the progress of their research project into what motivates pilgrims to visit sacred places. They have conducted research in Glastonbury and a number of other Pilgrimage centres, interviewing some 800 pilgrims, and are thus looking at Glastonbury as part of a wider network of pilgrimage sites. They have set out to define the core reasons for people going on pilgrimage, and how the emphasis on these reasons is different in different places. They highlighted, for instance, that they themselves are pilgrims in their role of researchers; although the goal of that pilgrimage is epistemological rather than theological. People come to the town in search of knowledge and information as well as in search of spiritual goals. The principal reasons were presented as: 

  • Religious growth –  the individual finding themselves closer to God
  • Nature – being in a sacred landscape
  • Sensation – seeking psychic and spiritual experiences
  • Healing
  • Community – being healed and helping other people

This research has shown a slightly different emphasis in each of these categories in the different centres. Dr Goldingay emphasised the role that Glastonbury plays as a centre for bringing together diverse discourses – a theme which had also been explored in the preceding presentations. She commented on a new discourse deriving from Performance Studies, and taking the form of ‘mythogeography’ – the cross-discipline which emerges from areas such as archaeology, art, dance and performance – in which landscape plays a crucial role.

 Dr Farias also commented on the various directions in which interdisciplinary research can go and compared the study of spirituality in Glastonbury with that of other pilgrimage centres, such as Santiago de Compostela. 


The nature of contested sites

A number of speakers explored the issue of Glastonbury’s large number of contested sites and contemporary ‘monuments.’ Sites such as the Tor Labyrinth, Chalice Well, the Glastonbury Holy Thorn and others are viewed as places of intrinsic spiritual interest by a wide number of groups (Christians and pagans of various forms, Buddhists and others). As some of the speakers commented, it is the ‘fluid’ quality of these multivalent sites which is proving to be of particular interest to researchers. 

Glastonbury as a research centre

Many of those present saw Glastonbury as a unique facility where the way in which contemporary spirituality manifests in the practical world can be observed. It also could be thought of as an ideal laboratory for practical research.

Human Resources

An interesting point that arose was that, quite apart from the landscape, the town and its activities, there is in Glastonbury an abundance of human resources that is potentially available to help with research projects. In the town there is a wealth of people with a research/academic background in some form, and this is currently being under-utilised.

Glastonbury as a broker for cross-disciplinary research

The community and its various activities and beliefs are of potential interest to a wide range of academic disciplines – theological, sociological, anthropological, political, economic and others. 

Glastonbury as a centre for consensus and the concomitant study of consensus

It was suggested that consensus is an emergent property of community, and that this property has partly been exemplified by the Symposium itself, featuring a wide range of personal spiritualities and disciplines. Glastonbury

could have a role as a place of studying the way in which consensus emerges in a community with many different philosophies and beliefs.

Explaining Glastonbury

Representatives of the Library of Avalon, the Isle of Avalon Foundation, Glastonbury Abbey and the Pilgrim Reception Centre all mentioned that they have the repetitive task of explaining to each new group of researchers and students the basic outline of Glastonbury. Some agreed format or paper which all could use would be of help.

Glastonbury as a Whole

Glastonbury was seen as a place with an ancient and special landscape that has sparked off a number of quite separate individualistic activities. These activities were not seen as being particularly related. It does seem that work is still needed on promoting the idea of Glastonbury as a spiritual centre. Glastonbury is in fact, other than in name, a university of the human spirit with a wide range of faculties within the University. These are provided by individual courses, workshops and researchers.

The establishment of a Glastonbury museum

A considerable amount of interest was shown in the possibility of establishing a museum to support the work of the research centre. Such a museum could focus upon the history of spirituality within a Glastonbury focus featuring, for instance, material such as the Maltwood archives.

Academic Research

There was a broad consensus from the visiting academics that now is a time of uncertainty in all universities. No one quite knew what funding was going to be available and certainly, funding is being severely cut in areas such as the arts and comparative religion. On the other hand there were still funds available for some types of research. There was a general feeling that it might be possible to create something worthwhile in the way of research in Glastonbury.