Encountering the Visible Church on the Pilgrim Ways of Europe

From a talk given at the Education Weekend 2015 in Oxford and adapted from a book currently being wrestled into life: Between Canterbury and Salt Lake: A Christian Journey.

Sarria, Spain

Sarria, Spain

Tonight I want to tell the story of a walk, or rather a series of walks. The story begins right here in the Oxford chapel, but more on that later.

This is a story about inter-faith encounter and holy envy. My theological starting point will be the Book of Mormon.

Until recently Mormon scholarship has spent too much time arguing that the Book of Mormon is real rather than properly noticing how it is true. One such truth — as interesting as anything that might be studied by divinity students here in Oxford — is found in the first few chapters. The Book of Mormon recounts the vision of an Israelite, extra-biblical prophet called Nephi who sees the future establishment of the Christian church. An angel tells him:

Behold there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil; wherefore, whoso belongeth not to the church of the Lamb of God belongeth to that great church, which is the mother of abominations; and she is the whore of all the earth. (1 Nephi 14:10)

A parochial Mormon view might interpret this to mean that there are only two churches, viz., the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the only fully “true” church of the Lamb of God) and everything else, thus lumping in Catholics, Buddhists, atheists, and Satanists into the church of the devil. I suspect that this view, consistent though it is with the sectarian retrenchment of Mormon thought in the last half century, does not sit well even with the most conservative of Mormons. After all, who really can easily believe that their Anglican wife, or Methodist friends, or Muslim colleagues, or their kind atheist neighbour is a member of the church of the devil?

There are alternative readings, however, ones even put forward by scholars at the church-owned Brigham Young University. Stephen Robinson notes the exaggerated apocalyptic dualism in Nephi’s vision and admits that an interpretation that pits one small denomination against all else and labels it as of the devil is deeply problematic:

In either the apocalyptic sense or the historical sense, individual orientation to the Church of the Lamb or to the great and abominable church is not by membership but by loyalty. Just as there are Latter-day Saints who belong to the great and abominable church because of their loyalty to Satan and his lifestyle, so there are members of other churches who belong to the Lamb because of their loyalty to him and his lifestyle. Membership is based more on who has your heart than on who has your records. (Emphasis added.)

I think this is right. There are indeed only two churches and it is to membership of the Church of the Lamb that we should aspire, “church” here not meaning the corporation on whose computers your name might be found but ekklesia, the assembly of fellow-travelers (or, fellow-walkers to keep with the theme of my talk) on the road to God.

This is akin to Rahner’s notion of the “anonymous Christian,” Christian discipleship as belonging not to a particular ecclesiology but to a determination to follow Jesus’ example of unconditional love for all people. This is what allows a non-Christian to be a Christian “anonymously” and thus qualify for the requirements of salvation in John 14:6. Jesus is indeed the “Way” to the Father, but that way is not about having one’s name on the parish roll but by performing Christian acts (whether consciously performed as “Christian” acts or not). Personally, I cannot read the New Testament as suggesting anything else.

This Church of the Lamb is akin to the “invisible church” in Augustinian thought, that platonic kingdom of heaven never perfectly iterated on earth. But what of the “visible church”? After all, it seems we need to work out our salvation in tangible, visible communities of believers, even if those communities are necessarily fallen. Hooker put it best:

For preservation of Christianity there is not anything more needful, than that such as are of the visible Church have mutual fellowship and society with one another. In which consideration, as the main body of the sea being one, yet divers precincts hath divers names; so the Catholic Church is in like sort divided into a number of distinct Societies, every of which is termed a Church within itself.

One hopes that one is part of Nephi’s Church of the Lamb; in the meantime, we organise ourselves in societies of the visible church, through which we find fellowship and in whose sacraments the power of godliness is made manifest to the human mind.

In this model of ekklesia, there is no urgent need for a legalistic ecumenism as we are not in the business of joining together the imperfect visible but of aligning all of our movements — be they housed in churches, or temples, or mosques — with the Church of the Lamb whose exact contours will forever be seen only through a glass darkly. (I find it thrilling, given what we heard from the rabbi this evening about the importance of words in religion, that this ekklesia is called “of the Lamb” rather than a more exclusive “of Jesus Christ,” suggesting from the text a kind of broadening of concepts.)

What inter-faith is, at least for me, is the enactment of Krister Stendahl’s principle of “holy envy”: an honest and open encounter to the possibility that the numinous may well have broken through in other traditions in ways that are not apparent in one’s own tradition. If exclusivism is your thing, then you can hold to that if that is your faith. Perhaps you believe that Mormonism holds an exclusive authority to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children in the temple, but authority is not the totality of the invisible church. There are many more facets of the Father’s kingdom and they can be found in the “divers precincts” of the visible church.

And so we arrive at the pilgrim ways of Europe, the cultivation of holy envy on foot, if you like.

Actually, not quite. One brief aside. If one wants to see how this encountering might work in a Mormon context that does not involve lacing-up one’s walking boots, may I suggest you look at the Mormon Lectionary Project at the popular Mormon blog, By Common Consent. Here different religious holidays, as well as saints and sages in all traditions, are brought into a Mormon lectionary, not to Mormonise them nor to patronise them as lacking some crucial Mormon attribute (an arrogance to which the Latter-day Saints are sometimes prone), but to see how various celebrations and events and teachings can be encountered by Mormonism. The last five entries are exemplary: John Coltrane, Jan Hus, Maurice Durufle, the lifting of the priesthood ban (June 8), and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

And so to the Mormon Society of St. James, a growing movement of Mormon walkers, whose feet are treading the pilgrim ways of Europe and beyond. I have set out my view that inter-faith encounters are in fact encounters with glimpses of the invisible church that may be manifest in other traditions. There are many ways to have those encounters; I will finish my talk by suggesting one: encounters on foot, with friends.

Let me quote from the Society’s blurb:

The Mormon Society of St. James aims to bring together people who like social walking and spiritual fellowship. We are a Mormon society inasmuch as we have our foundation in friendships first made through the shared Mormonism of certain founding members. All people — Mormon or not, Christian or not, religious or not — are welcome to join. We do not proselytize. We find our inspiration in St. James as the patron of all pilgrims and because it was to Santiago de Compostela in Spain that the Society first set its feet. We are committed to religious tolerance, the cultivation of “holy envy” in the world’s great religious places, and the appreciation, in good company, of God’s beautiful earth.

I said at the beginning that this began for me here in the Oxford chapel. In 2000 I was a graduate student at Oxford and met a fellow LDS student called John Fowles who was to become one of my closest friends.

Eleven years later, a wonderful convergence of things led me to tread the famous pilgrim road to Santiago de Compestela with John. For several years John had told me we should go to Santiago. John knew that I loved walking and that the great historical way to the shrine of St. James in Galicia would be an irresistible draw. He was right, mostly. Life — defined as jobs and mortgages for those of us of the first world — can conspire to resist anything, and so while Santiago sounded great, it would have to join a long list of unaccomplished ambitions.

One week several years ago that changed. I had started my new job at the King’s School next to Worcester cathedral. One morning after an assembly in the quire I was walking down the steps to the nave and saw a slab marking the burial of the “Worcester Pilgrim.” Building work in the 1980s had uncovered the bones of a man who had been buried with boots and a staff, almost certainly marking him as a pilgrim of some repute. An accompanying shell suggested a connection with the St. James pilgrims to Santiago. Naturally, my mind returned to John’s invitation. The next day, and quite coincidentally, my sister recommended I watch a film called The Way starring Martin Sheen. It tells the story of a father’s walk to Santiago carrying the ashes of his son. Synchronicity! I was sold and emailed John. To Santiago we would walk.


Worcester Pilgrim

Walking is the most natural of human activities. We evolved to walk and do it very well (which makes our modern sedentary aversion to walking rather unfortunate). There may be faster animals by land but we can out walk them all. If Aristotle is right that following our final cause is the way to happiness, then walking, for which we seem uniquely designed, is happiness.

My pilgrimage to Santiago began in a convoluted way demanded by the routes offered by Ryanair. I was determined to be as frugal as possible and so my route ended up being indirect. I alighted a train at the unglamorous Coleshill Parkway station with a scallop shell tied to my pack — the sign of the pilgrim — and by train and plane and bus and tram ended up in San Sebastian in north-eastern Spain. I then took a train across Spain to Sarria, 112 km by foot from Santiago (a “proper” pilgrimage must be over 100km). It was at the church in Sarria that our band of pilgrims converged: me from England, Peter Clayson (an old friend from my mission) from Austria, John Crawford and his family from Germany (a fellow Johns Hopkins alumnus), and the trip’s architect John Fowles, now living in Utah, with his brother Jordan.

And then we walked, following the yellow arrows of the Camino ever westward across the wet, green landscape of Galicia. Because you walk roughly the same distances every day, you end up meeting the same people, often in the same hostels as you nurse bruised and blistered feet. At the end of the second day, I eavesdropped on a friendly argument between a Roman Catholic university chaplain from Ireland and some of his students. They argued passionately about the existence of God, the chaplain marshalling Aquinas’s proofs in defence of theism, his charges using Ireland’s troubles as yet one more problem in the problem evil to refute them. As we brushed our teeth in a hostel bathroom later that night I expressed my admiration for the new Argentinian pope. My new Irish friend was less impressed by his “liberal meddlings.” We spoke again the next day and eventually shared a smile when we saw each other at the pilgrims’ mass in Santiago, the great botafumeiro swinging above our heads.

One of our company — Jordan, another Oxford alumnus — was a truly authentic pilgrim. He mostly walked alone, fasted on two of the days, and read the entire New Testament. On the fourth day he filled a bag with litter collected along the way. We all looked to Jordan as our true pilgrim, his devotion countering our occasional joviality. Tragically, about a year after we were all together in Santiago, and weeks before our merry band was due to reprise our confraternity and walk Olav’s Way in Norway, Jordan died in a car crash.

Death stalks few of us before our time in the modern West and so Jordan’s death was a terrible shock. I doubt I can ever walk a pilgrimage again without thinking of him, such was the poignancy of our shared experience now heightened by tragedy. From Santiago we went on to Finisterre, the end of the world, where a picture of Jordan and his brother John, a serene Atlantic behind them, has become the defining image of our Camino. To the end of the world we must all go, creatures of doom that we are. Religion tries to make sense of that doom. Bundles of atoms on a rock orbiting a sun in a galaxy of a billion suns in a universe of a trillion galaxies we may be . . . but our Camino, and the golden shrine at its end are so much more than the sum of its infinitesimal and impossible parts.



In sharing these thoughts I come back to the beginning of my talk. I really encountered God on the Camino and it is worth considering why. The Camino is a Catholic pilgrimage. I am not a Catholic and grew up in a church whose exclusivist teachings have sometimes led it to a dim view of the spiritual possibilities of other faiths. This is to be regretted and it is also not Mormon. For Joseph Smith the creeds were condemned not because they are not true — read the Apostles’ Creed and tell me what exactly you dislike — but because they ossify one way of thinking and discount all others. Nephi’s Church of the Lamb is invisible but in the visible ekklesiae it may be glimpsed. In Spain, I found it in Catholicism. The following year I found it in Lutheranism as the Society walked to Nidaros in Norway; this year it was in Anglicanism at Canterbury where we were welcomed as pilgrims at evensong after two days on the North Downs Way. It was also in St. David’s where we encountered that ancient Christianity that still haunts our celtic fringe. Next year we begin walking to Rome. In future years it will be Jerusalem to encounter Judaism and Islam, then to Japan for the 88 Buddhist temples on Shikoku where we will wear white clothing and take on a new name: o-henro-san.

The daemon seizes JK

The daemon seizes Jason in Wales

I believe in communal salvation. I love to walk and I commend pilgrimage walking to you as a way to encounter the precincts of the visible church in every honourable tradition among God’s children. I particularly commend the Mormon Society of St. James to you because it offers to its members communal walking: walking as friends, as Mormons, as Anglicans, as Christians, as human beings. Robert MacFarlane has it right:

“Paths are the habits of a landscape. They are acts of consensual making. It’s hard to create a footpath on your own.”

In matters of faith, of faiths, of the invisible churches’ meanderings towards the visible church on high, how true that is.


  1. Jason K. says:

    Amen and a thousand hallelujahs. I was walking with my daughter this morning and dreaming of the Camino. John and I will have to plan some American pilgrimages in the meantime.

    And yes, the daemon caught me!

  2. Ronan, thank you so much for sharing this and for the stirring memory of Jordan Fowles. He was a friend and he is missed. I think I shall go on a walk today and think about him a little.

  3. Your on to several strands of Truth here, Ronan, and reading this makes me prouder to be a Mormon. Thank you for sharing part of the road with me.

  4. Ronan, this is great. Pilgrimage is one of those traditions for which I have a lot of holy envy. Were circumstances different (job, money, other obligations) I’d likely be there with you on all these walks.

    Jason, as for American pilgrimages, here’s one idea, though there are many others. I’ve long wanted to retrace Oliver Cowdery’s journey from the Smith Farm in Manchester, NY to Joseph and Emma Smith’s home in Harmony, PA. It’s a little over 100 miles, and Oliver, with Samuel Smith, did it on foot in the early spring over primitive roads (which, in upstate New York means rain, snow, and above all, mud) suffering frostbite along the way, in a little over 3 days, which is itself pretty impressive. 100 miles can be quite the commitment on foot; I’m hoping to take the boy scouts in my ward to cycle a version of that pilgrimage. We’ll see if it happens.

  5. Sniffle. Gulp. Tear. Thanks for this. Really great way to express the value of the pilgrimage experience in general, and the meaning for us in the Mormon Society of St. James in particular.

    Jordan’s headstone on his grave, just installed yesterday, brings together his Oxford studies of Heinrich Heine’s poetry and his experience as a pilgrim on the Way of St. James.

  6. JKC,
    Make that happen! Map it, describe it, publish it, and call it the Oliver Cowdery trail (cf.: https://bycommonconsent.com/mssj/jbt/).

  7. See, the magic of this has me plotting a cycle route between Manchester and Harmony via the Finger Lakes and Ithaca. That would be a great addition to the MSSJ. Or walk the final 100km.

  8. Thanks for these thoughts. Wish I had known Jordan better, and could have accompanied on the Camino.

  9. Ronan, you’re on the right track, because according to the histories I’ve read, Oliver likely would have passed through Ithaca. I’ve already planned out the cycle route. Now it’s just a matter of convincing the other ward members (and the boys). It would be a bit circuitous, so we could camp in state parks, so it would be closer to 160 miles, but we don’t know the exact route that Oliver and Samuel took anyway, so it’s a good as any other approximation, I suppose. (And actually, I misspoke in my last comment; it was actually 120 miles in 5 days, not 100 in 3 days). Walking the final 100k would be kind of cool, but I imagine that there isn’t going to be much in the way of walkable footpaths to form a good long-distance route in the southern tier of NY and northern PA.

    If you’re interested in looking at my proposed route, let me know and we can connect through email or facebook or something.

  10. Are you in the MSSJ FB group? Post it there.

  11. I’m not, but I’ll join and share it there.

  12. “I believe in communal salvation.”

    So does the Book of Mormon. Present-day Mormons who are grouchy about it or even deny it seem to be ignoring this fundamental aspect of the Book of Mormon in favor of a particular political angle that has gained ascendancy in the American political landscape in the last half century.

  13. Coby Vail says:

    What a beautiful piece. I hope to join the society on a future pilgrimage!

  14. I will be sorely disappointed if you don’t, Coby. Set your sights on Great St Bernard Pass in 2016!

  15. J. Stapley says:

    Stirring stuff, RJH. I hope to join you on the way.

  16. We just passed the one year anniversary of Jordan’s passing. I’m friends with his little sister and her tributes to him make me regret not having known him personally. He walked a good path.

  17. Kevin Barney says:


  18. Delux24/7 says:

    Beautiful! Thank you for this wonderful post. I would love to experience this type of journey.

  19. This is holy writing here, Ronan. Thank you.

  20. eponymous says:

    You and Steve are killing me today. I read both before hitting the shower and was still tearing up as I sat down to breakfast. Very powerful insights.

  21. I loved this. Thank you!

  22. One more comment- this post brought to mind this hymn that I’ve seen but never sung. Beautiful lyrics.
    1. I’m a pilgrim, I’m a stranger
    Cast upon the rocky shore
    Of a land where deathly danger
    Surges with a sullen roar,
    Oft despairing, oft despairing,
    Lest I reach my home no more.
    2. Misty vapors rise before me.
    Scarcely can I see the way.
    Clouds of darkest hue hang o’er me,
    And I’m apt to go astray
    With the many, with the many
    That are now the vulture’s prey.
    3. O my Father, I entreat thee,
    Let me see thy beck’ning hand;
    And when straying, may I meet thee
    Ere I join the silent band.
    Guide me, Father, guide me, Father,
    Safely to the promised land.
    Text: Hans Henry Petersen, 1835-1909
    Music: Leroy J. Robertson, 1896-1971

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