Venturing into unknown spiritual territory

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…or, a reflection on pioneering in a time of religious and social change

A wise person once said that what marks out a pioneer is their ability to allow the Holy Spirit to guide them, then fill in a back story afterwards. That’s definitely me.

From early on in this ministry I have been encouraged to make sense of the way it has been shaped.  I knew early on that I was called to inhabit a space Christian Ministers are rarely called to: in the midst of people who practice alternative spiritualities. But I was unaware of how much it would stretch me, both in terms of my doctrinal beliefs and worship life.  I could never have predicted how bereft I would feel not having a sacramental community to belong to; and I never would have realised just how orthodox many of my beliefs are, had I not been asked to explain and defend them so many times over the years.

As this particular ministry draws to an end I find myself asking what it is I have learned from this journey; and what questions would be most helpful to ask as a consequence.  This article is the result of that.

In order to reflect in depth on what it is to pioneer in this time of religious and social change,  I have found it necessary to understand the landscape against which this spiritual path has been set.  And to do that I have had to look back over the history of religious change, particularly in England.  I have had to ask myself:

  • Why are those who engage with what might be called New Age Spiritualities treated with such suspicion by the church – and is it justified?
  • What does it mean to walk this path alongside them, and how has it changed me?
  • What questions might I offer to churches thinking of engaging in a ministry of their own alongside those on a spiritual journey but not a traditional Christian one.

Religious Change in the Age of Modernity

In his comparative thesis on Christianity and New Age spirituality / Neo-Paganism, Steve Hollinghurst suggests that all religious developments are subject to a process (1996, 5-6). As patterns of behaviour begin to alter and traditions change or start to be lost, those deeply immersed in them feel threatened.  As new ideas gain credibility, levels of suspicion reduce, and an opportunity for engagement opens up.  Eventually the new practice will be rejected or accepted – but this time on the basis of a mutual understanding that has previously not existed.  Some ideas might even be accepted into the mainstream and become the ‘norm’.  When another new idea or concept emerges, this cycle, which can take several hundred years, begins again.

Hollinghurst suggests the current period of major religious change has its roots in the Enlightenment, but it first became apparent in the Romanticism of the late Victorian era. While British missionaries were imposing Victorian religious values on, and teaching Moody and Sankey songs to, populations at the far corners of the globe, a significant number at home were engaging in what Linda Woodhead describes as re-engagement with “the magical” (2012, 179-180).  At a popular level illusionists, escapologists and magicians became what Hollinghurst describes as the “scientist[s] of the spiritual world” (1996, 5-6), while prominent intellectuals such as Arthur Conan Doyle became huge advocates of Spiritualism – the belief that, through the art of clairvoyance, it is possible to communicate with the spirits of those who have died or “passed over” into the spirit world. The difficulty was how to identify where magic (the art of illusion) ended and true spiritual engagement began. How could one be sure someone claiming to have spiritual gifts weren’t con artists becoming rich on the backs of those desperately seeking answers to questions the living could never give them? It is a question I ponder now in a similar way it was asked back then.

Religious Change in the 20th Century

In 1910 the General Assembly (national governing body) of the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA), became embroiled in what was known as the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy.  They agreed to adopt a Doctrinal Deliverance, consisting of the following Five Fundamentals “necessary and essential to the Christian faith”.  In the decades that followed there were huge arguments over the extent to which the five points had to be taken literally.  By the 1930s the Modernists (who believed that the fundamentals of the faith should be interpreted in a way contextually relevant to the age) appeared to triumph over the literalists.  It wasn’t until much later that Christian Fundamentalism came back into vogue.

One proponent of fundamentalism was the highly influential evangelist Billy Graham, whose simple message of salvation through a personal belief in Christ caused a revival across continents.  Graham first visited the UK in 1954.  New choruses and informal liturgies were introduced, combining a focus on the working of the Holy Spirit with a sense of joy, hope and renewal.  Meanwhile the theologian and Bishop John AT Robinson published his ground-breaking Honest to God (1963).  His writings opened the way to the acceptance of a belief in a liberal God, who was gender neutral, egalitarian, and a spur to social action, to be related to through a less hierarchical church structure and more informal worship.  Suddenly the distant, sovereign, and judgemental God promulgated by the traditional church seemed outdated and irrelevant  Attendance at traditional church services started to plummet, while new congregations, shaped by the Billy Graham experience, encouraged charismatic worship not seen in the churches in England for a long time – if ever.

During this period an influx of immigrants brought with them their own faith traditions. There were the formal religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, but also numerous informal spiritual traditions and religious practices founded in Eastern philosophy and herbal medicines.

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Emerging from this came a new found interest in Paganism, distinctly different and rooted in ancient British culture. It appealed particularly to those with British Christian backgrounds, looking for spiritual practises relating to ecology and creativity, and with a focus on the feminine attributes of the divine.

In the meantime, Linda Woodhead suggests, belief for some was transferred entirely outwith the spiritual realm.  With the advent of the welfare state, and ending of church provision of health and social care, the British nation had a new ‘God’ to believe in: the National Health Service (2012, 159-160). Spiritual practices founded in the use of plants and energetic techniques straddled both the sacred and secular realms, satisfying those who had lost faith in the church, but weren’t yet ready to leave a spiritual path entirely behind.

Connections between healing and wholeness have always existed; but in recent years they have started to gain credibility within the healthcare profession. In Cullompton the surgery opened in 2010 was built with an ‘integrated complimentary care’ centre attached.  The Managing Partner, a practising Christian, has been advocating for many years the use of non-invasive complimentary therapies alongside what is generally known as ‘traditional medicine’ in the treatment of patients. Interestingly they have now begun to issue ‘social prescriptions’ and started a Community Life Hub.  The aim is to tackle loneliness and isolation through the provision of interesting and stimulating activities rather than prescribe anti-depressants and pain killers en masse.

Navigating today’s religious and spiritual milieu

To a certain extent the history of religious change explains why those who engage with what might be called New Age Spiritualities are treated with such suspicion by the church. For many Christians belief is not simply about experience. It is also about the adoption of a certain set of doctrines which combine with experience to create belief.  Refusing to accept those doctrines is like challenging the validity of a Christian belief system in its entirety.  For the average Christian this is an uncomfortable business.

During this ministry I have adopted a policy of never telling anyone they are wrong. There are times I have been profoundly challenged by the beliefs of those with whom I engage – sometimes fellow Christians as well as others.  But in challenging myself to listen openly to the views of others I have been able to work out what I truly believe, as well as being able to share in creative conversations about faith and spirituality.

However, there are some practises I have chosen never to engage with, either because I am simply not convinced they are genuine, or because they make me feel uncomfortable.  We call it “the line I won’t cross”. For me these have mainly been to do with mediumship and clairvoyance.  Although I have an open mind, I am not convinced I can tell where illusion ends and genuine spiritual practise begins.  And it works both ways. There are Christian activities I would never expect another member of Hug Cullompton to join in with, although I could, and sometimes do, invite them.

My principle is that if I practise a faith founded in the belief that the Holy Spirit can work through any encounter, why shouldn’t I be influenced by someone on a different spiritual path to mine, as long as I feel it is a genuine path and there is no danger or malice in it? And what might I learn that I didn’t know before that might help me understand myself and my relationship with Jesus better?

Suggested Reading

Woodhead, Linda and Catto, Rebecca, 2012, Religion and Change in Modern Britain (London, Routledge)

Hollinghurst, Steve, 2003, New Age, Paganism and Christian Mission (Grove Booklet)

Cudby, Paul, 2017, The Shaken Path: A Christian Priest’s Exploration of Modern Pagan Belief and Practice (Winchester, Christian Alternative)

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