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Is Spirituality the new Religion?

Gethin Abraham-Williams

To begin at the beginning, to quote Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood! (Penguin, ₤7.99) - retirement provided me with the opportunity to reflect on what my ministry had been about, half of which had been in pastorates in England (in Coventry, in Sutton Coldfield and in Sutton, Surrey), and half as an ecclesiastical bureaucrat (albeit of an ecumenical kind!) in both England and Wales.

Pastorally I had always been concerned about those on the edge. As a Baptist mission in some form or other is always there under the surface. But as a liberal Baptist, my concern was less with getting them into my tent, though that would have made me wickedly boastful, as to seeing how to uproot the stubborn tent pegs of denominationalism and church order in order to make the tent much wider!Ecumenism was an early corollary of my evangelical zeal. This was dodgy ground in the 60s, especially for someone from Wales. The town in which I grew up was part of the Anglican diocese of St David’s, which in my twenties, had a bishop who pronounced it inappropriate for nonconformist ministers to have a supporting role in Anglican funerals, and vice versa, which was very much the rural practice. The Roman Catholics just didn’t feature on our Richter scale of true believers! Catholicism was held to be an easy religion in which confession allowed you to get away with murder!The macro ecumenism of other world faiths was a late flowering. In our little Baptist chapel with its pulpit wide as a platform, where the preacher could declaim as he walked to and fro like the Lord God in Eden, an annual highlight was listening to one of the missionaries on furlough from converting the heathen. I had no concept of other world faiths, except Judaism, which we held had been found wanting anyway!And all the while there was a steady but irreversible haemorrhaging of support from the mainstream churches, where it became increasingly suspect to explain it away with the ‘leaner but fitter’ tag. In truth religion was failing to connect on a significant scale.Meanwhile, many who had left church, the ‘gone but not forgotten’ of Richter and Francis’ 1990 research, and more who had never belonged, were found to be doing their own faith thing. To the purists inside it was all very messy, maybe even dangerous. For others, like myself, it was a puzzle. Was God in this? If so, where did we, as church, fit in?And alongside this drifting away, there were people of other faiths from overseas, settling mainly, but not exclusively, in our cities, and staying faithful to the practice and pursuit of those faiths. The Sikhs who kept the corner shop in a village on the edge of Snowdonia, and sent their children to the Welsh school where they heard about Jesus in morning Assembly, but venerated the Guru Gobind Singh at home in the evening; where did they feature in the great scheme of salvation?Spirituality or Religion? (O Books, ₤11,99) was my attempt to make sense of these changes I’d experienced and been part of for over forty years of being ‘a minister of the Gospel’; a term I can still identify with, even if it’s a lot broader than when I set out.My argument is that for religion to dismiss spirituality as erroneous or as an aberration on the basis, in Christian terminology, that extra ecclesiam nulla salus, and in other faiths. of the equivalent, is not only foolish it is also foolhardy. Because if this is where God now is, religion needs to catch on. To use an image from Judaism, if the shekinah, the cloud of God’s presence, has moved from our Tent of Meeting to another, or to more than one Tent, then religion not only needs to catch on, it needs to catch up!But I’m equally concerned that this new religious milieu that we call spirituality can easily fragment into lots of things that are vague and insubstantial, and thereby ultimately fail its enthusiasts and adherents if it ignores the insights that religion, for all its shortcomings and lethargic reformation, can and does provide. To use another image from Judaism, spirituality needs to remember the rock from whence it was hewn. The challenge for traditional religion in the current swirl of new religious thinking, comparable in recent times to the enlightenment, and released by scientific discoveries about the universe and the human brain, is how to re-interpret God without losing the idea of God. How to make the connection between what is given from our faith past, with what we are discovering about our faith present. Eley McAinsh, former Director of the Living Spirituality Network and former producer of Radio 4’s Something Understood, reacted to my book, saying: ‘At times I felt that we’d be on opposite sides of an argument ... (but) the more attentively I read, the more it seemed that our meaning and intention are actually very close, it is language that gets in the way.’ Is it, though, just a matter of language, or does the language point to a parting of the ways? Is it either that spirituality will become too diffuse to contain the big ideas that the great faiths have transmitted, or that religion will atrophy into a museum exhibit, to be visited nostalgically by those who can’t quite give up on the old time religions? It’s because I can’t give up on religion, but can see the energy and the possibilities for re-formulation in spirituality, that I want to hold on to both and to commend each to the other. While Spirituality or Religion? is very much an inter-faith book, it is written from a Christian perspective, so I’ve set the argument in the context of the Transfiguration with Moses as the champion of religion and Elijah as the advocate for spirituality. I see Jesus in-between and beyond. For Peter, James and John, especially in terms of their relationship with the other nine disciples, spirituality and religion are painfully real. Gethin Abraham-Williams is a Baptist minister and former general Secretary of CYTUN (Churches Together in Wales) now working as a freelance ecumenical consultant. His latest book is Seeing the Good in Unfamiliar Spiritualities, O Books, £8.99

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