Should all SNU Churches follow a set format for the services?
Author: Trevor Baldwin
Contributors: SNU President, Minister David Bruton
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and contributors.
"I was fortunate to have been living in an area where the church was run so well."
"I had started to realise that individual presidents could 'put their own stamp' on their church. Each president could run their church in their own style and it appeared to be with their own set of experiences."
"The committee often appeared on duty in jeans and t-shirts and casual dress was simply the standard."
SNU President, Minister David Bruton
"Our constitution enshrines the autonomous status of the Churches which in real terms affords each Church a good measure of freedom to determine its own future"
Minister David Bruton
I can just about recall the first time I went alone into a Spiritual Church near where I lived at that time.
It was quite a bold step to take for me who wasn't really religious, was exploring my spirituality and was doing it alone. I'm not sure what I expected at the time. I was uncomfortable about going. I'd not been inside a church of any kind for a long time and never in a Spiritualist Church.
What I did experience that first night in Christchurch, Dorset was completely the opposite of what I had expected. The church (now called a centre) was bright and modern inside. Everything seemed new and the atmosphere was welcoming. The people were friendly and I felt at ease quite quickly once inside.
Now many years later I realise that I was very fortunate to have been living in an area where the Spiritualist church was run so well and maintained to such a high standard. The experience I had that first night left me wanting to return and to be part of such a good community.
I recall the warmth and friendliness of both the congregation and the committee members who served with pride. Pretty soon after I applied to become a member and started to participate in the various workshops and events organised by the church.
For a while, going to the church became an important part of my life and my Spiritual development and unfoldment. I was unaware at the time that Christchurch Spiritualist Church had set a high benchmark of standards. It was only when I started to visit other churches nearby and afar that I realised how Christchurch was better than them all.
I automatically compared different aspects of each church I visited with my own church. General decor, type and comfort of seating, the ambience and feel of the church, the warmth of the committees, the professionalism and attire of the individual committee and the subsequent atmosphere created by the congregation. The quality of the service and the way it was presented, the edification to its guest speakers, and the amount of personal interactions I personally had. Sometimes it was tiny insignificant details that were missing that let these churches down.
It became obvious to me very early on that every church, centre, community hall and Spiritualist gathering had their own ideas and politics. Each ran their establishment different to the rest. This started to bother me, after all, we're part of the same organisation. Shouldn't there be a basic format to follow? Shouldn't there be a standard set of rules and guidelines?
I had started to realise that individual presidents could 'put their own stamp' on their church. Each president could run their church in their own style and it appeared to be based on their own set of experiences.
I soon became disappointed. I felt that some of the churches methods were wrong, in my opinion. Their personalising was sometimes far from those I had hoped for from the church. My own church at Christchurch has set such high standards, I had come to expect it from every other church and that was far from the way it was. The way some presidents were running their church appeared far removed from the high standards I believed the SNU stood for.
The service is the heart of the church and even that varied from church to church. I couldn't understand why. Surely there should be a set format?
TYPICAL SERVICE AT CHRISTCHURCH
- Smartly dressed committee members greeted all church arrivals with a warm welcome.
- Service began promptly at 7:30 pm with the chairperson welcoming the guest and the congregation.
- Congregation read aloud The 7 Principles of which the SNU was based.
- The guest speaker opened with a prayer
- First hymn was sung, accompanied with an organist, making singing easier and harmonic.
- A few minutes of healing with heads bowed and silence. Some names were read aloud from the healing book.
- The healing hymn followed.
- The guest speaker was invited to spend 15 minutes with a philosophical address.
- Second hymn was sung
- Guest speaker reintroduced for 45 minute demonstration of mediumship
- Church announcements followed
- Guest closed service with a prayer
- Congregation sang final closing prayer
- Congregation were informed that the committee would now be available for questions if anyone wanted.
I liked the reliable ritual of the church service at Christchurch. It worked well and was enjoyable. Personally, I loved the philosophy, often based on The Seven Principles. On more than one occasion I found myself taking notes, if the guest was inspirational.
Some time after, the running order of the service was changed. Philosophy ran straight into the demonstration. At that time, I felt this to be wrong and didn't enjoy the new format. However, now many years later, I know that changing the format was correct and as a medium myself I fully understand why it was done.
Now, almost two decades after that first visit to Christchurch Spiritualists Church, I live up the north of England near Wigan. When I first moved here I did join the local church but my attendance was to be short lived and as I rewrite this article I'm no longer a member of any church but still a full SNU member and proud of it. I stopped going to the church because I was not comfortable with many of the elements of how it was run. Philosophy was never discussed, even though the wall on the podium contained a framed image of The Seven Principles. On one occasion when a guest speaker asked to do a bit of philosophy, the chairperson informed them in front of the congregation that they don't do that there. I was shocked.
The committee often appeared on duty in jeans and t-shirts and casual dress was simply the standard. Hymns were dire and the demonstrations more often than not were mediocre and more like personal counselling sessions rather than offering evidence of the continuation of life. Though this might be how the locals had come to expect it, it was far removed from the standards of SNU service I had experienced living in the south.
I travelled to other churches in this area and found much the same standards. I actually enquired about one nearby church by speaking to the chairperson on the telephone prior to attending. I was informed that their church was different and they were professional and welcomed everyone with warmth. So I went along that night. What I found was not what the chairperson had told me to expect earlier that day. The committee were not warm and welcoming. The service was poor as was the medium's demonstration. I never met the chairperson as they didn't really appear to be available. So I left that church, again disappointed.
I'm sure there will be some churches or centres that I've not yet visited that take a more professional approach and offer wonderful services. It just so happens that the ones I've visited haven't on the occasions I've attended. Since living in this area, I have never, not even on one occasion, heard any philosophy or mention of The Seven Principles which, after all, are the foundations of our movement.
So why are there so many differences between how the churches are ran and organised? Why, if they are affiliated with The SNU, are they not following a basic set of guidelines? Should they be? Why is philosophy frowned upon and not apparent?
If the first church I had attended had not been Christchurch Spiritualist Church (Centre) and instead had been the one local to me now, my future would have been different. I would not have attended again after the first occasion. I would not have joined the SNU, probably would never have done any courses at The Arthur Findlay College and would not have had my life enriched by all the workshops and associated events I experienced at Christchurch. All were important in my Spiritual development and unfoldment.
UPDATE AUGUST 2017
This article was originally written in 2015 and has been updated for this presentation. Many of the questions I originally asked are still relevant today, in my opinion. I still believe that the churches and centres are the ambassadors for the SNU. I still believe in being so, they should follow a tighter set of guidelines and should be tested on them. I also still believe that if a central format of service was followed, more newcomers would follow and stay. Most of the churches are holding their services with empty seats and on occasions with only a few people attending. I've attended them as a guest medium and have experienced such occasions.
In my original publication of this article, I finished with the following statement:
"Please, I am keen to hear from others around the country about their experiences with their Spiritual church, good or bad. The churches are the official ambassadors for The SNU. How can Spiritualism grow if there are so many different practices throughout this nation? Why does the church not stick to a format set by The SNU? Why is philosophy not being encouraged everywhere? Why is it thought that weak messages from the Spirit world are more important than strong philosophical words of wisdom?"
"I'm an apprentice of Spiritualism and will be for the rest of my time on earth. So I'm keen to learn from the experts, those in the know and those with an opinion based on knowledge. I'm hereby inviting comments, criticism of my views, and help in understanding where the SNU believe the future is for their churches and centres."
"Who is more important? The die-hard members that have been attending for years and don't like change, or the new Spiritualists entering a church for the first time obviously hoping to further their pathway? I have many friends and quite a number on social media, most of whom are on a Spiritualists and mediums. However a great percentage of them do not attend a Spiritual church. Why not? What is keeping them away? Is it politics, poor services, lesser experienced mediums? Are these not valid questions to ask?"
At the time of writing this article, I forwarded a copy to Mr David Bruton, the President of The Spiritualists' National Union offering a right to reply. David read my article and did duly respond.
I have looked at your site with interest and I am sure the experience you describe will be common to many people who enter Spiritualist Churches around the United Kingdom. The Spiritualists' National Union as I am sure you are aware was founded in 1901 as an attempt by Emma Hardinge Britten and many others to create a national body and as such one voice for Spiritualism. Given the movements historic roots and the links to Socialism the structure of the organisation is by its very nature 'democratic' and in the beginning independent Churches joined the Union.
Our constitution enshrines the autonomous status of the Churches which in real terms affords each Church a good measure of freedom to determine its own future. All Churches that affiliate agree to uphold and comply with Rules for Churches which provides each individual Church with its own constitution. The rules are a framework to assist the running of the Church and provide protection for the managing trustees (The Committee) and the members alike. Any organisation or society needs rules, for without such there would be anarchy. Rules for Churches do lay down the mandatory requirements for activities at each Church but we do not go as far as to prescribe how each Church should conduct its services.
I would uphold this right personally as I believe strongly that our services should contain a strong aspect from the Spirit world, if you lay down and police rigidly what should and should not happen we could lose the inspiration and spontaneity which make many of our services so special.
I travel around the country and speak to many Spiritualists in the course of a year, I accept the long held cry 'Where is the Philosophy in Spiritualism' but equally I meet many Spiritualists passionate about philosophy and I have to say given the resurgence of interest and debate I can see the trend of messages, messages, messages reversing with many more people now interested in speaking and philosophy, I trust in time this will feed through to the Church platform.
Daniel Douglas Hume said famously: "Mediumship is provided for the sceptical, what are we providing for the convinced?” and I think this is a question we need still to address today in the 21st Century.
I wish you well on your spiritual pathway, I believe one of the aspects many of our Churches are missing is a strong debate that serves to inform and help people develop their ideas and understanding, it is good to see this debate taking place on the Internet but perhaps it is time to take it back into the Churches. By challenging our thinking we may just expand our horizons and create a stronger movement for the generations to come.
Minister David Bruton DMS, MBA