Spiritual but not religious: perspectives from the ordained pioneer in Glastonbury | Diana Greenfield [ANVIL vol 35 issue 2]

On May the fourth (Star Wars day) I set out to Galicia in Spain to walk the last 116 km of the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St James.

Diana Greenfield

This pilgrimage has become so popular that over 250,000 people walked at least the last 100 km last year alone. The tradition of the pilgrimage is to reach Santiago de Compostela and visit the relics of St James, which are said to be laid to rest there. I had thought that on my journey there would be people who were walking the Camino for spiritual if not religious reasons, thus providing source material for this article. I was surprised to find this was not the case. The reasons people gave me were generally more prosaic: “Because I can”, “It was on my bucket list” and “I don’t know”. With some wanting the opportunity to “get away from it all” or “for a new challenge”, there were a significant number who wanted to “connect with nature”. What nobody really said was “This is spiritual pilgrimage for me”, although a couple were most definitely engaging with it as an opportunity to think about their own Christian faith. Research conducted by CaminoWays, the specialist company with whom I travelled, suggests that my observations are not unique; they suggest that a mere 28 per cent of those people asked walked for spiritual or religious reasons. [1] People are thus not particularly pilgrimaging to Santiago for spiritual reasons.

It struck me that I had gone from one place of pilgrimage to another, as much of the work I currently do is conducted in and around Glastonbury. People most definitely pilgrimage to Glastonbury for spiritual reasons, and seemingly more so than those who go on Camino to Santiago. Some years ago, a group of people in the town realised that there was no central place for information for the spiritual pilgrims, and the tourist information office wasn’t in a position to help. The Pilgrim Reception Centre was therefore created and is designed to help pilgrims, visitors and residents explore the diversity of faith represented in the town.

Working definitions

While studying with Church Army in the late 1990s I developed my own working definition of spirituality. It is far from the only definition but has helped me frame an understanding of the concept when working with others.

“Spirituality is seeking and engaging with the extraordinary in our ordinary lives.” While this is by no means a deeply academically researched definition, it has stood me in good stead over the last few years while ministering in and around Glastonbury.

In seeking to define the word “religious”, I turned to the Oxford English Dictionary; the simple definition is: “Relating to or believing in a religion.” [2]

If the definitions of the two words are combined, my understanding of spiritual but not religious is “seeking to engage with the extraordinary in our ordinary lives but not relating to or believing in a religion”.

The Dalai Lama offers a slightly longer definition in his understanding and connection between the two terms:

I believe there is an important distinction to be made between religion and spirituality. Religion I take to be concerned with faith in the claims to salvation of one faith tradition or another, an aspect of which is acceptance of some form of metaphysical or supernatural reality, including perhaps an idea of heaven or nirvana. Connected with this are religious teachings or dogma, rituals, prayer and so on. Spirituality I take to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit – such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony – which bring happiness to both self and others. While ritual and prayer, along with the questions of nirvana and salvation, are directly connected with religious faith, these inner qualities need not be, however. There is thus no reason why the individual should not develop them, even to a high degree, without recourse to any religious or metaphysical belief system. This is why I sometimes say that religion is something we can perhaps do without. What we cannot do without are these basic spiritual qualities. [3]

The spiritual qualities listed by the Dalai Lama echo the fruit of the spirit as listed in Gal. 5:22–23: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”. [4] A popular meme that can be found across the internet is “God wants spiritual fruits, not religious nuts”. Certainly, Jesus was not a fan of the overtly religious people of his time whom he described as hypocrites, greedy, self-indulgent, lawless and on one occasion a brood of vipers (Matt. 23).

A problem with language

I never have much liked being defined as “religious”. Even at school it was the disparaging term for those of us who attended Sunday school or the church youth group. It was discernible even then that those using the term intended it as an insult. As an evangelist (another contentious word for many) I regularly get people saying to me phrases such as “I don’t want to know about religion, religion causes wars”. However, even the famous atheist Richard Dawkins does not actually believe the simplicity of that statement: “My point is not that religion itself is the motivation for wars, murders and terrorist attacks, but that religion is the principal label, and the most dangerous one, by which a ‘they’ as opposed to a ‘we’ can be identified at all.” [5] Even though he has a good point, the phrase is regularly used as justification by those not wanting to engage with all things religious. Consequently, they seek a different word to express their yearning for the extraordinary that they encounter in their lives.

The sociologist Danièle Hervieu-Léger seeks to understand the limits of the term “religious”:

The growth – observable everywhere in societies that are known as secularized – of invisible or diffuse religiosity dispensing with the mediation of specialized religious institutions constantly reopens the question of the limits of the term “religious”. But the issue regularly comes to naught in the conflict that cannot be resolved between those who choose to be all-inclusive and those who choose to concentrate their attention only on religions which are socially identified as such. [6]

She argues that pilgrims, who are on an individual path of self-discovery, and often with a do-it-yourself approach, can also be described as religious, thus broadening the definition of religious to those who would consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious.

In their exploration of the differences between religion and spirituality, Heelas and Woodhead acknowledge a cultural shift or a “massive subjective turn in modern culture”. They describe it as “a turn away from ‘life-as’ (life lived as a dutiful wife, father, husband, strong leader, self-made man etc.) to ‘subjective-life’ (life lived in deep connection with the unique experiences of my self-in-relation).” [7] They distinguish “life-as” as religion and “subjective-life” as spirituality. For Heelas and Woodhead, the subjective life “has to do with states of consciousness, states of mind, memories, emotions, passions, sensations, bodily experiences, dreams, feelings, inner conscience, and sentiments – including moral sentiments like compassion”. [8] They do acknowledge that, as with all working definitions, some confusion can occur but these definitions have given them scope to explore the subject.

A spiritual but not religious conversation

Last summer, while working at a festival I came across a really interesting man called Nik Greenheart (formerly Nick Ellacott). I am quite used to people having a strong attitude towards the fact that I am a Church of England priest and represent an institution for which they have no time. In this instance I was subjected to a non-stop, 45-minute, passionate monologue about the negative things “the church” has done. The topics ranged from the canon of Scripture to the financial and institutional power and control of the church, with many other themes in between. It was pointless of me to try and respond so I just sat and listened. Then I began to get to know the man behind the opinion. At the age of 17 he was due to take his A levels and was likely to have got a place at Keble College, Oxford to read Theology, and most likely would have followed the path of becoming a priest. For some reason he suddenly realised the “Christian religion”, of which he had become a part, did not represent the teachings of Jesus whom he loves and respects. He dropped out of his A levels and set off travelling and seeking to become a healer “like Jesus”. His path has taken him to learn shiatsu, but he has developed a methodology all his own. In Glastonbury he is known as a very good healer; the language he uses depends who he treats – whether the energy for healing comes from “the source”, “chi” or “the Holy Spirit”.

What matters to him is that there is something spiritual in the healing he does. He spends time with people who follow a variety of different spiritual paths. He does not identify with any of them except perhaps the Green Man, who is an archetypal symbol and a historical idea that represents the eternally renewing energy and wisdom of nature – predominantly the male connection. To me Nik is a classic example of someone who is deeply spiritual but vociferously not religious. When I meet him now, we get into deep conversations that range from C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien to foot-washing and servant hearts. One day he said, “You do realise, ‘Vicar’, whenever we meet we always end up discussing theology” – to which my response was, “You do realise, you are the one who starts the conversations.” He has no desire at all to revisit the path he left so suddenly at the age of 17 but still speaks with great affection for some of the clergy who influenced him in his teenage years, including the Revd Stephan Hopkinson, former counsellor and assistant chaplain of Winchester College, and the Rt Revd David Conner.

One of the biggest things that my continued encounters with Nik reminds me of is the anger and frustration there is towards the institutions of religion – and not least the church. It can be for any number of reasons but the result is that more and more people are turning from the church with the argument that they are not religious.

Glastonbury town

The “new age” that grew out of the free festivals of the 1960s and 1970s, an eclectic mix of beliefs and practices focused around a desire for a holistic way of life, gave the freedom to explore spiritual practices from other traditions. The first ever Glastonbury Festival in 1970 was heavily influenced by these. It was known then as the Pilton Festival as it was, and to this day still is, hosted in a village seven miles outside the town of Glastonbury. At that time entry tickets cost £1 and included free milk from the farm. After that first festival it is said that a number of the “hippies” who had found themselves in the area never left. Inspired by the “spiritual” nature of the town, they stayed and made it their home. Since then Glastonbury town has developed into a “melting pot” for all things New Age and of an alternative spiritual nature. At the last formal count there were over 70 different spiritualities and religions represented in a town of approximately 10,000 residents. It is said that if you can’t find the religion you are looking for in Glastonbury, we can invent one for you – obviously if you have enough money.

There are other key influences in the town. While it is known for Glastonbury Abbey, which was the second largest abbey in the country prior to the Reformation, it is also thought to be the site of one of the earliest Christian churches in the UK. Alongside of all of this, “Glastonbury is thought to have been a site for pre-Christian worship, perhaps because of its location by the Tor, the highest of the hills surrounding Glastonbury and a superb natural viewpoint… there is a form of terracing around the Tor which has been interpreted as a maze based on an ancient mystical pattern. If so, it would have been created four or five thousand years ago, around the same as time as Stonehenge.” [9] There are individuals who seek to represent that pre-Christian faith through druidic practices, although the most honest among them will acknowledge that since there is no evidence of what happened in the past they are in fact neo-Druids, seeking to reinvent how the spirituality of the time might have been expressed. Alongside the neo-Druids is the renewed interest in “traditional” witchcraft; while this is in some ways similar to Wicca, those who seek to be “traditional” witches tend to be less ritual-orientated and seek to reclaim the word “witch” as meaning wise-woman or herbalist.

Another group who have a great influence on the spiritual landscape of Glastonbury are those who follow the Glastonbury Goddess. Kathy Jones has been the driving force behind this movement; I heard her give a talk where she explained that there was nothing written about following the Goddess so she invented one herself. However, her driving influence came from the radical feminist movement of the 1970s. For many who follow the Goddess, it is about a desire to redress a perceived imbalance of the patriarchy of the church.

When I first arrived in Glastonbury nine years ago, I heard someone describe this melee of people as “alternative”. My initial reaction was that it was a mistake to label them all together in such a way, until I learned that actually it is a title the “alternatives” have adopted for themselves. I found myself wondering, “Alternative to what?” My realisation is that they have chosen a lifestyle that is alternative to what is represented by mainstream cultures and a spiritual path that is alternative to the institutional religion of the state. It seems to me that many of the “alternatives” in Glastonbury can be categorised as spiritual but not religious, but out of sheer contrariness would probably decline to identify with the label.

Finding connections

When I was licensed as the diocesan adviser for new religious movements and alternative spiritualities (catchy title), I chose as the reading Acts 17:16–32 – Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus. He represented his faith to the philosophers but he didn’t tell them they were wrong; he talked and debated and found a statue to the unknown god, one that he could identify with and one from which he could expand his teaching of the gospel. He moved his teaching from the temples to the debating context of the day. He explained that the God he believed in created the heavens and earth and everything in them, therefore giving a context for his existence and a worldview for his faith. He explored the idea of searching for that God, and that we have been called to repent of human ignorance. While some of the philosophers dismissed Paul as a babbler, some asked to hear more from him and some came to be believers.

In a town where the spiritual and philosophical diversity is so great, and in a culture where individuals can choose their own truth, it is important not to set oneself up as right and all others as wrong. This can be misconstrued as universalism, but for me (note the ownership of my truth) I have always believed that it is God’s Spirit who brings people to faith. Like Paul or Apollos, all I am doing is planting and watering seeds; I am nothing because it is God who gives them growth (1 Cor. 3:6–7). It is about representing the faith of following Jesus in a gracious and respectful manner and ensuring that the gospel is heard in the marketplace of spiritualities on offer.

Morgana West from the Pilgrim Reception Centre recognises that while we are not going to all agree, we can still work together to build a united community. “Building bridges between diverse beliefs is essential if we want to live in a community that has great social cohesion. It doesn’t have to mean we have to all become one homogenised blob of humanity, but it CAN mean that we respect each other, even if we don’t agree. We can also take our acceptance one step further, by proactively encouraging and supporting people of good heart and intention on their own path through life. We know only too well that there is widespread agreement that bridge building can be successful in reducing prejudice and hostility between different groups and in helping people to live peacefully alongside each other.” [10]

Fairly early in my time in Glastonbury I took part in the “Bardic Trials of Ynys Witrin” (thought to be the Celtic name of the Tor), a competition for storytellers, poets and songwriters rather akin to an eisteddfod. I found a way to weave part of my faith into the theme of the day, thus entering respectfully into the trials but holding true to my integrity as a follower of Jesus. It was interesting to note the struggle for some that since I was a representative of the church, I should not be there. This is not one of the rules, and as I understand it there was a degree of consternation from the judges about whether it was appropriate for a Church of England priest to win. I didn’t win, and I didn’t want to; I wanted to take part in a community activity that enabled me to engage culturally and credibly. The following year I was welcomed as an honorary bard of the Ynys Witrin Gorsedd.

Over the subsequent years, many of these people have become my friends. I was chaplain for the first ever Druid mayor, who holds some interesting perspectives on the stories of Jesus. It has been my privilege to conduct some incredible funerals in the church that have represented the diversity of the spiritual community while still maintaining a Christocentric focus.

The other touchstone passage to which I turn is 1 Cor. 9:19–23. While I struggle with the language that Paul uses “to win people for Christ” (not a conversation for here), I very much identify with the idea that it is important to become like those around you in order to relate to them. To become as a “spiritual but not religious” person to the “spiritual but not religious” people around me has enabled me to understand why they think the way that they do, to help them navigate a path that is not averse to following Jesus but is often averse to the way Jesus is represented by the church. Back to Nik Greenheart when referring to the priests who inspired him: “I took their inspiration, their ‘breath of god’, to fast track my own, life pilgrimage. I don’t mean to kick over tables, for love, but, sometimes, I find Jesus’ example too hard to resist…!”

One of the things I find, when talking to people who consider themselves as spiritual but not religious, is their need to tell me how they used to go to church, or they have been baptised into one tradition of Christianity or another. I wonder whether the need to tell me this is out of some kind of misplaced guilt or the thought that I might judge them for the choices they have made. In his book How to Be an Agnostic, Mark Vernon suggests that this is because the church can represent a parental role towards an individual in a similar way to a parent–child relationship. He suggests that the process a child goes through in seeking to move to an independent relationship from their parent, when that relationship is toxic, can be similar to that which an individual might experience when he or she attempts to question the faith of the religious institution where they have belonged. What this means is if, for example, the parent withdraws love from the child in order to control their perceived wayward behaviour, the child will react with frustration and anger towards the parent. “What this also means is that it is the person who has turned their back on the church who is most likely to become the most vociferous campaigner against the church: it is as if they want to destroy the parent that has rejected them, a rage that is consciously expressed as disgust at Christian values.” [11]

The teachings of Jesus are popular with many people who are spiritual but not religious, but they will put them alongside other teachings such those of as Gandhi or Kahlil Gibran (best known for his inspirational work The Prophet). It would seem that being spiritual but not religious is no longer constrained by the perceived limitations of belonging to an organised religion. This does mean, however, that the joy that can be discovered by delving deeply into the traditions of the church is lost. I am known for oft quoting G. K. Chesterton: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” [12] Throughout my many conversations, a theme that crops up regularly is a desire to connect with the “Christ Consciousness”. This idea, for the spiritual but not religious, has been separated from Christianity and has become an experiential goal in spiritual connectedness. A while back a friend posted on social media the question “Who has the best connection with Christ Consciousness?” I answered that surely Christians do, and was laughed at. When I relayed this question to another friend, who runs a festival speaking venue, he said that the church had no mysticism, so how could they connect with the Christ Consciousness? My response was initially sadness but I then found myself explaining about the rich heritage of mysticism from the Desert Fathers and Mothers and on through many saints all the way up to contemporary people who have influenced me, such as Richard Foster. The result of that conversation was that I spoke in his venue on the subject of “Encountering Christ through the Mystics”, which began as a journey of explanation and concluded with an Ignatian-style meditation of the Transfiguration, thus enabling those present to encounter Christ. It was a great privilege to journey with people who had no real understanding of the rich heritage of the church and enable them to encounter Christ the way followers of Christ have done so for centuries.

Resonance

The most relevant conversation I had while walking the Camino was with Miranda Bromley. She specialises in coaching and spoke of a “resonance” or an “in communion with” the people she coaches. That “resonance” is characterised by what she describes as a deep listening or hearkening that can be found more in silence and space than in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. In her MA thesis she describes the feeling that she suspects others crave. “The plethora of activities and experiments on the smorgasbord whilst, in themselves, have been reflective, have made it a busy, crowded place; a complicated place. As I surface from it I find myself yearning to be in – the silence that lies the other side of the roar.” [13] She suggested that this idea could explain why so many people were walking a pilgrimage but without necessarily recognising it as a “spiritual” activity; they crave a resonance that they cannot explain. In the same way, I observe how so many people are drawn to the peace and liminal space that is St Margaret’s chapel and almshouses in Glastonbury, often inexplicitly to the idea of having silence and space.

One of the things that I have found as I have worked more and more with people who are spiritual but not religious is that I too have sought more silence and space. I find myself craving silence amid the liturgy of a church service; I no longer want the noise of the radio to block out the quiet when at home and I find myself drawn to liminal spaces. For me those are the thin places where heaven and earth are closer together. As I seek to be in those places I start to discover “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:7). [14] It is in a yearning to be “in communion with” the divine where I resonate most with the people around me, and I suspect it is what drives the spiritual but not religious on their quest to seek and engage with the extraordinary in their ordinary lives.

The Revd Diana Greenfield is currently Avalon pioneer minister and diocesan adviser for new religious movements based in Glastonbury. She trained as an evangelist with Church Army and was commissioned in 2000 to be the first full-time night club chaplain in the UK. She studied for ordination as a pioneer with St Mellitus College and King’s College London. She is currently a tutor for the “Bible in context” module on the CMS lay pioneer certificate in the Bath and Wells diocese.

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Notes

[1] Karl, “7 reasons why people walk the Camino de Santiago,” CaminoWays.com, 23 May 2017, https://caminoways.com/7-reasons-why-people-walk-camino.
[2] “Definition of religious in English,” Oxford Dictionaries, accessed 15 May 2019, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/religious.
[3] Dalai Lama, Ancient Wisdom, Modern World: Ethics for the New Millennium (London: Abacus,1999), 22–23.
[4] NRSV.
[5] Richard Dawkins, The Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003), 158.
[6] Danièle Hervieu-Léger, Religion as a Chain of Memory (Cambridge, Malden: Polity Press, 2000), 4.
[7] Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead, The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion Is Giving Way to Spirituality (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), 3.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ben Johnson, “Glastonbury, Somerset,” Historic UK, accessed 16 May 2019, https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryMagazine/DestinationsUK/Glastonbury/.
[10] “Pilgrim Reception in Glastonbury,” accessed 16 May 2019, https://www.unitythroughdiversity.org/.
[11] Mark Vernon, How to Be an Agnostic (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 109.
[12] G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World (Pantianos Classics, 1910), 25–26.
[13] Miranda Bromley, A Hint Half Guessed – Accessing an Embodied Way of Knowing in Coaching Practice (MA diss., South Bank University, 2017).
[14] NRSV.

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