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Spirited away: Why the End is Nigh for Religion in England

Carol Midgley

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November 04, 2004

Christianity will be eclipsed by spirituality in 30 years, startling new research predicts. Our correspondent reports on the collapse of traditional religion and the rise of mysticism.

IN THE beginning there was the Church. And people liked to dress up in their best clothes and go there on Sundays and they praised the Lord and it was good. But it came to pass that people grew tired of the Church and they stopped going, and began to be uplifted by new things such as yoga and t'ai chi instead. And, lo, a spiritual revolution was born. It is unlikely that you, the average punter going to your aromatherapy or meditation group this evening, imagine that you are revolutionising the sacred landscape of Britain. But, little by little, you are.

Study after study appears to prove that people are increasingly losing faith in the Church and the Bible and turning instead to mysticism in guises ranging from astrology to reiki and holistic healing. The Government, significantly, said this week that older people should be offered t'ai chi classes on the NHS to promote their physical and mental wellbeing.

More and more people describe themselves as "spiritual", fewer as "religious" and, as they do so, they are turning away from the Christian Church, with its rules and "self last" philosophy, and looking inwards for the meaning of life.

Twice as many people believe in a "spirit force" within than they do an Almighty God without, while a recent survey hailed a revival of the Age of Aquarius after finding that two thirds of 18 to 24-year-olds had more belief in their horoscopes than in the Bible.

If you don't believe it, take a walk around Kendal, Cumbria, population 28,000. Since the millennium dawned, the ultra-traditional home of the mint-cake has been the subject of a spiritual experiment. Linda Woodhead and Professor Paul Heelas, both specialists in religion at Lancaster University, chose the town to measure the growth of the "holistic milieu" and the decline of Christian congregational worship.

The conclusion of their new book, The Spiritual Revolution, is dramatic: Christianity will be eclipsed by spirituality in this country within the next 20 to 30 years. Many people believe that this "New Romantics" movement will prove more significant than the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.

This is gloomy stuff for the traditional churchgoer. Only 7.9 per cent of the population now attends church, down from 11 per cent 20 years ago. Although holistic practices are still comparatively small (less than 2 per cent of the population nationally participate) it is the phenomenal rate of growth not just among the young but also the middle-aged and much older that is threatening to overshadow traditional churchgoing.

Kendal mirrors the national statistics with eerie precision: 2,207 people in the town - 7.9 per cent of the population - attend church on Sunday while 600 - 1.6 per cent of the population of the town and environs - take part in some kind of holistic activity.

During the 1990s, when the town's population grew by 11.4 per cent, participation in the "new spirituality" grew by 300 per cent. Woodhead and Heelas contend that "mini revolutions" have already taken place, and point out that in Kendal the holistic milieu now outnumbers every single major denomination apart from Anglican. (There are 531 Roman Catholics, 285 Methodists and 160 Jehovah's Witnesses.)

"If the holistic milieu continues to grow at the same linear rate that it has since 1970 and if the congregational domain continues to decline at the same rate that it has during the same period, then the spiritual revolution would take place during the third decade of the third millennium," they write with prophetic zeal.

If you were searching for a symbol of this revolution, you need look no further than the United Reformed Church in Dent. This building was once the nucleus of the Christian community of Dent, a quintessentially English village a few miles outside Kendal. But over the years apathy crept in and the congregation declined until it was down to one. To raise money, the church hired out its old schoolroom as a spiritual meditation centre. Local interest in meditation ballooned. When the church was forced to sell the building the meditation group bought it and refurbished it. Now it is flourishing where the old church failed. One of its trustees is a Church of England warden.

So what does meditation have that conventional worship does not? Neutrality, suggests Elizabeth Forder, who runs the centre. "We are not affiliated to any religion and there is no belief system imposed on anybody here," she says. "I was brought up a Christian, but it held no real meaning for me. I would class myself as a universalist, believing that all religions offer the same end. At its simplest, meditation is giving the body and mind a very deep level of rest, freeing us to be ourselves." She mentions an 87-year-old man who used to belong to the congregation and now meditates regularly.

If disaffected churchgoers are seeking neutrality, they are also in flight from judgment. "I don't want to be preached at any more", "I'm sick of being made to feel guilty" or "I don't need to be told how to live my life," people will say when asked why they stopped attending church. And when they speak of their spiritual malaise, they use the language of the therapist's couch. One Kendal woman in her forties summarised her spiritual shift thus: "A one-hour service on a Sunday? It's not really enough time to address your self-esteem issues, is it? I didn't find any help in the churches. I found it in a 12-step programme. That was the start of my personal journey."

Critics will say that this is merely the end product of a prosperous me-me-me society that has encouraged navel-gazing and pampering of the self via routes ranging from personal therapy to facial massage. This is too simplistic, insist Heelas and Woodhead. "It is standard to lash this kind of thing and cite it as evidence of the narcissistic self," says Woodhead. "But I would say it is inaccurate to say that people are doing this just for pleasure. Trying to become yourself but better through your relationships with others is a very noble activity."

Heelas adds: "It's a shift away from (the idea of) a hierarchical, all-knowing institution and a move towards (having) the freedom to grow and develop as a unique person rather than going to church and being led. A lot of the comfort of religion is in postponement - a better life after death. But belief in Heaven is collapsing, so people believe it is more important to know themselves and make themselves better people now."

The need to "know thyself" is now so entrenched in our culture that Heelas's statement hardly sounds revolutionary. Striving "to be a better person" sounds Christian - perhaps because those struggling to shore up organised religion have been so keen to adapt to modern mores.

That is part of the problem, suggests the Rev Brian Maiden, of Parr Street Evangelical Church in Kendal. He believes that the liberalism of Christianity has turned people off it. "The people of Britain have been inoculated with a dead, mild form of Christianity, which has given them resistance to the real thing. It has been diluted with human philosophy. People want to be told what to do and how to do it. Often they don't realise that 's what they want until they hear it. The message here is traditional Protestantism. We teach the message of the Gospels and that there will be a Judgment."

Those who think they can find the god within are swiftly put right. "To try to find the solution in oneself is bound to fail because human nature is fallen," says Maiden. "Christianity isn't about us trying to make ourselves better people. It is about God trying to do something for us 2,000 years ago which redeemed people."

Perhaps he is right, but some of those losing their religion were brought up with just the kind of dogmatic beliefs that Maiden is describing. Take Julie Wise, 44 and a mother of two, who was raised on a Lancashire farm in the Church of England tradition. Three decades of religion failed to touch her, she says, and it was only in her thirties, when she went to an exhibition in Manchester and saw a man performing Infinite T'ai Chi, that she felt truly spiritually touched. "It was like divine intervention," she says. "It was one of the most beautiful, meaningful things I had ever seen." She is now an Infinite T'ai Chi practitioner and performs "soul readings", a way, she says, of seeing life patterns and energies that haven't been released in the past.

You might expect those visiting her to have been raised in broadly godless households, but this is not the case. "About 50 per cent of the people I see were brought up quite religiously, so the seed of spirituality was there but the Church wasn't fulfil-ling their spiritual need," she says. "People are so much better educated now. They are less inclined just to accept what they are told; they need to know it for themselves."

Not that she sees any conflict between her practices and Christianity. "The Christian mystics taught that you can know God only through your own experience. All great religions taught 'know thyself'. That is what this movement is about, experiencing it yourself rather than through a priest."

It's an intriguing comparison. Once, mystics were the minority, the outsiders: what most people wanted was to come together and share in something greater than themselves. Increasingly, the reverse seems to be true. Joyce Armstrong, a former resident of Dent and a regular at the meditation centre, was raised according to strict Christian traditions. In her forties she converted to Buddhism after discovering that the Church did not speak to her. Before Buddhism she had been attracted to Quakerism - which has a strong history in Ken-dal - partly because of its lack of a priesthood and its tradition of silent contemplation.

"I had always been interested in personal spirituality, but the Church seemed so set in everything," she says. "Until you have a hold of yourself, you can't know what it's all about."

But must the rise of new forms of spirituality necessarily mean the decline of Christianity? There are life-long Christians who think not. Among them is Victor de Waal, 75, the former Dean of Canterbury Cathedral. He meditates daily and regularly visits the centre at Dent. "I don't see it as an alternative; I see it as deepening one's faith," he says. "Because it's not committed to a particular tradition, it is open to all".

But isn't it self-indulgent to look inwards? "It is not about discovering your ego, but the divine within yourself," he says. "Most religious traditions make a distinction between the ego and the self. In the New Testament Paul talks about 'Christ in me'. It is about finding one's deepest humanity. People who have been on the fringes or have given up the Church enter into their own spiritual selves and discover it again."

This, certainly, has been the spiritual journey of Martin Rayner, a kitchenware businessman from Windermere, Cumbria. Martin stopped attending a Christian church when he was 20, disillusioned by the break-up of his parents' marriage. Years later his own marriage broke down. He met a new partner and began meditation. He also attends yoga and t'ai chi classes. Eventually, Rayner's "New Age" spirituality led him back to his faith, and to the Church, which he attends regularly. "My biggest criticism of Christianity at the moment is that it is very verbose," he says. "You don't get a chance to be your silent self."

It was meditation, not traditional worship, that allowed him to be quiet. "I did feel in a spiritual vacuum, but I am now a lot more grounded and focused on what really matters in life. The world is getting faster and faster and meditation helps to order things in your mind. The Church has a great tradition of meditation, but seems to have lost it."

Conservative believers - Roman Catholics and Protestants - are adamant that New Age spirituality is merely a new form of gnosticism which turns the proper order upside-down by putting human beings in the place of God.

But there is no doubt that spiritual language is starting to seep into everyday discourse. The Spiritual Revolution points to terms such as feng shui and yin and yang now being common parlance. By contrast, theistic language has lost its vitality in ordinary language. The word "goodbye", for instance, used to mean "God be with you". It marks the shift away from the Church and towards the social empowerment of individuals in modern times. In other words, it is simply part of a general "flight from deference".

So where does this leave the typical Christian church? The Rev Ron Metcalf, of the majestic Holy Trinity Church in Kendal, which achieves an average congregation of 200 on Sundays, does not criticise the new seeking of spirituality. "If it leads to something better, then I can't say that I'm going to condemn it," he says. "The spiritual quest is not in itself unhealthy; that search is important, though I myself don't see how it is fulfilling."

He pauses. "I think [people] will find that yoga won't get them very far."

Read this article on the Times UK website.

Posted: 11/5/04



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