Latest ANVIL journal is on a “spiritual not religious” mission

Introducing the latest issue of Anvil, Church Mission Society’s journal of theology and mission, which investigates and demystifies an area which many Christians may find uncomfortable – the world of alternative spiritualities.

This edition of Anvil has come out of an event I organised at Church Mission Society last July. It was my joy and privilege to give a platform to those I have worked with in mission to the spiritual but not religious (SNR) for many years so that they might share the learning they have gleaned from their practice with a wider audience.

I hope that the articles some of them have gone on to write will take their insights yet further and help equip the church to see an interest in spirituality as an opportunity for dialogue that might enrich both parties’ understanding of Christ’s love and purpose in the world.

I have been seeking to build relationships with spiritual seekers in order to enable encounters with the divine for 14 years. I began in the healing field at Kingston Green Fair, worked and learned from Colin Brice, Simon Tierney and Katrina Moss at Eden People in Guildford and went on to create “Sacred Space Kingston”. This began as an arts project to “imaginatively explore spirituality” and is now a fresh expression of church. I found much in these articles that resonates with my experience of pioneering in mission and I was particularly struck with some common threads that run through most, if not all of them.

Pastor Phil Wyman from Salem, Massachusetts, highlights the tension that exists between the old sensibilities and new ways of thinking and being. This is familiar territory for all pioneers, but he goes on to highlight the desire that is particularly evident at festivals for ecstatic experience and personal transformation. However, a search for transcendence that might bring greater wholeness is no fringe activity. I was intrigued that in a recent documentary focused on Alastair Campbell’s personal exploration of depression on the BBC, hallucinogenic drugs were being trialled by Imperial College London as a possible medical treatment for anxiety and depression. In his article, Ian Mobsby also highlights the importance of the experiential for the SNR, which he roots in Trinitarian and Incarnational theology that reconciles us to relationship with God and the other in community.

One of the ways in which this is being initiated is by making space for open-ended missional conversations through a network of spirituality dialogue groups called “SearchingSoul”.

Diana Greenfield is the ordained pioneer minister in Glastonbury, and I was fascinated by the recollections of a couple of her friends who would describe themselves as SNR yet wanted to grow in “Christconsciousness”.

This would certainly echo my experience having a stand at the Mind Body Spirit Festival in Olympia for the last 12 years. People embrace Jesus, but like Emma Moreton’s reflection in her article, they have been hurt, rejected and judged by the church. Paul Cudby is also reframing Christian community with The Arden Forest Church to both model a new style of leadership and recognise people’s spiritual connection to nature, using a creative and flexible liturgy based upon the changing seasons. I like that as a parish priest, he bridges the gap between being faithful to his responsibility for an inherited model of church while reaching out to spiritual seekers.

I found Matt Arnold’s article really helpful in bringing together the need for imagination and myth in apologetics and at the same time grounding this in the reality of Christ’s birth and death in human history. He draws on the wonderful examples of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, as well as Jesus and St Paul. I think it has profound implications for mission in postmodernity that is captivated by story. The Space to Breathe case study outlines how the SNR can be engaged through art in a workplace context in order to encourage greater team collaboration and improve mental and physical health.

In summary, what I find so encouraging and challenging about this edition of Anvil is that all these wonderfully committed and innovative pioneers are drawing upon a rich heritage of Christian theology and practice.

However, I would like to suggest that it looks for inspiration to a Celtic Christianity that has more in common with the Desert Fathers and Mothers. I wonder if the church got a bit stuck in a contextualisation that was appropriate for the more rationalistic post-Enlightenment world of modernity, which no longer feels so relevant to the fast-paced, media-saturated and radically consumerist society that we now inhabit. Today people in the western world are searching for a spiritual encounter they don’t have to totally comprehend. They want mysticism and contemplation, a spirituality that protects and sees the imprint of the Creator in all living things. But this is not passive, as Extinction Rebellion has demonstrated.

They can live with ambiguity, yet see through any attempt at control or inauthenticity. The feminine is to be celebrated and integrated along with masculinity as patriarchy is no longer tolerable. Stories are valid bearers of identity, meaning and eternal wisdom.

Inclusivity and participation are essential. Spirituality needs to encompass our bodies and emotions, not just our minds. Like these missionaries to the SNR, I think we are being stirred to figuratively and literally unblock the indigenous spiritual wells that exist in these sacred isles – to rediscover the God-infused signs and appetites that are all around once the Holy Spirit opens our eyes and sparks our imagination. These are exciting times to be alive. In the way of St Brendan as he set sail from the west coast of Ireland in just a coracle to cross the Atlantic, get ready to embark on a wild ride!

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