Sermon (Part 1)
My spiritual journey - From denominational Christianity to Global Faith
I thought it might be interesting to share something of my spiritual journey, before getting into the meat of my sermon. I was born in Chorley in Lancashire and attended the local Congregational church school in Chorley. My Grandmother was into Trades Unionism, but my Father’s gentle influence reached back to his father’s strict upbringing. His father was a very “Victorian” CofE Stipendiary Reader in Penrith. From my dad’s bookish presence I was schooled in Temperance and Science Fiction, and he gave me a deep awareness of the bigger picture. There was world religion on his bookshelf. It made me argumentative in RE lessons at Bolton School.
By the 6th Form I was slightly rebellious, but at University in Manchester I was soon “converted” to Anglican Evangelicalism [Holy Trinity Platt Fields – Michael Baughan (Vicar)]. I was on the Christian Union Executive and later had links with Pentecostalism. I drifted away a little after my return to Chorley from where I commuted to Salford to work as a Planning Officer. However, I began lay preaching in the Congregational then later the United Reformed Church (by then in my early 20s)
After marrying Val, we lived and worked Aberdeen, attended the village Kirk (Presbyterian) near Aberdeen at Skene, but after only 18 months I moved back south to Kendal where James and Lindsay, our children were born. I became active as a leader in “Sunday School” and also “lay preached” around the South Lakes and up Penrith. I then felt “called” to trained for, the then new, URC Non Stipendiary Ministry. I chose to train ecumenically on the then, Carlisle Diocesan Training Institute course. It was a tough time in full time work at the County Council with small children! I was Ordained 1986 serving at Carver, Windermere – by which time I was post-evangelical, as my training was
open and exploring!
My Forties were an activist phase, basically getting on with my job, preaching on Sundays around Cumbria, and
very active across church structures, on endless Committees, but with strong ecumenical interests being developed. I was Chair of Governors at Kirkby Kendal School for a few years. I was very much involved in conceiving the Social
Responsibility Forum with Ruth Clarke & was for many years on its Environment & Energy Groups. I saw my work and practical Christian engagement as linked. I was gradually promoted in my work, which was planning related - covering energy and the environment, with a major nuclear waste, nuclear power and environmental role for my employer CCC.
As I reached my fifties I was reading widely in the sciences (Dawkins et al), leading to a brief “non-realist” phase in terms of my preaching & writing. In the late 1990s I helped ‘found’ the Progressive Christianity Network Britain
(and was on its Executive until last year). Working with the Kendal Ecumenical Group I started a local PCN Group –
reading key texts, watching the DVDs and going to conferences with authors such as Jack Spong, Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, who reshaped my theological understanding in a Christian context. All this set me free to explore liberal and progressive theology – with no limits – and helped me grow! I remain on the Committee of “Free to Believe” – the mainly URC open network.
Sources of theological awakening
My first personal sense of encounter with the “divine”, after my University conversion, was triggered by early retirement from Cumbria County Council at the end of 2006 (after I was off work for several months with stress problems). Nevertheless I later started my own Planning Consultancy! So now – here I am in my early 60s! I guess
that I’m slowly awakening to what was my problem – being into everything – instead of just BEING! I think I
am realising that western Religion is interpreted as being about DOING!, in other words, it is guilt based and culture bound. Doing is not experiencing God, so, I readily admit I have had a limited prayer or spiritual life for the past 40 years, much more it has been about intellect not the heart. I am still “Living the Questions”, exploring to what or to whom am I praying and respecting? This also is “doing”, but a necessary stage.
Drivers to theological awakening
I have to admit that all this has brought increasing disillusion with standard Christian religious beliefs. I find much Christian doctrine totally disconnected with contemporary understanding in the sciences and its relationship to other faith insights. For example, I find Christianity’s “only way” claims personally difficult. To me God must transcend any and all faiths, for the God of “all that is” in our amazing universe – must be always mystery and yet source of our awe and wonder.
I am thus more and more experiencing the possibility of “awakening” through other sources of global wisdom and spirituality. Living faith is a “Way” rather than depending on Religion’s “beliefs”. I am recognising, with millions of others “on the edge”, that we can be ‘spiritual’ without being ‘religious’ (in the negative sense of having to believe particular things). I am awakening to the new - but old! I now see (intellectually) that there is a new story which integrates scientific understanding, the “evolutionary story”, and the felt experience of the “All”, as Michael Dowd puts it in his book, “Thank God for Evolution”.) This for me is the felt inner experience of “Life, Love, Being” that is shaping a new Spirituality - aboveand beyond historic western religious doctrine - but not its long mystical tradition.
It was after reading afresh in the Christian mystical tradition as well as those of other faiths that I wrote “Reshaping Christianity” in 2008. [It can be purchased from Free to Believe - see link:
So, increasingly, like Elliot, I am "Knowing the place for the first time” It is from my own experience of the mystery that life has now danced into being more than I could ever imagine. So - before talking through my Booklet .... A poem I wrote to Iona. It is an important place for me as some of you will know.
SERMON PART 2 - Reshaping Christianity
My sermon now summarises my Free to Believe Booklet – You can find the link to the site here: http://www.freetobelieve.org.uk/booklets2.html.
My Booklet explores developments in the world faiths and what are called the “new spiritualities”. It embraces the clash of the pre-modern, modern and the emerging world, which risks tension and schism – but also offers hope for mutual understanding. It also explores how Christianity is changing, as new ways of looking at “God” are
becoming necessary – the “God” in the evolutionary process of becoming – Life, Love & Being. Poetry and poetic prose best captures the reality that we name God. As John O’Donohue puts it in Anam Cara, “Silence is the sister of the divine.” “You must make a space for it so that it may begin to work for you.” “Friendship mirrors itself in the
Recent research predicts a continuing decline in church attendance to as low as 3% in the UK over coming years. However, what the academics call “post modernity”, will through its re-awakening of people to the ‘spiritual’ or ‘mystical’, begin to open up new avenues of faith exploration beyond the evangelical / liberal divide. Dave Tomlinson’s book, The Post Evangelical, first explained this situation in 1995. He acknowledged the “growing discontinuity” of many
nurtured within the evangelical milieu. Gordon Lynch (Professor of the Sociology of Religion at Birkbeck University, London) has also written about his journey from evangelicalism in Losing my Religion, but he has set out his
analysis of the emerging encounter with what he calls The New Spirituality. It is from these and other sources that I have found my way of looking at church and life and God very differently.
There is a growing common theological underpinning for this. Gordon Lynch identified many of the key ideas. God
– the All – is the guiding intelligence behind evolutionary process expressing in the energy of the universe itself. Pan(en)theism is replacing a transcendent, patriarchal view of God. Mysticism and the divine feminine – using symbol and liturgy and encounter with nature people are able also to celebrate the feminine side of God. More and more people are discovering the sacred in all of nature and are affirming the material aspects of nature and its gift of life as participation in divinity.
This way of thinking emerged in the 1970’s with the book Original Blessing by Matthew Fox. People of faith are more and more celebrating themselves as sacred – as a manifestation of the divine. They sense that human
self-consciousness is derived from the supra-consciousness of the “All”. In addition they begin to Religion differently – as culturally and historically bound and thus metaphorical – enabling a growing spirit of ‘ecumenism’ and interfaith encounter.
The future of faith will be a return to its mystical roots. A chorus of voices proclaim that Christianity must re-embrace the spiritual, the mystical, in ways that make the mystery of God real in human experience. Carl Rahner said,
“The Christianity of the future will be mystical, or it will not be at all".
He felt that all human beings have a latent awareness of God, who he describes as “absolute mystery”. The Celtic way
is also deeply connected to the mystery of the divine “being” – using a Trinitarian motif in its worship and engagement. This call to mysticism will not be easy for those whose faith journey has been rooted in accommodation to the religious critique posed by modernity where God is simply the “religious ideal”. My story has followed this path
and I expect many of your spiritual journeys have too!
Surveys of Religion & Spirituality were undertaken by Lancaster University which explored the way “religion” and “spirituality” interact in Kendal. The Religious Studies Department chose Kendal, in Cumbria, to research levels of involvement in both the old “religion based” and new “individualised” spiritualities. The book based on the research is, “The Spiritual Revolution – why religion is giving way to spirituality. “
The research distinguished between those who see ‘life as religion’ and those who seek ‘subjective-life spirituality’. The authors identify the “massive subjective turn of modern culture” with a profound rejection of the authority claimed by ‘religion’. They caution that, where the word spirituality is used in Christian circles it traditionally references the transcendent, not an experience that flows “through one’s own subjective life”, though there are overlaps. The Kendal Project looked at the ‘congregational domain’ and the ‘holistic milieu’ (e.g. Yoga classes / body-mind-spirit) and found that there are, “two worlds” in Kendal, with a self-developing spirituality: “far more evident in the holistic milieu than in the congregational domain”. The project predicts a steep decline in traditional churches over the next 20-25 years. The Unitarian Church in Kendal was noted as an exception, as it also embraces nature based and other faith adherents
In addition, Progressive Christianity also exemplifies this change, as, over recent years, there have been emerging in Kendal and many other UK towns and cities, groups of Christians who are exploring beyond the edge of traditional Christian faith.PCN Britain Local Groups, such as Kendal Ecumenical Group (KEG), and nationally Free to Believe, MCU, the Iona Local Group, etc – study books, host conferences with noted leaders, watch DVDs and
follow Courses – like “Living the Questions”.
There is a growing Speaker and Conference Circuit – with Jack Spong, Marcus Borg, John Bell and many others. However, most “open Christians” hang on in the congregational domain out of loyalty, supported by new open hymnody: e.g. Wild Goose and the late Fred Kaan’s great hymns.
I have also been exploring beyond my tradition through contact with the, “new spiritualities” and open faith communities, and am more and more into Interfaith issues, as people in the South Lakes and Cumbria have developed the South Lakeland Interfaith Forum & the Cumbria Interfaith Forum networks. I am secretary of SLIF.
Finally, to finish this address, I want to explain about what are often called, the “New Spiritualities”. A growing spectrum of what I regard as credible writers and spiritual teachers, are taking an increasingly high profile role, by drawing together the “holistic milieu” into a coherent framework. The new spirituality comprises many spiritual paths which are being pursued by those who do not directly follow one of the recognised eight or so historic
faiths, though many remain deeply influenced by them.
The historic faiths remain the core source of the wisdom the new spiritualities advance.
The goal of all such paths is “spiritual awakening” and its method is “meditation” and “silence”. Christian mystical, Vedanta (Hindu) and Buddhist writings, earth based spiritualities (“pagan”) as well as aspects of
psychology, are regularly quoted. The wisdom of the pre-modern is alive again! Leading teachers include the Dalai Lama and Eckhart Tolle. Also, Neale Donald Walsch – as well as others such as Gill Edwards, local author of “Conscious Medicine”, have wisdom to share! The teaching is:“Life is an ongoing process of creation... We call forth what we
think, feel and say... Be in the present moment...”
As a “cross fertilisation” of religious ideas - now growing rapidly, as east and west share common insight,
an open approach across the world’s faiths offers a vital opportunity to shape a global spirituality drawn
from the world’s meditative traditions. This is now urgent – in the face of climate change and the consequences of human excess. To change the world we need to challenge traditional culture and religion – but not by confrontation – by education and engagement. This, so far, has had little impact in the more fundamentalist expressions of each religion – but it needs to have - as it is beliefs and the fears they provoke that drive hate and war. It is socially
and politically the challenge of the century, as recent events in the Middle East and now in Britain show. Hope arises, however, from the increasing emphasis on meditation practice in Christianity and in Interfaith contacts - with many local groups across the UK linking contemplative tradition and practices.
Contemporary mystics, such as Eckhart Tolle, are increasingly recognised as key western leaders in the movement to “awaken” individuals to the “presence” found in times of stillness: He says:
“When you lose touch with inner stillness, you lose touch with yourself. When you lose touch with yourself, you lose yourself in the world”.
Worldwide the emphasis is increasingly on meditative practices to still the mind’s endless chatter and our focus on “form” (things). This does NOT mean leaving our religions and their heritage – it means absorbing all the world’s inherited wisdom and practicing a Way – but not one bound by belief & doctrine. Future spirituality will be about PRACTICE – knowing God!
I hope this address has informed and encouraged you to explore your faith and its impact on yourself and others – while having open hearts and minds to discover the voice of the divine light in our midst.
Rev''d John Hetherington - firstname.lastname@example.org