The Church and the New Age Movement – the Charity Administrator’s stance

…..And you call yourself a Vicar?  Shame on you!

From time to time I have been asked, “How is it that you are a vicar and yet you do all this occult stuff?  Isn’t that New Age and condemned in the bible?”  Or conversely, “How can you stand the dogma of the Church?  Show it up for what it is and revel in the freedom of the New Age”.

On some occasions I have been very strongly challenged, usually by more evangelical church members, and had to really think in order to defend my beliefs.  It seems that there is a common inclination among them to see psychic sensitivity as an affront to their religious convictions and therefore subsequently demands to be denounced.  Furthermore, there is an apparent lumping together of a host of emerging and re-emerging religious ideas together with complementary therapies, the Goddess, Shamanism, various forms of meditation, astrology, psychic phenomena, yoga and even sometimes soft drugs – as New Age.  I find that kind of thinking equally offensive.

Similarly I am worried by the lack of rational thought that is so apparent in many of the New Age constructs.  Some of the things that people are asked to embrace by so called New Age teachers makes me wonder if we are on the same planet.  The general populous seem to be encouraged to suspend brain activity when entering many a Mind, Body and Spirit festival, with a growing sense of the bizarre as the years go by.

Standing as I do with a foot in both camps I thought that perhaps it was opportune to put pen to paper, or bytes to hard drive, and sort something out that I could present to the world at large.

The Point of a Religion

Let’s disentangle the many threads of the above and start with psychic abilities.  Psychic stuff is not the sole prerogative of the parapsychologist, the student of the occult or the magician.  It is the whole area of the ‘unseen’, of subtle forces and energies and how a person can interact with this, manipulate it and gain insight and understanding through the use of it.  It seems that psychic stuff is acceptable by the Church if it is called ‘spiritual gifts’ or prayer but to be condemned if it is thought of as divination, clairvoyance or magic.  Yet in fact some of the Old Testament prophets like Daniel and Ezekiel were schooled in the magical arts and their ‘gifts’ indistinguishable from what is commonly thought of as psychic abilities of today.

Every religion claims to have power to change things, be it around the world or in an individual’s circumstances or especially within an individual’s innermost thinking.  That is the reason for praying.  It does not matter if they are Hindu, Jew, Animist or Christian, they all make this claim in some way or other for no religion is merely a belief system or thought exercise.  That is no more than a philosophy.  Religion is a matter of living and experiencing, trying to understand the experience in some meaningful way, to grow ‘spiritually’ and relate to the Cosmos and the Divine.  I point out that all that ‘psychic stuff’ is the nuts and bolts of every religion.  You cannot condemn one aspect of psychic stuff without endangering all other aspects.  A label does not give immunity.  What is far more important is the use of any gift or talent within the religious framework or ethical understanding.

If EVERY religion in the whole world disappeared over night, then the next day there would be situations that called for spiritual words and understanding – what I call ‘God Moments’.  A new born babe is held in a mother’s arms and the mother tries to express her wonder, joy and awe at the mystery of a new life.  Or an old man holds the hand of his dying wife of 60 years marriage, and he looks for understanding and words to convey the depth of his loss and heartache at this event called ‘death’.  Perhaps a person has just escaped being shot by terrorists and stands in total shock and bafflement asking “why me?” and “what would have happened if?” and wants to thank ‘god’ for continuing life and good health.  That is the stuff of religion, and no religion holds the monopoly on such moments.

There is, of course – also the core to all religions –  the matter of Atonement or At-One-Ment.  I am not thinking of the particular Christian doctrine of the Atonement, that of Christ paying the price of all sin on the cross, and like doctrines around the world, I am writing of the theological term for communing or relating intimately and deeply with the Divine.

On this point, of course, the person’s understanding of ‘Divine’ is a major factor in the experience that is being sought.  The Divine means different things to different people.  A main stream religion, hopefully, is an accumulated wisdom and corporate interpretation of years of faithful followers’ understanding of that experience, but because each religion speaks of such in very different terms, this leads to different experiences with different consequences.  Not all spiritualities are the same.

I am not expert on different religions, but even I can see that the end result or ‘spirituality’ for a Christian is different for a Buddhist which is different for a Moslem which is different for a Spiritualist and so on for evermore.  This end result is, funnily enough, not something eventually achieved – if that is not a contradiction in terms – but an evolving mindset and aura about that person.  The consequences of holding diligently to a particular Faith and practice means that the unfolding expectation of experience will lead that person along a particular course or path which is different to all others – and so all religions are NOT the same.  That is a major misconception.  It would be lovely if all spiritual paths did lead to the same end, but the end results are different.  Their way of seeing things is different.  Their values are different.  The resulting behaviour is different.  Their spiritualities are different.  I am not saying that one is better than another.  Who on earth am I to judge.  Only God can do that.  Yet FOR ME the way for spiritual life and growth is the way of Christ.  However, let me look in greater detail how that thinking works JUST for Christianity.

Forms of Christianity

Did you know that there are several forms of established Christianity?  And I am not talking about sects or denominations here.

When Vasco De Gama discovered the sea route to India in 1497, the Christian sailors did not recognise the Christian religion of those lands.  It was so foreign an expression.  It did not have the same scriptures, style of buildings, institutions or stories or hymns.  For them, it could not be Christianity.  However, it is commonly held by many of that region that the Church of South East India had been started through the evangelism of Saint Thomas, the Doubter.  He had travelled east whilst Paul and Peter had gone west to Rome.  It is obvious to us today, with hindsight, that the fledgling church in India would have arisen naturally from the people, using things which were meaningful to them.  It could not have been otherwise.  They used their Indian concepts to express the ‘new truth’ – hence a very different resulting Church.

Two forms of Christianity came to Britain.  There was the Roman form that travelled from Rome through Gaul [modern day France] across the Channel to Kent and centred itself at Canterbury in the South East of the island.  There was also the Celtic form that started in the deserts of the Holy Land, developed and grew along the North African shore, travelled with the pirates of those lands to Ireland, blossomed in Ireland and eventually crossed the Irish Sea to Northern England, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall.

The two were quite different, for just as the Indian Church developed out of the Indian culture of the time, so these two grew in separate and divergent ways.  The Roman expression was one of Empire.  It saw the political strength, power, expansionism and sway that the Roman Empire had over the surrounding lands, and the Church of Rome reflected this.  It became an evangelising expansionist church.  It developed political skills, political partners and gradual social dominance.  It would not be cowed.  There were divisions ultimately within it, divisions we now know of as Catholic, Protestant, Reformed, Episcopalian, Lutheran, etc, but all these expressions sprung from the same root and have essentially the same basic concept of the need to spread the gospel and bring in the kingdom of God here on earth.

The resulting Celtic expression had started in the quietness and emptiness of desert life rather than the bustle of empire.  Living in the desert meant that a person was aware of the mystery and wonder all around, of the stars and celestial cycles, of where water was to be found and its miraculous power over life, of plants with healing properties or the power to kill, of reading the signs within Nature to work with it or die.  The church reflected this.  It was not a church that particularly sought dominance or power but was a quiet expression of understanding of the necessities of life amid the cycles of life, death and rebirth.  It thrived on solitude, meditation, listening, prayer and observation both in the religious sense of services and in the sense of awareness and service to all God’s creatures, a respect of God’s creation.  It was the more obviously ‘spiritual’ of the two, being far more at home in the unseen and subtle world than its politically more astute counterpart ever did.

The Celtic language was a spoken language and not essentially a written one.  The script in any kind of use was the Ogham script, which were clumsy runes and truly hard going, often carved onto sticks and stored as bundles, rather than inscribed on scrolls of vellum as was the Latin or later Saxon.  However, what were most definitely recorded in the Ogham script were the laws and government protocols of the Irish.  These showed such a high order that their Roman cousins of the time appeared barbaric and uncivilised.  Inheritance and power were not the prerogative of the male.  Justice did not rely on might or chance.

Like the Roman counterpart, the evolving Christianity of those lands had had immeasurable influence on the social mores of the time, but indirectly.  It worked by working ‘with the social flow’ rather than producing the flow by itself.  It showed by example rather than ‘dictak’ or subjugation. Its concept of authority was very different, not only in sway over the neighbourhood but within its own ranks as well.  There was no central government of the Celtic Church, unlike the Roman expression.

The two expressions clashed in Britain.  Their agendas were different, their motives and modus operandi were different, and they even had different calendars.  One had to give way to the other and no prizes given to guessing which one would dominate.  It was an inevitable outcome, and I believe it was the wrong one!  How could God let this one happen?

Pre-Christian Britain and the New Age

What of the religion in these lands before any kind of Christianity arrived?  From my research through general interest and reading, it seems to me that certainly Druidism was present and so was a form of Wicca or the Old Religion, both steeped in the use and understanding of the ‘unseen’.  In fact in all probability these two religious expressions were the two wings of the same original bird.  If I have got it right, the history, the law [or lore] and story telling, were more the prerogative of the male priesthood, while healing, fecundity and intuition were more under the authority of the female priestesses or wise women.  The Old Religion had essentially split over the centuries, giving birth to these [apparently] two separate religious expressions by the time the Romans were on the scene.  Neither of them stood a chance against the incoming Christianity – of whatever kind, although the Roman evangelism certainly excelled over the Celtic.  In fact I believe the time was right for a new religious expression to emerge throughout the lands anyhow, as the old had held sway for many a century.  The religious scene needed new blood and revitalising.

With the incoming tide of political reform or power politics of the expanding Roman Empire, the old order – with its own religions – was swept away.  Profound reformation took effect.  Any new religion would have done the trick, but just as it was a politically expedient move by Emperor Constantine to embrace Christianity and ‘established’ it as the empire’s religion, so it was Christianity that appeared on the scene as part of the Roman world.

I think it is a mistake to equate the New Age Movement with the Old Religion of either wing of Druidism or Wicca.  We have no continuity of thought from those times and ideas for, as I said, the Celtic language was spoken rather than written.  It is all very well simply to call them Pagan times and the New Age as Neo Pagan, but it is sheer speculation to equate the two.  In fact there are obvious discrepancies, given a little thought.

It can be understood from the legends handed down of the Old Religion that there was a hierarchy of Priesthood, both within the male and the female aspects.  There was authority and a consensus of opinion of what was considered ‘orthodox’ and acceptable, a consensus possibly stretching right across Europe from Ireland to the Caucasian Mountains and beyond.  Certainly the archaeology research suggests that there was cooperation between the various regions, and trade existed in artefacts and ideas that held the Neolithic peoples together.  It was a ‘High’ religion.  How different that is from today!

Today there is no coherent authority in the New Age Movement.  A person can be a ‘Master Practitioner’ or an Arch-Priest or Priestess just by claiming to be just that – and remember that empty vessels make the most noise.  That is why I speak of it as a Movement and not a religion in its own right.  It is more a collection of ideas with some kind of collective identity – hard to define – but it is still a mish-mash of concepts borrowing heavily from as far a field as the Mediterranean myths and legends, the Shamanism of the New World, the Theosophy and Spiritualism of Madame Blavatsky, Astrology, far eastern philosophies and meditation practices, as well as half constructed or half ‘remembered’ lore from Pagan times.

Even so, this mish-mash presents a very real challenge to religious thinking of today in the Northern Hemisphere, and one that the Church as a whole has tended to ignore.  Whether that is because the Church does not see that the New Age movement presents any theological challenge or simply because it does not understand the nature of the New Age, who can guess, but I think the Church does itself no favours by its attitude of dismissal.  I would go as far as to say, that it is very much because the Church of the last decades has been more concerned with its own navel gazing that the New Age has grown as fast as it has!

The Church has spent so much effort and thought in whether the priesthood should include women, or debated the worth of Rite A, Rite B, the Alternative Prayer Book, gay priests, Sunday trading, ‘happy clappy’ services and the like, that it has lost its sense of vocation!!!!  It has been more caught up with internal debate and ‘demythologising’ the scriptures that it has lost its sense of wonder and mystery that are core aspects of the spiritual life.  When was there advertised a Lent course on Angels, or Spiritual Beings or spiritual dimensions?  When was it popular as an authority on Meditation or personal spiritual development and discipline?  When did it have the guts to leave dogma and encourage individuals to explore the spiritual world all around them, being an authoritative guide in these matters?  Why has it not seen the spiritual famine and spoken in ways that can be heard?  What is the treasure that Christ presented that the Church’s form of evangelism often seems to castrate?  Needless to say people have looked elsewhere for answers on spiritual matters.

Please note the difference between Christianity and the Church.

The Church, in its multitudinous form, endeavours to be the expression of Christianity.  In the past it has had its successes, but it has also made so many mistakes, especially when it has relied more on politics, power and wealth rather than on spirituality, morals and ethics.  It has been found wanting, monstrously so on occasions, so the Church has been reformed several times in its history.  A thousand years of monastic life was overturned in five during the English Tudor years!  The Puritans, Quakers, Methodists, Baptists etc have all had their time, with tremendous social change initiated by their groups such as the Clapham Sect.  Yet that kind of reform has not been limited just to the more Protestant wing.  The Oxford Movement was of the ‘High’ end of the churchmanship spectrum, re-establishing the sense of continuity from Apostolic times with its innate authority of Church Orders.  But NOW the Western World is a multicultural world with many religions represented, and the Church – of whatever denomination or sect – is a growing irrelevance to most people, no matter how hard that is to hear by Church people, parishioners only seeking out the Vicar or parish church for family funerals, weddings or the occasional Midnight Mass.  The overall membership of the Church is in decline, the membership is getting elderly, income and assets are dwindling as the burden of maintenance and revenue costs grows ever higher.  It desperately needs to be reformed once again and I am sure that it will fade away altogether unless it regains its spiritual vocation.

Christianity, however, has never been so popular, though not necessarily recognisable in any traditional form.  There is a growing phenomena throughout the hemisphere as Christ’s words are ‘claimed’ by churches, house groups, sects, heresies, and even many New Age groups, despite the re-emergence and prominence of the Goddess.  So many people are still desperately searching for spiritual food and recognise Christ as a past great teacher.  But where is the Church’s voice of authority on spiritual matters?  Where is its interpretation of Christ’s words for today?  Where is its answer to the present day challenge? It needs to meet the New Age Challenge.

I only wish part of the Celtic Christian Church was still here today.  It spoke the same language, metaphorically speaking, as the New Agers and spiritually seeking populace, yet it had such authority, unlike both the modern Church and the New Age movement as a whole.  It was not so caught up with social reform, political power, celebrity status and wealth.  It was so much more concerned with the quiet cycles of Nature, of the unseen effects of relationship within the environment, of ‘sacredness’ of Life and respect of gender and the complimenting of male and female and of ‘psychic stuff’.  It offered a spiritual path and understanding that stretched back to the earliest times of the Church.  In fact it was the early church of North Africa which evolved into the Celtic Church in Western Europe that had been the spiritual giant and ‘thinker’ of those early days.  It is the Celtic Church that resonates with today’s issues and challenges.

Christianity has stood the test of time.  Christianity has withstood schism from within and assault from without.  It claims an academic integrity that is sadly lacking in the New Age.  It cannot be contained by any Church or denomination.  It has changed its outward form many times over the centuries.  It is feely available for any genuine seeker of spiritual truth to embrace.  Christ came to show spiritual truth for everyone.

So to return to my opening comment – do I really need to defend my belief and practice when I am verbally attacked by either extreme?  You see for me, there is no conflict between Christianity and the wonders of Nature, for Nature was created by God.  I see no conflict with working with the tides of the seasons and the cycles of life energies and celestial influence.  I am simply amazed at Nature’s complexity.  I see no conflict of ‘seeing’ spiritual beings in Nature and I delight with their company.  I make no apology for such ability myself.  I had my own ‘Damascus’ experience in the late 1960’s.  I treasure the Bible and its teachings.  I hold dear the connections to the Christian Root – even the Jewish one that the Church was grafted to.  I am a Christian, Jesus is my Lord.  I am an ordained priest of the Church of England, and a ‘sensitive’.  I sometimes feel like a lone voice in a spiritual wilderness, but I am no Francis of Assisi, no guru, and – not having been a parish priest for several years – not even pastor of a flock.  I am simply me.  Perhaps those antagonists are the ones with the problem of religious insecurity – not me!

I am John.