Competing for belief: Seances, Spiritualism & The Church between the wars

Editor’s note: This is the 11th in a series of monthly mental health guest posts. This month we have a slightly different perspective. After reading my guest post on Spiritualist Helen Duncan for the Kith & Kin Research blog, Counsellor and writer Ian Stevenson shared a talk he was giving on the subject of the ‘spiritual’ support sought by those who suffer a bereavement. It looks at a report into Spiritualism commissioned, then suppressed, by the Church of England in 1937. Its subsequent ‘leaking’ in 1947 made news across the world. I am very grateful to Ian for this fascinating piece, dealing with a religious debate that continues today as we seek ways to come to terms with death and dying.

All of us have probably wondered about an afterlife. For those who don’t believe there is anything ‘beyond’ this world, it is a fantasy; for others it is a source of comfort as they or a loved one reaches the end of their life.

For the undecided, in the UK at least, there are two possible sources of information. One is the church. The other is the medium and the Spiritualist movement (and ‘psychic’ researchers perhaps).

We live in a scientific and sceptical world. Many of us will have seen Derren Brown showing how he (and, by inference fake mediums) can fool people by a process of “cold reading”- i.e. pretending to give messages from beyond but actually using generalities and picking up on feedback. It can look quite impressive, but is challenged. Professor Gary Schwartz in the USA did a number of sittings where the supposed ‘medium’ could not see or hear the sitter and they still came up with specific names and events (not generalities) and were up to 80% accurate.

We might well think that using ‘sincere’ mediums would give some empirical or practically derived evidence about what religion says, supporting what might otherwise be seen as a mere ‘story’. Historically some clergy have actively worked with mediums. The Reverend J Aelwyn Roberts’ Holy Ghostbuster and the more serious Yesterday’s People are two interesting accounts of his work as a Parson in North Wales in the latter half of the last century.

Generally the church distances itself from working with mediums. However, in 1937 the Church of England appointed a committee to investigate and report back to Archbishop Cosmo Lang. After two years they issued a report which urged continuing dialogue with “intelligent spiritualists”. There was a minority on the committee which strongly rejected the whole idea. The Archbishop was disappointed with the report and, with the approval of the House of Bishops, declined to publish it.

It was eventually leaked to the Spiritualist newspaper Psychic News in 1947, making world headlines, and a full account appeared in 1979 in the journal of the Churches’ Fellowship for Psychic and Spiritual Studies (CFPSS). According to the retiring President of the CFPSS, tension over the issue still runs high to this day, some seventy years after the report.

Let us first look at what Spiritualists – who don’t have a single, overarching organisation – say. They hold that when we first ‘pass over’, we are the same as when we lived on the earth plane with all our virtues, faults and prejudices. People who have been selfish and obsessed with material comfort are often “earthbound” that is unable to move on: cut off from the love and light of the next world. People, who have been generous and loving report pleasant surroundings.  For some, it seems that we create our post-mortem conditions, but these gradually fade and we face a “second death” which is the leaving behind of the transitory aspects of the personality. Some believe in reincarnation; others in closer relationship to the Source – or God – if you like.

The committee of 1937 was chaired by the Bishop of Bath and Wells, Francis Underhill. He was supported by several clergy, a barrister and a Harley Street Psychologist. It appears from  that they attended a few séances and spoke to a number of Spiritualists but there is no record of how far the evidence was investigated by them. It seems they relied on secondary evidence and judged how it could fit in with Christianity.

The eventual report was also very heavily qualified. There were a number of paragraphs pointing out its dangers. The conclusion said, “if presented humbly it (Spiritualism) contains a truth and it is important not to see it as a new religion but only as filling up certain gaps in our knowledge. We should keep in contact with intelligent groups of Spiritualists. Leave practical guidance to the Church itself.”

It did actually accept that the fact of communication was true and the church in former times had called this the “communion of saints”. The committee felt the current practice of the church was lacking.

From a historical perspective, why did the Church reject the report? Firstly, some of the committee could only see Spiritualism through the filter of their own time and through the church. Spiritualism might give comfort to the bereaved but it lacked any in-depth theology.

Sir Oliver Lodge

The  decline in church attendance caused the church to reassess the surge in the popularity of Spiritualism between the wars. Men of science were seeking answers outside traditional paths. Sir Oliver  Lodge (1851–1940) was a British physicist and writer involved in the development of  wireless telegraphy. After his son, Raymond, was killed in World War I, Lodge visited several mediums and wrote about the experience in a number of books, including the influential and best-selling Raymond, or Life and Death (1916). Popular writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had similarly turned to Spiritualism to comfort them in bereavement.

Mediums by-pass the hierarchy of church authority. At the time in Spain, Communists were shooting priests and monks, the Soviet Union taught atheism and Hitler threatened the  churches. The Church feared a loss of imposed authority and an undermining of what they saw as the value of a superior (university) education not available to the majority.

Spiritualism teaches that the state or place we find ourselves in after death bears no relationship to formal religious belief. However, many evangelists believe that on death the soul loses consciousness until the Day of Judgement. Therefore, it is not possible to speak to the spirits of the departed. Any communications claiming to be spirits are really demons. Muslims tend to believe something similar but they say the entities which appear to communicate are djinns which are mischievous rather than wicked. Sufis, the mystical branch of Islam is more open to communication with the dead.

A possible theory for ‘hiding’ the report is that the church saw it as denying the core of Christianity. Many Christians then and some now – mainly the Evangelicals and Catholics – preach that people are only saved by “believing in Christ” and there is no salvation outside the church. On the contrary, Spiritualism says that we are all on a path of spiritual evolution and that a loving atheist might be in a better place in the hereafter than a bigoted believer – although all would come to God in the end. There is no eternal damnation. This view contradicted the Christian church and, if their evidence was accepted, it would undermine the Church’s authority and so the report had to be dead and buried.

Despite damaging publicity over the years, it has not been resurrected since.

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