Back in the seventies, my wife and I were taking a service on March 24, when I asked the congregation: “What is the special event next Sunday?” “Palm Sunday,” they all murmured as one. “No,” I said, practically stamping my foot, “It’s the 130th anniversary of the Hydesville rappings – the birthday of our movement!” Ah, the impatience of youth!
Well, apart from some noble exceptions, our church congregations have never been that well-educated – it’s really not their fault – and some years later, the SNU did start to promote Hydesville Sunday. Slowly at first, but our congregations are now catching on to it, provided the churches themselves remember! Well, they are certainly more on the case than they were on that Sunday all those years ago.
As most of us know, the Christian churches get their largest congregations at Easter and Christmas. They plan for those days – promote them, create visual aids and build events around them – in order to maximise turnout for those particular festivals. And it works every time. Everybody enjoys the experience and the coffers fill up. You have to acknowledge their professionalism.
On Hydesville Sunday, however, we are lucky if we get much more than a cursory “Well, we all remember that today is Hydesville Sunday, don’t we?” And just when you think you are going to get an address containing some awareness of our heritage, the speaker starts to burble on about peace and love and you realise that he or she has no more of a clue about our history than the congregation is pretending to have. It’s all a bit like the emperor’s new clothes.
Now, with the exception of SNU general meetings, I am not entirely against peace and love, but it has to be earned, and our heritage is too important to be brushed aside like this. We simply do not make it accessible enough to our congregations and then wonder why so few of them ever move on to the deeper aspects of Spiritualism. Our heritage is about people – our pioneers – and it is a given in the communications and marketing industries that “people buy people first”.
For instance, we didn’t buy Flora margarine in the 1980s because of its polyunsaturates – we bought it because Terry Wogan fronted the TV ad. Concepts and principles are all very well, but we absorb them much more easily when we see them in association with people we know and trust.
As well as the Fox sisters, there are numerous heroes and sheroes in the Spiritualist movement’s history, men and women whose lives we should know more about. More of us might then follow their examples. But you can’t follow an example that has never been presented to you.
So how about ‘Britten Sunday’ on the first Sunday in May, marking Emma Hardinge Britten’s May 1 birthday? Andrew Jackson Davis’ August 11 birthday could be celebrated on the second Sunday in that month. Conan Doyle, Ernest Oaten, Arthur Findlay, Stainton Moses, Sir Oliver Lodge, Swedenborg and Helen Duncan are all people we should know more about – heroes and sheroes we should celebrate.
Perhaps our speakers could mug up on these people in the lead-up to these themed Sundays – and the parent bodies could make briefing notes available to them. Now, I know what some will say: “Ah – but we rely on inspiration for our addresses, not a set format.”
I have some sympathy with this view, except that it doesn’t work. How often do we get an inspired address? Not very. How many platform workers are as proficient in the address as they are in the mediumship demonstration? Not many. Most will tell you that the energy either goes into the address or the demonstration, but rarely both. Indeed, how many of our platform mediums have much more than a superficial knowledge of our heroes and sheroes?
Whatever our differences with the orthodox, we have to admit that their congregations know the back-story of Christianity in a way that ours do not. Every week they have a set text, which builds up over the course of each year to a clear knowledge of what they are all about. Then, each January, they start again.
Repetition is the key to learning and we, with a different speaker, a different approach and a different philosophical message every week, have no connected teaching to hang on to. This serves simply to confuse our congregations to the point where they just switch off. Then we complain that most attendees come only for the messages. Many soon cease to come at all, after a short time. Little wonder that the SNU has a fall-out rate of 25-30 per cent each year. This is balanced by an annual new member intake of 20-25 per cent, however.
Not that I am suggesting that we have a rigid liturgy through the year, but by having one pioneer-themed Sunday a month, we could let people know of our amazing pioneers and stop keeping them a secret.
One of the ways in which we are trying, at my church, to broaden the congregation’s awareness of our history and philosophy, is by using pamphlets, re-formatted from articles in the Spiritualist press. They are an A5 format – attributed to the source – with the author’s permission and, where appropriate, with a plug for the book, magazine or website from which they come. We call the series Pioneer of the Month and hand it out free of charge, so that everybody gets a copy. Ideally, these could be synchronised with pioneer-themed Sundays, so that people take something home with them, reinforcing what they have learned in the address.
Our movement makes far too little use of pamphlets and throws away too many great articles, which go unread by the mass of Spiritualists. Such articles deserve a longer life and our congregations deserve to know about the material they contain. They do not get this material from anywhere else, unless they take correspondence courses from the SNU, Greater World, etc, which are less practical options for most people. And they certainly don’t (usually) get it from our platforms.
The ‘Comments’ facility at the end of this article enables you to add your own ideas on the topic of how we get our message across to our congregations. If we cannot do that, how do we expect to get it across to the wider public?
(Readers interested in the Spiritualist pioneers of our history might like to sign up for the FREE monthly journal, ‘PsyPioneer’. For a copy, visit: http://www.woodlandway.org. Click on the ‘PsyPioneer Journals’ link on the sidebar for a free copy. You can sign up at the end of the journal to receive it every month.)