Sue Farrow reports on the 109th annual general meeting of the Spiritualists’ National Union.
Following a year of high-profile, and some would say controversial, decisions – the closure of Psychic News, the banning of Eric Hatton’s autobiography from Stansted, proposed changes to the Arthur Findlay College, the purchase of a new £500,000 centre in Stafford – the SNU has held its 2011 annual general meeting, the first under its new president, David Bruton.
After welcoming delegates who had travelled to the University of Warwick for the meeting, David spoke of his intention to “share some highlights and to talk a little about some of the many changes we have brought forward.”
First on his list was a restyle of the SNU’s logo.
Image is everything
“Many of you I am sure see our logo as a key factor in communicating our image,” David told delegates, adding that the logo’s origins, and the identity of its designer, were unknown.
He then unveiled the restyled logo, telling delegates: “After today’s launch it will in future appear on all Union literature and letterheads. We will shortly issue a manual prescribing how it should be used and the pantone colours which form what will become a familiar image to us all. We have already begun the process to register the new logo as a trademark which will afford us protection we have never enjoyed before.”
Forestalling fears that this might cost the churches money, he added: “Churches, please do not be concerned that the logos you are using are now out of date. The transformation is one that you may take at your own pace, there will be no compulsion from the Union to conform to the new image – this is something you may do in your own time as funds allow.”
“Like it or not,” he said, “we live in a time when image is everything.”
Whilst there is undoubtedly truth in David’s assessment of contemporary society’s obsession with image, and few would argue with the need for the SNU to become more professional in its presentation, I harbour the hope that this focus on image is accompanied by an even more profound determination to meet the spiritual needs of a society that is so urgently seeking something more than the superficial glamour and glitz of celebrity, fame and the acquisition of wealth.
Bold steps and help for churches
Continuing with his theme of presenting the SNU in a more polished way, David told delegates: “We have taken some bold and long overdue steps to present Union Spiritualism professionally, and an important part of this strategy is to provide our churches with the necessary tools to support the promotion of our philosophy.”
It was no longer acceptable, he said, to provide poor-quality photocopied leaflets and expect the general public to pay for them. To this end, a “suite” of excellent leaflets covering various aspects of the movement had been produced, along with a “Seven Principles multi-fold leaflet… complemented by the multi-fold healing leaflet and the multi-fold education leaflet which is launched this weekend. All the leaflets are printed on high-quality paper and are in colour. Perhaps the most important aspect of this policy is that the Union will issue these important tools to our churches free of charge so there can never be a need to buy one leaflet and photocopy it, which sends totally the wrong message to the general public.”
Conscious that churches might worry about the cost of these leaflets, David explained that some of the leaflets had been produced with generous support from the London Headquarters Fund and the Spiritual Truth Foundation, whom he thanked. Defending the new publications, he continued: “For those that see this policy as folly, my response is that we have a duty under the terms of our constitution to promote Spiritualism. The way we do this has to change. If we do not evolve our ideas and the tools we use we will stagnate and die. To this end the Union now has a Flicker Account; you can follow the AFC on Twitter and Facebook and we will use new technology where appropriate to take our message to a wider audience.”
Speaking of new technology, David paid tribute to IT specialist and NEC member Chris James, who has worked tirelessly to transform the SNU website. Even the most casual glance at the new site reveals that it’s a far cry from its rather amateurish predecessor. “Our original website was launched over ten years ago and has been updated on a couple of occasions,” David explained. “We have now taken some radical steps to totally reformat the site and bring forward new tools which will make it more user-friendly.
In keeping with our new image we have updated the presentation and feel of the site. Many more innovations will be brought forward for the site as we gradually over the next few months bring the new database online which provides the crucial platform to offer many more services to our key users.”
Turning to “another new initiative which excites me,” David told delegates that the SNU now has three such centres established and operational: “Balderton our first, Lincoln which was established in February and Newmarket which I dedicated in May this year.” Paying tribute to those who had “made this dream a reality”, he announced: “Finally, ladies and gentlemen, we are beginning to grow again. Too long I have sat at NEC meetings and watched as we report the closure of our churches, decline and decay. Now we are growing again, taking Union Spiritualism out into new areas that have had no Union presence before, or re-establishing a presence that once was lost.”
Two further Pioneer Centres are planned and it seems that David sees them as a means of growing the Spiritualist movement. “I suggest to you that in time this new model could provide significant growth to our movement,” he said. “We all know that the interest in Spiritualism and things spiritual, mediumship, healing, philosophy, teaching is considerable out there in society, we have been too slow in the past to address the need.” He invited anyone “interested in this major new policy” to talk with him or his colleagues and find out more. One delegate commented that she didn’t fully understand what Pioneer Centres were, and judging from a number of supportive murmurs around the room, perhaps she was not alone.
Changes at Arthur Findlay College
Few subjects excite Spiritualists worldwide more than J. Arthur Findlay’s gift of his magnificent home at Stansted. Whatever your views on its current or proposed future use, it’s a remarkable place set in equally remarkable surroundings. It’s natural, therefore, that rumours of change at Stansted Hall have attracted a great deal of speculation and comment. So when its new chairman Andrew Hadley outlined his plans for the future of the college, all eyes (and ears) were on him.
Hadley unveiled a three-stage plan which would be rolled out over a five-year period:
- Clock Cottage and the Annexe will be converted to provide “premium en suite accommodation.”
- Eighteen to twenty-four months later, ten single en suite rooms will be created behind the Emma Hardinge Britten walkway, along with a new museum and shop. It’s anticipated that these will be funded by profits from the first phase of the plan.
- “Better quality” accommodation within the Hall itself, with conversion to single and double en suite rooms.
Perhaps addressing fears that some SNU members might be priced out of the market, Hadley gave an assurance that Class B members would receive “a twenty-five per cent discount on courses.” Turning to the nitty gritty of those courses, he announced that from 2012 studies would conclude at 6pm each day. There would be “fun things” to do in the evening, he told delegates, “including Bingo nights.”
This provoked an audible reaction, and several delegates made their way to the microphone to voice their opinions, among them Minister Val Williams, a long-time tutor at the college. Characteristically forthright, she seemed to reflect the views of many in the audience as she told Andrew Hadley she was “horrified” that tuition would cease at 6pm daily, and asked why tutors had not been consulted. Travelling to Stansted cost foreign students a fortune in air fares and they wanted to make the most of every moment. Though she did not say it, delegates were left in no doubt that Minister Williams was unimpressed by the attractions of Bingo.
Next to take the microphone was officiant and former NEC member, Alan Baker, who wanted to see a more structured path of development for mediums training at the college. There were courses for beginners, intermediates and those who were more advanced, he conceded, but what was to stop a beginner from enrolling on an advanced course? Course applications should be more closely monitored, he argued, and Hadley undertook to look into it.
Responding to a variety of speakers who had commented on his AFC report, he said “I’m not forcing things down anyone’s throat,” and assured delegates that things were open to discussion.
An announcement that AFC was to increase its rent payment to the SNU to £50,000 a year was greeted warmly.
Clerical dress for SNU ministers?
An interesting and rather surprising question was raised by one delegate concerning the wearing of Christian-style clerical dress (clerical shirt plus ‘dog collar’ and/or ‘prayer scarf’) by SNU ministers. The suggestion that this dress code might have been instituted was certainly news to me, and to a number of delegates with whom I spoke. The answer from the top table was that such clothing was only worn for ease of identification when visiting prisoners.
Having regular cause to visit one London prison in a voluntary capacity, I was surprised to hear this and decided to check with the Governor’s office. I was told that “no special dress is required” for chaplains or religious visitors. I asked David Bruton how the decision to allow ministers to wear Christian clerical dress had come about.
“This was agreed by the NEC in 2009,” he told me. “It is not a directive, it is optional and down to the personal decision of each individual minister or officiant.”
While accepting that this dress code is optional, I confess I’m troubled by it. Is Spiritualism a religion in its own right or not? If it is, why on earth does it need to adopt the sartorial trappings of another religion? If it isn’t, then presumably adopting Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist or any other religious dress must also have been considered by the SNU – since they would all be recognisable in prisons. As to the prayer scarf, which a number of minister and officiants wore during the moving ‘Arisen Friends’ part of the AGM, it is essentially a replica of the Roman Catholic ‘stole’ worn by ordained priests.
Don’t misunderstand me – I am all for interaction and dialogue with other religions. There is much to be said for closer co-operation of faith groups in a blatantly materialistic world. But I fear that the adoption of clerical garb may have less to do with easy identification by prisoners (who will presumably now identify SNU ministers as Christian clergy) and a little more to do with a desire to gain greater ‘respectability’ through conformity to the established Church. Why, oh why, should Spiritualism conform? In its heyday it was right out there at the cutting edge of social reform – marching proudly to secure the abolition of slavery, the rights of women, and education for all. In short, it was radical.
Stafford centre and the Arthur Findlay “brand”
The establishment of a new SNU centre in Stafford has drawn a lot of comment, both on Spirit of PNand in other Spiritualist media. No doubt aware of this, David told delegates:
“I would now like to move to another new venture for the SNU, namely Stafford and The Arthur Findlay Centre. We recognise the immense work which goes on at Stansted Hall and the AFC and we feel we have a great asset in the brand that has been developed there over the last forty years.
“The college, through the work of my predecessor Duncan Gascoyne and his team, and the support of the J.V. Trust, is secure. However, we see that we are now at a point where the brand of the AFC which is held in high regard around the globe needs to be developed, and with this in mind we have taken the decision to purchase The David Jones Centre at Stafford, which is a facility that has, we believe, tremendous potential for the future.”
David explained that as he travelled round the country he had heard it said on many occasions that AFC was too expensive for many “ordinary” Spiritualists to attend. “The ongoing success of the College is crucial in allowing us to develop and fund the work of the Union,” he said, “and I take a slightly different view to Duncan [former president Gascoyne] about how the revenue from the college should be harnessed to help fund the Union.”
Perhaps aware that the centre has reportedly attracted low numbers to its demonstrations and workshops thus far, David continued: “It is true that it is still early days at the AF Centre but the management team there are working incredibly hard to establish Stafford as a centre for learning within the Union which can be flexible and deliver courses more tailored to the domestic market at an affordable cost. The Centre is also being developed as a conference venue in Stafford and, with its excellent facilities and good transport links, I am very encouraged about the bright future for Stafford, which in time will provide a new additional income stream for the Union to help us further develop our work with you.”
David Hopkins, minister and former NEC member, took the microphone later in the meeting and challenged the top table, asking why the directors had not raised with the SNU membership the initial idea of purchasing Stafford. How many members had received a government-style white or green paper canvassing their views? “Surely,” he said, “this is the tail wagging the dog.”
Minister Hopkins also wondered why the new centre had been named after Arthur Findlay and not, for example, after Emma Hardinge Britten, Andrew Jackson Davis or Gordon Higginson. He was told that the Arthur Findlay brand was known worldwide.
Psychic Press assets
It was inevitable that the controversial closure of Psychic News would be raised at some point during the weekend, and Bournemouth church president Al Potts asked the top table how much the protracted liquidation process was costing the SNU. A figure of £37,000 was given to delegates, though it was not clear whether this related to the first liquidation, the second liquidation or both. Neither was any information given concerning the SNU’s decision to liquidate, then not liquidate, then liquidate again.
The SNU’s interim reports informed members of events leading to the liquidation, but at no point was reference made to the fact that lawyers for the Liquidator had ruled in January 2011 that the SNU did not own any of the assets of Psychic Press (1995) Ltd. This was a pivotal and highly significant development in the long-running saga of PN and we can only wonder why the SNU considered it too insignificant to mention.
David Bruton reported that negotiations between the Liquidator and a potential purchaser were still in progress to secure the paper’s future.
Eric Hatton’s book
Of all the SNU’s decisions over the past year, the removal of its honorary president Eric Hatton’s book from the AFC bookshop was far and away the most controversial. This website and others saw a flood of comments condemning the SNU’s behaviour. No statement was made during the AGM but a question was raised from the floor by Minister David Hopkins, a former NEC member, who asked what of the book’s content had caused the SNU executive to take the radical step of removing it from Stansted.
David Bruton opted to answer David Hopkins personally. Declining to enter any discussion, he said: “To safeguard the dignity of Mr Hatton and all those involved, the matter is closed.” Minister Hopkins persisted, saying that as a member and shareholder of the SNU, he was entitled to ask such questions. No further information was forthcoming from the top table.
World Peace Minute
The SNU has associated itself with the campaign for world peace by committing to a twice daily Peace Prayer Minute. Its explanatory leaflet (pictured right) begins:
“When thinking about world peace it is easy to say “But what can I do? I am just one man or woman with no power to change the world.” This is a negative approach. We can change things!”
Readers interested in being part of the peace minute can find out more from the SNU website, here.
Summing up a few days after the AGM, I asked David Bruton what he felt was the most important achievement of his presidency to date. “We have begun the process of equipping the SNU to function in the modern world – to provide greater support for our churches, that together we can more effectively communicate the message of Spiritualism,” he told me.
“I have tried to engage with Spiritualists throughout the country with the clear aim of re-igniting the debate within our movement about our philosophy and other issues which should be important to humanity.
“Spiritualism has today the potential it has always had – to help humanity to make sense of the world in which we live and instil a greater awareness and hope for the future. This will not be achieved by any one person, but if we can work together I am confident that much can be accomplished.”
As you, our readers, know, I’m all for debate. As ever, this is a free and open forum for your opinions. Don’t hold back. Don’t just sit at home fuming or cheering in private – share your views and speak your mind! Use these pages to be part of an ongoing and vital discussion about the future direction of the Spiritualist movement.