Sunday, June 23, 2013

exposing the Church of England plan to recruit Pagans using a Pagan church

OK if you have been reading the press over the last few days you may have come to believe the Church of England has a new policy to recruit Pagans by training pioneer ministers expressly to do this by starting a Pagan church - and that i am one of the key people doing this. Well that's what this article in the Telegraph certainly implies and it has drawn a lot of comment both from Christians and Pagans.  But there is a big problem with this article - it is highly misleading and there is no such Church of England policy.  I thought it was about time to expose the spin and let the real story come out.

firstly it is not a piece of research based on interviews done by the Telegraph it is actually a rehash of a radio piece done by BBC religion correspondent Robert Piggott for the Today Programme - you can listen to it here for the next 5 days the piece comes about 1:25 into the recording - it went out just after 7.25 on the 21st June.  The background to this piece was that Robert had seen research by people like Linda Woodhead on the rise of spirituality outside of religion as a counterpoint to declining church numbers.  in particular she had recently written an article for the Church Times suggesting that the Anglican church should concentrate on the 50% of Anglicans who are non-churchgoing believers (this is the link but the full article can only be read by subscribers Robert wanted to explore this and particularly to find if there where ways the Anglican church was connecting with spiritual seekers. I was along with three others interviewed for this radio programme. it went out on the 21st June to link it to the Sumner Solstice celebrations at Stonehenge.

what happens in such interviews is that a several minute interview is used to produce a small piece as part of a larger article, I've done this before and knew what to expect. in the piece there was a comment from the very good Pagan academic Graham Harvey explaining that lots of people went to the solstice as well as Pagans including Christians who weren't tightly defined but more fluid. this was put in the context of growing numbers of spiritual seekers. Then the question of Anglican response was raised and i was introduced. i am an Anglican priest I research this area and work in evangelism so whilst i am not an official Anglican spokesperson on this i am often recommended as an Anglican to speak in this area.

two sentences were used from me firstly building on something that is a Church of England (along with a number of other churches) backed initiative to create fresh expressions of church within the different cultures of Britain recognizing that many people are culturally very distant from the church. This would indeed potentially include people of different religions and spiritualities as well as ethnicities, lifestyles, locations etc. we had talked about how one would do this for spiritual seekers or Pagans and I said that one would look to 'create an expression of christian faith within that culture almost a Pagan church but with Christ very much at the centre'. i was asked whether that would look like a traditional Anglican church - i suggested not, and offered as an example the Forest churches that several groups have set up and how they would meet outdoors, might have a circle or a fire chanting and prayers and things that were very Celtic in style.

other interviews were with Andrea Campanale of CMS who train pioneer ministers, among other things.  these ministers are likely to be helping create fresh expressions of church.  Andrea and I have worked together on a few occasions, we helped run a Christian stall at the London Mind Body Spirit festival in May for instance. the third interview was from a member of an Anglican church who also uses Angel cards but who as far as i can tell has no official church role and isn't part of any programme of church outreach.

so the radio interview showed there where Anglicans seeking to express christian faith in the cultural context of religion and spirituality outside of church and that might include Pagans.  i have no problem with the radio piece - it was well researched and Robert is i am convinced quite genuinely interested in exploring this area. I also think it is very important and have argued for a number of years that the church needs to learn lessons from those expressing spirituality and religion outside of the church - especially those with roots in the New Age Movement or contemporary Paganism. i do not think this amounts to the Church of England having a deliberate policy of creating a Pagan church to recruit Pagans and training pioneer ministers to do it - the Telegraph article makes two and two equal a lot more than five. it takes the facts that pioneer ministers are being trained, some Anglicans think it inportant to engage with non church spirituality and that  one of them talked of creating something that was 'almost a Pagan church with Christ at the centre'. it takes those and assumes this is all part of the same policy of the church. it is all influenced by fresh expressions thinking, but that was not mentioned in the radio piece or the Telegraph article - i guess some may think that fresh expresions might therefore be what the Telegraph was talking about - i simply suggest you look at the site i posted above and you will find very little if anything about Pagans or spiritual seekers.

i have no problem with the radio piece, but James Naughtie's introduction was i think a large part of what lead to the Telegraph story. as part of this, having suggested Pagans might meet to 'drink dew' at the solstice (yes it's that old 'daft Pagans' insult) he then went on to say the Church of England was seeking to recruit Pagans and spiritual seekers and was training pioneer ministers to create different kinds of churches that might appeal to spiritual seekers. OK i guess you have there the phrase 'recruit Pagans' and the elements the Telegraph built there story on. having rehashed the radio piece (and quoting me incorrectly) they also made matters worse with, the frankly patronizing suggestion that 'The new move could see famous druids such as druid leader Arthur Pendragon move to Anglicanism.' i am guessing that Arthur is killing himself laughing - at least i hope that is what he is doing. 

to fill in the picture there was also a piece in the Times, behind the pay wall of course. but at least Ruth Gledhill phoned me and this managed to straighten out some of the story - it still links things into a coherent plan but at least mentions fresh expressions

OK that i hope at least helps explain how the articles happened and why i think they have been misleading.

i have been watching what has been happening on blogs and tweets and facebook as best i can. in one sense i was tempted to let it play out - but i have become concerned about the possible harm and misunderstanding that may come from this. i am concerned that Christians will decide i am selling out the faith or someone who will do anything to recruit church members - i have no problem with Christians disagreeing with me but i'd rather they did so on the basis of what i really think and do. i am more worried about what Pagans may think , and indeed some are thinking, that i and others are creating some deceptive fake church in order to target Pagans and recruit them. i have a number of Pagan friends and i value being part of groups in which Pagans are included. so i was rather disturbed by a story growing up that i was simply deceiving these people in order to recruit them. and for this reason felt i needed to set the record straight.

i think i need to finish very briefly by explaining why i said what i did. my understanding is that in every age and culture authentic Christianity adapts to become at home in that new context. in the west for a century and half it has done this less due to the establishment of the church - something i think was damaging BTW. i think we have been going through major cultural change from the later part of last century and the church has not adapted to this and is therefore declining. at the same time new expressions of spirituality have grown.  at present i think such expressions of spirituality and religion are addressing the lives of many though not all people today far more effectively than the church and as a Christian i think we need to ask why and learn lessons from that. i do not believe that a Christian church could adopt Paganism and remain Christian nor that a Pagan group (or individual) could adopt Christianity and remain Pagan. i do think that Paganism has much to say and offer to the world today and much that Christians can adopt - for instance whilst Christianity isn't polytheistic, the Trinity does include the divine feminine as well as the divine masculine and those, including Pagans, who have criticized an apparently male lone christian deity are right to do so, and we as Christians need to acknowledge that and recover out own tradition of the divine feminine. similarly Pagans have often put Christians to shame when it comes to the environment when St Paul time and again talks of Jesus not saving people from the world but wanting to set the whole of creation free from suffering - we need to recover this ecological vision. i could go on but i hope you get the idea - that is what i meant by saying a Pagan church - on reflection i think i should have said a church in Pagan culture or one that learnt lessons from Paganism. i do think such a church would be far more attractive to many people. do i want people to 'join the church' put like that no - i am not interested in a church recruitment plan that sound slike getting people to join a social club. However, i find the vision Jesus outlined for life, society and the future of creation deeply attractive and my belief as a christian is that God can work to change us into the sort of people who can live that vision out and i want to share that vision with others and i hope they too are attracted to it - that would be what i would mean by evangelism. i also want to live in a society in which all faiths are tolerated and given equal status. i could say more but this has been long enough. i am happy to respond to further questions and comments


steffi said...

Thanks for this response. I read the piece & did think it was very badly worded and it definitely didn't seem to have any foundation in proper research. I thinkyour views as set out above are very interesting and would certainly take the church forward. I am a former Christian (C of E) and would now describe myself as Pagan. I certainly prefer the embracing of the duality of male and female energies.

Centre For Pagan Studies said...

Several of us read the article together and, as Pagans, we felt it presented the church's view of Paganism as a "culture" with no depth and no "faith" thereby availing it an opportunity to introduce a "proper" faith to an otherwise rather vapid pop culture thing. We (rightly it seems) concluded that you'd almost certainly been misrepresented to give the story a sharper "angle".

Pagan Pride UK and other organisations with close links, such as the Centre for Pagan Studies and The Doreen Valiente Foundation are already in touch with branches (pun intended) of The Forest Church and have had some meaningful, valuable and productively enjoyable discussions with them. We believe in the concept of interfaith, at the heart of which really is the need to accept that even if there is one fundamental truth there are many paths to it and that we can still explore and celebrate our commonality without any pressure to change each other's beliefs. Frankly found my own beliefs deepening and my intellectual comprehension of those beliefs broadening as a result of these interfaith exchanges with Christians, Moslems and hindus, it's a rich landscape and media articles like this put up unfortunate "no entry" signs for amny people of all faiths.

Thanks for posting this and allaying such fears!

Ashley Mortimer

Yewtree said...

Very glad to see your response to this, Steve. I think this is a case of journalists just not getting religion, as they don't look much further than the C of E and religion as a cultural veneer.

BEYOND said...

We talked about this a little on BBC Sussex and Surrey Sunday Breakfast yesterday using Roberts report (you can hear it here at around 50 mins Robert certainly seems to be suggesting that the church is trying to recruit pagans and it's good that you've given the full picture here. Steve - you would probably know better than I but I'm sure I read somewhere that the Church of England excludes paganism from its interfaith remit, is that right? And if so, do you know why?

Kathryn said...

Thanks Steve...Wise & helpful as I expected. Feel rather inclined to throttle a few journalists (in love, of course) - but as to your thoughts expressed here, I'm standing beside you.

Richard's Watch said...

Thanks Steve for clarifying item I read in Saturday's Telegraph. It seemed journalist's name suggested it's an imprecise overview. Had to check it out as am blogging about Phil Mason's Quantum Glory and, like me, he's familiar with new age religions, and now has a spiritual community in Oz. I agree with his pre-publication comment,'book is a must-read for anyone interested in exploring the relationship between heaven and earth!'. (If interested my brief intro is at (

Steve said...


i think the issue of the divine feminine is really important - a lot of people have traveled from Christianity to Pagan paths in recent years many have been women for whom this was a concern. ask any Christian theologian if God is male and they will tell you no - but much of our tradition in speech and worship would leaving you think God was male.

i especially remember Pagans talking about relating to the divine as other and as similar due to human Gender and knowing this was a real insight. so for that reason and the simple truth that feminine and masculine are both part of the Christian understanding of God i think those of us who are part of that tradition need to recover the celebration of the divine feminine

Steve said...

Ashley - rather liked getting a post from Doreen Valiente - blue plaque of course at the weekend and i thought a good radio 4 news piece too.

thanks for your wisdom re the news story on Pagan church. glad to hear of what you and those groups are doing - if at any time i can be a help as a christian academic in this area do get in touch

every blessing

Steve said...


yes all religion getting misunderstood me thinks

Steve said...

Beyond thanks for the link will have a listen when i can

OK Pagans are currently not part of the national inter faith network in much of the UK - they are now i am glad to say in Scotland. this is not a C of E only policy, but as the largest group in the interfaith network they are in many ways the brokers. a number of us myself included have tried to get this changed.

there are a number of issues - one is a distinction made between world religions and new religious movements which means that the later aren't part of the inter faith network - so it isn't just Pagans it's Mormons, Unitarians, Hare Krishna's, Scientologists etc. one of the fears is let the Pagans in and everyone else will follow -this can be handled easily - the real issue is anti-Pagan feeling the issue is by who? what is often said is that it is the Jews and Muslims who view Pagans as historic enemies - possibly but which Jews and Muslims and it is Anglicans who say this on their behalf? mmm anyway not good much work to be done but the Scots achievement is encouraging.

Steve said...

thanks for the info Richard

Steve said...

all OK but i understand the frustration thanks for the support

Unknown said...

Thank you for taking the time to write this response. It was news to me also that at least the Anglicans are viewing the 3rd Person of the Trinity as the Divine Feminine...that MUST be creating an interesting inter-denominational discussion lol however, it is good to have the truth of the matter and be able to allay the fears many of us in the Pagan community have voiced in the discussion I joined about the article. However, it has been quite an interesting discussion covering various aspects of the past, current and potential future connections.

Steve said...

Light shadow
thank you - actually the Anglican church has an official prayer in its current worship book praising Jesus as mother and talking of drinking spiritual milk from her breast - actually a very ancient prayer of a former Archbishop of Canterbury St Anslem so not just the third person of the Trinity ;o) it may not surprise you that this prayer is 'optional' but it is there. in truth until all persons of the Trinity are seen as expressing the feminine and masculine divine we have more to do.

i hope that in spite of the concern this has caused the discussions that have ensued are indeed something we all grow from

every blessing

Unknown said...

hmmm well I'm not sure "Mom" would agree with you calling her by her son's name, but ok lol was that in the one from 1627 edition (i believe that was the one the American Episcopalians were using before the first modern revision in about the 70s was made (i'm a former Episcopalian as well as a number of other "formers" lol) well this isn't the place for a long discussion on the aspects of the Christian tempting to derail the thread tho...

have not checked the blog since seeing the link to this there...but as my teacher would say, we shall

Unknown said...

There is also Psalm131, as I'm sure you know, Steve. :)
I'm a former churchwarden, accepted for priesthood training but didn't accept due to divorce. Wanted for lay readership, a few years a later, but someone complained I was living in sin. My bishop - a lovely man - was hugely embarrassed. The shame was that I was slipping away due to theological and gender issues, and that was the final straw. (I was in the St Albans see at the time, as it happens).
Oddly enough, as a pagan I found myself fighting a similar battle. I was probably the main fighter within the Pagan Federation to gain recognition from a heavily wiccan-influenced majority that "male and female aspect of deity" didn't cut the mustard for reconstructed religions. I met a lot of attempts to coax us into interpreting things to please us, while the words stood - in that case, I argued for my co-religionists, the words had no meaning at all, so why would (for example) a Heathen wish to bother? Most recons pay careful attention to words.
The step beyond the Telegraph rubbish is, of course, the actual dialogue going on. I do hope that, if the CofE wishes to have that dialogue with pagans, it doesn't fall into the same trap I spent so long fighting against.

Steve said...

Light Shadow

st Anselm is early 12th Century as is the prayer but not in the Church of England prayer book until the current one which dates back to the 1990s - so doubt it was in the 17th Century Episcopalian prayer book - don't know if it is in their modern one - it would not surprise me if it was but don't know the answer.

as for the Trinity and Mom and Son - yes worthy of its own discussion - it would indeed be a lot easier to have a Holy family in heaven and three distinct deities - in which case it would of course make no sense to talk of Jesus the male son as mother - but the Christian tradition has left us something more complex in which our earthly experience of the Trinity and language used for it does not actually describe the reality and so Jesus on earth - human male Jew Jesus as part of the Trinity embraces both genders and transcends both - mmm maybe worth another thread ;o)

we will indeed have to see where this topic goes on the various threads and blogs that have picked it up - some of which i have seen others i haven't but have been told about - also waiting to see what's happening on the Christian forums - those i know about have on the whole been sensible - but there the ones where people know me it's the others that may be more 'interesting'

Steve said...

thanks - and Isiah 66 - and of course Jesus describing himself as a mother hen - so yes the feminine is not absent from the bible

words - they matter but i think often when it comes to 'religion' - a loaded word ;o) - words tend to be imprecise they are of course metaphors. often i think in the kind of discussion/argument you mentioned the issue is not about finding the right words - that is often impossible - but recognizing the legitimacy of the words others use to express their own practice. unless that happens it's a power play

sorry to hear about the difficult path you have walked inside the church and beyond. i hope you are now somewhere you feel more hospitable

Andii said...

Thanks Steve for clearing this up. I suspected something like this from previous experience of the media where, for the most part, the journo tends to go in with the story half structured already on one of a handful of storylines and relgion has in their heads a rather restricted stock. I wish they'd stick with the 'ethic' that my radio station mentor at the Beeb passed onto me: you should strive to make sure that people you represent in your pieces recognise themselves and feel properly represented.