Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Anglicanism and Spiritualism

Alice C. Linsley

Spiritualism (also called "Spiritism") seeks to connect the living and the dead through practices such as automatic writing and séances. The central belief is that the spirits of the dead reside in the spirit world and have the ability to communicate with the living through the agency of mediums

Spiritualism reached its peak growth in membership between the 1840s to the 1920s, especially in England and the United States.  By 1897, it was said to have more than eight million followers in the United States and Europe. It was promoted by such popular figures as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who wrote a two volume "History of Spiritualism." Doyle was President of the London Spiritualist Alliance and President of the British College of Psychic Science.

In America Harry Houdini set out to debunk several acclaimed mediums in the 1920s. His debunking exploits were chronicled in his book, A Magician Among the Spirits. He was a member of a Scientific American committee that offered a cash prize to any medium who could successfully demonstrate supernatural powers, but the prize was never collected. Houdini debunked the mediums George Valentine and Mina Crandon. His activities cost Houdini the friendship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Unfortunately, Houdini's wife Bess lent popularity to spiritualism by attempting to contact her dead husband every Halloween for ten years. Before Houdini died, he and his wife agreed that if Houdini found it possible to communicate after death, he would communicate the message "Rosabelle believe." This was a secret code they agreed to use. It was reported that Bess had a contact with her dead husband through the medium Arthur Ford in 1929, but Bess later claimed the incident had been faked.

In September 1967, Episcopal Bishop James Albert Pike participated in a televised séance with Arthur Ford, a Disciples of Christ minister. Pike detailed these experiences in his book The Other Side. Today a number of American mediums have association with the Episcopal Church. Margaret Duke and Psychic Joanna were both raised in the Episcopal Church. The Philadelphia Medium and Psychic Development Group meets on Sundays at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Levittown, Pennsylvania.

Spiritualism had early activist tendencies.  Since many of the leading spiritualists were females who felt resistance to women speaking in public, they also championed women's rights. These included Sarah and Angelina Grimke (sisters) and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps. Spiritualist speakers Amelia Colby Luther, Cora Richmond, Moses and Mattie Hull, and Wallace Hibbits spoke against slavery. Many of these were associated with Camp Chesterfield in Indiana.

Spiritualism and Anglicanism

In April 2002, Richard J. Mammana, Jr.'s review of Rene Kollar's book Searching for Raymond: Anglicanism, Spiritualism, and Bereavement Between the Two World Wars appeared in Touchstone Magazine. Because the English Reformers largely condemned any form of Prayer for the dead due to abuses in the Roman Church, the age old practice (still observed in the eastern churches) was mostly lost. This led to a pastoral crisis during the great wars when so many lost their lives. Mammana sets the stage for the review with this explanation:

Despite the heroic actions of dedicated priests in the trenches, a spiritual vacuum haunted many of the men who returned from the Great War. This vacuum likewise haunted the homes whose hearths they left empty when they died “over there.” Into this void stepped a series of religious fads, loosely based, as all heresies are, on some aspects of the Christian faith bent out of shape. Prominent laymen—among them Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—promoted the idea that spiritualism and Christianity were not by any means at odds, but rather were complementary and even essential to one another. Hungry audiences devoured the deception, and clergymen weak in their own understanding of Christian doctrine willingly adopted the relation as well.

The first Lambeth Conference after the Great War addressed itself in earnest to the challenges raised by “Some Movements Outside the Church,” including spiritualism, Christian Science, and Theosophy. This conference, the same one that condemned artificial methods of birth control, said that these movements “are clearly shewn to involve serious error” when “tried by the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Cross.” It “urge[d] strongly that a larger place should be given in the teaching of the Church to the explanation of the true grounds of Christian belief in eternal life, and in immortality, and of the true content of belief in the Communion of Saints as involving real fellowship with the departed through the love of God in Christ Jesus.” (Read the full review here.)

Archbishop William Cosmo Gordon Lang established a committee in 1937 “to discuss the relationship, if any, between spiritualism and the traditional teachings of the Anglican Church.” As Archbishop of Canterbury during the abdication of 1936, Archbishop Lang was faced with crisis upon crisis, not the least of which was the popularity of spiritualism. Although Archbishop Lang took a strong moral tone toward the failure of duty of Edward VIII in abdicating the throne, he reopened the question of spiritualism by forming the committee. One of the committee members was Evelyn Underhill, who later withdrew, stating that she was “very strongly opposed to spiritualism... especially to any tendency on the part of the Church to recognize or encourage it.”

The committee delivered its report in 1939, but its findings were not made public until 1979. A similar delay took place with the 1922 publication "Doctrine in the Church of England" which was not published until 1938. As Mammana notes, "The “Conclusions of the Majority” reveal a shocking discovery of inherent value in spiritualist practices. One paragraph merits quotation without comment:

It is often held that the practice of Spiritualism is dangerous to the mental balance, as well as to the spiritual condition, of those who take part in it, and it is clearly true that there are cases where it has become obsessional in character. But it is very difficult to judge in these cases whether the uncritical and unwise type of temperament which does undoubtedly show itself in certain spiritualists is a result or a cause of their addiction to these practices. Psychologically it is probable that persons in a condition of mental disturbance, or lack of balance, would very naturally use the obvious opportunities afforded by Spiritualism as a means of expressing the repressed emotions which have caused their disorder. This indeed is true of Christianity itself, which frequently becomes an outlet, not only for cranks, but for persons who are definitely of unstable mentality.

The committee closed with the recommendation of a sort of ecumenism between the Church of England and the spiritualist movement: “It is in our opinion important that representatives of the Church should keep in touch with groups of intelligent persons who believe in Spiritualism.”

Related reading: The Crisis of Authority in Anglicanism; The Tradegy of James PikeWhy Not Leave Anglicanism? by Dr. William G. Witt

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