As time has progressed I’d say people’s allegiance to one faith has, in many places becomes even less distinct – especially in Britain. I have read that in one census in recent years 60% of the people who responded said that they considered themselves spiritual but not religious. To my mind, it is these people whom Interfaith Ministers are there to serve. Those who ‘fit in the boxes’ of the more traditional religious paths are generally well served and have rites of passage, pastoral care, and communities to be a part of. For those of us who don’t ‘fit in the boxes’ it is just as important to acknowledge times of transition and to receive support and have communitiy available – it’s my commitment to make these things available.
Some people see this position of ‘serving between’ as a kind of religious sitting on the fence, or an excuse for a pick’n’mix spirituality with little depth. I see it differently, and that is partly because of the other people I know who are Interfaith Ministers. Many of us are deeply committed to our own faiths: I know Interfaith Ministers who are Catholic; Zen Buddhist; Jewish; Pagan; and many other faiths. For myself, I have explored several spiritual paths with some depth and have not found a true home in any of them – so I am one of those whom the Interfaith Ministers are there to serve. People from many faith backgrounds speak of religious tolerance. I think this is, in a world too often divided by conflict, a wonderful step forward. However, part of what I think is radical about the Interfaith Seminary and the community of ministers is a commitment to a step further than ‘tolerance.’ It is not always the case but I have often seen tolerance as being a very conditional term, the embodied statement being something along the lines of “I accept you. You’re still wrong but I accept you.” For the different faiths of the world to rub along together effectively it is my belief that we need to go further than this kind of patronising tolerance and really embrace the diverse nature of spiritual truth.
The experience of God – or the Goddess, or the Tao, or Allah, or Buddha nature, or whatever you want to call it – is an individual and subjective thing. As is propounded in some groups of the Hindu faith “there are as many paths to God as there are people.” It is this awareness, this full embracing of a personal relationship with the divine which is core to my experience of Interfaith. As such, the study of numerous paths is not to ‘pick’n’mix’ but to equip ourselves to meet every individual and group that we work with – be it for a wedding, funeral, spiritual counselling session or open ceremony – to meet them where they are.
So what do we as Interfaith Ministers do? As you might expect, that varies from minister to minister but two of the commonalities and what we are trained in are: ceremony and spiritual counselling. Ceremonies are often viewed as quaint, old fashioned things, having little meaning in our modern reductionist world; however I think they serve a very important purpose. Ceremonies are there to mark transitions from one stage of life to another: birth; childhood to adulthood; entry to a committed relationship and possibly family (marriage); passage from adulthood to elderhood (this one has really disappeared); transition into death (funeral). One of the key purposes of this is to make these transitions conscious. It is well known in psychology (particularly explored by Jung) that what we ignore or repress in ourselves doesn’t go away but gets absorbed into the unconscious or the shadow and leaks out other ways.
I think we in the Western world have a collective shadow about transitions. We have largely forgotten the significance of marking transitions in our lives and because of this live a transitory existence. We never really feel at home in our lives and the world because we never acknowledge leaving anywhere or arriving somewhere new. We always exist between places. We may go out for a drink and ‘celebrate’ something – perhaps a new job – but this is rarely a conscious acknowledgement of the emotional transition taking place. It is more often an excuse to use alcohol to numb ourselves to the impact of our change in circumstances. There is nothing wrong with the celebration, but what about really witnessing and honouring the change?
So, I see ceremonies and rites of passage as important parts of our lives and Interfaith Ministers and other similarly non-denominational celebrants can help you to tailor a conscious ceremony which acknowledges your transitions in a way best suited to your personal outlook and beliefs. These ceremonies also allow a space for communities to share these times of change and witness each other as they grow into new versions of themselves. Being witnessed in your transitions can help us embed our changes and create momentum we need to continue growing. It is also an antidote to this collective shadow of transition – it will help us settle in each physical place and psychological, emotional, and developmental state that we arrive in. I think this collective hovering in a transitory consciousness may be part of what supports our lack of care for the planetary environment. If we never really feel like we belong in the world then why should we care for it?
Spiritual counselling is the other strand of this work and provides a space to be supported in healing and development. There is a body of teaching around spiritual counselling as a modality which has been significantly developed by Miranda McPherson who brought the Interfaith Seminary to the UK. My personal experience of the heart of it is knowing that there is nothing wrong with you. You are absolutely perfect just as you are in this moment: our pain comes from forgetting this. So as a minister and spiritual counsellor, my job is to remember and hold that knowledge of your perfectness when you can’t do that for yourself. Ideally, you then come back to a place of knowing that and then you don’t need me anymore. Different ministers may use different methods to help nudge you back towards a place where you know your own perfectness and this will depend on their experience as many of them are qualified in other methods such as psychotherapy, meditation teaching, focusing, or hypnotherapy.
This perfectness is not about you having a large ego and falling in love with yourself or some construct of yourself. It is about being really familiar with the wounded, painful, and even shameful parts of ourselves and loving those parts too. In this way, the process of Spiritual counselling mirrors the Interfaith approach to other faiths. It is not about ‘tolerating’ the bits of you that are different to how you want them to be and therefore difficult. It is about learning to love them just as they are so much that you don’t want them to be different anymore. Believe it or not Interfaith Ministers are not perfect. We are working on this same thing all the time too. In this way perhaps the macrocosm will come to reflect the microcosm. As I come to really love and accept the bits of myself that I find harder to love, perhaps this will help me to love the bits of the world that I find hard to love as well. Personal transformation becomes community transformation, becomes global transformation.
Rev. Francis Briers RIMA