What we did - What we found

All thirty regional groups of SoF are different, and each has its own story to tell. David Silk offers this portrait of his own small local group in the heart of the English Lake District, where sheep outnumber humans - and lost sheep are particularly welcome!

Dr David Silk was an engineer officer in the RAF, then taught management at postgraduate level, and now teaches occasionally at Lancaster University. He thanks the Cumbria SoF group and John Hodgkinson for encouragement and assistance with this article.

Our story begins with John Hodgkinson, an Anglican priest. Over some twenty years his spiritual thinking led him to a nonrealist position and after contacting Don Cupitt in 1985 he attended the founding SoF conference. Retiring from his Kendal parish, he continued to take services in a village church, without controversy, till the "Freeman affair" blew up. Two church members resigned, but others thanked him for "treating us like adults". A group of a dozen or so began to meet for regular discussion, and in 1996, after a public meeting, the Cumbria SoF group was formed.

We meet about seven times a year, in members houses, with about 75 minutes of discussion on an agreed topic, introduced and led by one of our number. We then decide the date, venue, topic and leader for the next discussion before having light refreshments. Somebody takes notes and these are copied and posted to members with a reminder about the next meeting. Members pay 2 a year to cover these costs. Nobody is under pressure to host, lead or record meetings: there are enough able volunteers. John acts as formal link to the national SoF Network and I do the copying and posting, which needs continuity. Making the notes is a good discipline. Without them I would have found it very difficult to give a coherent account of what we have said and done!

Our numbers have dropped slightly; there are now 13 on our list. We operate as an exploratory discussion group, aiming to help members in their individual quests rather than seeking consensus or unanimity on every issue. Most of the group are not individual members of the national Network, for which there are several reasons. The least creditable is inertia: why join when paid-up friends will lend you the magazine anyway? But there are deeper reasons. Some of us are not 100% nonrealist in our views. We may seek to "explore" but not necessarily "promote" religious faith as a human creation.

Most belong to some other forum or faith-community as well. For them, our meetings provide a valued opportunity to discuss one way (but not the only way) of understanding faith and values. Partly for this reason, the group decided not to arrange any SoF-type celebrations or services. I believe the group succeeds only because it is a forum for frank discussion, sharing rather than imposing experience.

So what have we discussed over four years? The path has been winding, with some topics recurring several times, but there seem to be three major themes: spirituality, authority and freedom; and what to say and how to say it.

Spirituality is the core of what we are about. We have explored both the concept of spirituality and our own experience, finding that the rational and the subjective approaches are both necessary, and complement each other. We found spirituality to be important both at the personal level and in the context of community. In each case, it can be experienced in both prosaic and sublime ways: from individual reflection on a loaf of bread, to the sharing of a great artistic or emotional experience in a group. The key words we identified were vision, values, virtue and inspiration. Spirituality is a necessary dimension of being human. It is concerned with how we live our lives, and how we come to terms with the fact that we shall die. Thus it is central to questions of morality and mortality.

Authority and freedom are (or should be) in creative tension. The isolated spiritual quest by an individual is not enough; our collective experience has something worthwhile to say, but is continuously evolving. We spent a session looking at how the world-view of science has evolved and affected contemporary belief. Today we are seeing a shift away from authority and towards individual freedom and choice; faiths compete in a spiritual market-place. To enlarge our view of that idea, we spent sessions on Islam (concluding that a SoF approach here is difficult), and on the Bahai faith. Several of the group also attended a Quaker meeting together.

Most (but not all) felt we should seek common ground with those of other faiths and backgrounds. It helps to have some test of a worthwhile faith, for example to see whether it enhances an individual's awareness of transcendence and leads to more selfless behaviour. Many of us saw green issues and other shared human concerns as a bridge between different traditions.

Several times we considered our response to the traditional Christian practice in which most of us were nurtured and to which some of us still belong. We saw three possible approaches: to suspend disbelief and enter into a shared aesthetic and spiritual experience which is part of our heritage; to reinterpret the words for ourselves, so that we can utter them with individual conviction; and to abandon it altogether. All three approaches had adherents in our group! We felt sympathy with the dilemma faced by church leaders: orthodoxy and radicalism both attract strong criticism. However, most of our group felt the churches needed to reach out to the nonrealist - the person for whom traditional religious formulations are incredible at a literal level, but for whom they could be life-enhancing when presented as inspirational myth without the supernatural trappings. We felt there are a lot of them about!

What to say and how to say it was a theme which followed logically from the previous two. If collectively we have something worth saying, how can we do so in a competitive spiritual market-place? We thought about what we should tell the children. A teacher invited four interested teenagers to join us for a session about the spiritual needs of young people, and we were impressed by their lucidity, awareness of a mind-boggling range of choices, and yet a clear intention of making up their own minds, than you.

On other occasions we looked at the importance of literature, art, music, role-models and the media in telling the story. However, most of us felt that there needed to be a more specific "religious story" concerned with the whole of life, which we could offer (not impose) both to individuals and within collective groups of many kinds. Most of us faced the relational approach: "Where do you stand? Here's where I am. Can we share something?" There are many ways to tell the story: legislation, pressure groups, individual efforts and choice (as consumers, for example), education, and our response to problems and disasters.

So, where has it all led us? I'm sure that nothing we have thought or said in our group is original for the human race, or even for the SoF movement. However, a lot of it has been new and original for at least one of us within the group. And therein lies its value: some experience or insight articulated, shared, and made available for each member to see their own path of faith more clearly. After that, its up to us as individuals to formulate our own story, and then to tell it.

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