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Spirit of Youth – how Andy Byng
views the future
Interview by Susan Farrow
Spirit of Youth was founded in 1994 by then SNU president Eric Hatton with the intention of inspiring young adults to find out more about Spiritualism. Since that time it’s had a number of chairpersons, including the high-profile medium Tony Stockwell, but doesn’t seem to have achieved the hoped-for increase in young Spiritualists.
Andy Byng (pictured), still in his twenties, already has a reputation for his outstanding evidential mediumship and his skills as a speaker. He’s passionate about the importance of high standards in mediumship and philosophy, and even more passionate about inspiring young people to investigate Spiritualism. In August 2010 he was made chairperson of Spirit of Youth and is now planning a weekend conference which is open to people of all ages. I asked him about the brief he’s been given for Spirit of Youth.
“I was asked to give it a new direction and put new life into it,” he told me. “The objective of the committee is to build a community of young Spiritualists between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, and also to create bridges between the older and younger generations in the movement.
In today’s culture, not only in Spiritualism but in other organised religions, young people don’t necessarily want to be part of a formal organisation. Secularisation is something you can’t ignore, but you have to be careful because you can’t look at church attendances across the board as an indication of people being less religious. People’s religious and spiritual beliefs manifest in different ways.
However, if you look at SNU Spiritualism, there’s a ‘Christianised’ structure. We have churches, and also district councils, which in a way are like parish councils, so there’s a definite hierarchical structure derived from the mainstream English religion. The ‘formalisation’ of Spiritualism, like other orthodox religions, is now at odds with the religious tendencies of secularised Western societies. This is why reform is needed to ensure that Spiritualism re-engages with society. I think that’s a fair observation to make.”
In recent years we’ve seen a proliferation of mind, body and spirit fairs, and numerous publications geared to esoteric issues, all of which suggest a growing interest in spirituality and the non-materialistic life. At the same time, most organised religions are losing adherents hand over fist. How do you explain that?
“If you take Christianity in Africa as an example, there’s a definite Christian message behind the teachings, but it’s presented in a style of service that’s relevant to their society today. It’s the same with the way we presented the idea of mediumship, and the way we looked at universal salvation and continual progression. These were ideas from the 18th century Age of Enlightenment which were flourishing within our culture. It was a kind of negotiation between religious teaching and common culture and it led to a big boom. I think Spiritualism and other organised religions have gone wrong in that they’ve become out of touch with the common culture of the day.”
So how can we reflect common culture in today’s Spiritualist services?
“The integrity and quality of our philosophy and mediumship can’t be compromised. Those are things we have to uphold. That said, I think the way we present them, and the message we use to engage people, are things that can be changed.”
What would you change first?
“I don’t want Spirit of Youth to be dictatorial. The whole point of the conference is to provide a vehicle for discussion so that Spiritualism can change itself, rather than a few individuals trying to change Spiritualism. People are starting to wake up to the idea that changes need to be made, but there’s got to be a common consensus of ideas, otherwise we just won’t be able to get reform within our movement. So the point of the conference is to understand what people are thinking and get their opinions – to negotiate between different groups, generations and ideas to find common solutions which can begin to slowly change the way we do things.”
How will our churches fit into this?
“First of all we have to understand what people want. Rather than say that this or that is the way it’s going to be, we could have a team of people within Spirit of Youth which could perhaps do just one service in a different style, then see what people feel about it and get their feedback. Some churches would be up for change and others wouldn’t.”
Give us some examples of a different style of service.
“One idea could be that rather than having a formal address we could have the demonstration of mediumship first and then facilitate a debate or discussion on certain philosophical ideas, or even a question-and-answer session. I think there has to be much more participation from congregations – people need to have a voice. Unless the speaker is really outstanding it’s not enough just to have an address and say ‘This is how it is’. We should be stimulating people’s minds in other ways. By doing this you empower people, give them a sense of ownership so that they feel they’re part of something.”
But the great difficulty is getting the new generation of Spiritualists there in the first place, isn’t it?
“I think what you have to do is encourage a culture within the structures – perhaps not at church level but at district level – where rather than just being insular and doing services within our individual churches, we make much more of a push for those big public meetings we used to have. The second thing I think we have to do as a movement is to start engaging with our local communities so that young and older people from our congregations can connect with interfaith groups and do charitable and voluntary work. Another aspect is, obviously, that Spiritualism was always in the papers, it was always controversial, challenging conventional ideas about science, theology and politics. We need to get back to that radicalism.”
The service in most Spiritualist churches consists of a hymn, an opening prayer, a reading, an address, a demonstration of mediumship, another hymn or two and a closing prayer. Aside from the mediumship, that’s a totally Protestant template, isn’t it?
“Yes, it is. But for me, the Divine service is the true expression of Spiritualism. It’s the purest form of expression we have, where we are able to talk about our philosophy. Whether it’s an address or a discussion, it’s not just based upon faith, it’s an evidence-based religion and we offer the evidence that supports what we say. Understanding the philosophy helps to explain how the mediumship works and vice versa. I think that if we don’t provide a service where one is able to see that intimate and quite beautiful profound relationship between the two components of what we are, it takes something away.
For me, prayer is an important aspect of spirituality. It’s a personal thing, but I feel it’s not just about saying words and listening to them, it’s about having an emotional connection with the power of the spirit. I believe there are other ways of praying than having someone say a few words, however nice and eloquent those words may be. Perhaps providing music would be one answer, so people could just listen and reflect upon their own self, the needs in their own lives, and their loved ones. That’s an integral part of the services at Stansted Hall and I think it makes things more personal.”
What about hymn singing?
“Personally, I have no problem with singing, it can be quite nice when there’s a good crowd. But if you have singing where there are just a few people and no accompaniment, you can see there’s a cringy, uncomfortable feeling. Just because we’ve always sung hymns, doesn’t mean we always have to. Where Spirit of Youth has succeeded is that it brought some modern music into the movement, and in that way created change which has been widely accepted.”
And the address? It’s probably fair to say that many addresses are not particularly inspiring or educational. What would you do about that?
“If you have a great speaker, that’s fantastic. But if not, there are other options. I’m sure every church can find at least one person who has enough knowledge to facilitate a discussion, and is strong enough to make sure it’s conducted amicably. But I think that should happen after the demonstration. The reason I say that is because you don’t want passionate discussion to affect the energy of the demo so it’s best to do the demo and have the discussion afterwards.”
So do you see a demonstration of mediumship as a prerequisite for a Spiritualist service, even if it’s poor?
“Well, the problem is that we have a unique relationship between our philosophy and our mediumship. It’s a symbiotic relationship; without mediumship we can’t prove or provide evidence that our philosophy is correct.”
But what if you have a medium who’s not quite up to the task of proving survival? What would that do to the symbiotic relationship?
“Obviously it impedes and hinders that relationship, but we’re all trying to improve the standard of mediumship within the movement – that’s not a difficult thing to admit.
There’s definitely an interest in mediumship. I don’t think anyone can take that away. Some mediums pack out 2,000-seat theatres, and that shows us that there is a demand for what we do. The reason public meetings are so important is that you meet people on neutral territory, in a venue which is not scary to them and in which they feel comfortable. It’s something you can do as a Spiritualist and not discredit your mediumship or your religion. A theatre is a respectable establishment to work in.”
So are churches actually the way forward in attracting young people or do we need to be moving in new directions?
“I speak to a lot of young people about what I do, and most would go to a theatre. A few would go to a church, but the problem is that if you call something a church or a temple, it creates imagery which makes it a loaded term and means that people are expecting a kind of orthodox religion, which is not what we’re about. People don’t want creeds and dogma, they want something which allows them to be what they want to be. That’s what Spiritualism provides, but we have to realise that language and imagery, whether self-created or not, can be barriers to people.”
You’re holding a weekend conference from 9th to 11th March, 2012. What are you planning to offer the young people who come along?
“We’re offering some mediumistic development classes and there’ll also be discussion forums covering things we’ve talked about in this interview. The need for change – how people want to present services, what they think we should be doing within the community, how we can become less insular, more a part of school education, and so on. We can then form generalised points of agreement so that we can make a formalised report and distribute it to district councils, churches and the SNU’s National Executive Committee. Using the questions that have come up, and the agreements and general consensus of opinion we achieve, we can then extend that to a more open and transparent process, perhaps by having online polls. We could also provide one-day discussion groups in different areas so that other people can join in a dialogue.”
So what is your ultimate goal for Spirit of Youth? Will you welcome young Spiritualists of all kinds to the conference? After all, there are groups of Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu Spiritualists, to name just a few.
“Our goal for the conference is to have a minimum 35 people, but we can certainly expand on that if more want to come. It will be held at the Unitarian Nightingale Centre in Derbyshire and it’s open to everybody. There are obviously other denominations in Spiritualism and I think it’s really important to be inclusive. I want Spirit of Youth to become an integral part of the movement, not only in the SNU but in all forms of Spiritualism.
“I’d like it to be a group of people who work together to stimulate change through consensus of opinion, because unless you have a broad consensus you’re never going to have change. I believe we should have an honest, critical view of what we are doing. Somewhere along the line I think we’ve lost the unity between us and we’ve got to begin to ask what our goal for the movement really is.”
• The cost of a place at the Spirit of Youth conference weekend is £85. To book, visit: www.snu.org.uk/soy