IN JANUARY 1939, Cosmo Gordon Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to the Bishop of Bath & Wells, to thank him for the report that he had sent. He confessed that he was “disappointed” by it.
Lang had, three years earlier, set up a committee to investigate the claims of spiritualism: namely, that it was possible for the living to communicate with the dead. Then Dean, Francis Underhill had chaired the group of 12 eminent individuals (including the Dean of St Paul’s, the Master of the Temple, and a Harley Street psychologist), and they had spent time interviewing spiritualists, visiting séances, and meeting psychic researchers.
Lang took the report to a meeting of bishops in July, where it was discussed briefly. The bishops, steered by Lang, agreed that the report should remain private and unpublished. Underhill responded to this news saying, rather drily, that he was “disappointed” by the bishops’ decision.
News that the Archbishop was sitting on the report began to leak, as did the conclusion of the committee. One of those questioned by the group asked to see a copy, and, despite being told that it was strictly confidential, told the spiritualist press that the report was favourable to spiritualism. Rumour spread that nine of the 12 had concluded that spirit communication had been verified.
The editor of the Church Times thought that it would be “absurd” that the majority of such a committee would decide that spiritualism was “true” (Leader comment, 1 March 1940); but, in July 1940, the Archbishop was forced to issue a statement that admitted that the committee had not reached a unanimous conclusion. The report, however, would remain private to the bishops, as it had not been clear enough to make publication desirable. It remained unpublished until the 1980s.
The “disappointing” and controversial line in the report of the nine-strong majority read: “When every possible explanation of these [spirit] communications has been given, and all doubtful evidence set aside, it is generally agreed that there remains some element as yet unexplained. We think that it is probable that the hypothesis that they proceed in some cases from discarnate spirits is a true one.”
BY 1940, the nation was focused on the war against Nazi Germany, and, as Lang likely expected, the fuss died down.
But the story of the report and the reasons that it was deemed desirable or necessary to investigate the claims of spiritualism at all is a fascinating one.
Although people had long said that it was possible to converse with the dead, “modern spiritualism”, as it is known, began, quite particularly, in 1848, in Hydesville, New York. Two sisters, Catherine and Margaretta Fox, claimed that they were communicating with the spirit of a dead man by means of rapping sounds. These claims were taken seriously by their neighbours. Soon, they were travelling around the United States and giving displays of their mediumship.
By the autumn of 1852, the craze for communicating with the spirits had arrived in London. Newspapers of the time noted that all classes of people — from servants to royalty — had tried their hand at home séances. The 1860s and ’70s brought the tropes of spiritualism which are still familiar: the medium — often young and female — offering séances in darkened rooms; flowers falling from ceilings; ethereal music playing from unseen instruments; and the unbroken circle of hands around the table. Lectures and demonstrations were given in music halls, spiritualist societies sprang up, and several special-interest journals were printed.
During the same period, a group of interested academics began to investigate the claims of spiritual and psychic phenomena, forming the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in 1882, revealing the fraudulent activity of some popular performance mediums — to the delight of the press. Even so, many researchers within the SPR remained intrigued by spiritualism, and open to the possibility that spiritual communication was possible.
ALAMYUnderhill, in Harry Morley’s portrait
For the Church, spiritualism represented something of a problem. On the one hand, spiritualism appeared to demonstrate that there was, as Christianity had always taught, life beyond death. The spirit of a person survived beyond the grave, and there was an unbroken connection between this world and the next.
The spirits described an afterlife, however, that did not fit with the Church’s teaching. It was inclusive and universal: everyone went to the same place. There was no hell, no judgement, and no eternal punishment. Rather, every spirit had the opportunity to “rise” towards perfection, from whatever state or “sphere” it arrived. The afterlife was an opportunity for growth, development, and progress.
This stood in contrast to what was widely understood as orthodox Anglican teaching concerning heaven and hell, which, rooted in the Reformation, offered no possibility for post-mortem repentance or further progress towards salvation. Spiritualism was an attractive and vivid alternative, and many people, anxious clergy reported, were embracing it.
SPIRITUALISM would have probably dwindled into little more than a quirky example of Victorian fringe religion, had it not been for the First World War. Clergy voiced their concern that growing numbers of parishioners were turning to spiritualists for confirmation of the continued existence of the soldiers who had been killed overseas. Mediums, they argued, were preying on those made vulnerable by grief.
Spiritualists themselves, in their newspapers and journals, spoke, in contrast, of their desire to help the bereaved through the war. Gone were the parlour tricks and music-hall antics; many mediums, recognising the need for comfort and reassurance, offered their services free. They also claimed that, in the spirit world, newly departed souls were clamouring to encourage and strengthen their families from beyond the grave.
Well-known figures such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the physicist Sir Oliver Lodge gave added weight to the spiritualist cause, writing not only about their experiences of spirit communication, but also the sense of comfort and hope which they derived from it.
In 1920, the Lambeth Conference addressed the issue, and concluded that spiritualism should be avoided. But people did not avoid it. By the 1930s, there was still disquiet among Church of England clergy that there had been no “official” definitive response to it. Moreover, it continued to be popular.
Those who upheld the claims of spiritualism were as concerned as its critics that it should be investigated. From the 1850s, a small number of clergy, diverse in their tradition, background, and geographical location, had become intrigued supporters. The hymn-writer and liturgist Percy Dearmer flirted with it after the war; his wife, Nancy, published a book that purported to be dictated, via automatic writing, from a departed soldier. The Dean of St Paul’s, Walter Matthews, maintained a quiet interest, becoming a member of the SPR. Others, less discreet, joined the Confraternity of Clergy and Spiritualists, and actively sought to promote the significance and potential of spiritualism within the Church.
The Archbishop’s report of 1939 satisfied no one. The conclusion of the majority excited the most attention when it was leaked, but the comments of the minority are worth noting. Three committee members argued that the alleged communications were valueless and open to fraud. They did not, explicitly, say that they were entirely false; instead, they suggested that, rather than embrace spiritualism, the Church should focus more on teaching the mystical nature of Christianity; how the living and the departed meet in the celebration of the eucharist; the meaning of eternal life; and the importance of the communion of saints.
Both they and their nine colleagues said that the popularity of spiritualism had come about, in large part, because of the Church’s failure to teach meaningfully about the afterlife and the fellowship between the living and the departed.
Somewhere, the prayerful interaction of the whole Church, on earth and in heaven, had become lost. Spiritualism had filled a gap, meeting a need for comfort and reassurance that the Church had not given.
Beyond the excitable headlines, the more nuanced conclusion in the report helped the Church to recognise what it was about spiritualism which so attracted bereaved people, and suggested some opportunities for drawing on this in its own pastoral ministry.
ANGLICAN theology, within academic circles, had already shifted away from the harsher Reformation teaching that the soul, post-mortem, waited in a static state for the final judgement. Instead, theologians bent towards something more dynamic, as F. D. Maurice’s Theological Essays of 1853 and Hastings Rashdall’s 1915 Bampton lectures bear testimony. What was missing within the Church was a means of articulating this more progressive afterlife in a manner that was pastorally attractive and theologically orthodox — and that didn’t sound like the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory.
Regardless of what the spirits allegedly taught about life beyond death, spiritualism — oddly compelling, vivid, and comforting to many — encouraged fresh conversation about the state of the departed and focused attention towards the bereaved and their needs.
Spiritualism’s lasting gift to the Church, it seems, was not spirit communication: it was a renewed commitment to those who had died in Christ, to those who mourned them, and to the prayers that bound the living and the departed together.
The Revd Dr Georgina Byrne is a Residentiary Canon of Worcester Cathedral and a Chaplain to the Queen. Her book Modern Spiritualism and the Church of England, 1850-1939 is published by Boydell & Brewer at £60 (CT Bookshop £54).