Secular Liturgies Network and Forum

Our mission is to enrich societies with secular ethics and reflective practices, informed by the latest research, and expressed in original creative, scholarly and journalistic publications and events. Our work has strong themes of well-being, sustainability, cultural enrichment and community building.

Secular Liturgies at the University of Oxford

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Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford

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Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford

On Wednesday 26thJune 2019, I travelled to Oxford to deliver a presentation on the Secular Liturgies Project at the Ministry Old Students Association (MOSA) conference at Harris Manchester College (University of Oxford). This was a gathering of 30+ Unitarian ministers from a variety of different backgrounds, all liberal, progressive or humanist in their approach, and including both atheists and those with some nondogmatic but nonetheless meaningful belief in ‘the transcendent’.

I was keen to share the aims and objectives of the Secular Liturgies Network and Forum with Unitarian leaders and thinkers, since I was sure they would have a great deal to contribute to the Secular Liturgies project in terms of philosophy and theology, reflective practices and rituals, and in particular, in terms of lessons learnt from their long-standing models of community building around these things. I had planned to speak and then to lead a creative workshop but the Q&A lasted an hour and we ran out of time! I have included the transcript of my presentation (below) but since it is very similar to the transcript for my previous talk, I will focus here on some of the questions that followed and the responses I gave.

The Q&A

Does your network welcome people who have a belief in the transcendent?

Yes, we have people who believe there might be something more than what we can sense, explain and understand with our limited bodies and minds but they are not dogmatic, superstitious or proselytising about it. Some members talk of ‘God’ as a personification, metaphor or superlative for all that is good in the world, and others will use the word to point to what they call the great or infinite mystery of the universe. Some are agnostics, in that they are open to the possibility of something divine in the supernatural sense but do not believe we are able to make any certain claims about it. Those who have a traditional theistic world-view, such as evangelical, conservative or fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, Jews and so forth, tend not to be interested in our network.

I aim to be as inclusive as possible. After all, there is much we still have to learn about the universe and what we call reality. I think this is the wisest approach, since people’s beliefs are so varied and changeable. Even the most rational people have superstitious thoughts and beliefs at times, and in fact, many nonreligious people still have superstitious and dogmatic beliefs, a small minority of them even more so than some of the less superstitious and dogmatic of religious people. This is because our beliefs and how firmly we cling to them has a lot to do with our psychology and innate personality and not just with our religious affiliations or lack of them. It is why we sometimes meet dogmatic atheists and thoughtful, open-minded religious people. A small number of people with no religious affiliation may still be very superstitious, and there are people who are very religious for whom superstition is a fairly limited part of their understanding of day-to-day events. Given the many nuances of belief and its often transient nature (and not forgetting all the contradictory people who attend spiritualist, Christian or other churches once a week but for the rest of the time act as if they don’t believe any of it), it is important to accommodate a range of people with a variety of viewpoints, albeit within a firm ethical framework that safeguards human rights.

In the light of what you’ve said, wouldn’t it be better to use the phrase ‘leaving behind rigid religious structures’ rather than ‘leaving behind dogma and superstition’ so as to be more inclusive? And, what about including people who aren’t rational, and making sure you don’t leave lots of people behind?

It is difficult to find language that communicates one’s meaning perfectly to absolutely everyone. The problem with phrases like ‘rigid religious structures’ and others that have been suggested to me is that in an effort to be more inclusive to one particular group, they end up excluding even more people in other groups, either that or they move into territory that is so vague as to no longer really communicate much at all to anyone. The phrase ‘leaving behind rigid religious structures’ may mean something to those religiously affiliated people who are beginning to do exactly that but it won’t mean much to the majority of church/mosque leavers who are fed up of exactly dogma and superstition, nor will it mean much to the millions of people who grew up or are growing up in nonreligious homes, many of whom see the appalling spectacle of fundamentalist religion around the world and fear for the future. The emphasis on leaving behind dogma and superstition is clearer and better communicates what we are about – education and scholarship, historical criticism, excellent science and so forth – even while we are open-minded, and to a point, flexible in accommodating the irrational aspects of our human natures. Most people understand that dogmatism and superstition are a major problem for humanity, even though they may, consciously or unconsciously, indulge in some of it occasionally themselves!

We need to be inclusive at grass roots in welcoming everyone into our communities, and treating everyone with respect and kindness, but equally, we need to be vigorous in teaching people, including and especially children, to think critically, to be aware of and to question their assumptions, and to get at the truth through reason and experimentation. As I said in my talk, reflective practices can help with this. People should be discouraged from taking the easy way out, by turning to supposed ‘revelation’, or in other words, by turning to religious dogma and superstition. Given the dangers that we face today with fake news, false information in general and the rise of extreme political and religious ideologies, this has never been more urgent. Rather than being tempted to dumb things down in community-building work, which can also be rather patronising and underestimates people’s capacity for understanding, it is worth trying to raise our society up. I must also make the point here that we should still have a great deal of respect on a personal level for those people who are superstitious or more traditionally religious but who nonetheless are doing a lot of good work for social justice, sustainability and so forth, even while we do not share their theology.

Given what you’ve said about the range of human belief and personality, as editor of Secular Liturgies, how do you decide what to publish and what not to publish?

Firstly, I am committed to maintaining the highest standards in terms of the quality and accuracy of submissions. I send pieces away for peer review if they are not in my field of expertise. However, the questioner was getting at what I include in terms of the beliefs expressed rather than in terms of the quality of the material itself. My view is that a good editor doesn’t just publish pieces that fit perfectly with their own opinions on everything, or just those submissions which appeal to them personally. I don’t have to like and agree with every single statement in a piece. As long as a piece has appeal for the network more widely and is compatible with the overall principles and goals of the project, it may express beliefs and views that are not necessarily those of the editor. I want to be challenged, after all, along with my readership, and I trust that people can think for themselves and don’t need me to provide an excessively strict filter. Therefore, I provide a framework within which there is plenty of room for exploration, challenge, and questioning.

The framework is nonetheless strong. Submissions have to be compatible with our key values and goals as expressed in my presentation. Just to illustrate with a couple of examples: I turned down a philosophical essay someone submitted, even though it had some philosophical merit (in places), because its entire emphasis was on undermining the idea that there is anything that could be said to be true at all. This piece was critical of religious truth claims but it also, along with its author’s accompanying message, was a clear (though unsuccessful) attempt to undermine our commitment to knowledge gained through reason, scholarship and science, and as such, I could not publish it. On the other hand, I do accept works in which authors express some nondogmatic beliefs in supernatural (or essentially mysterious) things, which I may not share. For example, in Connor Hansford’s recent piece of creative nonfiction, he expresses deep scepticism about the traditional Christian conception of a supernatural deity but he also mentions he has a belief in a “higher power” or “energy”, and in the ability of his ancestors to watch over him. I do not consider such beliefs to be harmful, or his work overall to be incompatible with our values and goals, since he is clearly not being dogmatic, superstitious or proselytising about his beliefs.

Why did you choose the word ‘secular’ for your project?

After a lot of market research, I decided ‘secular’ was the word the largest number of people were comfortable with. After all, in the UK, we are used secular spaces, with the separation of the state from institutions of faith. I liked the way that the word ‘secular’, rather than dismissing religious faiths altogether, implies a multi-faith as well as a nonreligious approach, therefore accommodating a greater range of viewpoints. This seemed very apt for a project that welcomes religious progressives alongside humanists, and which takes inspiration from the insights and practices of all faiths and philosophical traditions. Secular spaces have a neutrality about them, while also providing for everyone a firm framework of universal secular values based on reason, human rights and compassion. Statements of secular values are different from ideologies because the values are underlyingly universal, based on reason and evidence regarding human needs and wellbeing. They benefit and appeal to all humans, even while overlaid beliefs such as religious beliefs may sometimes suppress them. Secular values protect fundamental human rights and freedoms, ensuring all individuals are treated as equals, whether they be religious or otherwise, and thus they include the protection of every individual’s right to worship whatever they like as much as their right not to worship anything at all.

Can’t we end up being dogmatic about secularism?

It is a common mistake to think secularism and liberal values are just one more exclusive and dogmatic ideology. There is a tension of course, when individual human rights trump the rights, for example, of a religious group to practice their faith, but in such cases, there has to be evidence that a faith practice is harmful to certain individuals, and in societies where there is no large majority faith, the very existence of religious groups depends on the state upholding people’s individual rights to gather and worship as they please, against oppressive (or potentially oppressive) dominant groups and cultures. Ultimately, the choice we have in all societies, is between human rights based on liberal and secular values, or a tyranny of whatever the dominant political or religious ideology happens to be.

You mentioned the need to tackle issues of intellectual property. What is your approach to the use of objects, rituals and other heritage borrowed from other cultures?

I am very much for openness and reuse on condition that the context from which the ritual, object or work has been drawn is explained, understood and respected, and where authors and creators (either individuals or groups) are attributed.

(See my article on ethical re-use at https://secularliturgies.wordpress.com/2016/04/28/june-2016-exhibition-alert/, which also links to other helpful resources on ethical re-use.)

You say that you want to build bridges between the different progressive groups. Why don’t progressive groups cooperate and collaborate more already?

Ironically, there is a tendency for some progressive leaders to be overly dogmatic and to work only with those who agree with them on absolutely everything. There is also the perennial problem of the human ego, and the fact that some people like to build mini empires and wrongly view other progressives as competition. These are universal human problems! I aim to model a very different approach with the SLN&F, and you will get a clear sense of this open, reflective and self-critical attitude from what I publish. The reality is that no one group can do everything well, and so it may prove more useful to encourage the flourishing of a variety of movements and organisations with similar values and goals – which may come together on occasion – rather than to aim at any kind of deeper merging of movements. The SLN&F is looking to build bridges across groups and organisations and to look for potential for deeper collaboration on various projects but I am also aiming to support diversity rather than to push for any kind of uniformity.

The issue of community building is a really thorny one. Roger Ray, our guest speaker at the recent Secular Liturgies event, talked much of its importance for people’s health and wellbeing, and I totally agree. However, community building remains a very difficult thing to do in practice. It is enormously time consuming and endlessly frustrating because of all the facets of human psychology and behaviour we have been discussing. I am hoping to learn much from your experiences of fostering progressive community within your churches and congregations.

Recently, I found the time to reflect on my own vocational priorities in the light of the need for both what I call ‘priestly’ community builders and ‘prophetic’ publishers – those who do the day-to-day work of fostering community around shared rituals and those who read the times and question and challenge the status quo respectively. My current circumstances make it impossible for me to do both things well, and I find myself drawn primarily to the writing, speaking and publishing side of things, having an eye I’m told for original journalistic opportunities, good creative writing and for connecting up relevant research. I fully acknowledge, however, the great need for grass roots face-to-face community building, and while it isn’t my priority at the moment, I am willing to work in collaboration with others to create experimental progressive community where I live in Exeter. Part of my research, after all, has been to do with assessing the pros and cons of various community models and precedents, and it would be interesting to run some new experiments. I hope to work with Exeter’s humanists, Progressive Christians, Secular Buddhists and other existing progressive minded groups on this, if and when they are willing!

As someone who is sociable, while also being a little introverted (I enjoy being around people but need plenty of time alone to recharge my batteries) and as someone who has witnessed a great deal of petty squabbling and some more serious corruption in community settings, the prospect of community-building is a daunting one, and one that in our fragmented and technologically advanced society, seems almost impossible. However, we crave connection as much as we did in any previous age, and it is connection and shared experiences that make our lives meaningful. We are, after all, the most intricately social species on the planet, and possibly in the universe. Even the most extremely introverted humans crave that connection with others. Indeed, it is the loss of the community relationships we evolved to have, which is increasingly believed to be at the root of much mental illness and anti-social behaviour, not to mention the epidemic of loneliness and isolation. Therefore, we cannot give up on community and belonging, even while it seems elusive, and even while it’s construction and maintenance is fraught with difficulty and frustration.

Further Reflections on the Day

The question I had, which would have underpinned a creative workshop exercise, was one I left with the Unitarian ministers to think about in their own time. It ran as follows:

What could you contribute towards a Secular Liturgies Movement, firstly as Unitarians, and secondly, as individuals (in the following areas)?

  1. Philosophy and ethics
  2. Reflective practices and rituals
  3. Literature and other cultural heritage
  4. Creative writing and the arts
  5. Pastoral care and community models

I mentioned my plan to harvest answers to this question for an extended article to be entitled “An Interview with 30 Odd Unitarian Ministers!” I am discussing the possibility of this with the Rev. Dr. Claire MacDonald and hope it will come to fruition. I have also been encouraged to write a piece for The Inquirer, the Unitarian Magazine, so do look out for that. In general, I am looking forward to a closer relationship with our Unitarian friends as time goes on.

It was a delight to finally meet Claire, a Unitarian Minister and Thinker in Residence at the Live Arts Development Agency (London), after having met on Facebook some time ago when she came across my project and got in touch. It was inspiring to hear about the work and contacts she has in areas close to my heart – the spiritually and philosophically inclined arts, sustainability and progressive voices in Islam. I am very grateful for her invitation to speak at Harris Manchester College.

I am also looking forward to working with Paul Lindsay Dawson, a lay Unitarian leader at Westgate Unitarian Chapel in Wakefield, who suggested we hold a joint event there. It will be fascinating to see what grows from these connections. Exciting things are definitely happening in the progressive movement in general in terms of joined up thinking, connections between people and pioneering projects!

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Dr Anastasia Somerville-Wong with Rev. Dr. Claire MacDonald

On a personal note, I had the opportunity to spend two hours wandering around Oxford; peering through iron gates into green flower-lined quads and down the central tree-lined walkway of the city’s botanical gardens, leaning over bridges to watch students and tourists punting up the river Cherwell, circumnavigating Christchurch Meadow and its enthusiastic young cricket players, and soaking up the history in the corridors and gardens of Harris Manchester College. There was a striking photograph in one such corridor, of Gertrude von Petzold (1876-1952), former student of the college and pioneering suffragist, distinguished scholar and well-known speaker, and the first woman to train for the ministry in England – an intelligent looking woman with a determined expression (see below). I enjoyed doing some further research on her once I got home, as part of my ongoing re-discovery of our lost and hidden heritage; the history of great women.

Thus, my day in Oxford turned out to be rather like a pilgrimage, in which my physical surroundings, as they changed, and as my perception of them deepened, began to reflect, and find themselves reflected in, my own inner journey. The presence of Oxford’s colleges, those imposing institutions of learning, made me contemplate my misspent youth, and how I would love to be able to go back in time and tell my younger self not to worry so much about everything but to instead focus on my studies – it would have been healing as much as anything else. I eventually found the confidence and inner tranquillity to learn at full capacity but it was rather late, in my mid-twenties, when I started my doctorate. However, it wasn’t a negative feeling I had, or even really a regret, since the city made me equally aware and grateful for all the experiences I had had on account of a somewhat nomadic and unsettled youth, and of what a great deal I had learnt from them all.

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Gertrude von Petzold (1876-1952), photograph taken in 1904, at the start of her ministry in Leicester.

MOSA Conference Lecture Transcript

(Dr Anastasia E. Somerville-Wong at Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford, 26th June 2019)

Hello, my name’s Anastasia, and I’m Editor of the Secular Liturgies blog and up-coming Magazine. I’m delighted to be with you all at the MOSA conference, and am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce you to the mission and purpose of the Secular Liturgies Network and Forum of which I am also the founder.

A Post Religious Future

The idea for this Network and Forum grew out of my increasing concern that here, and in many other secularising nations, we lack a shared vision for a post-religious future.

If we are to succeed in building secular civilizations, which are culturally rich, sustainable, and resilient, we will have to invest a lot more in discussion, teaching and pubic engagement around secular ethics, and in the development of reflective practices that will help us to live better and more meaningfully without superstition and dogma.

British Social Attitudes Surveys show that religious affiliation has declined steeply and continues to do so. 50% of British people no longer identify with a religious faith, and many who do are non-practising, liberal or progressive. The percentage of 18-24yr-olds with no religious affiliation is significantly higher at 64%, indicating that rapid secularisation will continue.

Many nations are undergoing a similar transition. The world’s nonreligious are now the third largest group of humans, recorded as 16% of the world’s population in 2010, exceeded in numbers only by Christians and Muslims.

However, before we begin to hail the dawn of a new secular age, we must remember that birth rates are significantly lower among the nonreligious. Therefore, the percentage of world’s population which is nonreligious is actually getting smaller, and even in predominantly secular nations, while religious affiliation is declining, some religious beliefs, and superstition in general may not be. Movements in new age spirituality, Wicca, Modern Witchcraft and Spiritualism, for example, are gaining in popularity, especially among the young.

It is also true, however, that religious communities with high birth rates tend to be poorer with less access to education, so when it comes to power and influence, secular communities are likely to hold on to and increase their share.

The Secular Liturgies Network and Forum

In developed nations like ours, where traditional religion is rapidly losing ground, a combination of secular ethics and reflective practices has the potential to fill the void and provide a rational alternative to new age spirituality.

By the void, I refer to a proven decline in empathy and ethical engagement, a poverty and mediocrity of culture in some areas, and a lack of socialisation and social inclusion that has led to the epidemic of loneliness. These problems haven’t been caused by the decline in religion alone but the latter has certainly contributed to them.

While most of us here will be all too aware that traditional religious ethics, culture and community brought with it far too many of its own ills, there were aspects of faith and practice which instilled empathy and compassion, inspired great works of art and bonded people together in close community.

As a thinktank and creative hub, publisher and events pioneer, the SLN brings people together from across many secular, humanist and progressive backgrounds – to reclaim and repurpose the greatest insights and practices of the world’s faiths and philosophical traditions, to creatively express a common secular ethic, and to experiment with reflective practices that will enrich secular life and culture and make it more resilient.

The SLN publishes original creative works, including poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction, interviews with relevant experts/practitioners, and articles which communicate academic research to a wider audience.The first edition of Secular Liturgies Magazine comes out in Jan 2020, and will contain some of the best work submitted since I started the project back in July 2018. Some of these contributions will also feature in experimental liturgical events.

Our Network discusses secular ethics, reflective practices and nonreligious pastoral care. It is largely comprised of humanists, the nonreligious, and religious progressives from across many faiths and denominations. I have recently published interviews with a humanist senior chaplain who leads an NHS Hospital Trust, a humanistic Jewish Rabbi, a progressive Christian minister, a humanist funeral celebrant, and a spiritual director and pastoral supervisor in the Ignatian tradition. And, I am planning interviews with progressive Hindu, Muslim and Secular Buddhist leaders and practitioners. We also have a growing collection of original poetry and creative writing.

Our approach is inclusive and respectful of cultural and religious differences, as far as beliefs and practices remain compatible with the UN declaration of human rights and sustainability goals. After all, contrary to popular belief, values across communities of faith and unbelief are very similar, as is being revealed by the research of the Understanding Unbelief programme at the University of Kent. My approach is to emphasise what we have in common – universal human values – rather than what divides us.

The Nine Themes

Our secular liturgies and liturgical events are organised around the following Nine Themes…

  • Critical Thinking– truth, evidence, research, excellent science, responsibility
  • Good Life– character, empathy, wisdom, courage, virtue, kindness, compassion
  • Good Society– social justice, human rights, individual freedom, equality, democracy
  • Sustainability– our place in nature, green lifestyles, religious naturalism, biophilia
  • Health and Well-being– reflection, meditation, mindfulness, socialisation
  • Big Culture– cultural exchange, diversity, comparative philosophy/religion
  • Community– companionship, relationships, humour, fun, friendship
  • Life-Cycles– birth and coming of age celebrations, weddings, funerals
  • Seasons– annual and seasonal events following a secular calendar

Reflective Practice and CPD

Let’s take a moment now to look a little more closely at reflective practice…

Reflective Practice is a key part of CPD cycles for practice-based professionals, those such as teacher-educators and learners, leaders across industries, health professionals and environment or sustainability managers. Reflective Practice is the ability to reflect on one’s actions (and indeed one’s thoughts and one’s experience of the world) so as to engage in a process of continuous learning.

In reflective practice we pay attention to ourselves, noticing our assumptions, noticing thought patterns. By doing this we are empowered to change what we see, and even to change the way we see.

Many models of reflective practice have been created to guide reasoning about action. Those of you who have received or delivered workplace training in reflective practice will be familiar with names like Borton, Kolb and Fry, Argyris and Schon, Gibbs, Benner and Wrubel, Brookfield and Johns,Somerville and Keeling…

In the David Somerville (no relation of mine) and June Keeling model, as an example:

They suggest actively seeking feedback in the workplace, asking yourself and others what you and they have learnt that day, identifying accomplishments and areas for growth, viewing experiences objectively, empathizing aloud, recording your thoughts, feelings and future plans (in, for example, a journal), looking for emerging patterns, planning for the future, and creating your own future by combining the virtues of the dreamer, the realist, and the critic.

For many nonreligious people, these activities are no longer part of normal life, especially outside the workplace, and may indeed seem superfluous. However, for religious people, these (or similar) social and reflective activities are positively encouraged and integrated into the cycles, seasons and gatherings of religious life.

While we might not share the dogmas and superstitions of traditional religion, many of their institutions and traditions instil useful habits of reflective practice. These practices help us to discern what matters and what doesn’t matter so much, what is meaningful and why, what to love and what to hate… They attend to the life of the mind – to morality and virtue, to wonder and creativity, and to personal growth in knowledge, wisdom and character.

Reflective Practice in History

However, while scholars may have found precursors of reflective practice in ancient texts such as Buddhist teachings and the Meditations of Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, they have barely begun to scratch the surface of all the lessons in reflective practice that the world’s many religious and philosophical traditions can provide.

Indeed, almost everything that is good in religion, or in so-called spirituality, is to do with rituals that facilitate individual and communal reflective practices.

We can learn, for example, from the way that religions give meaning, narrative and purpose to cultural heritage and the arts. Religions are able to connect almost everything we come across in life with our moral sense and with our identity, our loves and our losses…

The Philosopher Alain de Botton has done some important work in this area. He points out how our museums and galleries often fail to engage and inspire us because they fail to exhibit their art works and artefacts in ways that make them relevant to the passions and purposes of their visitors. I highly recommend his book Religion for Atheists and his TED talk on Atheism 2.0. I would add that museums fail, therefore, to reflecton their collections in ways that make them meaningful to us.

We can also learn a great deal from the way religious organisations conduct their reflective gatherings (for example, their liturgical services), and from their varied and reflective approaches to pastoral care. We can learn from the way they mark rites of passage, lifecycles and seasons and from the way they give meaning to our travels in pilgrimage. We can learn from their approaches to the scheduled or habitual contemplation of our actions and experiences, through journaling, prayer, meditation and the mindful or imaginative reading of texts.

Examples of Reflective Practice

For example, prayer may be seen as a form of reflective practice, like journaling or blogging, rather than as a real conversation with a supernatural being. The person who prays puts into words and a new context (sometimes a public context in religious services) their feelings and thoughts about the things they have heard about or experienced. In the process, they reflect on this information and experience in ways that can change their own attitudes and behaviours over time.

The production of creative works is also a form of reflective practice, since our creations arise from our observations, impressions and reasoning about what we experience of the world, of reality, of life and humanity.

Secular Liturgies as Reflective Practice

Thus, the process of creating secular liturgies is itself a form of reflective practice, as much as reading or hearing them is a means to facilitating reflective practice. By Secular Liturgies, I mean the writings and other expressions, such as rituals, meditations and creative art-forms, which are read or take place at private or public secular liturgical gatherings.

Secular Liturgies arise from and encourage reflective practice. They explore, celebrate and convey secular values, values of compassion, truth, freedom, equality, courage, tolerance and responsibility. They capture and communicate the latest information and research that can help to advance well-being and alleviate suffering. They make secular cultures more resilient in difficult times, and inspire us to meet our global challenges.

Secular Liturgies: A Broad Concept

While Secular Liturgies include, more obviously, writings and readings which are morally and/or intellectually instructive. They also include words, exhibitions and activities, which are indirectly helpful to us by creating spaces for reflection or socialisation, or by creating rituals which can instil healthy habits, practical wisdom and critical thinking.

“A story, a poem, a dance, the process of painting a picture, a journey, a piece of music, a period of silence, and even the shipping forecast- these may all be described as liturgy!”

Liturgies in Daily Life

‘Liturgical moments’ can of course be integrated into everyday life. They define and reinforce the values, goals and cultural identity of groups, from the tattoos and graffiti of youth subcultures, to the word-art found in the homes and workplaces of the aspirational classes. Therefore, the SLN explores ways of incorporating elements secular liturgy into home, working and leisure environments. We are thinking, for example, about the role of places, spaces and buildings in influencing (and being influenced by) liturgical events.

Our thinking is also informed by people such as Thaler and Sunstein, the Nobel Prize Winners in economics, whose famous book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness”, explained how environments can be created which positively influence human behaviours without us even being aware of it.

Goals of Secular Liturgy and Reflective Practices

So, the goals of our secular liturgies, reflective practices and secular liturgical events are to help us to do the following

Firstly, to question, learn and overcome our cognitive biases…by cognitive biases I mean of course the gap between how we ought to reason and how we actually reason. No doubt you’re familiar with the ground-breaking work done in this area by another Nobel Prize winner in economics, Daniel Kahneman, which you can read about in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.

Another goal is to help us engage with, teach and instil secular ethics. Reflective practices demand honesty, freedom, tolerance and equality, secular and humanist values, which often stand in contrast to those of religious power structures.

Secular Liturgies and liturgical events also help us to better appreciate the natural world and our place within it, in contrast with the way traditional religion so often sets us apart from our natural origins and even from the needs and pleasures of our bodies.

Secular liturgies and liturgical events enable us to enjoy our most pleasurable and health-giving psychological states; emotions such self-transcendence, mindfulness, wonderment, awe and love, which lead to positive changes in our thinking and behaviour.

And secular liturgies and liturgical events cultivate empathy and compassion for others, through the understanding of ourselves and humanity that comes from sharing stories and building relationships and community through meaningful socialisation.

A Diverse Network

The SLN connects those with shared values and goals but often very different cultural backgrounds and identities.

Our network consists of humanists, atheists, agnostics, free-thinkers, sceptics, the nonreligious, the ‘spiritual but not religious’, Unitarians, British Quakers, liberals from other denominations, and members of progressive religious reform movements such as Progressive Christianity, Progressive Hinduism, Progressive Islam, Humanistic Judaism and Secular Buddhism.

Together we can learn so much more about other cultural perspectives and gain a far better perspective on our own cultures. We can draw immense wealth from the repositories of culture and reflective practises that those from the progressive streams of the world’s faith and philosophical traditions can provide.

A ‘Big Culture’ Approach

We therefore take what I call a ‘big culture’ approach. This is a critical approach which sifts the golden nuggets of wisdom from the world’s philosophical and religious traditions, in terms of both their thinking and practice, leaving dogma and superstition behind.

We have to ask ourselves which parts of our inherited cultures – the literature, the objects, the rituals and traditions – conform to our secular values and goals, and which must be consigned to museums and archives? We must navigate through controversial issues of cultural remix and cultural appropriation, intellectual property and respectful reuse, and the engagement of marginalised heritages. I am especially keen to showcase aspects of marginalised heritages in our SLN events.

Progressive Religious Reform Movements

The Progressive Religious Reform Movements are ideally placed to offer up to wider society the positive and useful aspects of the faiths out of which they have arisen.

They have left dogma and superstition behind and are currently going through a process of repurposing their stories, traditions and rituals, and finding a new purpose and place in society. They are passionate about retaining, and indeed, reclaiming, the philosophical insights and practical wisdom they have inherited.

This is something the keynote speaker at our launch event on the 8thof June at Exeter Central Library explored in greater depth. Our keynote speaker was the Rev. Dr. Roger L. Ray, founding pastor of The Emerging Church and author of Progressive Faith and Practice and Progressive Conversations. His sermons reach an audience of several thousand through podcast and video and can be found on iTunes under the title Progressive Faith Sermons and on YouTube on the channel CCCSPRINGFIELD. Unfortunately, there was a problem with our camera mic on the day but if you have good hearing or sound boosting technology, do check out the recording of his talk, which is linked to from the 9thJune blog post on the event. He is shortly giving a similar talk in the US, which he intends to record, so there will be a better video available soon.

Call for Submissions

Finally, how can you get involved? How can you take part in this exciting mission? Well, apart from keeping an eye out for our experimental liturgical events which will be advertised via the website and social media, you can…

Join us in writing secular liturgy and choreographing innovative liturgical events along the Nine Themes.

You can send us your secular liturgical extracts, poetry, short stories, personal accounts and other creative nonfiction, short dramatic scripts and extracts, short films, art-works, music and cultural heritage content and objects.

You can submit articles relating cutting-edge academic research in relevant fields.

If you are a practitioner in a relevant field I would love to interview you!

And you can join our FB Forum and real-life Forum thinktank meetings, where you can… share ideas for readings from original creative writing, established novels, poetry, works of philosophy and other literature, and share ideas for reflective activities for secular liturgical events (e.g. new or adapted rituals, meditations, art-forms, films, community feasts, tea ceremonies, dance routines, multimedia, art exhibitions, songs, musical compositions and cultural heritage objects of the real or digital kind)

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Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford

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