Dr Anastasia E. Somerville-Wong
Writer, Editor and Founder of the Secular Liturgies Network and Forum
In the year 2000, after obtaining A-Levels in the sciences, I moved to Scotland to study philosophy and politics at the University of Edinburgh. My MA (Hons) included ethics and moral philosophy, Indian religion and philosophy, history of philosophy, legal philosophy, logic and philosophy of science, political theory, British politics and African politics. While working as a graduate in ICT and Child Protection (Social Work), I took final year undergraduate modules in theology and ecclesiastical history with the University of Aberdeen. In 2006, I received an academic prize for excellence in independent historical research and practical theology, followed by a bursary to study for a PhD in Divinity at the University of Aberdeen. My PhD was on the life and work of George Fielden MacLeod (founder of the Iona Community) with special focus on Christian theology and practice in relation to war and social change.
Graduating with the PhD in 2010, I worked as a lecturer in the History of Christianity and ran my own consultancy research business, taking commissions from the arts, culture and heritage sectors. I also wrote my first book, a book of progressive liturgies, poetry and short stories for lifecycle, yearly-cycle, and other contemplative and creative events, published by The Pilgrim Press (USA) in 2013. This book has been used widely for liturgical gatherings across the UK, USA and beyond.
In 2014, I moved to Exeter and became an Associate Research Fellow in the School of Law at the University of Exeter. For three years, I worked on the EC funded Europeana Space Project, helping to overcome challenges in intellectual property law and business modelling in order to facilitate the commercial and educational reuse of Europe’s rich digital cultural heritage content. It was a project of international significance with more than 29 partners in higher education, the culture sector and the creative industries across 13 European countries. In addition to project and stakeholder management, and representing the Exeter team as a consultant and speaker at events, I led on the case studies (based on our six pilot projects and four demonstrators), on co-creating an innovative ‘safe space’ online for experimentation with specific content prior to IPR negotiations, and on the project MOOC. I also raised the profile of marginalised heritages and pioneered a new ethical framework for reuse of heritage content.
During this time, I won both departmental and researcher-led initiative awards, which enabled me to fund my own Culture-Makers project in collaboration with the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery. Culture-Makers inspired projects and collaborations, which led to innovative research outputs and creative publications using digital heritage content and new digital technologies. I also hosted an artist in residence, won the Society and Culture prize in an ‘Images of Research’ competition with my independent research on under-represented heritages, and won a place on the prestigious SetSquared Researcher to Innovator programme. I also gave a public lecture for PCN Britain in Exeter on progressive religious reform movements.
From January 2018 to January 2019, I worked in English Literature at the University of Plymouth, on the AHRC funded ‘Imagining Alternatives: Feasts for the Future’ project. Imagining Alternatives explores how writers since the late nineteenth century have tried to imagine and narrate alternative presents and better futures. Feasts for the Future explores how communal meals might act as one way of bringing elements of a ‘utopian’ future into our shared present. In collaboration with Regen, we have pioneered a new model for inspiring ambitious local and renewable energy projects. I also represented the project as a speaker/workshop leader at Sustainable Earth 2018.
On 13th July 2018, I launched the Secular Liturgies Creative Writing Project, now called the Secular Liturgies Network and Forum. It is a culmination of all my previous work, and is inspired by my love of writing, my experience as a published writer of liturgies and poetry, and my knowledge of history, theology, philosophy and comparative religion. As an academic and a creative writer, I bring a combination of two approaches – the scholarly and the creative – to the work of the SLN&F.
Any questions about the SLN&F? Email me at email@example.com
The External Advisory Board
Members of the External Advisory Board consider and advise on the SLN/Fs research, engagement, recruitment and communications strategies, providing advice and comments on projects between meetings, as appropriate. They participate in the evaluation of SLN/F activities, outputs and impacts, and where possible, in SLN/F events.
Dr David Sergeant
David is a lecturer in English (post-1850), in the School of Humanities and Performing Arts (Faculty of Arts and Humanities) at the University of Plymouth in the UK.
David leads the AHRC funded ‘Imagining Alternatives: Feasts for the Future’ project, which explores how communal meals might act as one way of bringing elements of a ‘utopian’ future (such as those imagined by writers since the late nineteenth century), into our shared present. See https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/research/feasts-for-the-future
Interview with the Editor:
Would you call yourself a humanist, a progressive Christian or something else?
I see myself as a secularist, a liberal and an egalitarian. I also see myself as a humanist with a Christian flavour. I say ‘Christian flavour’ because I acknowledge that I have inherited Christian ideas and perspectives from the broader culture I have grown up in, and from that Christian heritage, I have extracted and re-purposed some helpful insights and practices, while leaving behind the dogmatic and superstitious elements. I am certainly not a Christian in the traditional sense, and when presented with a form, I tick the ‘no religion’ box. I also have a Buddhist flavour as I have had a close association with Secular Buddhism since early childhood, and still attend meditations at our local Buddhist centre.
We can have many layers of identity, which are meaningful to us to the same or varying degrees. When asked about my identity in recent Brexit debates, for example, I could honestly say that I have always seen myself as equally English, Scottish, Irish, European, of mixed heritage, thoroughly international, and a member of the global human race!
Do you believe in God?
I do not believe in the God of any traditional religion. However, I do believe that we have profound emotional and psychological experiences of things like awe and wonder, love, self-transcendence and transformation, which we (being the social animals that we are), naturally personify, using words like God, YHWH or Allah, or which we experience as ‘divine’ in the sense of their ‘otherness’. Such experiences seem a world away from our normal experience of reality but they are not supernatural, they are imaginative, and as such, they may still be true and meaningful to us at the subjective level.
Therefore, while I reject supernatural theism, I must nonetheless embrace the fact that, at least for the time being, we humans, in spite of our rational capabilities, are largely driven by irrational impulses. I must acknowledge, with respect, the temptation for human beings (including myself) to invent beings and worlds of the imagination in order to ease our pain or enhance our joy. Even those of us who promote a rational approach to knowledge do this, for example, when we immerse ourselves in fiction and fantasy, when we talk to someone we love who has died, when we cry out to a God we don’t normally believe in because we are in crisis, or when we express gratitude to the universe for something that has worked out wonderfully in our favour. In those brief moments, alternative realities, Gods, ghosts, a conscious universe – all these things are real to us, and sometimes more meaningful to us than anything else, even though they are not real in the literal sense.
What is your inspiration for this project? Did you grow up in a secular home?
Yes, I did. Our home was always lively with discussions of literature, philosophy, religion and politics – no holds barred! We were always encouraged to develop our own views. I ended up having quite a journey. As a child I was an agnostic but I became an atheist in my later childhood when I realised the evidence for a God just wasn’t there, and that being an agnostic about such a thing was like being agnostic about the fairies we used to pretend were living at the bottom of the garden. In my late teens, however, I developed what everyone now calls generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) after a period of prolonged stress. It could have been effectively treated (or even prevented) with CBT, but back in the late 90s and early naughties, no-one seemed able to help. The whole experience was incredibly frightening, which of course added to my symptoms and created a vicious circle! I really struggled to cope with it but when I reached my lowest point, I was brought back from the brink by a powerful experience of what I thought was a supernatural presence, one filled with love, which gave me hope.
Soon afterwards, I came across the New Testament in my student halls, which led me to believe Jesus was this divine presence I had encountered. I became a devout Christian. I attended evangelical churches but only because that was where all the young spiritual people went. I was always deeply uncomfortable with creationism, young earth theory, female submission, and other elements that were common to those churches. For that reason, I hung out almost exclusively with deeper thinking Christians on the periphery of the movement, and in a nondenominational group at the Catholic Students Union. After studying religious history, biblical criticism, philosophy, theology, comparative religion and so forth (and just from acquiring more life experience), I had to acknowledge that traditional Christianity, like all traditional religion, just didn’t add up. It was just another religious power structure with some attractive aspects like community and comforting beliefs (e.g. in heaven and in a loving God) to draw people in. I also by then had enough distance from the painful experiences of my youth to see that what I had thought was a supernatural experience was purely a psychological one, albeit a very powerful and important one for me.
The appeal of the evangelical movement came from the fact that it contrasted with a wider culture of superficial relationships and anti-intellectualism. It provided an alternative path of moral seriousness, intellectual debate, and access to friendships that didn’t revolve around alcohol. Sadly, secular university activities did not provide these things. By my mid-twenties, I had become a Progressive Christian. However, the progressive movement, though vibrant, was mostly a haven for those recovering from the deceptions and abuses of conservative religion. It didn’t quite have the confidence to truly do its own thing or work with those without a similar background. When compared with liberal thinkers and pioneers in wider society, progressive Christians and liberal Christians still seemed in some ways behind the curve, reflected in the very small numbers of young and middle aged people involved. This led me settle on my own multi-layered identity as a secularist and humanist with a Christian heritage which I still valued for some of its insights and practices. Eventually, I got around to addressing the deficiencies that drive vulnerable young people away from secular cultures towards religious ones with this Secular Liturgies project!
Why do you think secular liturgies are so important?
Just like religious communities, secular communities need to explore, express and reinforce their common values and goals. Formal words and choreographed gatherings are some of the most effective ways in which we humans do this. We have to realise that more than half of the British population no longer identify with a religion (figures are also similar elsewhere), and many of those who do, are liberal or progressive in their views, and are committed to the separation of church and state and many of the other principles captured by the liturgies and events of this project.
Most of the liturgies and liturgical events we have inherited are centuries out of date and no longer relevant or morally acceptable. We are children of the enlightenment and of the information age, and are therefore privileged to have access to far more knowledge than our predecessors. We must learn how to use this information wisely and creatively to help ourselves, and our children, to live good, healthy lives, and to build better, more ethical, and more sustainable societies for the future. Secular liturgies and liturgical events will also help to bring people in modern, atomised societies together to build community, in ways that will help address all sorts of social, psychological and other issues, but equally, in ways that will guard against the tribalism and prejudices that have plagued our species in the past.
How would you summarise your ultimate objectives with the Secular Liturgies Network and Forum?
I hope to bring together people from different backgrounds and organisations who have the potential to work together, to build a resource of secular liturgies, and to pioneer new or updated secular liturgical events. I hope to empower people to use words, cultural heritage and other art forms, in ways that will enrich our secular cultures and societies and make them more resilient in difficult times. I hope that our liturgies and liturgical events will address the nine themes of the SLN, and help us to meet today’s global challenges.