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From the April, 2002
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Good Grief? by Richard J. Mammana, Jr.

Good Grief?

Searching for Raymond: Anglicanism, Spiritualism, and Bereavement Between the Two World Wars
by Rene Kollar
New York and Oxford: Lexington Books, 2000
(208 pages; $60.00, cloth)

reviewed by Richard J. Mammana, Jr.

The First World War, with its unprecedented losses, brought bereavement as never before to vast numbers of British families. Immediately after the 750,000 English wartime casualties came the further deaths of more than 150,000 Britons in an influenza epidemic. All this hit a church without explicit liturgical prayers for the dead very hard. Survivors wishing to have some sort of contact or assurance regarding their departed loved ones often turned to the welcoming arms of spiritualism. Through séances, channeling, automatic writing, and other means, many found more for their comfort than they saw in traditional Christian teaching about the afterlife. Rene Kollar (a Roman Catholic priest teaching at Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania) chronicles the official Anglican reaction to this tendency in Searching for Raymond. At eight decades’ remove from the events in question, one can’t but see a pastoral blunder of the most extraordinary proportions. From the outset, ecclesiastics formed committees to handle the issue. As usual, this was to the detriment of Christian souls.

Despite the heroic actions of dedicated priests in the trenches, a spiritual vacuum haunted many of the men who returned from the Great War. This vacuum likewise haunted the homes whose hearths they left empty when they died “over there.” Into this void stepped a series of religious fads, loosely based, as all heresies are, on some aspects of the Christian faith bent out of shape. Prominent laymen—among them Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—promoted the idea that spiritualism and Christianity were not by any means at odds, but rather were complementary and even essential to one another. Hungry audiences devoured the deception, and clergymen weak in their own understanding of Christian doctrine willingly adopted the relation as well.

The first Lambeth Conference after the Great War addressed itself in earnest to the challenges raised by “Some Movements Outside the Church,” including spiritualism, Christian Science, and Theosophy. This conference, the same one that condemned artificial methods of birth control, said that these movements “are clearly shewn to involve serious error” when “tried by the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Cross.” It “urge[d] strongly that a larger place should be given in the teaching of the Church to the explanation of the true grounds of Christian belief in eternal life, and in immortality, and of the true content of belief in the Communion of Saints as involving real fellowship with the departed through the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

In the decade following, a revision to the English Prayer Book did indeed incorporate prayers for the dead in a liturgy never ratified by Parliament. The “Deposited Book,” as this liturgy was known, had its doctrine confirmed in 1938 when a report on “Doctrine in the Church of the England” found “no theological objection in principle to Prayer for the Departed.” The 1930 Lambeth Conference did not address spiritualism directly, but a groundswell of support for “psychical studies,” and an enthusiasm for the paranormal continued unabated. Troubled laity who had dabbled in attempting to contact their dead relatives wrote anguished letters to bishops and priests when pangs of Christian conscience told them that they had done something wrong. Most clergy did their best to respond in a truly pastoral way, but the impulse to form a committee to decide on the matter once again, and definitively, won in the end.

In 1937 Archbishop Cosmo Gordon Lang of Canterbury established a committee “to discuss the relationship, if any, between spiritualism and the traditional teachings of the Anglican Church” though the question had been answered rather unequivocally in 1920. (The Presbyterian Church of Scotland made its own statement on spiritualism in 1922, which appears to have had better staying power.) For a time, the committee’s membership included Evelyn Underhill, who later withdrew, stating that she was “very strongly opposed to spiritualism . . . especially to any tendency on the part of the Church to recognize or encourage it.”

The committee delivered its report in 1939, just as hostilities on the Continent began to flare up; its findings—in the form of majority and minority reports—were embargoed, forgotten, and not made public until 1979. The intervening years saw a decrease in the outward membership in spiritualist societies, which had so alarmed the Anglican establishment, but there was probably an increase in the popular adherence to such beliefs.

The “Conclusions of the Majority” reveal a shocking discovery of inherent value in spiritualist practices. One paragraph merits quotation without comment:

It is often held that the practice of Spiritualism is dangerous to the mental balance, as well as to the spiritual condition, of those who take part in it, and it is clearly true that there are cases where it has become obsessional in character. But it is very difficult to judge in these cases whether the uncritical and unwise type of temperament which does undoubtedly show itself in certain spiritualists is a result or a cause of their addiction to these practices. Psychologically it is probable that persons in a condition of mental disturbance, or lack of balance, would very naturally use the obvious opportunities afforded by Spiritualism as a means of expressing the repressed emotions which have caused their disorder. This indeed is true of Christianity itself, which frequently becomes an outlet, not only for cranks, but for persons who are definitely of unstable mentality.

They closed with the recommendation of a sort of ecumenism between the Church of England and the spiritualist movement: “It is in our opinion important that representatives of the Church should keep in touch with groups of intelligent persons who believe in Spiritualism.”

The archbishops of both Canterbury and York could not assent to the publication of the findings. And the minority of the commission appended its own Conclusions to the common Report. “[U]nable to assent to the conclusions” of the pro-spiritualist majority, these men and women said with common sense that “the alleged communications [with the dead] may not only be valueless but may also be misleading and therefore dangerous.” This group pointed to the Apostles’ Creed and its definition of the Communion of Saints, to the tradition of the Church on the matter, and to Baron von Hügel’s assertion that “there is very little that is spiritual in Spiritualism.” The Minority Conclusion accused the Church of England of having neglected or under-emphasized prayers for the dead, the doctrine of the Communion of Saints, Christian belief in eternal life, the “value of the Eucharist as the meeting place for souls present and departed,” Christian mysticism, and “the truth that . . . faith in God can be the only true consolation for mourners.” To remedy these defects, the Minority strongly opposed “any relations with Spiritualism,” and urged the commendation of prayers for the dead, “well-informed literature about the possible dangers of Spiritualism,” and better teaching about the Communion of Saints and the Christian hope “about Eternal life.”

Surprising oversights in the book include the absence of a mention of the Guild of All Souls, an Anglo-Catholic devotional society dedicated to educating clergy and laity about the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Communion of Saints, and the mis-identification of 1865 as the year of the first Lambeth Conference (they began in 1867). The study might also have benefited from a more thorough survey of prayers for the dead in the Anglican tradition, as the practice appears never to have completely died out after the Reformation. (Another drawback is the $60 price tag on the book, which will not only prove prohibitive for many potential readers, but also is outrageous for a volume of just over 200 pages.)

But all told, Searching for Raymond provides a detailed picture of an exceedingly strange chapter in Anglican history. Even so, some readers may be tempted to mutter, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Kollar gives a strong warning against syncretism between Christianity and popular religious fads, and a truly terrible picture of clerical folly that gives credence to St. John Chrysostom’s warning that the streets of hell are paved with the skulls of priests.  

Richard J. Mammana, Jr., is a senior at Columbia University, where he is editor-in-chief of the undergraduate monthly, The Blue and White. His work has appeared in The Living Church, Sobornost, The Bride of Christ, and Anglican Theological Review. He is the founder and coordinator of Project Canterbury, the largest on-line Anglican text archive.

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