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President’s Address August 8th 2016
Minister David Bruton: President
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. It gives me great pleasure to rise before you today and to share with you my Address for 2016. We meet together in Bolton and I thank the Manchester District Council for their invitation to be here today.
Doing a little bit of research, it turns out that Bolton has actually been a production centre for the textiles industry since the Flemish weavers settled in the area in about the 14th century. They introduced wool- and cotton-weaving traditions, and the urbanisation and development of the town largely coincided with the introduction of textile manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution. Of course, as we already know, that is the time when Spiritualism was born. Bolton was literally a 19th-century boom town and, judging from the traffic to get here today, the boom is continuing.
Close to the West Pennine Moors, Bolton is 10 miles north-west of Manchester and is surrounded by several small towns and villages which, together, make the Metropolitan Borough of Bolton, of which, of course, Bolton is the administrative centre. Historically, it is part of Lancashire and Bolton originated as a small settlement in the moorland known as Bolton Le Moors. In the English Civil War the town was a Parliamentarian outpost but in a staunchly Royalist region, as a result of which it was stormed by 3,000 Royalist troops led by Prince Rupert of the Rhine in 1644. This became known as the Bolton Massacre; I hope that we don’t have a similar event today.
People that know me know that football is not one of my great interests but I do have to mention that Bolton Wanderers play home games in the Macron Stadium, which, as you can see, is quite an amazing facility. Bolton is also known for its museums and art galleries, and one of the earliest public libraries was established here in 1850 as a result of the Public Libraries Act. Notable people that have lived in the area include Lord Leverhulme and somebody called Peter Kay.
As I mentioned in welcoming the Lady Mayor, Manchester has strong links with Spiritualism and the SNU established a head office here in Tib Lane, Manchester, for many years before it moved to Stansted in the 1960s. Emma Hardinge Britten, as we know, is buried in a local cemetery here in the Manchester area. Manchester was also the birthplace of Two Worlds, which began its life as a penny newspaper devoted to Spiritualism and was seen at the time to be aimed at a different class of readers to ‘Light’. Its first editor was a Mr Wallis, before he was replaced in the job by a lady called Emma Hardinge Britten.
I must tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that we’re also having a little bit of an historic day today, because, while we’re here meeting in Conference, back at Stansted Hall we are accepting a delivery that reflects a kind donation from the Two Worlds Publishing Company. A few weeks ago I had an email from Tony Ortzen, the editor of Two Worlds, and they offered the SNU on permanent loan their whole archive and this will now be housed at Stansted Hall. It is an amazing collection not only of back issues of the magazine and newspaper but also early minute books and if I tell you Paul Gaunt, our Museum Curator, was turning cartwheels I'm sure you'll understand why.
Manchester District Council has some 24 churches which constitute the district council but, as we look back over the year that closes this weekend, I must reflect on the passing of five Ministers and one Officiant over the last twelve months since we last met together. Minister Dennis Jones from Reading, Minister Ray Barden from Northampton, Minister Rose Percy from the East Midlands District Council, and also Minister Marie Pead from the Scottish & Irish District Council and, of course, Minister Eric Hatton, the Honorary President of the Spiritualists' National Union, who passed in November last year.
It has been a long-established practice within the Union to have people appointed in spirit as Presidents-in-Spirit of the Spiritualists' National Union. The gentleman on the screen I know is known to many of you and I speak, of course, of Maurice Barbanell. Maurice Barbanell was born in May in 1902 and, as you know, he was a journalist and also a world-renowned trance medium, who will be remembered for the work of the guide, Silver Birch, and his massive contribution to the philosophy of Spiritualism. The NEC have decided that, given the integral role that Maurice Barbanell had within the movement as a whole, it is now going to formally appoint Maurice Barbanell as Honorary President-in-Spirit.
I'm sure it’s not by chance, that in doing the research for today Maurice passed on 17th July 1981. So 35 years ago tomorrow is the annual anniversary of his passing to spirit and I know that he was working on Psychic News quite literally to the end. He took to his bed on the Friday because he wasn’t well enough but even in his bed he continued working and subbing on the paper that he loved.
Many people do not also realise that Maurice Barbanell was a Minister of the Spiritualists' National Union and he was also an adviser to the former President, Minister Gordon Higginson. All those that have been involved with the movement for a long time know that the Union in the 1970s and 80s went through a very difficult time financially, and I know that Maurice, using his great business acumen, helped to advise the Union through his work and through Gordon and the people at the time, creating a firm foundation that we enjoy today.
So it’s with great honour that we declare Maurice Barbanell becomes Honorary President-in-Spirit of the Spiritualists' National Union, but I would also like to make another announcement to you this morning. Many of you are aware of, and many of you have already visited, the Arthur Findlay Centre in Stafford. We have, in the ranks of both the NEC and the Collegiate Committee that operates the Centre, been having a discussion and a debate about the Centre and about the future of the Centre going forward.
When we bought the Centre in 2011 it was agreed at the time to call it the Arthur Findlay Centre to make it a sister venue to the Arthur Findlay College. We have now, having had three or four years' experience in running the Centre, decided that it is time to actually make a stronger differentiation between the two sites because what is offered at the Centre is radically different to what is offered at the College. So it gives me great pleasure to actually announce today that, going forward, we will be relaunching the Arthur Findlay Centre and it will become known as the Barbanell Conference Centre.
I now move forward to the Gordon Higginson Memorial Scholarship. This was instigated some years ago now, as many of you will remember, because we wanted to create a living legacy in memory of one of our greatest modern-day pioneers and quite an amazing medium, Gordon, the longest-serving President of the Spiritualists' National Union. Earlier this year we began the process of selecting the latest group of students that would benefit from this scholarship. The scholarship is a three-year plan which involves mentorship and tuition both at the Arthur Findlay College and also at the Barbanell Conference Centre.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have here today the three people who have been through the assessment process out of some 40 people that originally applied and it gives me great pleasure to welcome them, to introduce them but also to present them with their certificate as they start this new journey in their lives. We will, a little bit later this year, be drawing the first three-year period to a close and we are in the process of organising a special service at Longton Spiritualist Church, which, of course, was Gordon’s home church, with the first-year students to honour the completion of the scholarship for the first set of students.
The Year Two students are working well. I met with them a few months ago and they are progressing very nicely; we will be working with them later in the year and, of course, today we will be introducing our new crop of students.
The first recipient of the Gordon Higginson Memorial Scholarship is a young lady called Nicola Tonsager. Nicola is a local lady; she belongs to Sleaford Church. She took her first solo service on the platform on Easter Sunday in 2012 and the leader of the development circle that she was working in at the time wanted to encourage her to take her first service. I'm sure the many mediums here will remember the first time they stepped forward and took their first service and what a daunting experience that was. One of her favourite pioneers, funnily enough, is Gordon Higginson and perhaps that’s fitting, because she is now to be awarded the scholarship in Gordon’s name. Gordon without doubt had a great love and a commitment to the Spiritualists' National Union and to Spiritualism and gave what was, in effect, a lifelong service. I know that Nicola seeks to follow in Gordon’s footsteps and in my mind you couldn’t have a better mentor to follow.
So, on behalf of the Spiritualists' National Union can I present to Nicola the Gordon Higginson Memorial Scholarship and wish her well, because this is only the beginning, ladies and gentlemen. She's got lots of study, she's got lots of courses to attend, and I know at the end of it we will have yet again another great pioneer of Spiritualism.
I would now like to invite Adam Berry to join us. Adam attended his first Spiritualist church in the year 2000, when he was just 19 years of age, and it intrigued him, and to me that’s wonderful because it shows that Adam wanted to explore and wanted to understand so much more. The church that he has attended over the years and the church that he says is true to his heart is Rawtenstall Spiritualist Church. He says – and I know this from my knowledge of the church – that the church has been through some tough times over recent years but he has tried to support the church when it has been through those tough times and support the committee who are working to keep the doors of the church open. He did his first solo service at Rawtenstall Church on Thursday, 23rd May in 2013 at 7.30.
I asked Adam also for his choice of pioneer and he's chosen two (one's not enough and I can understand that): Gordon, of course, for his wonderful work in all aspects of mediumship and Spiritualism, but also Arthur Findlay for being a great speaker and author for Spiritualism and, of course, for the donation of his home to create the Arthur Findlay College.
So, on behalf of the Spiritualists' National Union I would like to present Adam with the Gordon Higginson Memorial Scholarship and I'm sure you'll all join me in wishing him well as he begins the next chapter of his journey of unfoldment.
Last but certainly by no means least, Robert; Robert has always had an interest in mediumship, developing from his late teens. He came into Spiritualism really strongly when he was 31. He has been a member of Kilmarnock Church and also spent a lot of time at the Glasgow Association. It’s interesting, ladies and gentlemen, that this is the third group of students that we have had for the Gordon Higginson Memorial Scholarship and every year we've had a Scottish representative. So I think that says a lot about the standard of Scottish mediumship, which is wonderful.
One of Robert’s favourite pioneers is Andrew Jackson Davis but he's also inspired by Cora L.V. Scott, Albert Best and, of course, Gordon Higginson. I know, having met Robert on one or two occasions in the past, that he works very hard in his particular area to develop and start working within the churches and taking the message of Spiritualism forward. So it gives me great pleasure to present the final award for this particular year to Robert Cairnie, the award of the Gordon Higginson Memorial Scholarship for 2016.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Scholarship is an important part. The debate within the movement about the standard and quality of our mediumship is something that we all need to be part of, and that is why the establishment of the Gordon Higginson Memorial Scholarship was so important, but also a fitting legacy for Gordon and his work within the movement. I wish all three of the students well. I think this is their first experience of the AGM, so I think they’ve done wonderfully well to come along today, and I know that as we work together over the next three years there are many wonderful opportunities lying in front of you.
When I opened my folder to begin my preparation for this year’s Annual General Meeting I came across a personal letter that was written for last year’s meeting from Minister Eric Hatton and I'd like to share it with you once again if you will bear with me:
‘As Honorary President of the Union I wish to offer my very good wishes for this Annual General Meeting and Conference. In doing so I am reminded of the very first Conference I attended, held in Gateshead in 1950, some 65 years ago. I recall the considerable enthusiasm shown by all who were present, for in spite of a difference of opinion on some matters we were riding on the crest of a wave in our proclaiming of the Spiritualist message despite the hostility shown then by orthodoxy. To proudly show this we held a public meeting in the largest hall with Brigadier Roy Firebrace as the speaker and a young Gordon Higginson as the demonstrator. Our churches in those days were usually packed for services of all kinds. Changes have taken place since then but those of us who see and practise the fundamental message and purpose of the Spirit should still not waver in what is the essential basis of our truth.
Do not be deterred if you differ in your views from one another; no matter what our individual knowledge and experience may be we have only a glimpse of the eternal picture. Just as truth is the only fundamental upon which we can build with safety, so the edifice reared upon lies must perish.
In thanking you who have sent me cards and messages while I've been ill I wish you all hours of thoughtful debate and harmony.’
I'm sure as we meet here now, we send our thoughts out to Eric and I'm confident that he's here with us, as are Gordon and many others, our great pioneers, who have, through their work and dedication, built the movement that we have today.
So, in looking back, we have without doubt had a very, very busy year. We are facing challenges on many fronts. It’s true to say that the religion of Spiritualism is perhaps more accepted today than it has ever been in the past, and we certainly do not face the challenges that our pioneers faced in bringing forth the message of Spiritualism. But I think the very nature of life is learning and that learning means that we will have to endure experiences that at times will test us. But from that testing we will strengthen our resolve and we will truly become stronger in our belief in Spiritualism and the message of spirit.
In all that we do within our churches – and I know that there are people here, if not all of you, that spend hours and hours and hours of your time dedicated to keeping the doors of your church open – I think we should never lose sight that at times maybe we disagree with one another but what has to be important is the presence and the message of spirit and, beyond all things, the people, because if we cannot touch the consciousness of people are we truly expressing the knowledge of the spirit in our world? We have something of which we should be rightly very proud. We have a wonderful, wonderful message, a message that has the power to transform lives, as I'm sure many of you would attest today to having your life transformed through Spiritualism.
But, despite the administration, the burden at times of the administration, despite the constitution, despite at times the differences of opinions and the complaints that seem to go around our organisation, we need to strongly focus upon the fact that we are a religion. We are a religion. Now what is a religion? A religion is created in this world; it is a structure that allows people that come within to be able to explore the truth of the spirit. After nearly 40 years, ladies and gentlemen, that prospect still excites me, as I'm sure it excites you also. As we step forward to serve, let us never lose sight of the fact, the important fact, that we are a religion.
One of my great joys in travelling around the country on your behalf is talking to people and listening to their thoughts, their ideas, their concerns, their worries. Finding a solution is not always possible but that doesn’t stop us trying. One of the delegates here this weekend spent ten minutes with me last night explaining the plight that his particular church is facing at this time. He said to me, ‘I don’t want to be the President that stands while my church is closed; we have a proud history’, and I'm sure that we all feel the same. We work together for the good of our churches, because, never forget, without the churches where is Spiritualism?
We often hear talk of these various evenings that take place in public houses and public halls but let’s be plain – that’s not Spiritualism. It is not Spiritualism and it never will be and you know, I was interested in the hotel, as they're getting used to us this weekend and the staff are eyeing us because they're not quite sure yet what we’re like; it was amazing. Apparently on Wednesday evening this week they’ve got a Spiritualism evening, so they're having a real dose of Spiritualism this week – but I digress.
The last few weeks have demonstrated to us that we live in a changing world. It seems almost as if we’re on the precipice of remarkable change that could affect the whole livelihood of this country and, of course, the European Union, but we should not see change as a threat. We should, instead, take that change and find within it opportunity to grow and to progress.
We talk about our formats of service and a lot of work has been done recently with a view to bringing new formats forward. We talk about the music that is an integral part of our services and we have some wonderful plans to bring some new music forward that is appropriate. We talk about engaging with the younger generation and welcoming them into our churches; we should never shy away from that. We need a dialogue with the next generation because, if we fail to have that dialogue, truly Spiritualism will wither and die.
We mark the passing this year of so many people that have been great Spiritualists. I didn’t mention Glyn Edwards, who passed last year, a great teacher within the movement. These people have been part of shaping what we have today but it is important, if their work, the value of their work, is going to be recognised, that we move forward. We embrace the change and we create something that literally touches the lives of anyone who walks through the door of a Spiritualist church. It’s a great challenge; it’s a great challenge we have to rise to in shaping our future.
A few weeks ago I travelled not far from here with Minister Alan Rawnsley to go and talk to a church committee about some help that we were seeking to provide. Well, within five minutes we upset the Treasurer because we didn’t go in with a signed cheque and I don’t think he’ll ever forgive us for that. But in the two hours that we spent talking with the church we tried to provide something that was so much more valuable than simply writing a cheque – to share ideas and the support that the Union can and does afford its churches.
If our religion is going to be truly strong and progressive we need to work together on so many fronts. We cannot be insular; we have to look out into the world and I salute the efforts of Minister David Hopkins, who is not here today, as our Interfaith Ambassador. I also salute the efforts of our Financial Director in her work with the RE Council. I attended a meeting in Julia’s stead a few months ago and I found myself in London sitting in a hall full of teachers and educationalists; I have to be honest, I felt a little bit out of my depth but we were welcome, People were interested to hear what we had to say and that is important and vital for the future.
What do we do? Do we pull back? Do we refuse the opportunities that are provided for us or do we engage? I say we engage, we engage strongly, and we share that message of spirit with anyone who will take the time to listen.
Looking out into our world, I am conscious very much of the work of our Ministry. I think, with no disrespect to anyone sitting here this weekend, that from a Ministry point of view we are punching above our weight because of the small team of dedicated people from the Ministry who go out and work in some 40 prisons around the country, who go out and engage with different groups, conducting many different services. What it means to be a Minister and an Officiant is changing, and that change is being dictated not by the Spiritualists' National Union but, instead, by the world in which we live and in which we operate, in which we are seeking to help, and the demands that are being made upon us.
I'm sure sometimes Judith sits there in front of her computer daring to open emails when she knows she’s going to get yet another request for somebody to visit another prison. But this work is so important and it is so necessary and even though at times we struggle to fulfil these requirements I believe fulfil them we must, because, as such, that is important in developing the work of the Ministry within the community.
The organisation has changed perhaps in places beyond all recognition. I think that we have without doubt the strongest team at head office and the most well-equipped and the most well-resourced that we have ever had in the history of the Union. As such, they work incredibly hard to create the necessary support for you, the membership, and you, the churches.
Now, I will never stand publicly in front of you and tell you that everything is rosy in the garden, because it’s not, and I know and acknowledge at times we get things wrong. Sometimes the NEC get things wrong, sometimes the committee and the huge group of volunteers get things wrong, sometimes head office get things wrong. But, you know, if we are truly to progress we have to work together and in working together we create a much stronger foundation for the future of our religion. I am proud to call myself a Union Spiritualist. I am proud to be the President of the Spiritualists' National Union and I am proud as I watch people who come into the movement. We've met three young people today who started their journey within the last four or six years and they are bringing with them new ideas and a new approach, and that’s what we need to use and to work with as together we create a stronger Spiritualism.
So, some may say that the congregation is shrinking. Some may say that their church has problems that are or seem to be insurmountable, but if we truly, truly work together I know that we can overcome any obstacle and any problem. Was that not the very nature and the intent of our pioneers? Where would we be today if they had fallen at the first hurdle? We would be nowhere rather than meeting together for the 114th Annual General Meeting of the Spiritualists' National Union. So I say, in a world that seems to be changing at a phenomenal rate let’s embrace that change. Let’s open our minds to new ideas and new ways of doing things. We don’t have to consign our traditions and our history to the wastepaper bin but, instead, we have to embrace our traditions and embrace our history but, in doing so, be prepared to move forward.
So can we stand together? Can we truly create a religion of which we are proud but, more importantly, a religion that people want to be members of, who want to join, who want to join us, so our committees and our churches and our districts can become stronger and more vital, touched always with the message and the love and the expression of the spirit. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you.
Minister David R Bruton
Spiritualists' National Union