Our churches, centres, their committees and volunteers, are the beating heart of the SNU and Spiritualist movement. In this new series, we will be visiting and showcasing the wonderful work, excellent achievements and inspiring stories happening across the Union.

For this latest instalment, Head of Communications Kyle takes a visit to West Yorkshire to visit the team at Castleford Spiritualist Church. In addition to hearing all about the efforts behind its enviable gallery of awards, certificates and plaudits, we also engage in a fascinating conversation that covers the past, present and future of SNU Spiritualism...

It’s the middle of the afternoon on a baking day in West Yorkshire, when I find myself, as the Union’s Head of Communications, hiding behind a door and trying my best to neither move nor make a sound.

A mere handful of feet away, Vice President of the Spiritualists’ National Union, Minister Julia Almond, is delivering to camera important information about updates to the SNU’s safeguarding programme. It’s part of the reason for my visit and, given the extraordinary, eagle-eared sensitivity of the camera and microphones being used, I have flung myself out of sight, and am currently acting as a glorified stopper for a particularly creaky door just out of frame.

Moments later, a particularly plucky wasp decides to try its luck and hovers about me. A grand dilemma arises - which of these two will prove the greater evil when I come to edit Minister Almond’s footage; a noisy, buzzing nuisance, or a repeatedly creaking door?

Mercifully, the wasp seems to take pity on me and make the decision for me, heading off to back rooms and adventures beyond, and it is at this moment I truly stop to take in the absolute wealth of different certificates, plaudits and awards that adorn almost every nook and cranny of this fairly inconspicuous back corridor of the Lower Oxford Street church.

“We’ve been very lucky to win the church community service award again this year, for our charity work and things” explains Janet Newsome, Vice President of Castleford Spiritualist Church.

“So we get the certificates for things like that, and the question was ‘What do you do with them all?’

“You can’t keep putting them everywhere, so we thought ‘ah, we’ll have a wall going’

“Because if not, they get put in an envelope and get put away up in a loft or something, and then nobody knows about them.”

The other reason for my visit is, of course for a Spotlight session with this hard-working, popular church, and it is clear from the off - both from the impressive wall of certificates and plaudits, but also from speaking to its committee - that charitable outreach is an enormous part of the focus here.

The sheer breadth and variety of charitable and community work that the church does is truly impressive. Indeed; Janet has prepared a list of just some examples for the occasion.

Boundless generosity... - Pictured above, just two of Castleford Spiritualist Church's most recent charitable drives: top, an incredible collection of donated toys and gifts for The Salvation Army, and bottom, another run of donated Christmas Cards for the local Hope Centre Trinity Mission. (photos © Castleford Spiritualist Church).

“Anything that we can do, we do,” she begins.

“We regularly do fundraising and things for the Prince of Wales Hospice. That’s an ongoing thing.

“There’s also the Hope Centre at the Trinity Mission in Castleford, where we collect food and clothing, etcetera, and we take those round to them weekly.

“So we’re very involved with that, and then I’ve just started doing some Christmas cards for their clients at Christmas.”

It’s here where Janet takes a moment to point out the care and diligence the team take when offering up support and ideas, such as their Christmas cards initiative. There’s a keen, sensitive eye on wanting to offer support and help, without looking like they are proselytising or pushing any overt religious message.

“I had a word with Hope Centre about it first. I asked where they thought it would be acceptable to give cards from our church, a Spiritualist church, and they thought it would be lovely.

“So I did 250, and inside just put ‘A Hug from Castleford Spiritualist Church’.

“Nothing religious really, just letting them know we are here, and they said how their clients really enjoyed it, because they don’t generally get cards and things.”

A wonderful, selfless example of the Brotherhood of Man, and were that not already enough, the list of Castleford’s outreach continues.

“We also collect the ring pulls here from drinks cans, and that is for the Purple Community Fund, which is for poverty stricken families and communities.

“The Fund helps people transform their own lives with skills, training, education, health and nutrition programmes.”

Janet explains how this extraordinary, holistic programme, based in the Philippines, works.

“The ring pulls that we donate are cleaned, their edges and filed and they’re made safe. And then the ladies and men make handbags, jewellery, Christmas decorations, and get to the sell those to make a little bit of money.

“We also have our memory tree out four times a year, and every time it is out, we vote on a different charity. It’s kind of a mix and match between local charities and national charities, but we’ve done it for a variety - Samaritans, prostrate cancer, there’s all sorts.”

The generosity doesn’t end there, either, with Castleford, like many SNU churches and centres, actively supporting international conflicts and disasters through a mixture of raffles, demonstrations of mediumship and more.

“If there’s any disasters or things like that, which unfortunately do happen, we support those. We’ve twice supported the [Disasters Emergency Committee].

“We did it for the Turkey and Syria earthquake and we’ve done it for Ukraine, as well.”

'That family environment'... - Some of Castleford's dedicated, hard-working committee at the time of our 'Spotlight' visit. From left to right - Helen Finnister (committee member), Jenny Hanson (committee member), Peter Newsome (Treasurer), Elaine Sidwell (President), Julie Barker (Deputy Healing Leader) and Janet Newsome (Vice President). (photo Kyle Pedley, © SNU).

Blown away by the scope and extent of such charitable efforts, there’s no overstating just how active and engaged Castleford clearly are by what this series has repeatedly referred to as ‘Spiritualism in action’.

As with other successful, pro-active churches, something of the key to their success and achievements seems to lie in their bond and collective respect as a committee.

Jenny Hanson, a longstanding member of the church, believes it has been part of the success of Castleford for some time now.

“I’ve been on a lot of committees, and I find personally that the committees for this church have always been for the church. They’ve always got along, and everybody’s always done their bit.

“You know, we don’t have fallings out. We might have different opinions, but then everybody comes together and sorts it out.”

Jenny also speaks of some of the church’s figureheads of yesteryear as being a pivotal part of its standing.

“We were lucky to have [Minister] Judith Seaman as our President, and with Judy comes a lot of the top mediums. A lot of them have now gone home to Spirit, but because we could have the top mediums, this is what kept our church going, if you like.

“But I think over the years we have just done a lot of things. We’ve done a lot of different sorts of charity work, and it has always been that - a community church.

“I only live at the top of the street, so I’m part of the community, and I can honestly say that everyone enjoys being here. Everyone who comes in here you can talk to and have discussions with them, and everyone who comes here have always said what a beautiful, lovely, healing church this is.”

“Everyone who comes here have always said what a beautiful, lovely, healing church this is."

It’s a warm, inviting reflection of a church that, from my visit alone, seems to completely embody and exude these qualities.

But there is also a strong undercurrent of pragmatism that seems to run through this bubbly, upbeat team.

Bringing attention to what has been a turbulent and unprecedented few years for all, Treasurer Peter Newsome explains how Castleford took their time to gradually reopen after the pandemic.

“We were ultra cautious starting back up after COVID,” Peter begins.

“A lot of churches had opened before we even opened those doors, and when we eventually did, we opened them with great caution.

“We had just one service a week, which was the Divine Service.

“We were very careful, and I think it’s helped us.”

Asking about whether or not attendance has returned to pre-pandemic levels, the answer is something of a mixed bag, but encouraging in how Castleford have seen a notable increase in attendance from young visitors.

(photo Kyle Pedley, © SNU).

“The church itself is recovering well after the pandemic,” explains Julie Barker, Castleford’s Deputy Healing Leader.

“We’re not up to the numbers that we used to have, but we’re doing quite well, and we have had a lot of new and younger people coming in.”

Given the ongoing conversations and debates within the movement about how it can look to appeal to the younger generations, this instantly piques my curiosity.

I had to ask - did the team at Castleford believe there were any particular reasons for this increase in younger visitors?

“I think a lot of it is word of mouth,” Peter adds.

“That, and also Facebook. We do find especially the last couple of months, we’ve really pushed the services on Facebook by sharing, sharing and sharing and it is getting the numbers up a little bit.”

Jenny believes that in some ways the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns could actually be part of the reason for why young people and others who would not conventionally think of visiting a Spiritualist Church have become interested in the movement.

“In the lockdowns a lot of churches, not just ours, but all over the country, started doing Zoom services. And I think people then got interested who otherwise wouldn’t have gone into or been in a church.

“They got interested in what it was all about about, and then when everything reopened, some people thought they wouldn’t mind going to a service in person, and not just on Zoom.”

Julie believes there’s another reason for the increased interest, that again ties into those fateful couple of years where so many of us were shut away indoors or left alone with our thoughts.

“I also think that since COVID, it’s coming more to the fore for people to value their mental health more,” she adds.

“We’re hearing that more and more, that people are coming for their mental health.

“And I think that’s brilliant, because years ago, nobody would have said that, would they? So it’s really good that we’re getting people for those reasons, as well.

“And then, once they come here, they then find out about whatever else is on offer.”

“I think the other important thing about Facebook and being online is sharing between churches locally. Sharing what is going on around you... not just here, not just at this church."

Helen Finnister, developing medium and healer, and relatively recent appointee to the Castleford committee, joins in with agreement on the power of digital outreach and social media, but also adds in the importance of churches and centres sharing and actively supporting one another, too.

“I think the other important thing about Facebook and being online,” Helen begins, “is sharing between churches locally.

“Sharing what is going on around you is important, so people can actually get that information about what’s going on.

“Not just here, not just at this church - it’s about a bigger picture.

“About not being afraid of sharing with other churches - sharing their information and events, and allowing that to go around.

“Because I think some churches are actually a bit reticent to let others know what they’re doing. But if you share it, you get that added audience.”

Gradually improving attendance and an increase in younger visitors is certainly a great achievement for Castleford, and certainly one to be praised and acknowledged.

But the team are not shy of addressing some of the unique challenges this can represent, either, which brings in some of the wider concerns and misconceptions around Spiritualism within our modern, digital world.

“There’s definitely a lack of understanding,” Helen continues.

“I think a lot of younger people come through that door expecting to be told ‘You’re getting a new house’ or ‘I can see a new car for you’. Because that’s the kind of evidence that’s being put out on Youtube and Facebook and wherever.

“And when it comes to healing, a lot of them online are paying for angelic healing or something like that.

“So it’s about being able to actually demonstrate what the religion is, what Spiritualism it, what mediumship is."

(photo Kyle Pedley, © SNU).

Jenny also adds in her own concerns about what she identifies as an increasing apathy towards volunteering; a growing problem within not just Spiritualism, but many religions.

“What I’ve found over the years, and particularly going into this generation, is that people are not willing to volunteer, or willing to be on committees.

“And I’m not dissing them or anything like that, but as the older generation are now passing on, it’s a problem.

"It’s a particular problem for smaller churches that you find have only two or three on the committee, and they’re having to close now because they can’t get people to come on.”

It all leads to what has routinely been one of the most fascinating and valuable parts of practically every Spotlight visit we have undertaken so far - asking the question of what other churches can learn from Castleford. What, in this productive, positive-minded committee’s opinion, are some of the most salient things other churches can take from their example?

“To me, it’s all about making people welcome” begins Elaine Sidwell, Castleford's President.

“We’re all volunteers, we all try our best, but everybody that comes in, we do make them feel welcome, and do all pull together.

“We’re always happy for people who come into the church to come up to us and speak to us.

"And I keep saying to them, ‘If there’s something we’re not doing that you want us to do, let us know’. And because of that we organise classes and workshops, things like that.”

It's a common thread that has ran throughout many of the Spotlight visits so far - the importance of actively appreciating and engaging with the congregation. It also leads neatly into what Peter considers one of the most important elements of all for any church - the certainty of a robust and varied programme.

What he calls the continuity.

“A positive reception when you walk through the door is definitely, definitely the most important thing. But the other thing, and we’ve talked about it again recently, is continuity.

“If your world is one service a week, then it’s probably not going to succeed. And that’s why we’ve got four services, we’ve got the classes, etc.

“It’s all just continuity.

“It means you get different people coming into the Church for different reasons, and they’re willing to try something different.”

“I think Castleford has the structure that is going to take Spiritualism forward."

“It’s about having a whole package,” Julie agrees.

“That’s the way that people can get interested. Like Peter says, they can come for one thing, and then they think ‘Oh, I didn’t know they did that there.”

Helen agrees, but is quick to stress the importance of not just doing things regularly and routinely, but indeed properly, something she believes is key to both Castleford’s success and value.

“I think, from my point of view, Castleford has the structure that is going to take Spiritualism forward.”

It’s a bold statement, but one Helen is particularly impressive and articulate in elaborating upon.

“It’s that family environment - and I can say this from personal experience - that you don’t get at a lot of churches. A lot of them can be very insular. They can run around, pottering about doing things but forgetting about the people who are there.

“Everybody here makes a major, major effort to make sure that they’re making themselves available to the people who walk through the doors - whatever day of the week, whatever time of the week.

“Then there’s the training and development that goes on, and there are not that many churches or organisations, particularly within this area, that will actually provide the level and depth of training that Castleford does.

Remembering & recognising... - The past, present and future of Castleford can be felt and found throughout the church - be it photos, memorial plaques and other commemorations of its forebears and pioneers, or the plethora of awards, certificates and plaudits of those achieving for the movement in the here and now... (photos Kyle Pedley, © SNU).

“It’s a programme that takes people from an absolute beginner who knows nothing, right the way through.

"And the nature of the trainers that you get - they are people who know their stuff, and they are actually vetted, so you know what you get is quality.

“People travel a long way to come to this church, just to come to the services and to the different development courses that are run.

“And that’s what it should be about - the confidence and knowledge that people in this church do have. The people here are confident about who and what they are, what skills they themselves have, and also what skills people need to have when they stand on the platform.

“My experience is that a lot of other churches are either in too much of a rush to push people out, or they’re too slow to develop and help people.”

It’s an inspiring and powerful testimony. Helen briefly apologises for ‘talking too much’, but it’s a spot of modesty quickly naysayed by her fellow committee members, who make a point of proudly encouraging her on.

Thankfully, for all in attendance (myself included), she continues, and touches upon a particularly timely and prescient issue affecting the Union, the wider movement and indeed society as a whole.

“It’s also the ability of the people within this church to welcome change, and to welcome the diversity that comes with changing to reflect modern times.

“That’s another part of why we’re getting a lot of young people in - you have to be capable of saying ‘you have a valid point, you have a new perspective, you have a difference of opinion, let’s see how we can do something with that.’

“And the entire movement is going through that. We’re going from that base of the old and moving into the new, so there is a transitional period.

“But a lot of churches and Spiritualists aren’t prepared to allow or welcome that transition, because they feel safe.

“They’re confident in where they are now, where they are at the moment.

"But without that ability to negotiate and engage and discuss, it all falls away, and unsurprisingly the young people walk away with it.”

It’s difficult to not be enormously impressed by such forward-thinking vision and fearless honesty.

But but there is clearly reverie and respect in abundance here, too.

“Our pioneers worked so hard to bring Spiritualism forward, and bring Spirit to the people, and I think we always have to remember that."

As almost a perfect counterpoint and balance to Helen’s insightful commentary, Jenny agrees that whilst the committee and churches always have to be willing to move with the times, there is also a need to remember and honour the example and teachings of those who have come before.

“Our pioneers worked so hard to bring Spiritualism forward, and bring Spirit to the people,” she begins.

“And I think we have to always remember that. If we lose that perspective from the old pioneers, then I think we will lose it altogether.

“So yes, let’s embrace new ideas - that’s brilliant. And let’s do new things - we’ll always go with that, and see where it all goes.

“But in my heart, I do believe we also need to not let go of what the pioneers started.

“What they set out to do in the first place, and why.”

With powerful and passionate talk about both the past and future of Spiritualism, President Elaine steps in with the importance of recognising the here and now, too.

“I think we don’t really talk enough about new pioneers, either.

“She’s my best friend, so you might knock me down for this, but people like Marie Lisseman, she's a new pioneer. Jackie Wright, a new pioneer.

“They’re wanting to change and move forward, but remember what’s come before, too.

"If you listen to their stories, they’ve been shot down many times, but they’re here.

“And I think for so many of these new pioneers, it’s about the same thing - they want to bring that lovely spirituality to people in ways that they can understand it.

“And that’s what it’s all about, really.”

Spiritualism in action - pictured above, Janet & Peter Newsome with 'The Eddie Moss Memorial Awarded', which they were presented with shortly before our Spotlight visit, in recognition of their tireless dedication to SNU Spiritualism over the years. (photo Kyle Pedley, © SNU).

It’s a point that widens out into the SNU as a whole, with a recognition of the swell of changes that are underway at almost every level of the Union.

“I don’t actually think the current Union at the minute have really had enough time yet,” Elaine adds, frankly.

“Things are changing, and we know that there’s going to be more change, with lots of things in the pipeline, so we’ve got to give the Union longer, to find out if these changes are going to be made and going to work.

“Because the changes do need making, but we’ve got to give them time.”

My visit and roundtable at Castleford has been amongst the most fascinating and enlightening to date in this Spotlight series. As always, there has been far too much shared and discussed to fit into an article even twice or three times its length.

But listening to this frank, honest, passionate committee is both humbling and eye-opening at once. There is so much great work and outreach being done here, and they certainly have the awards and certifications in abundance to show for it.

There’s no signs of them slowing down anytime soon, either. Indeed, at the time of my visit, Janet and Peter Newsom had recently been awarded the ‘Eddie Moss Memorial Award’ for Dedication to Spiritualism, in recognition of their decades-long commitment to the movement.

As a church and centre of Spiritualist learning, healing and communication, Castleford continue to offer a broad programme of services and opportunities. They continue to give and support so many charitable and community-led projects and, as I learnt in our talks, offer up renowned, respected development and training.

There is so very much this church and centre are getting and doing right.

And yet, rather unexpectedly, perhaps what I took most from my visit, beyond even the awards and wonderful examples of charity support and outreach, is something that is perhaps most deserving of spotlighting: their mindset and attitude.

Forward-thinking, unshy of modern challenges and the need to evolve and change with the times. But also respectful and reverent of the history of Spiritualism, the teachings of its pioneers, and the long road that has led them to where they are today.

In so many ways, more than perhaps any wonderful, hard-earned certificate or award could ever fully demonstrate, Castleford Spiritualist Church is a centre that positively sings with the past, present and indeed future, of Modern Spiritualism.

- Article by Kyle Pedley
first published 25th April 2024

You can learn more about Castleford Spiritualist Church by visiting their Facebook page.

With enormous thanks to the committee and team at Castleford for such an enlightening and rewarding visit, and their fantastic ongoing efforts and example.

We want to hear all about your own church and committee stories, projects and achievements, too!

Get in touch by emailing Kyle Pedley, Head of Communications, at [email protected].