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 special pride month instalment, Head of Communications Kyle takes a visit to Paignton Spiritualist Church & Centre for a special weekend, as the team ready for the latest in what has been a series of same-sex ceremonies. In addition to hearing all about their pioneering inclusivity and what it has meant to their committee members and congregants alike, we also take a look at the broader swathe of changes and innovations this vibrant centre has undertaken in recent years, and what advice they offer up to other committees as the wheels of time and change turn for the Spiritualist moveement....

It has become somewhat customary within this Spotlight series of articles to begin by discussing that old bugbear and talking point - the weather. Or, more specifically, the weather on the day of our visit to the church or centre in question.

Upon reflection, it seems striking that the vast majority of visits have been accompanied by glorious sunshine.

Of light.

My weekend-long visit to Paignton was perhaps the lightest, brightest and sunniest of all so far. A blisteringly warm and ceaselessly sunny few days at the beginning of September saw the Devonshire town unsurprisingly bustling with activity. Being the final week of the summer season, the last crowds of holidaymakers and tourists saw out the tail end of the school holidays on the beach, in the arcades, and busying almost every corner of the popular seaside destination.

Yet there was little time for sun, sea and sand, as our visit was to take in a warm, bathing light of a different - yet no less uplifting - variety.

It was going to be a very special weekend for Paignton Spiritualist Church & Centre, and I was delighted to be invited along.

First on the agenda - an Open Healing Circle with Lyn Churchward.

Given the church and centre’s position - adjacent to a fairly busy thoroughfare just a stone’s throw away from the beach itself - the quiet, calm and serenity of the church during Lyn’s circle was notable. On the day of my visit, the group on this Saturday morning consisted of committee members, regulars and newcomers alike, and I was immediately struck by the warm, personable and inclusive manner with which Lyn undertook proceedings.

Perhaps almost contradictorily, there was both a palpable energy and soothing stillness at once within the hall. All present were bathed in both the beams of sunlight cascading through the church’s glorious stained glass windows, and also the collective light of gathering in unified, healing purpose.

A circle of light... - first on the agenda at Paignton was Lyn Churchward's (top left) monthly Open Healing Circle, which radiated with warmth and healing energy (photos by Kyle Pedley © SNU).

These were elements and themes that would come to resonate throughout my visit to Paignton.

Inclusivity. Healing. Light.


“You just do whatever you can for anybody that comes in.”

President and Healing Leader of Paignton, Anne Jenkins, sets out a broad, simple yet truthful mission statement, as we sit down after the circle for a chat with the committee.

One of the main reasons for my visit on this particular weekend was to be present for a blessing service on the Sunday. An event that was proving special for the team at Paignton, not only because it was between two of their most active and passionate volunteers, but also the latest same-sex ceremony that this trailblazing centre had held.

What is perhaps most striking is the sincerity and frankness at the heart of the conversations about the centre’s proud achievements here.

“You celebrate any wedding,” Anne continues.

“And we just feel happy and proud that we can do that for same-sex couples now.

“The couple tomorrow - they just want a blessing. But they’ll still be having rings, and it will still be in the eyes of God.

“The main thing is that you’re including everybody.”

Paignton have plenty to be ‘proud’ of (to employ a rather obvious pun). Tracey White, Paignton’s acting Secretary, explained how an earlier same-sex marriage performed at the church for one of their committee members had been an exciting first.

Not just for them, but indeed the entire area.

“It was very special as it was for [committee member] Sharon. But what made it even better was knowing that Anne confirmed the next day that they were actually the first same-sex marriage in Torbay to have it in a church.”

“You celebrate any wedding... and we just feel happy and proud that we can do that for same-sex couples now."

“That’s for any church,” Anne adds, “to have a same-sex marriage.”

For committee member Sharon McCarthy, it is part of what makes Paignton so special for her and her wife.

“It was important for both of us to get married here,” Sharon explains.

“We really embraced the spiritual side of it, and we just wanted to be married in front of God, and make it special.

“We both love it here, and I think it’s something we’re really proud of, for sure.

“This is a church that embraces everyone, regardless of anything.

“I have not felt any homophobia here at all. I’ve not felt anything like that.”

For Sharon, she believes it is indicative of both a centre and religion that is moving with the times, and is willing to change along with them.

“I think we are all aware that, you know, the world’s not what it used to be. Change does happen, and I think it’s very much happening right now. This is a time where everything is shifting.

“And change is good. You’ve got to go with the change.”

We discuss how, in many ways, Spiritualism has always been amongst the more progressive of religions when it comes to LGBT inclusivity and acceptance. We discuss the multitude of hugely respected - and accepted - gay mediums and speakers that are active within the movement, and how they are by no means the only Spiritualist church or centre recognising the value and importance of offering same-sex services.

Beaming with Pride.. - the blessing of Paignton's volunteers, David and Alex, pictured above with some of the committee and congregation at Paignton on their special day, was just the latest in a series of same-sex ceremonies undertaken by the church. The first that they undertook also happened to be the first same-sex wedding in any church in the Torbay area! (photo by Kyle Pedley © SNU).

As with any discussions of embracing change, though, and of moving in new directions and adapting to the times, there’s no shying away from the issue that there will inevitably be those reluctant to embrace or accept it.

There’s also that potentially thorny contradiction of saying both that you welcome everyone of all views and walks of life, which must surely include those who perhaps have differing views on modern sensibilities?

Eminently practical, and with a wisdom that seems to be both fair-minded and pragmatic but forward-thinking all at once, President Anne believes the key is in taking things slow but steady, and welcoming change whilst also honouring what has come before.

“For one, we are respectful to the older generation as well,” she explains.

“We still have traditional hymns, like ‘How Great Thou Art’. We had that last weekend, and it was such a beautiful energy.

“So you need to broaden out, you’ve got to embrace change, definitely, but do it slowly, and do it for the majority.”

A good example the committee provides was their post-lockdown decision to move to a morning service on a Sunday, as opposed to the conventional evening divine service or demonstration.

“You can't think you'll please one hundred percent of people all the time... but you do it for the majority."

“We did have people that wouldn’t come to it, because they would only ever come to an evening service,” Anne explains.

“So I said, ‘well if you come to the morning service, you can stay and have a cup of tea and a coffee’. But they said ‘No, I’m used to the evening service’, and that was that, and they never came back.

“So you can’t think you’ll please one hundred percent of people all the time.

“But you do it for the majority.

“And the majority are embracing it. And, as long as it’s working, then you continue to do it.”

The team discuss an impressive breadth and variety of ways that they have mixed up their programme of events, services and offerings at Paignton. From donation-only workshops with top mediums, diversifying their portfolio of speakers and mediums for conventional services, mindfulness and meditation sessions, interfaith events, right down to even game show-inspired social evenings!

“We’ve had Call My Bluff, and Play Your Card Rights with Jamie Tennant, who is amazing,” adds Tina Hooks, Paignton’s Vice President and Membership Secretary.

“So much fun, and it’s getting people together!”

(photo by Kyle Pedley © SNU).

“There’s such a lot of different things going on here now,” Anne adds, “which is wonderful because we wanted it to become more of a community.”

Hearing the buzz of passion, excitement and ideas for the new directions the centre is heading in, Anne is nonetheless once again mindful to be the voice of cautious wisdom.

“We are trying everything we can to really try to pull people in,” she begins, “but you do have to be careful of what you take on.

“We do have a lot going on here, but it is challenging. Sometimes very challenging. Because we all have our own lives.

“So you have to be mindful, with your committee, about what is feasible.

“Don’t try and do too much. If you go too quick because people want it, that’s where you fall down, because it is putting too much on everyone.

“So, again, do it… just do it gently.”

It’s hard not to shake the impression that it is this shared zeal for new directions and ideas, coupled with a very practical and level-headed team of volunteers, that could be the key ingredient in Paignton’s recipe for renewal and success.

There’s no denying that the centre feels alive with energy and action.

I am told how the couple who tomorrow’s blessing is being held for - Alex and David - have themselves been responsible for a colourful and infectious overhaul of the music played during the centre’s services. A new keyboard and a joyous, feel-good mix of classical hymns and pop music alike have jolted formerly staid and conventional services into something altogether more vibrant and celebratory.

“The atmosphere now is kind of special,” Sharon explains.

“I don’t know if ‘special’ is the right word, but I think it’s definitely turned around.

“Now, everybody wants to come in, and the music’s so good, and everybody’s so friendly.

“I just find it very good for the soul.”

“And it’s bringing more people in,” Anne adds, "and younger people, too.

“It’s just lovely that the doors are open most days.”

“We’ve had people come in off the street, haven’t we?” Tracey adds.

“Just to sit in. Everyone’s always made to feel welcome when they come in. A hug or a ‘good morning’.

“And yes, it has grown.”

Joyful times - An overhaul of its programme of services and events, and an all new approach to music and entertainment within the centre, has seen churchgoers and congregants enjoying revitalised and buoyant services at Paignton (photo by Kyle Pedley © SNU).

Beneath the revitalised and buoyant services, the fundamentals are being carefully, methodologically dealt with, too.

Of the aforementioned stained glass windows, Anne explains how the most recent addition was courtesy of a late member of their congregation, who left the centre a considerable legacy upon her passing.

“The new stained glass window we had done - that was in recognition of Mrs Perry.

“She’d come in and had healing in our centre when her husband had died and she was on her own.

“She then died in a nursing home, and we got a letter from her solicitor saying she’d left us a legacy… and it was quite a lot of money, wasn’t it?

“So we had the stained glass window done, which was designed by Dee Mulhall, and it’s absolutely beautiful.”

The window in question is indeed a feast for the eyes. Centred around the SNU's own logo and motto of 'Love, Light, Nature', it depicts the rising sun spilling out onto a landscape featuring various wildlife and fauna. Above, incidentally, a rainbow river.

Anne goes on to cite a number of other ways they are keeping the building, centre and church up to date and fit for purpose.

That glorious seaside sunshine, it seems, can also have its downsides.

“The carpet in the church is all stained, from all the light from the sun,” Anne continues.

“So we’ve had it approved at the AGM for us to get a new carpet.

“We’ve had all the chairs cleaned up, or some of them replaced. We’re going to have new blinds put up, that will hopefully be blackout ones, so we can do some physical mediumship or trance in here, because I think that’s another thing a lot of us are interested in - physical phenomena.

“We’re going to update the mediums’ room, because that needs to have a coat of paint.

“We’ve had the roof cleaned and done, and out the front there is a water butt, which we got from Southwest Water.”

Tina explains how the latter is an example of the committee turning problems into productive and sustainable solutions.

“What happens is the water would come off the roof before and just flood that whole area,” she explains.

“So we managed to get the water butt, and it means now that we can collect and use that water for the garden.

“So there’s another one on order!” Anne is quick to add in.

Shaking up the norm in terms of their programme. Pioneering the way for inclusivity and same-sex ceremonies. Investing and rejuvenating their church.

There is so much inspiring, excellent practice being done at Paignton, with a passionate committee leading by example and showing once again what exciting, innovative Spiritualism in action looks like.

It leads me to ask a recurring question in our series of Spotlight visits - namely, what advice would the team give to other committees, particularly those who may not have the same resources or space as they have here?

I take Anne’s previous advice - of moving forward, but not too recklessly or haphazardly - as a given.

'Love, Light, Nature' - Paignton's new stained-glass window, commissioned to honour a late visitor who left the centre a legacy upon her passing. On the right, the new window with its designer, Dee Mulhall, and fitters (left photo by Kyle Pedley © SNU, right photo © Paignton Spiritualist Church & Centre).

The notion of change, of diversifying, and mixing up the offering and expanding out into the community, is unsurprisingly a popular recommendation.

“Before, it was all based entirely around mediumship,” explains Debbie Mortimer, Paignton’s Booking Secretary, “so our main thought has been about maybe doing something different.

“We just all felt that bringing something new to the table, and bringing in other things that are useful to the community, was the way to go.

“Not making it quite so focused on, you know, just mediumship or just coming to get a message, but being so much more than just that.”

“Because we’re now called a ‘centre’,” Tina adds, “and we’re so central, here, our hope was to put more emphasis on things like crafts and talks and demonstrations and things - in the hopes of bringing people in.

“Letting them see we’re not a scary space, we’re not ‘weird’ or anything - it’s just normal folks, but just with a different way to God.”

Anne also brings up another suggestion shared at other Spotlight visits - namely, the importance of reaching out. Of speaking to and supporting other churches and centres in the area.

“We did have a meeting with Newton Abbott [Spiritualist Church], because they had just had a new committee, and they hadn’t got any idea really how to get started.

“I can imagine that a lot of committees are stuck in their ways... but let's not paint it with roses, you know? Change has to happen, and in order to survive, churches and committees are going to have to do that, aren't they?" 

“So they came here and we had a discussion with them.

“And it’s good to see, actually, because they have said about doing more community things now.

“So yeah, go and see another church. And being willing to ask for help, like Newton Abbott did.”

In something of a full circle moment, the notion of change, and of churches and committees being open to new ways of approach and thinking, comes back to the fore, as Debbie provides an admirably frank spot of advice.

“I hope I’m not being disrespectful when I say this, but I also think there’s still a lot of the you know, dare I say, ‘old school’ mindset,” she begins.

“I can imagine that a lot of committee are stuck in their ways. And I do get that it’s very difficult sometimes for people with different opinions to recognise that, and get that change moving.

“But let’s not paint it all with roses, you know. Change has to happen, and in order to survive, churches and committees are going to have to do that, aren’t they?”

"It's about working together..." - Some of the committee of Paignton Spiritualist Church and Centre celebrating a memorable, special weekend. (photo by Kyle Pedley © SNU).

Debbie momentarily reflects the sentiment back upon Paignton’s own committee.

“I mean we, as a committee, we’re all different, individual people. We all have our own opinions on things and how things should be done.

'Our committee meetings can get a little bit heated, sure, just like everybody else’s, but you know, we’ll still step in and help each other.

“So it’s about working together as well.”

Tracey believes that the centre’s awareness groups in particular have been pivotal in helping to deal with the stresses and challenges of committee and church responsibilities.

“It’s a bit like mindfulness,” Tracey adds.

“It’s about your thought process. It’s about being calm, and being around like-minded people, and not having drama all the time.

“We do get our odd dramas, yes, but it helps you to cope with them better.

“So for me, being in this church also helps with mental health as well.”

That palpable sense of healing and light radiates throughout the entirety of my visit to Paignton.

The following day, the much-anticipated blessing is as fabulous and spritely as I was promised. Following a wonderful divine service by Geoff Hayward CSNU, friends, family members, committee members and congregants alike packed out the church for Alex and David’s blessing.

Once again, the sunshine and light bathed the entire church. Touching, funny and heartfelt speeches by loved ones moved many to tears. The room jumped to their feet, dancing and singing along to a spirited rendition of S Club 7’s ‘Reach for the Stars’.

The mission statement and evidence of Paignton’s zest for change and joy for life and spirit both were on full, unabashed display.

And some indefinable yet palpable energy coursed throughout not just the service, but the whole of the church and its welcoming, loving community.

The warmth of healing, the light of forward-thinking, open-minded inclusivity and decidedly modern Spiritualism in action.

It’s difficult to pinpoint or isolate exactly, but in attempting to explain and summmarise it all, I find myself recalling Sharon’s words, and how they feel like the perfect encapsulation of it all…

The atmosphere now is kind of special.

I don’t know if ‘special’ is the right word…

…I just find it very good for the soul.

- Article by Kyle Pedley
first published 10th June 2024

You can learn more about Paignton Spiritualist Church & Centre by visiting their Official Website and joining their Facebook Group.

With enormous thanks to the committee and team at Paignton for all their wonderful efforts, and for such a joyful and inspiring weekend. Additional thanks to members, David and Alex, for allowing us to be part of their special day!

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].