Living with Feeling
Dr Guy Hayward on finding transcendence through pilgrimage & evensong
SINGING AND PhD
J.E: So, you were a choirboy and chorister …
Guy Hayward: Yes, a boy chorister at Bath Abbey, and later a baritone there, and loved singing so much I applied to Cambridge because that’s where they had the best choirs.
J.E: So your main degree was in music?
G.H: Yes, my undergraduate degree was music, and then I did a Masters in Musicology focusing on the psychological side, and my thesis asked if we walk more in time with someone else when we’re talking to them than when we’re not. So, when we converse with someone does the rest of us go into sync, in order to be close to that person — and my experiment showed that we do.
And then this idea came into my life of looking at how choirs sing in time with each other, because it’s an unknown question, we just don’t know how they do it. It’s a surprisingly simple and straightforward activity, you would think, but the process of synchronization is very complicated, because there are so many different ways you can get in time with each other: there’s looking at each other, there’s feeling the breath of each other, there’s counting in your head when you think people are going to come in…and then there’s the body gestures to show when you’re going to come in, but I wanted to see: did any of these work as an explanation of how we can get into time? None of them on their own seemed to explain it, so I came up with the idea that it’s either some kind of weird combination of all of them, which is very hard to pin down computationally…or there is some kind of collective mind that is organising the group, because I had a sense as a choirboy that when there is a big silence in a piece of music — a pause just before everybody starts singing together again – the ability for everyone to come back in synchrony is extraordinary, and by that I mean it is beyond the ordinary…
Then I met Rupert Sheldrake after attending his wife Jill Purce’s workshop and he gave me his book ‘The Presence of the Past’, which contained a discussion of how schools of fish and flocks of starlings move as one, and the accompanying scientific explanations. The scientists look at where the animals are looking, and the idea is that a bird can see in front of itself, and perhaps behind, and then if one bird moves, the one next to it moves, and it’s a domino effect through the flock, (or the school of fish). But when you look at it, really go down to the details, with slow-mo video capture — as they have done with birds — you can’t explain it like that because they all move at once. The obvious ‘Mexican wave’ explanation doesn’t work, so I got really intrigued by this and how it related to choirs and to all forms of human group movement.
But I couldn’t say what I really wanted to say, which was that this group movement might have some extended consciousness aspect to it, the idea that consciousness is extending beyond the confines of the skull, either of the bird or the fish’s head…or the human skull…that our mind can extend, and join with a greater mind which includes the whole group…it’s a radical idea obviously, but it seemed to me to make sense. So I realised that I couldn’t carry on in this trajectory intellectually, not at Cambridge anyway.
J.E: And you couldn’t even suggest, or mention that idea?
G.H: No, I had to dance round it.
J.E: And did you have conversations with other academics about this idea of an extended consciousness where you would say something about it?
G.H: Yes, I had frank conversations with a few, and their answer was absolutely great, and sort of summarised the state of science, really. It was ‘OK, fine, do your music telepathy experiment, see if that works, but you’ll have to do thousands of trials. If you do a more conventional experiment, which would have less of a paradigmatic shift, you only needed to do 20 or 30 trials. I thought ‘how come the requirements for evidence are just so different for two different ideas?’ It just seemed so unfair, because in saying ‘thousands of trials’ there’d be no way I could finish my PhD.
J.E: Mm. And was there a feeling, also, of reputational risk for you, and also your department?
G.H: Very much. As a young researcher, yes — reputation risk to the point of not passing my PhD, and also, yes, tainting the whole department — I hadn’t really thought about that…that’s basically what they were probably thinking.
G.H: …because it was an interesting thesis, it was dealing with a lot of key issues that were going on in this particular field at the time…so yes, if I’d been much more up-front about it, it would have been much harder to pass. So I didn’t say the word ‘telepathy’ once during my PhD.
J.E: Did you talk about the ‘extended mind’?
G.H: Yes — interestingly, one paper analysed, in slow-mo, ten thousand starlings using complex computational methods to attach a tracking dot to every single one of them, and work out whether one bird moving creates a domino effect or whether the whole flock moves in one instant. They found out that it was that the whole flock moves in one instant, and they basically said, ‘this almost suggests a collective mind metaphor’, but they only say the word ‘metaphor’…and yet, what happens if it’s actually real, if there is actually a collective mind. ‘Metaphor’ seemed a bit of a cop-out, but they were playing the game too.
J.E: Do you think there’s a big difference between how practitioners of music think about what they do, what music is, what is does, and where musical scientists are?
G.H: Yes in the kind of conversations I’ve had the musicians tend to say something like, ‘oh yes, I’ve noticed that’, but there’s no more interrogation. So it’s not like they’re against it the extended mind as an idea, it’s just that for them, it doesn’t really matter.
J.E: It doesn’t make the music better…
G.H: Yes, knowing about it intellectually doesn’t make the music better — they just want to know whether they have a sense of camaraderie with their group – that’s what they’re doing it for. In any case, it is very hard to articulate experience.
J.E: So I guess in some ways you found your PhD unsatisfying, in that you couldn’t really talk about what you wanted to talk about… how did that make you feel about academia, once you’d finished and defended your thesis? Did you think — ‘should I stay? Should I go and do something else?’
G.H: Well I think that in professional academia most people are trying to create and form a career, and I think my experience showed me that you can’t really change anything through academia because you’re funded by someone higher up than you, who’s got there through lots of hard work, probably existing within a single paradigm, and they have a reputation that they’re trying to uphold — and being under them you are representing their ideas. And that means that until you get to their position (by which time you’ll have the same problem — you’ll have your own reputation you’ll have to defend) you can’t really do anything of your own especially if it’s paradigm shifting. If you want to research something that roughly resembles their thinking, then they’re happy to support you, but as soon as it’s against the grain, it becomes impossible to earn a proper income, because you’re seen as a risk.
J.E: Mm. So what did you decide to do instead?
G.H: Well, take a break instead. It was a really scary time, actually.
J.E: And this was when?
G.H: This was in 2014-15. And I’d met Will Parsons, this chap that I do Pilgrimage work with, a year before, and basically, after my PhD finished, I thought, ‘I’d love to get away from the laptop, you know, this 13-inch sphere of vision that you’re channeled into for years…rather than looking at the vast expanse of the wilderness… ‘I’d love to go out for a walk’.
So I got in touch with him… quite boldly because he was actually quite a well known walker. I’d seen him on BBC five years before I’d met him, and I remember seeing him and his walking partner Ed through the fields singing folk songs and thinking this is an extraordinary way of life. And then I met them both, by chance, and I thought, ‘well, I’ll see if he’s up for going for a walk’.
So Will said yes, because Ed had stopped walking with him at that time, and he said, ‘why don’t we take a song back to where it came from’ and I thought ‘this sounds absolutely great’, and he had a particular one in mind called ‘The Hartlake Bridge Tragedy’, which was about 40 hop pickers that had had fallen off a bridge because it was rotten — after a hard day’s work in the hop fields and… they all died, 40 of them, and then they were buried in the parish church, the graveyard nearby in Hadlow. There had been an inquisition into what had gone wrong and the big powerful corporation at the time that was in charge of all the rivers and all the bridges, and looking after everything, claimed no responsibility, even though they were profiting off this cheap labour… a familiar story.
So there was this song written about the tragedy in kind of protest, with every single line having a double meaning, even though it sounds like a very nice song, but each line basically means…’screw you!’!
So we walked the song all the way, singing it to everyone we met — but when we arrived at the churchyard (it was 70 miles along the River Medway, from Will’s home in Kent) where the monument to the 40 hop pickers was, there was a couple in front of it, just standing there and it seemed really strange because there was this whole churchyard, no one else, and this couple standing by the monument — it was a tiny little thing really — so we asked ‘Why are you here?’ And they said ‘Oh, we tried to come here 10 years ago but we couldn’t find it. Anyway, we’re here now, and we’re just about to leave.’ We asked ‘But why did you come?’ And they responded ‘Oh three of my ancestors died in the tragedy.’…We just couldn’t believe it. So we asked them ‘have you heard the song?’ but they said ‘No’, so we got to return the song — a 150 year-old song — back to the bloodline, not just the place.
And I think it was that moment, for both of us, where we realised that having a destination-focused journey, and having a strong intention at the start is a completely different kind of journey to what Will had been doing, what he calls ‘wandering minstrelsy’ — basically just wandering without any particular goal, just loving the lifestyle of aimless wandering, go with your whim, without a sense of, ‘I’ve got to get here’.
And Will had just had a child with his partner at the time and basically, he realised he needed a more compact version of what he was doing before, to fit in with the change in his life, and that, we both thought: ‘this is basically just pilgrimage’. You know, going into churches, for example, which he hadn’t done very much, and we thought ‘Why is no one doing this? This is a great way to live’. And lots of weird synchronicities happen — Will said that in that week he had experienced a greater concentration of extraordinary synchronicities than when he’d been walking as a wandering minstrel, and he thought that had something to do with this intention and destination focused journey…
And we kind of know that that works, because if we have a clear goal in our own lives, it’s more likely to happen, and things organise themselves around that more than if we don’t have an idea of what we want to do. This basic idea of having a goal led to us to thinking, ‘where’s this all going?’
Currently there’s a hiking movement with an ever increasing number of people going out to walk in the countryside…it’s an obvious growth industry for Britain, because we have this wonderful footpath network, a huge variety of amazing places, and the ‘green and pleasant land’…Britain’s got a lot of factors going for it. But hiking doesn’t seem to inspire in the way that pilgrimage does.
That’s obviously my bias coming out there, of course some people want to have everything completely stripped away, and just be allowed to walk, and be nothing to do with holy places, or religion, because there’s a lot of baggage associated with the word pilgrimage— and it’s maybe a bit silly to choose it as our leading word. But it also is a powerful word. We are now trying to reclaim it, and give it a new meaning.
J.E: And were you also partly inspired by the success of the Camino Santiago, in Spain?
G.H: Yes, it was kind of a proof of principle, really. You know, if it works in Spain, it can work here. There are much, much bigger pilgrimages out there — I mean the Santiago is tiny compared to others around the world. There’s one in Iraq, the Arba’een, that’s 20 million people, and they do it over a two week period, walking 30 miles a day in the heat, and cooking 750 million meals - an absolutely colossal venture which happens every year. And then there’s the Kumbh Mela, with 130 million people, so 250,000 people in Europe is…
J.E: Small fry.
J.E: Do you think Britain needs a main Pilgrimage route?
G.H; I think that’s how people like to work; they need to know where to go, so we need one to begin with. We as the BPT also need to prove it, to prove that as a principle at works, as a flagship route…and Canterbury is an obvious destination, because that was the main one for most of the medieval period…but ecologically, we want many routes, because the South Downs from Southampton to Canterbury are made of chalk, which is the route we’ve chosen, called The Old Way to Canterbury…and chalk ruts, and hundreds of thousands of extra pilgrims could destroy the landscape if we had that many. So to spread the load it would be better to have more routes…
J.E: St Cuthbert’s way and…
G.H: Yes, and there are lots of them already — there are about 50 of varying lengths in existence, of many lengths and distances, but they don’t have accommodation built in, and that’s the key thing. If you want to do a Pilgrimage, most people want to know you can put your head down somewhere. (See our ‘Great Routes’ page on britishpilgrimage.org).
J.E: Yes, so is that something you’ve been looking at? Trying to encourage places to have cheap pilgrimage accommodation?
G.H: Yes, so, one of our early pilgrimages, after the Hartlake Bridge pilgrimage I just told you about, was perhaps 5 months later. We walked from Winchester to Canterbury along the South Downs, and we decided to do it without any money — that was Will’s idea.
J.E: How long was that walk?
G.H: Three and a half weeks. It was kind of mad in a way to go without money for that length of time — in Britain. We thought, ‘is this really possible? Are people generous enough?’ And then there are the ethical issues of it: if you can afford it, why are you getting other people to pay for you to do it?
But we did it, even though it was winter and quite stormy. The solution was Peter Owen Jones, who is Vicar at Firle along the way who said to us, ‘well why don’t you sleep in the church?” And he got the key and opened it up, and I said sheepishly, ‘can I sleep by the altar?’ And he said, ‘yes, of course, sleep anywhere you like’, so I did… It was an amazing experience to wake up with the light streaming through the stained glass windows, in this very peaceful space where people have prayed for at least 1,000 years. So the next day, in the next village we called up the Vicar to say ‘Can we stay?’ and he said, ‘Yes’.
It was a sort of snowball effect, where Vicars and Churchwardens started saying ‘yes’, and so we started sleeping in several churches along the way, and we realized the churches are not being used at night — not being used in general — I mean maybe on a Sunday morning if they’re lucky enough to have a decent congregation, but we need to give churches a new use.
And we need to make churches seem, genuinely, fun! Sleeping is a fun way to engage with a church, and it’s dark so you can’t see anything, which means you let go into the place more, because at nighttime what you experience is more about the place than what you can see. So we thought, if we could get a low-cost agreement going with these churches, say £10 a night for each pilgrim to sleep there, as long as they brought their own sleeping kit, we could actually revolutionise rural England…
So that was one of the main things that needed to be sorted out, an the other thing is the wariness of people to get involved with something called ‘Pilgrimage’. Most people’s first question is, ‘Oh, is pilgrimage a religious thing’, and we basically say, ‘it’s as religious as you want it to be. It’s not religious, but it’s not not religious.’
So the other major part of our work is to remove the need for religious layering on top of the baseline activity of Pilgrimage. The baseline is just walking between holy places – whatever intellectual belief frameworks you put on top of that is up to you. It’s not to say, ‘you can’t think this’ or you ‘can think this’, it’s just to say, ‘that’s not the point, it’s the structure of the activity that’s the most important thing — doing it.’
J.E: Do you think Christianity in Britain has got hung up on beliefs versus practices?
G.H: Yes, I think that came…in terms of the religious sphere, I think that probably came from the Reformation, in translating the Bible into a language that everyone can understand, and your engagement with religion became much more about the word and the book…Henry VIII banned pilgrimage, in part, to stop peasants from just downing their tools, and going on Pilgrimage, because that was a legitimate form of holidaying, or ‘holy day-ing’…and basically, they would have not spent enough time on the land doing the work.
Whereas if you make Pilgrimage a journey of the mind, a more metaphorical journey, studying the book — that journey, you can do it at home. So it’s always been a subversive act, and I think we have to move towards a stage, especially with the pluralism we see in belief and spirituality, where with the internet everything is open to anyone now: if you want to study a bit of arcane, esoteric Buddhism, you can — you just Google it. Whereas in the medieval times, you just had the vicar, the priest, or the monk telling you what to believe, and that was it — especially when it was in Latin as well. So we’re in a completely different position now. So, we think that Bring Your Own Beliefs —BYOB — is the best way to encourage engagement with the bigger dimensions of life.
If a church could put a ‘fair-trade label’, or the equivalent, saying, ‘we are open to all — we are open to people of all beliefs, or none’, if they make that point on their churches, I think it would start to remove that sense of, ‘that’s not my place, I don’t belong there because I don’t believe in this.’
There was a huge shift towards knowledge, the age of knowledge after the enlightenment, an understanding of life in an abstract way with science, which has allowed for the amazing advancement of technology and medicine. Spiritual practices take time, and I think that might be one of the reasons why people don’t do them as much, because our lives have sped up in the direction that we’re all so familiar with: emails, and mobile phones. We know about this, everyone talks about it. So, taking time out is harder, but we need to acknowledge the difference between experienced knowledge gained through spiritual practices, and learnt knowledge — intellectually acquired knowledge. They are very different.
J.E: And learn and embodied knowledge as well?
G.H: Yes, if they don’t believe in a religion, people aren’t going to be converted to it by intellectual arguments. I don’t think that’s ever done it for anyone, I think it’s usually some sort of experience that someone has that changes their experience of the world. Then they look into analysing that experience, breaking it down, and then doing the intellectual thing.
But the experience is always primary, I think — that’s the problem on both sides of the debate. Atheist people trying to convince religious people to not believe, just through intellectual arguments. And then, religious people try and sometimes take on atheists with intellectual arguments, and they’re just at loggerheads. There’s going to be no movement there, I don’t think … until experience becomes the primary way of doing it.
J.E: Hmm. And is that the way you’re thinking about the work you’re also doing with the revival of Evensong? Can you tell me a bit about that work as well?
G.H: Yes, so, there are lots of Churches in Britain —I don’t know how many there are, probably 10,000, 15,000, or something? It’s hard to know. A lot of them have choral singing going on in them —on a Sunday, some of them during the week. And during the Reformation we know about the destruction but there was actually quite a bit of creation too — and one of the good things that came out of it all was this service called ‘Choral Evensong’ which basically was a condensation of Vespers and Compline, two evening services in the monastic order of services which ran throughout the day. Evensong is a much-shortened version of those two — 45 minutes — and mainly music with not much liturgy, and not many places where you have to proclaim your beliefs in any way. Maybe you have to say a couple of ‘Amens, but most of it’s about sitting back and letting this glorious music from five hundreds of years wash over you… All of our greatest composers since the 16th century have had a go at creating works for Choral Evensong, so it’s amazing music.
J.E: So is it a uniquely British thing, Choral Evensong?
G.H: Yes, it was Archbishop Cranmer, in 1549, during the English Reformation, who wrote the Book of Common Prayer, which is an English language book. And Evensong started here, I think it started in London; I’m not sure exactly where the first service happened. We don’t know I think; as ever, it was a bit of an organic process. And then Queen Elizabeth I contributed to the musical tradition after her father Henry VIII.
J.E: and it happens in these churches…every day? Every Sunday?
G.H: Most Cathedrals do it every day. Every Sunday for parish churches — some do it during the week, but there are very few. And it’s free!
J.E: It’s free, and people don’t really know about it?
G.H: Well, yes. They don’t — and, probably for the same reasons as I’ve spoken about before – they just think ‘that’s to religious for me, I’m not religious…’ And also, I don’t think the Church of England is perceived as relevant for a lot of people.
The CofE is now so far down in the list of priorities in most people’s lives, that they don’t know anything about what it has to offer. And the marketing departments of the Church don’t want to market Choral Evensong because it’s free. They want people to come to the Cathedrals and make them pay admissions charges. So even the Church is doing its bit to advertise Evensong. And I think you could get people in through the side door, rather than the front door: ‘Come and here this beautiful music, you don’t have to believe anything’, is much more effective than, ‘come to Holy Communion, the Mass of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ There are two different approaches, and they’re worlds apart.
J.E: Do you think the Church of England is quite Evangelical now, and it wants to go in strong on that: ‘meet Jesus, Jesus saved you…’ Believing that the encounter with the conversion is everything?
G.H: Well they can go either one of two ways: the churches either make their identity even stronger, and even more forthright, or they allow for a kind of breakdown, or collapse of their identity, to build up something new later on. But to go through that process, I think, is quite scary, so they’re trying to hold on to the identity they know, even stronger, and come across more fervently.
But actually, what they might need to do is allow a kind of breakdown moment, where it’s not clear what the church is, and it’s not clear what people believe, and if they feel it’s being dumbed down, they might need to do through that painful barrier. And maybe they might come out the other side and find that they haven’t lost anything, that they still have the same identity, it’s just more inclusive.
G.H: It’s hard to know. Part of the church, and some of the fastest growing parts of the church are doing what you’re saying, about the evangelical approach, but the numbers aren’t that big. 12,000 people associated with the Holy Trinity Brompton movement in London, Alpha Course etc. It’s not massive numbers.
J.E: Evensong is becoming more popular isn’t it? I mean, I don’t know if you’re just really good at publicity, but I’ve seen quite a few things, articles about this … my father said he’d heard something about it on the radio when I said I was going to interview you about Evensong. So, from what I read, it seems like more people are coming into Cathedrals to hear Evensong.
G.H: [pause] Yes.
J.E: And it seems as if it the project is on to something.
G.H: [pause] Yes…I think that our press channels are becoming aware that this is a story worth telling. It’s a positive story where everyone’s a winner. The people who are intrigued get to go to hear something they didn’t know existed, and they don’t have to pay for it, and the churches who are desperate to get people in are attracting people for a different reason to normal.
It’s a publicity movement that’s having its time. It’s pretty hard to know exactly how much more popular it’s becoming, but we do know that over the last ten years, midweek services’ attendance figures are up by 60%. And even Richard Dawkins has said that he has a ‘certain love’ for Evensong, so, basically there’s nothing in its way! If Richard Dawkins says that it’s alright, then…what can hold it back, in terms of people coming?
So I think it is becoming more popular. As with anything, there’s an element of saying something is happening to make it become the reality. So, the more positive you can be about it, the more it will become true.
J.E: And so you set up a website where people can find out about local Evensong services?
G.H: Yes, it’s called ‘choralevensong.org’, and you type in your postcode: either where you live or where you’re planning to visit, and you’ll find your nearest Choral Evensong to you, and it’ll tell you the time it’s going to happen, you’ll hear the kind of choir that’s going to be singing, the history of the building, some contact details, if you want to call ahead and find out more. So all the basic information, which until this website, was quite scattered, really, quite hard to find …you have to really know what you’re looking for, on a Cathedral website, for the bit about Choral Evensong — it’s sort of six clicks away. And for people who weren’t either technologically savvy, or knew how a Church of England website operates, it was hopeless. To makes things easier, I created a universal format for each church across all 600 churches currently registered on the website.
J.E: So, you said it’s a way to get people in through the side door…
J.E: …into the church, or religious practices…
J.E: Do you have a goal in these activities? Is your goal to re-connect people to Christian heritage, or…how do you think or it? Maybe these are just different projects, and you don’t have…
G.H: No, there is a kind of coherent underlying goal. But it’s not that well formed in my own mind. But I can feel it. I suppose everything is becoming more and more separated as we analyse everything, and we name everything. And society is fragmenting in lots of ways, and people’s beliefs are fragmenting in lots of different ways, so I suppose I want to bring people back to that sense of being part of something bigger than themselves. It is this sense that can be very comforting, especially if you’re feeling isolated and lonely… It’s a wonderful thing that the world is fragmenting, because that means it’s becoming more complex. There’s more on offer, there’s more diversity. But it is frightening if you feel that you’re on your own, and you’re not looked after by something bigger than you.
If it’s all down to you, that can be a very scary place, and I feel that there are all of these ways into having that feeling, of being a part of something bigger than yourself. They allow yourself to rest within that feeling of belonging — or whatever you want to call it. I just want to just promote experiences that can actually achieve that feeling. And having spent so much time on my PhD, I realised how the intellectualisation of belonging and spirituality can really halt that process.
J.E: Oh, that feeling of spiritual belonging? Is that what you felt during your PhD? Because one of the things I look at is, flourishing in higher education, including for PhDs, I mean did you find it quite a lonely experience?
G.H: Yes, lonely and also very analytical, in the sense of; lots and lots ad lots of detail and a very detailed way of thinking. Compartmentalising different bits of knowledge in order to make your thinking distinct, to say ‘this as opposed to that’. There’s very little ‘bigger picture’, an ‘everything making sense’ kind of feeling that happens — when everything comes together to create a ‘global’ understanding of what you’re studying. It’s more about pernickety detail. And, I suppose, in my own life, I realise detail is essential if you want to make a change in the world (whatever change you want to make in the world) but unless you have that ability to see ‘the all’, to feel like you’re part of ‘the all’, you’re missing a part of you, I feel.
G.H: You’re getting cut off from that part of you, I feel.
GUY’S PERSONAL BELIEFS
J.E: Mm. And what’s your relationship to the church?
G.H: Well, I’m a confirmed Christian. I got confirmed when I was 28.
J.E: And how old are you now?
G.H: I’m 31. But I don’t go to church, you know, ‘regularly’. I’m not a ‘church-goer’. I sometimes go to church…I find it very frustrating. I don’t even go to Choral Evensong that much. In a way I want other people to go to Choral Evensong because it gave me so much.
J.E: Being in a choir?
G.H: Being in a choir, the whole tradition, made me a musician, it made me a singer. I know how beautiful the music is, and I know how much it means to people who go to Choral Evensong, and in a way, it’s a way of me giving back for everything I received. Obviously loads of choristers have received in this way, and not everyone has to repay it back, but someone had to, I feel…
G.H: …because it’s so important. So many of our great musicians have come from the tradition. Because at 6 years old, if you’re learning how to sing, and make pitches in your own mind without using the piano, you’re becoming musical, basically.
J.E: So you were confirmed late. Did you get brought up as Christian?
G.H: I was brought up as a Christian Scientist by my mum and dad. And that’s a religion which is mainly about healing yourself through getting a connection with God. It’s known for its more negative PR, where people don’t bother going to the doctor and then they don’t get diagnosed and they die, sometimes. But, in its more positive form, it is actually a radical reinterpretation of what health means. It’s not that they don’t ever go to have medical advice, or whatever, it’s just that’s not where they start. They try to get a bigger picture, a perspective of life. And I suppose that’s still with me, really. I tried to reject it when I was 12, and continued the rejection until about 23, during which I was an atheist.
J.E: From 12 to 23?
G.H: Yes, I think those sort of ages. And started to believe in the course of science, and I would say to my parents, ‘you’re so stupid, why do you believe in all this stuff?’ You know, I was horrendous really, like a mini Dawkins, but it just didn’t stack up for me. In the long run that way of being didn’t help me in the long run; it got me into some issues. So I basically returned to spirituality, although not specifically to Christian Science — I don’t study it now, but how I was brought up still affects me, because it gave me that ability to feel that you are a part of something greater. Knowing that will always be very important to me.
J.E: And are you drawn to the numinous in Anglicanism…?
J.E: I mean, are you a kind of Trinitarian Christian or, more kind of apathetic — ‘there is a God but it’s somewhat beyond our understanding, but we can approach him/her/it, through the experiential…?
G.H: I feel that, in a way, I am an expression of God, and that everything has God within and God is within everything — and nature is in God, God is in nature. There’s no separation, and everything is God.
J.E: That’s good enough for me!
SCIENTIST BELIEFS SURVEY
And do you think that your scientist-atheist phase, the sort of militant phase…that your interest in the psychology of music…I’d like to ask you about the survey you just did…
G.H: Oh yes?
J.E: …about scientists’ religious beliefs…that you’re kind of, seeking to harmonise the different aspects of you, the analytical scientific, and the more numinous…
G.H: Yes, it’s hugely important, because if you go exclusively into just the numinous, we all know where that ends up: hippies gazing at the sky in the grass, and not doing anything. So we have to be in the world as well.
And I think there’s a duty to go outwards as well, to help…maybe this is not actually true, this is just how I’ve interpreted it. But, once you’ve got something spiritual that’s working for you, if you can help others find that, then it makes sense to try to help. But nowadays you have to do that through the language of science; that’s what people listen to. It’s got an authority for a reason. It was a reaction — when the scientific moment was created by Sir Francis Bacon and the Royal Society. The first scientists were doing science because they needed a new way of finding out knowledge, because the old ways were at war with each other.
By finding the scientific method, which was a more neutral process of gaining knowledge, it allowed you to say ‘Well, we don’t know for sure, but here’s some evidence, and we’ve done this experiment which can be analysed and attacked and questioned.’ It’s more robust, but a very slow way of getting to know things. But it’s the language of what people read in the newspapers, what they accept. So if you can get people round to the old way of thinking, but through science, then that seems to me to be legitimate.
J.E: Yes. So you did a survey, recently?
G.H: Yes. So the Scientific and Medical Network are a British based charity with a journal, the Scientific and Medical Review, which look at how we can use science to interrogate spiritual questions and psychic questions, amongst other subjects. Questions about the afterlife, near-death experiences, twin-telepathy, Rupert Sheldrake’s work, and ghosts and…all sorts. The review is about the science that can be done on that. And it’s got this wonderfully innocuous name —the Scientific and Medical Network!
Anyway, they were the ones who commissioned the report. David Lorimer, Director of the SMN, drew up the survey with Rupert, and then ran it across thousands of professional scientists, medical professionals and engineers in the UK, France and Germany. 3,000 in total responded. In total, 1,000 from each: the UK, France and Germany.
The results were extraordinary. One of the questions that was asked was: ‘are you practicing religious, non-practicing religious, spiritual but not religious, agnostic or atheist?’ And — if you count ‘spiritual but not religious’ as basically believing, as it were — then atheists and agnostics are actually in the minority, only 45%. Taking the other ones, ‘spiritual but not religious’, practicing and non-practicing religious all together, they outnumbered the atheists and agnostics, which is extraordinary, really, if you think [that] for so many decades people have assumed scientists are at odds with faith.
J.E: That’s not what people would believe.
G.H: Yes, I mean, for decades Richard Dawkins has been saying, ‘the scientific community does not believe in God, or, does not believe in this hocus-pocus stuff of spirituality and…he’s wrong, basically! And it seems possible for scientists to have faith beliefs and still be scientists, and not internally combust.
J.E: What do you think is — and I don’t expect you to have a clear, definitive answer — but when you reflect on the future for this country, in terms of our spiritual life, how do you see it developing?
THE FUTURE OF SPIRITUALITY / CHRISTIANITY
G.H: Well I think the most important word will be ‘tolerance’. We’re going to have to be more tolerant — more and more — of different belief systems. And because there are going to be more and more belief systems available to everyone, what will have to rise in importance is shared experience. So shared experiences amongst people that don’t require the conversation about belief, but are still giving you that access to the numinous.
I think what’s been happening has been one large experiment down the left-brain path of seeing the world as a set of resources, a set of resources that can be used for ‘this’ end — basically human-centric. I think we’ll become less human-centric.
I feel we’ll start to see the whole, there’ll be more of a focus on systemic thinking; how we can connect together all these different practices that have been in silos, separated from each other. I think there’s going to be more and more of thinking about how we can bring these all together to work in harmony.
J.E: Do you think the Church needs to be less of a silo too, and more comfortable with blurred boundaries?
G.H: Yes —the boundaries will blur whether or not they like it. I mean; there’s so much information out there regarding personal spirituality that they’re going to have to redefine themselves — and just have more confidence in what they have to offer. I really feel that, if you really believe in the power of prayer in a place, which is what a Church is effectively — it’s a place where prayer, and worship, and contemplation, has been happening for hundreds of years… if that actually has a reality to it, then you should be just totally confident in as a member of the Church, that people can just come in and be affected by the place itself.
The visitors don’t have to believe anything; the place will do the talking, will do the work. I just think the Church should be more confident, because at the moment it seems panicky, seems insecure. The Evangelical approach is in the ascendent because they’re so worried about losing their identity that they’re going even stronger on the identity thing. If they would just loosen up…
G.H: If they said ‘You’re welcome, we’ve got this great thing and it’s here for you to enjoy, and we’re not going to tell you what to think, or force you how to be…’ that could really change things.
J.E: Mm. Do you think that involves a re-conceptualisation of Jesus?
G.H: What do you mean?
J.E: Well, when I, as someone from the ‘spiritual but not religious’ background, was exploring the Church, and joined HTB [Holy Trinity Brompton], and did the Alpha Course and so forth, the bit I struggled with, really, was the identity of Jesus…whether: Jesus was…if Jesus is God, then Christianity can’t just be one bit of a pluralist landscape, it has to be: ‘in truth, for everyone’.
G.H: Oh I see. No, well, that’s a nightmare the way we think we have ‘the truth’ — it’s so bonkers. Jesus is, for me the cosmic archetype of perfection, and… that doesn’t mean that he, as a human, was perfect. I think we’re talking about different things. I think the ‘cosmic Christ’ is something totally different to the person.
Jesus was…I mean I think Jesus was probably in a deeply sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene, he was a fully embodied, charismatic, sexual young man, who was like a rock star, who had amazing powers of persuasion, could move men and women through his power of personality — to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do. He was just a guy…I mean that’s for me what he was.
G.H: And he was a guy that had a particularly powerful message, was prepared to go to particularly extreme ends to achieve it, and ensure the immortality of the message by dying…but there are loads of people today who die for their beliefs, and who are, probably, almost as — well, obviously not more impressive than Jesus — but who have done extraordinary things. And so I just feel the Church has to let go of things — of this ‘truth’ thing regarding Jesus.
J.E: Mm. Um, to shift slightly…
G.H: Sorry, that wasn’t the greatest answer to that question.
J.E: No no, I agree…
G.H: I think they should just relax on ‘the Jesus message’…
J.E: I suppose they feel that the point is, I suppose, that Jesus’ death and the resurrection is transformative for humans, whereas I think humans believed in a transformative afterlife before Jesus, so I think Jesus may have been opening that vision for the world: ‘we die and it’s ok, something good happens afterwards’, but I don’t think he made that happen, I think that’s just our nature as humans.
G.H: No, but he did combine it with that ‘love your enemies’ message, and that was the key thing — the new stuff. But people have sacrificed themselves for a cause throughout history — before Jesus and after Jesus — they always will…and what they are known for is not their sacrifice but their message, and I think Jesus just had a radical new message of, ‘love your enemies’.
J.E: You seem quite successful at getting positive stories about Christianity into the media. This is a rare thing in Britain. How have you found — because I work in the media as well – and I know that things about the science of spirituality are quite likely to get into the mainstream media, because the media go, ‘Oh, that’s interesting, that’s evidence’ and things…
G.H: [laughs] Yeah.
J.E: Also, there’s a lot of interest in things — unusual thing like maybe Greek philosophy, or mindfulness — things also, where you can leave metaphysical beliefs out of it, people feel more comfortable with that…
J.E: …the idea of practices. How have you found your engagement with the media? How to get your messages across?
G.H: Well, to treat them all the same. To not really talk differently to a religious news outlet than to a mainstream national newspaper. The message is the same – the point is to not adapt. To come up with a message that can go into every single one of those outlets, that’s the key thing. Not to chop and change depending on whom you’re talking to. That’s the key thing, I think. Because then it looks like you know what you’re doing, basically.
J.E: Do you think the media is open to stories about spirituality?
G.H: I think they have to be, because there’s obviously a move towards the ‘spiritual but not religious’ camp, and I think demographics and the census —the 2011 census showed that the ‘spiritual but not religious’ percentage of the population has risen. And that there aren’t that many people who are self-proclaimed atheists. And so I think the media now realise that they have to take spirituality seriously.
There are cracks showing in science. Attitudes to consciousness have shifted, I think it’s now being seen as being in everything. Even the most atheist, most materialist philosophers like Thomas Nagel in America now believe in pan-psychism. Which means that there is consciousness in a proton or a quark, in the same way that there is consciousness in you or I.
G.H: And the rise of yoga, and the rise of mindfulness, and the need for it because we’ve gone so far in the other direction…I just think all of these factors are helping to sate this hunger — but it’s being sated by experience-based practices that bypass all of the mental barriers against spirituality.
J.E: Mm. So you’re helping to revive Pilgrimage, helping to revive Evensong. You’ve just mentioned mindfulness and yoga. Do you think there’s a space for the revival of Christian contemplation as well?
G.H: It’d be great; it would be really great if they the Church could claim that ground. For example, lunch breaks: instead of just eating your food and going for a walk, taking fifteen minutes and going into a Church. Being peaceful, in London for example —the Churches have thick stonewalls that create silence; and there’s not much going on in them. Lunch break meditations, I think, could be really popular…
G.H: But that wouldn’t be Christian contemplation like: ‘you have to do it thinking about Jesus’, it would be…initially it would just be contemplation in Christian spaces. It wouldn’t necessarily be specifically Christian contemplation.
J.E: Things like, poetry, taize singing…
J.E: …contemplation of art, little Pilgrimages to Museums and Galleries as well…
G.H: Yes. I think basically bringing play back into everything is just going to be so important. You know, the idea that you can have Pilgrimages, which, in its ideal is going to holy places, such as Churches, holy wells, river sources, hilltops, pre-historic burial mounds, ancient trees, all those kinds of holy places…or just making up your own kind of holy place, and playing with the form. If it seems like a form that’s stuck then you’re just back into the institutional territory that people are trying to escape from.
J.E: Mark Vernon and I did a Pilgrimage around London of William Blake sites, with a friend of mine, Henry Eliot.
So the one topic remaining — well, you’ve probably got several other strings to your bow that I don’t know about — but the one thing that I am aware about haven’t asked you about yet is — cabaret singing.
G.H: [laughs] Yes.
BOUNDER & CAD
J.E: So you’re in a duo called, ‘Bounder & Cad’…
J.E: …and you also write bespoke songs; people can hire you to write songs…
J.E: …and you also write…kind of satirical pieces looking at different aspects of society…
J.E: …and they’re beautifully sung by you and your partner…
G.H: Adam Drew, yes.
J.E: And how does that fit into your spiritual life?
G.H: This is a question I ask myself quite a lot! Because in a way it seems like the ‘unholy side’. I’m doing all this ‘worthy’ stuff: Pilgrimage, Choral Evensong, science and spirituality…it’s all quite sort of, hefty, in a way. It’s fun as well, but with the cabaret Adam’s the writer, he’s the visionary. We’ve just done a song on Brexit, the song before that was a social media version of ‘La Donna e Mobile’ —that’s ‘Woman... and Her Mobile’, and the one before that was a Theresa May re-working of ‘Maria’ from West Side Story and…well, what satire is, basically, I’m beginning to realise — when it’s done really well — is, it’s like spirituality. It’s like really good Eastern spirituality, where you create paradox with words and somehow it works, and you can understand somehow how two things that oppose, can work together, and it’s ok, and you can make humour out of it, like some of the great Buddhist sages and things.
G.H: And that’s what I think satire does. We’ve got this song about the Greek financial crisis to ‘Summer Nights’, from Greece — and Angela Merkel and Alexis Tsipras do a duet, replacing Danny and Sandy from Grease the Musical – ‘Sell me more, sell me more’ is the catch phrase. With this song we have people who are on the left and right of the political spectrum all in the same room, all laughing.
It’s an extraordinary feat that Adam has pulled off to get everyone laughing together without that separation that can occur between the left and right… It’s not going to solve the world, but it allows a little chink of movement and play. So there is something spiritual about it.
J.E: And I think it’s the laughter and the mocking of aspects of society that have maybe become a bit rigid…there’s something divine about that, isn’t there?
J.E: There’s something about the personality of God in that. In refusing to be set in one thing, always just stepping out and, you know…
G.H: Yes. To find humour in paradox is really what we need —in everything we’ve discussed. To see all of these different ways to look at the world, and they can all co-exist with each other.
J.E: I think it was part of Greek religion: you would have the holy procession, the solemn and the tragic, but then you had the satyrs carrying giant phalluses, and taking the piss out of the people as they went past. I suppose it’s in carnival as well.
G.H: Yes, yes, saturnalia isn’t it?
J.E: Well yes, yes.
G.H: It’s that. That whole thing.
J.E: And it stops it from becoming over-rigid, and over-calcified.
G.H: It gives it new life, yes. What I’m giving, and trying to give, is not ‘the answer’. It’s not going to ever replace the need for Cathedrals, and organised religions to actually keep the Cathedrals going, or replace the books that have been written, you know, painstakingly, through thousands of years of wisdom passed down from generation to generation — it can’t replace these. But what I hope to do with my work is just add a little bit of new life to seemingly neglected areas of our lives, to just make the whole creation of the Church, or the religion, of the belief system, have more energy, because it’s starting to become stuck…
G.H: ...stale, old, and fusty, and it needs promoting in a new form…
J.E: Yes. I do think it’s a critical task for our time, to help people who do not consider themselves to be Christian, and who do not necessarily believe [in] ‘A, B and C’, to nonetheless have a way to connect with some of the existing cultural architecture of Christianity…
J.E: …as a way [in]to transcendence, myth and so forth.
G.H: Yes, we need to go back to our tradition. We’ve had the influx of Hinduism, and Buddhism — in the form of mindfulness — and even [the] more shamanic traditions now —from the Amazon… all these different influences coming into our society, which are great, they shake things up. But used in the right way, Christianity can do a lot of that already.
G.H: Christianity’s just not done in the right way most of the time. It’s not as fun.
J.E: And I suppose one issue as well is: I like Buddhism very much, but it’s…this is not something deep in my cultural psyche.
G.H: No, it’s not in your bones.
J.E: It’s not in the bones, yes. And I think it’s great to engage with those traditions, with a sense of one’s own history too. You know, even though I don’t usually call myself a Christian…
G.H: If we just start thinking of ourselves as, ‘Christian by default’, and are allowed to explore beyond that, it’s good. Even atheists sometimes want to have weddings in churches. We all have needs that need to be met.
J.E: Yes, I think there’s some big messy thing called Anglicanism, of which Richard Dawkins is a part…
G.H: Yes, a really important part actually, because he crystallises the other side, the other way of looking at things.