Why do we need to talk about Religious Education?

Although Religious Education (RE) is a legal requirement in UK schools, it is an oft-neglected and misunderstood subject. It is important to seriously re-think this key subject at this time of low religious literacy and rising extremism, to protect communities from the consequences of hatred and misunderstanding.

We spoke to Mark Chater about his new book (co-edited with Mike Castelli) that brings together essays from prominent thought leaders in the theory and practice of RE, to promote wider discussion of what exactly is needed from a new model of RE within our education system to benefit wider society.

What were your motivations for writing We Need To Talk About Religious Education?

A creative anger that the voices of very able younger teachers are not being properly heard, that they deserve to become thought leaders for RE; also, an interest in listening to voices of experience and wisdom who can see change coming and welcome it; a desire to pump some life-giving fresh air into the old body of RE, to save it; and a professional and personal commitment to promoting the change debate in RE.

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How can we attune to the spiritual and religious needs of young people in hospice contexts?

Reverend Kathryn Darby is the Chaplain at Birmingham Children’s Hospital and co-author with Paul Nash and Sally Nash of Spiritual Care with Sick Children and Young People.

In this blog, she explores the roles chaplains play for sick children and young people who are staying in hospices or hospitals. 

How can we attune to the spiritual and religious needs of children and young people in a hospital or hospice context? This question was recently sharpened for me in my role as a chaplain at the Birmingham Children’s Hospital when in conversation with a young person receiving treatment for mental health. He said words to the effect of, “You just get into that headspace where you don’t matter, you don’t deserve anything”. The need for all of us to attend to our mental health has been highlighted in British society recently – e.g. the grieving and recovery process of Princes William and Harry in relation to their mother’s death and debate within the political arena about mental health provisionNo one is invulnerable to the stresses and bruising of life that can result from illness, bereavement, or loss.  At times, mental health issues, such as anxiety, low mood, or eating disorders can escalate for young people leading to hospital care. Young people and their families experience distress, suffering and heartache but can find the support that they need for recovery and growth. Continue reading

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The Way of the Hermit – an interview with Mario I. Aguilar



Mario I. Aguilar is Professor of Religion & Politics and Director of the Centre for the Study of Religion & Politics at the University of St Andrews. He is also a poet, an eremitic Camaldolese Benedictine Oblate, and has published widely in his interests in the theology of contemplation, the history of religion and issues of interfaith dialogue. We asked him some questions about his new book – The Way of the Hermit – and his life as a hermit. 


A hermit’s lifestyle is one of solitude and seclusion from society. When and why did you decide to become a hermit?

As I mentioned in the opening of my book I always wanted to be a hermit. However, this wish had to wait for years as I was a missionary in Africa and then started an academic career. To become a hermit or a monk requires a long process of discernment and this process was carried out over a period of twenty years with the informal support of different spiritual directors. I would say that the decision was taken when Cardinal O’Brien encouraged me to follow this different path within the archdiocese of St. Andrews and Edinburgh. The hermitage and the daily routines developed out of an ongoing prayer life rather than out of an institutional setting. This was seven years ago in Scotland and then I opened a hermitage in Chile.

Some people might find it surprising that you are a professor of religion and a political activist, as well as a hermit. How do you balance these two different sides of your life?

There is only one single life in every human being, thus a hermit relies on a discipline of life where the day is marked by several activities. The life of a hermit, in my case in the Benedictine tradition, starts very early (3.45am) with meditation and silence until it is time to start the university day. During the day, I extend that prayer to those whom I teach and my fellow researchers. Political activism happens naturally because it is an extension of God’s action in the world, a world that should live more deeply justice, peace and understanding. I return to the hermitage happy to be left with God but with reports to be written on behalf of asylum seekers, correspondence, and my own academic studies currently related to India and Tibet.

Your book, The Way of the Hermit, documents your conversations with hermits in Scotland, Chile and India. Did the lives of these fellow pilgrims seem similar or different to your own, and in what ways?

The lives and hopes of all human beings are very similar as the Dalai Lama would reiterate. Thus, I have found a deep communion and friendship with others who seek the Absolute in India and Chile. Particularly in India I have met over the years Buddhist monks, Hindu Sadhus and Sikh scholars with whom we have shared not intellectual thoughts but our very souls, eating together, chanting, and laughing about the joys of being together. I must confess that I have found that many people who live a religious commitment tend to be sad, I do not understand that. On returning to see others at the Golden Temple or in the bathing areas of Varanasi I have always found a warm hand and a ready smile. God has given us a journey and it is great to do it with others even when in silence.

The book explores how living a life of silence and contemplation can contribute to interfaith dialogue. Could you explain how this is so?

The Western world uses too many words, too many texts and too many twitters. We try to understand something to accept its relevance. In silence the quarrels disappear because in silence and contemplation we cannot run away from who we are: human beings on a journey. The many dialogues between faith practitioners in conferences and formal meetings are very fruitful indeed. However, I have found a deeper dialogue sitting in silence with Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Sikhs because it is that very silence that binds us. I cannot speak Punjabi or Hindi but I can understand our common language of silence, reverence and devotion.

What have been the toughest challenges you’ve faced while living an eremitic lifestyle?

It has always been the challenges from outsiders who want a writer and a monk to become a small celebrity. I have had to clarify many times that hermits do not need other hermits to carry on their lives and that I do not have meditation classes in my hermitage. The keeping of a daily structure and discipline gets interrupted sometimes but I return to read the lives of hermits I admire and that set a very clear example for me: Abishiktananda, Bede Griffiths, Raimon Panikkar, and those sadhus without name who have inspired me in India over many years.

Do you have any advice for readers who would like to apply eremitic practises to their own lives?

Set a small routine of prayer and meditation for your daily life, start and keep to it. Do not read about it, or talk too much about it, just do it! And the Absolute will be waiting for you.

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Ageing and Spirituality: What does it mean to grow old in the twenty-first century? by Elizabeth MacKinlay

ageing spirituality 21 century“Many of us have the potential to live out their later years with hope, resilience and growing into fullness of life, coming to new realisations of what it means to grow old in the twenty-first century.”

Elizabeth MacKinlay is a registered nurse, an Anglican priest and Professor in the School of Theology, Charles Sturt University. Here she discusses changes in the field of ageing and spirituality since the first edition of her book ‘The Spiritual Dimension of Ageing‘ was published in 2001. The updated second edition of this seminal text was published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers in February 2017.

The first edition of my book The Spiritual Dimension of Ageing was published in 2001 and since then we have continued to learn so much more about ageing and spirituality. What really started my interest in this field, both as nurse and priest, was the question of why, given the same medical diagnosis, two different patients could have very different outcomes, even with the same medical treatment. There seemed to be ‘something more’ that we needed to understand.
This continuing search has led to a number of studies since then and much listening to older people. The crucial factor in the different outcomes for those living with the same diagnosis often seemed to come back to matters of meaning and hope, which for me are strongly linked to the spiritual dimension, to the very depths of our being.

When I was researching for and writing the first edition of this book I was really seeing ageing from the outside. I was listening intently to the stories of people who were growing older, wanting to know what the actual experience was like. I was particularly interested in knowing how people saw meaning in life and the way they lived out spirituality in these later years.  Continue reading

8 Ways to be Spiritual AND Radical

1963_march_on_washingtonI’ve spent most of my adult life in bridging the gap between radical activists and anarchists on the one hand and the more socially conservative world of religion on the other. I’ve met inspiring people in both worlds and learned not assume which will contain the real world-changers. Many radicals are deeply spiritual and many religious people can do radical things. Is it possible to be both spiritual and radical? I think so.

From activist and Anglican priest, Keith Hebden.

  1. Discover who you are

Spend time exploring your own story with others and in private. Think about what the key moments have been in your life that have helped shape your values and your sense of identity. Hold each one up to scrutiny too. Marshall Ganz, who worked as an organiser among agricultural workers in the USA talks about having a story of ‘Self’, ‘Us’, and ‘Now’. If we can communicate with others, from the heart, the experiences that make us care about social justice, then we can better connect with theirs. Once we’ve found that connection we can act together. Marshall was deeply shaped by his experience as a Jewish emigre and second generation holocaust survivor. He learned the value of challenging racism and applied this in his work on labour movements amongst migrant farm workers.

  1. Discover who you are not

Just as we tell stories about ourselves, so do other people.  Everything you think you know about yourself is provisional at best. When I was only 18, I remember hearing a visiting speaker to my college say these profound words, “you are not who you think you are; you are not who other people think you are; you are who you think other people think you are.” Understanding our sense of self as spiritual, atomic, biological and social and that all these things are fluid helps us to allow ourselves to change and be changed by others, and not to expect other people to fit into the pigeon holes we like to put them in.

  1. Find Joy in your actions

Saul Alinsky, a pioneer of Community Organising in post-depression Chicago wrote that “An action that drags on becomes a drag.” We need to be agile in our social movement and always willing to find new and creative ways to respond to the bleak or circus-like messages of our oppressors. People come together for festivals and celebrations; if you want to bring people together find something worth celebrating: a win, a shared resource that can bring about change, something that brings you joy.

  1. Use the experiences of your own people

As an Anglican priest I am part of a community that has a rich tradition of ritual. We use ash for repentance and lamentation, we sing songs, we process and much more besides. When I wanted to mobilise church-goers on debt justice I tried getting them to hand out petitions and join a workshop but these things were way outside the experience of many. When I suggested a Prayer Walk for Debt Justice we mobilised seven churches in just three days. We used ash to mark ourselves as a sign of our complicity with an unjust world and ashed the doors of the payday lenders in our town centre: many people signed a petition and got directly in touch with the executive mayor as a result. Most importantly, we shared a meaningful public action that brought prayer and politics back together.

  1. Breathe

We can easily become overwhelmed with the world as it is and misunderstand or exaggerate our own roles in it. None of us are superheroes but, as Gandhi put it, we can “Be the change that we want to see in the world”. Learning how to be is the heart of what Dorothee Sölle calls a “mysticism of resistance”. Spend time each day in quiet contemplation, stillness, or mindful prayer. Take as a gift those fleeting moments when you will experience your unity with all things visible and invisible. These moments of mystical encounter will be your most important resource when you come under pressure.

  1. Kick off your shoes

It’s nobody’s fault. Somehow we lost our connection with rest of reality. We separated ourselves from nature and spirit. We put on our shoes and laid out the concrete and bunkered down. I’ve met people who have tried to go completely feral and it’s nearly killed them; we are domestic creatures now, for good and ill. But kick off your shoes every now and then. Some people make a permanent practice of it and go their whole lives barefoot; some people do so from necessity. Whatever way you do it, find ways to genuinely experience both the beauty and the horror of nature who is neither your friend nor your enemy but is as animated as you or I and with whom we belong. Throw caution to the wind and go a little wild.

  1. Make friends with death

Death is our constant companion. This truth is better experienced in some cultures than in others. In the western world human death is often professionalised, sanitised, and deftly dispatched of. Bits of our own bodies die in any given moment; whether vegan or omnivore, every human has a diet that relies on the deaths of others. Our body is a whole community of cells, bacteria, and viruses whose lives and deaths keep us in motion. Your own death is both a statistical certain and an illusion. By learning to live with our own death, and meditate on death, we learn to live lightly to our own place in the world and take the risks that are needed for social change.

  1. Become re-enchanted with religion

‘Religion’ can be seen as a dirty word. Leading a retreat with environmentalists in 2016 I was gently challenged by a woman who had had her fill of religion and said she wanted nothing to do with it. She was a Quaker and a member of a local Quaker Meeting! At the heart of the word ‘Religion’ is ‘Ligio’ which is where we get ‘ligament’ from too. Without ligaments to bind our bones together we wouldn’t be able to move as a body. In its broadest sense, religion is the binding together of people, in a voluntary association, to use spiritual tools for social change. To be spiritual but not religious is to play into the individualism that capitalism relies on. To commit ourselves to particularity and community – with all the compromise that this entails – is true radicalism.

Dare to be radical: dare to be religious.

To buy a copy of Re-Enchanting the Activist, click here.

Follow Keith on Twitter here.

Talking to Keith Hebden about Spiritual Activism and Social Change


Re-Enchanting the Activist

Author, Anglican cleric and prominent activist Keith Hebden talks to us about his new book, Re-Enchanting the Activist, and his motivations for getting involved in faith-based, community activism.

What motivated you to write Re-Enchanting the Activist?

My own experience of being a burned out and disillusioned activist was a real motivator for me in writing this book. Many years ago I lost sight of the ‘Why’ of activism because I was so excited by ‘how’.  At the same time a load of stuff happened in my personal life, some of which I describe in the book, that put my well being under pressure. It was at this point that I discovered some great spiritual writers who integrated politics and mysticism beautifully. People like Dorothee Soelle and Simone Weil. It was the beginning of a whole new adventure.

When did you first realise that you wanted to be a part of community activism?

I’ve been a church-goer pretty much all my life and that’s been a huge source of social action for me, even as a child. I’ve always been political and I’ve always been both religious and spiritual but how those things integrate changes over time. But you could say it was the Indian church that first taught me that politics and religion were one and the same. I owe much to the Dalit Christians – those that others have called ‘untouchable’.

While compiling the first-hand accounts that make up the book, did you come across any viewpoints that particularly surprised you? Or any that you disagreed with?

I have found the emerging gender politics a real challenge to my understanding. I’ve always found it frustrating the way people insist that ‘boys’ are like this and ‘girls’ are like that. But the idea that gender is a fluid concept and that people can relate to it in more ways that just ‘male and female’ still blows my mind. The implications are huge.

The book explores the relationship between spirituality and political activism. Why do you think modern activists will benefit from being open to spirituality?

I think most activists are open to spirituality but are sceptical about religion. I argue that religion is simply a commitment to a particular spiritual journey alongside particular people. Spirituality only really has meaning in community and so the type of spirituality I call for might be new to many activists for whom religion is normally beyond the pale.

You made the headlines in 2014 for your 40 day hunger strike in solidarity with people that rely on Britain’s foodbanks. What did you learn from that experience?

We were careful to describe it as a fast rather than a hunger strike, partly because it was explicitly a religious act but also because we had a particular cut-off point of 40 days rather than an open-ended action. I learned a lot about my own limitations and need for other people; there’s no way I could have fasted for 40 days without the care of others: I don’t have the temperament for this kind of endurance! Most importantly I learned to reflect on the huge difference between fasting and real hunger. Hungry people are often in debt, unable to pay utility bills, humiliated and made lonely by the experience. They often don’t know when or if the experience will end. My experience was affirming, powerful, and time-limited. They couldn’t be more different and yet through one I was able to stand alongside those who were suffering with the other.

You’ve been cautioned on a number of occasions for your involvement in direct activism. Have you ever done anything that you later regretted?

There aren’t many actions that I have done that I would not do differently. You only learn by experimenting. For example, when I was arrested in Gloucester Cathedral for protesting an anti-Palestinian group I went to the press before telling my Church leaders. This meant the bishop got calls from the press without being prepared. I learnt quickly that if you want support of sympathetic powerful people then, when possible, you need to keep them in the loop. Of course, activists also need to be agile and often covert so all lessons learnt are held lightly too!

Your religion is Christianity – would the book speak to activists of other faiths?

I am confident that my book will speak to activists of any faith, despite most of the resources being either Christian or Buddhist. My last book was aimed at Christians and yet many atheist friends said they found it helpful and exciting and wanted to share it with their peers. This book is deliberately expansive enough to mean that it can be a resource for anyone who is an activist and considers spirituality to be important. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be challenging.

What would you say to people who claim that religion has no place in politics?

You won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve had this thrown at me many times. I used to argue with people who said that religion has no place in politics, but now I don’t bother. In Europe we have a long history of the privatisation and domestication of religion that correlates with the rise of the state’s monopoly on territory and violence. But religion is supposed to be public and dangerous – in the best sense of both words. Usually when people tell religious figures to butt out of politics it’s more that they don’t like how they intervene rather than the fact of it.

You mention in the book that many people would describe themselves as ‘spiritual rather than religious.’ Why do you think that is?

Religion has got a bad press and in many ways that is well deserved. People want to be free individuals with their own spiritual agency. That’s all well and good but individualism is hardly counter-cultural and it is not going to change the world. We need a common life and that means reinventing religion – not as rugged individuals but as interdependent spiritual seekers.

What would you like readers to take away from the book?

A desire to find other people, in the places they live and work, with whom to conspire for a better world. We need to change the world as it is into the world as it should be and we can only do that together. We need to be more than just steam valves for an unjust system, we must also be whistle-blowers on the steam valves and a spanner in the works.

Follow Keith on Twitter.

For more information on his new book, click here.

A Q&A with Rosalind Bradley – author of A Matter of Life and Death

We talked to Rosalind Bradley about her new book, her motivations for writing it and her relationship with the concept of death.  Bradley_Matter-of-Life_978-1-84905-601-4_colourjpg-print

What motivated you to write A Matter of Life and Death?

The trigger for this book was my mother’s sudden death while she was staying with us in Australia, on holiday from England. It was a few days after ‘9/11’. One day we were strolling around the Sydney Opera House, the next day she was in Emergency Department following a cardiac arrest. I can still recall the physical and emotional numbness I felt that day and for many months afterwards. Her death completely shocked me as there had been no signs of any ill-health.

I had just started a new job, which certainly suffered as I tried to come to terms with this new reality. I am convinced now that the emotional numbness I felt inside me, which later manifested itself in chronic back pain, was the build up of grief inside me. In the wake of my mother’s death and the death and destruction from ‘9/11’, I became intensely curious about death and gradually, through a long period of spiritual and physical renewal, I accepted what had happened.

Several years later, after two close friends who were siblings died, I felt even more driven to come to terms with what is death? I knew I had to face up to my own fears and decide how I wanted to live the rest of my life. Exploring the mystery of death in all its rawness and complexity and gleaning some meaning from it led me to create A Matter of Life and Death.

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