When Ann Napier, the loved co-founder of Cygnus, went into hospital last year she was given a standard form to complete and one of its sections asked for her religion.
Similarly, in a few weeks’ time everybody who lives in the United Kingdom will be asked the same question when a large envelope thuds through our letter boxes, containing the questionnaire for the 2011 UK Census, which everyone is required to fill in by the 27th March. In the section that asks ‘What is your religion?’ there are boxes you can tick. They vary according to whether you are in Wales, Scotland, England or Ulster, and include: ‘No Religion’, ‘Christian’, ‘Buddhist’, ‘Hindu’, ‘Jewish’, ‘Muslim’ and ‘Sikh’.
The last box in this section states ‘Any other religion’ and you can write in your own answer.
An opportunity for influence
So, what will you write in that box?
This issue requires, I believe, some careful consideration, because the information from the Census will be reviewed by Whitehall civil servants and the Office for National Statistics and then used to guide national and local government policy. It can influence, for example, the curriculum of Religious Studies in schools, the way in which pastoral and chaplaincy work is done in hospitals, colleges and prisons, and NHS initiatives that link spirituality with wellbeing.
For the last three years I have been part of a group thinking carefully about how best to work with this opportunity. The problem is language. Is there a single word that we could all use in the Census and the hospital Religion Box? In the conversations I’ve had over the last years, comments include:
‘Why one word?’
‘Why not spiritual?’
‘Are you trying to create another religion?’
‘Isn’t diversity the answer. The more different words the better.’
I understand and respect all these perspectives but, my friends, could we not possibly, just for the sake of this exercise and the collective good of our nation, agree on a single term?
When Ann went into hospital, she wrote ‘holistic’ in the religion box. ‘Holistic’ is also the word that I am suggesting we all might consider using in the Census form too.
‘Holistic’ is a good and useful word. For a start it does not mean a particular religion, faith or belief. What it means is a general approach – an approach that is open-hearted, open-minded, recognises the connections between all aspects of life and respects the essence of all the world’s various spiritual traditions. It is also a word that recognises the links between spirituality, health and wellbeing; and supports our care and love for the natural world. It is also a word that is respectable, mainstream and already widely used in education, healthcare and government. It is a neutral kind of word, but nevertheless inclusive and suggesting many positive things.
But I understand fully that it may not be the right word for you. It may not sing to the tune of your heart. All the same, for the sake of the Census and a unified voice, I would love you anyway to consider using it.
Here is what Gill Edwards, one of our most eloquent and inspirational spiritual teachers, has to say:
‘Countless people are deeply spiritual but not religious – and it is time for us to stand up and be counted, literally. The Census is an opportunity to reveal the changing face of religion, as so many connect with a broader awareness of life, while not identifying with a mainstream religion. I will be writing ‘Holistic’ in the box on Census day.’
And here is what Tim Freke, another of our best spiritual authors, writes:
‘For some decades now a new form of spirituality has been arising as an alternative to traditional religion and secular materialism. It is hard to define because it is so open an inclusive, but I am happy to call it ‘holistic’, because it needs a clear name if it is to have a voice within our culture: And it needs a voice so that the huge number of people who are part of this important development in the evolution of spirituality can be recognised and their insights heard.’
Towards the end of January (after this issue of the Cygnus Review has been printed) I will be participating in a small meeting of peers in the House of Lords, with the possibility of a joint statement supporting this holistic approach and perhaps even an ongoing all-party group focusing on a holistic approach to spirituality in education, healthcare and social service. The meeting may come to nothing (I will report back in the next issue of Cygnus), but it is hopeful and interesting that there are peers who are interested and, for them, the word ‘holistic’ certainly struck the right tone.
What then might be the benefits of this consistent approach?
If we can create a coherent voice and demonstrate that there really is a growing number of people who have moved on from adherence to a single faith, to a more modern and inclusive approach, then we will be able to support, for example, all those teachers and healthcare workers who are already working with a holistic attitude. Imagine a quiet room in every school dedicated to religious studies and self-managed healthcare. Imagine all hospital boards having a holistic committee member representing an inclusive spiritual approach and the benefits of spiritual healing and holistic pastoral care.
From one angle, all of this would just represent a change that is already happening, but is not yet represented in official bodies. By writing ‘holistic’ in the religion box, you can help integrate our creative and positive spiritual ideas into the fabric of society — spiritual citizenship!
If you support this idea, please tell your friends and register your support on our new website www.whyholistic.org. Individually we can do great good, together we can work wonders.
All my love, William
If you would like to distribute fliers for the Census campaign, please contact Chrissy Holmes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 07947 114553 or download them and print them yourself from