Secular priest: research or consecration?

Until I met Niki Harré I’d never heard of a secular priest. I was intrigued but also felt confused. The two terms, secular and priest, didn’t seem to fit.

How could someone be a priest if there was no sacred text, no tradition that had been framed and forged across time. And what about God, G-d, Godde, the gods? My interest was piqued.

Secular Priest is constructed as a research project with three elements, 5pm Sunday services that are repeated by Zoom on Wednesday afternoons. Personal conversations where the intention is to talk about your deepest values and the contributions you are making or could make to collective life, including the struggles experienced through this process. The ceremonial aspect is bespoke, working with people to develop ceremonies for naming, new homes or transitions. Weddings and civil unions are excluded as celebrants need to be registered for these.

No particular background is needed to take part, but participants will become part of the observations, note taking and reflections that form the research element of the project. It is part of Niki’s professional work at the University of Auckland where she is a professor specialising in community psychology and the psychology of sustainability.

Professor Harré is not a clinical psychologist, but well aware of that specialty’s scope. She feels that there’s something missing in the clinical area. That it’s become technocratic, and very focused on solving projects, with pathways forward often framed in cognitive behavioural language. In other words, reflects Niki, ‘it’s all about you, you can be fixed and that’s the point’.

From her perspective, using a psychoanalytical approach aims at going deeper but she still thinks there’s something missing. That something is the recognition that we all have a role to play in our lives together. To Niki, how can I serve? is often a more interesting question than how can I solve the problems in my life? She suggests that the former evokes a deeper connection and may be what the church offers.

I agree that the long and convoluted Christian tradition holds enormous riches but whether the institutional church offers an obvious doorway to those in Aotearoa anymore is debatable. For home grown Kiwis who are progressively abandoning religion, those riches certainly seem to be unknown or unexplored. But according to Professor Peter Lineham we’re still looking for something although it’s often ‘spirituality without commitment’.

Niki has experienced some kind of call to this project, although she’s been completely immersed in secular society with no religious background. She has a strong sense that both the notion of God and aspects of organised religion offer something that’s missing in secular society but difficult to pin down.

‘Religion has always been other’, she said, ‘but I have this sense of feeling God, which is not the same as believing in God. Recently I lit a candle for a friend whose life is beset with struggle. The only thought that kept going through my mind was the wish that she find God. Not that her problems miraculously vanish. Finding God seemed somehow more real than sorting out her life. Or perhaps a first step to doing so.’

At this point words and their meanings become important. Words like God, you, spirituality, belief, I, commitment, faith, priest, secular, worship, religion and many others will arise to trouble this project. And I don’t just mean their dictionary definitions, their etymology or what has been agreed about them through consensus conferences. Instead, I’m talking about the lived experience of these words and how those meanings change in a person’s life over time if we remain committed, however haphazardly, to the journey to the interior.   

That journey is theoretically about knowing oneself, a maxim said to have been voiced by the Oracle of Delphi. It was encouraged by Socrates and other philosophers, picked up in The Matrix movies and lurks in the portals of holy places, therapist’s consulting rooms, dreams, hospitals, ancient texts and wherever a person ponders existential questions.

In a Jungian sense, knowing the self is likely impossible if this is the divine within, the force focused on moving us towards wholeness and integration. It seems that only glimpses and moments of dawning awareness are possible before clouds gather and we’re once more looking through a glass darkly, knowing but not knowing.

As my philosopher friend pointed out Aldous Huxley offers wisdom. ‘In practice “know thyself” is a call to total awareness. To those who practice it, what does total awareness reveal? It reveals first of all, the limitations of the things which each of us calls “I”, and the enormity, the utter absurdity of its pretensions’. However, the utter absurdity of knowing oneself, or the exploration, doesn’t stop us hearing the call to mission impossible.

That call is what infuses my life. It led to connecting with Niki at a function where I’d presented about spirituality in a way that incorporated Jungian perspectives. Taking seriously dreams, the unconscious and depth psychology. A reflection on where I sit, blending religion, spirituality and the psyche. An ongoing process for me that is well represented in the challenging and engaging new book: Religious but not religious, living a symbolic life by Jason E Smith a Jungian analyst in Boston. 

The call to this exploration is what I think Niki has heard and responded to. But it will change her, as it does all of us, if she enters into the process as a journey of faith. Not to be confused with belief, as Jason Smith says, ‘but recognised, rather, as a commitment to particular meanings and values, as well as a loyalty to that commitment …. a consecration of oneself, a self-dedication to a center, or centers, of value’ (p184). Could be a hard ask for an academic researcher.

My role is to walk alongside, take part, observe, reflect, ask good questions, be supportive and notice how research and consecration (inevitably in my view) become entwined. Sounds like good pastoral care. Count me in.

Take a look at Niki’s Secular Priest website:

4 Replies to “Secular priest: research or consecration?”

  1. Thanks Sande and John. For me “believing” evokes the idea of something tangible, that can be described by the believer. So I imagine that when people say they “believe in God” they mean that they have something in mind – not only does God exist but God’s qualities and actions can be described. For example God has “plans”, God is “good”, God has come to Earth through Jesus Christ and so on. Most of all, God is more than, or different from, the unfolding of life itself. What I feel at times is an extraordinary benevolence and beauty that seems thick and all-present, but at the same time intangible. It is absolutely still and in the present – it has no plan, and in a sense no past. It is beyond questions like good and evil – it just is. Is that God?

    1. Thanks Niki
      Really appreciate you languaging this some more. I just love the thick and all present, absolutely still, no plan and so on. And then the question about whether that is God. Seems to me that you’re describing what you you understand as God.

  2. An intriguing perception Sande – ‘feeling God’ seems a logical step toward belief yet may well be sufficient reality for some without further steps. I would not like to see the phrase diminished as somewho less than real – surely ‘feeling’ is as much reality as any other –
    My own journey began with Bible in Schools, sunday school and Bible stories read at home. I wouldn’t have separated feeling from believing but i can see how they could be – especially if conventional assumptions about the consequences of believing are not where some folk ‘feeling’ are at. Neither do I think feeling should be seen as simply a step toward believing. It may be but equally believing may lead to feeling

    1. Thanks for the comments John.
      I think Niki is using it with integrity. But, as always, the meaning of words can be complicated. Defining what she means by it could evolve for her as the project unfolds. And I like your circular process with this. Let’s follow the project and see what happens!

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