Spiritual Tourism

The 2016 Census of Ireland shows that Killarney has the highest average age of any town of 10,000+ in the Republic.
The average age of people living in Killarney in 2011 was 38.9. The average age in 2016 was 40.9. The average age across Ireland has risen similarly. Added to that there is a notable proportion of the visitors to Killarney and County Kerry that are in the older age range.

In response to the Census findings, the following is a copy of the interview Simon Lumby, Rector of St Mary’s Killarney, recently gave to The Living Church, a U.S.-based magazine focussing on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.

· What are some examples of ways that older people are connecting with God while visiting (or living in) Killarney?

We find that the older people who visit Killarney—there’s a preponderance of retired people—are willing to take their time and ponder what they see and feel. The younger people that come want to experience the culture; older people seem more to want to experience context. So we are engaged in providing the latter with a new way to understand that “uplift of the spirit”, that feeling in the heart, that comes from being inspired by the landscape and the spiritual history.

The primary focus of “Spiritual Tourism” is not about overt faith-based activities like pilgrimage; though it can and does encompass that as well. “Spiritual Tourism” is about pointing to the inner connection and uplifting reaction people feel through their experiences of nature and culture and showing them that it is a communication with the Divine. This draws them into an awareness that God is always present and always accessible. They have these experiences already, we’re giving a name to them. Giving them a new way to interact with God that the church would not have offered them previously. In this way we’re accessing the kind of interconnection the early Celtic Christians would have taken as normal. Since we only have access to the visitor for a short while we have posters, banners and leaflets that communicate this message.

As to the members of the congregation, who are also predominantly of the older range? We have an extended opportunity to teach them about a holistic approach to faith. Finding God in and through all aspects of life. We take our inspiration from the early Celtic Christians who had a pervasive sense that God was present and that all their experiences were embedded in God’s grace and guidance.

· Is the diocese viewing the older population in churches as more of a resource than a problem? Sometimes there is fretting in the United States about high average age.

This is a long process of education. Many still hold to the traditional idea that if you’ve not got young people in your church then you’re failing. However, this misses the point. We are given older people who have the time and inclination. Our message is that older people have the wherewithal to make sense of their past and present with nuanced perception and “the wisdom of years”. So they are neither resource nor problem. They are a fertile ground into which to plant the seed. The seed we are seeking to plant is a holistic understanding of God’s presence, and that Christ calls us to trust the Creator, just as He did.

If the lack of young people in our churches was the sole determinant of our survival then we should be extinct by now. That this has not happened over generations points to the fact that our churches are habitually repopulated by the older age range. Grandparents have a particular influence over grandchildren; such as parents cannot have.

· What are ways in which visitors can engage in Spiritual Tourism? What does that look like? What do people walk away with?

We are looking at creating resources that visitors can pick up, leaflets, brochures and guided tours in which we highlight the early spiritual culture of the Christian landscape and use this to show why it was that the first Christians were drawn to particular places and activities. What was it that inspired them? How did God communicate with them through the environment? We can then show that the vary same modalities—communication through the medium of creation—are at work today in everyday life.

They walk away with a sense that God is present and that they now have a language of spiritual communication with which to build that personal relationship that God desires. Life itself is spiritual. So tourism is only a subset of the activities that can engage with this. It just so happens that tourism is the venue within which this uplift is most noticeable and most appreciated. And we’ve got a lot of uplift in Killarney!

· What kind of people seek Spiritual Tourism? Are they Anglican? Christian? Seekers?

Nobody is seeking this kind of Spiritual Tourism; well, at least, not knowingly. (Although people of faith will seek pilgrimages.) Spiritual Tourism is the label for an instinct embedded in a humanity that is made in the Image of God. This instinct is easily demonstrated in the lives of the early Celtic Christians and so this place and that backdrop is the best way for us to demonstrate this truth. Every person is a spiritual person. Many have suppressed, or ignored, or had it corrupted by life’s experiences. However, it remains intrinsic. What we’re attempting is to raise awareness in individuals, at the moment of their experience, of a fact that has escaped them (and indeed the whole western church); that God is always and intimately present. And that they have an inbuilt capacity to experience the Divine. They have been taught that it’s just a feeling. We’re trying to point out it’s conversation with God.

· What has the diocese learned in building this program? Is it growing churches? Improving spirits?

We are learning that it’s easier to dialogue with those who’re unchurched, because they’ve not been indoctrinated with church tradition and dualistic teaching. We’re learning that it’s paradoxically easier to dialogue with those whom the church has harmed or damaged or rejected, notwithstanding that they’ve built a barrier to anything related to church, because they instinctively seek redemption and acceptance by God. We’re learning that its the staunch and traditional members who’ve built up a supportive structure on the wobbly edifice of church dogma that are the hardest to reach. We’re learning that it doesn’t grow churches initially, it grows faith and goodwill. What it does do is change what people expect from church: evidence of a spirituality instead of a prescription. Which implies that church needs to change what it offers. Perhaps it’s time for the church to deconstruct its modus operandi and be reborn?