Words by Bonny Ross
Illustration by Harry McLean
“Can you accept this?” the medium asks, relaying snippets of information to the man with a mullet seated two rows ahead of me. This spirit was a quiet person, she says, which makes her hand flutter over her mouth.
“Can you accept what I’m saying to you?”
Founded in 1870, the Victorian Spiritualists’ Union (VSU) currently has around 400 members. As a legally recognised religion, the union can perform weddings, funerals and naming ceremonies. Their faith is based on a single, simple belief in the survival of the soul after death.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I attended a regular Sunday service, especially having never been to church before. Would it be like an evangelical service from American television? Would there be a crystal ball and mystical seizures and a lot of fringed shawls?
The church hosts a modest audience, around 60 at the most, and only one or two other attendees are younger than 45. Most of the congregation is women and only one of the six speakers, or demonstrators, is male. A few members of the congregation are clearly ill, and several healings take place behind a curtain in a back room before the service begins.
The two demonstrating mediums perform in a surprisingly familiar way, relaying the spirits’ messages in a similar manner to the depictions of mediums in trashy women’s magazines and on television. It feels jarring when compared to the casual, unrehearsed feel of the earlier parts of the service.
Spiritualism came out of America in the 1840s as an overnight sensation. The Fox sisters—Leah, Margaret and Kate—of New York are credited with starting the movement in 1848. Many others followed suit, leading to the founding of The Victorian Association of Progressive Spiritualists (now VSU) in Melbourne in 1870.
Women in particular were among the most famous of the performing mediums, and the movement pushed for both female suffrage and the abolition of slavery. Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln, is one of the most famous early followers of the movement, holding séances in the White House while mourning the death of their son. Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the notoriously rationalist Sherlock Holmes, famously had a falling out with Harry Houdini over Spiritualism – Doyle was convinced of Houdini’s supernatural powers, while Houdini tried in vain to convince Doyle that all mediums were frauds.
Many mediums proved to be fraudulent, not surprising given the financial reward that came with their ability to draw crowds of thousands. The frequency of fraud accusations meant that by the late 1800s Spiritualism was on the wane. The 1920s saw the movement split into three directions: syncretism, survivalism, and the Spiritualist Church.
Common to all forms of Spiritualism, however, is the emphasis on the scientific investigation of spiritualist beliefs, with the faith basing itself upon ‘observable facts’. The VSU website has a page dedicated to ‘Scientific Investigation’, including information about previously sceptical scientists who became converts and an explanation of string theory that supports the existence of a spirit realm.
At the Sunday service, guest speaker Trish Roche, president of the Lilydale and District Spiritual Church, Inc., jokes about the ‘phases’ that Spiritualism has gone through—Egyptian, Native American, an obsession with crystals. She talks about the way spirits communicate today, with a wealth of media at their wispy fingertips (the departed son of a close friend played her Coldplay from the car radio; they like to communicate through music now). These days, it’s less about tapping and Ouija boards and more about details—observation, as Sherlock Holmes would have it. Music is popular with the VSU, with several songs during the service. The songbook handed to us—a plastic folder filled with photocopies —contains a number of traditional hymns as well: ‘What a Wonderful World’ and ABBA’s ‘I Have a Dream’. As people take their seats the organist plays ‘Life is a Cabaret’, followed by what I think is ‘I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts’.
“I will tell you this,” Reverend Carol Crawford-Kerr, one of the demonstrating mediums, says. “It’s about empathy.”
She explains that the patter on stage is the result of years of training designed to understand a gift she’s had from childhood; a gift she found terrifying. Crawford-Kerr does not advertise and accepts no payment for her services. The members of the church understand what it’s like to lose a loved one, and what it’s like to hear from them again. They have no interest in politics. If and when same-sex marriage becomes legal, they will perform them. Spiritualists take no official stance on abortion, but will connect women with their aborted babies if desired. The Reverend confesses to me that the Christian aspects of the Spiritualist service exist mostly to comply with government regulations about what defines a religion. All they really want is to connect with and understand spirits.
While the history of Spiritualism is plagued with fraudulent mediums and dubious evidence, the modern day church provides something very real: comfort and community. And as for the ‘science’ behind it all? Well, nothing has been disproved yet.