On Saturday, a group of 65 men and women will gather via the internet from their separate homes to be ordained as ministers.
The candidates, who are currently taking part in a pre-ordination retreat (also online), will make vows of service and be anointed with oil as they take on their new roles.
But these minsters are not being inducted into Christianity, Judaism, Islam or in fact any recognisable faith tradition. Instead, they are being ordained as OneSpirit Interfaith Ministers.
The foundational idea behind the OneSpirit Interfaith Foundation, which has been training the 65 ordinands for the past two years, is that all the world’s faiths are different perspectives and approaches to the same core spiritual values.
“The idea is that there is a commonality of love and compassion that pretty much all the different religious faiths share,” explained Susan Mashke, an ordained interfaith minister herself and one of the trustees of the Foundation.
“They are all heading in more or less the same direction and this is appreciating each one of them for their unique way in which they understand spiritual growth and devotion.”
Each interfaith minister, therefore, has their own individual spirituality, drawing on many different religious traditions and practices. But once ordained and added to the register maintained by OneSpirit, they are able to conduct ceremonies and provide religious services to almost anyone, of any religious background or none at all.
Many of the ministers use the title Reverend, which is not a protected term in English law, and some also wear clerical collars. All are given a stole – the typical long liturgical scarf traditionally worn by Christian priests during services – at their ordination ceremony.
Susan Mashke said she had first been drawn towards ordination when her father had died and requested no funeral because of his antagonism towards organised Jewish religion. However, she and her family found the lack of a ceremony after his death “unfulfilling” which led to explore how a funeral could have been arranged which respected his antipathy towards institutional faith but still recognised the spiritual significance of his passing.
A common part of an interfaith minister’s work would be organising weddings where the couple come from different faith backgrounds. OneSpirit ministers try to create bespoke ceremonies which respectfully incorporate elements of each family’s religion, she explained.
In Scotland and Ireland interfaith ministers are able to register to legally solemnise marriages, so they could take over the whole role of a traditional priest or rabbi. However, in England and Wales the law does not recognise interfaith ministers, although OneSpirit is hopeful this may change soon – as are humanists, who have recently launched a legal challenge to try to force the government to allow humanist weddings to be recognised in law.
But as each minster has a unique spirituality, so each minster’s work is different. Ms Mashke herself said she tended not to do weddings or funerals and instead focused her efforts on mentoring others coming through the process, but knew of some ministers who made it their full time profession.
“It’s about being of service in whatever way you can. If you become an ordained minister and carry on working as an accountant, that’s fine. You’re somehow bringing your spiritual awareness, your care and compassion, into your daily life and that can be ministry. It’s a state of mind and way of being as much as it is actual activities.”
The two years ordination training, which costs candidates about £8,000, includes sessions with OneSpirit’s faculty in spirituality, personal development and more practical work on how to organise ceremonies. Representatives from different religions also come in to teach the intricacies of their own faiths to the ordinands as well.
Although many clergy are intrigued or pleased to find out how interfaith ministers use aspects of their faith, others are more hostile, Ms Mashke acknowledged. Many are happy to accept interfaith dialogue between the different religions but object to how OneSpirit ministers freely mix and match practices from Christianity, Buddhism and Islam all at once.
“There is something within each of them which points us to that which is holy, and that’s what we bring together,” she reflected. “There is such beauty and richness in every single one of the faith traditions.”
There was also a growing demand for interfaith services, she said. In particular, those from inner-city areas recognised the value of a spirituality which could reflect the diversity of modern British life. For others, the appeal came in how an interfaith minister could tap into a dormant religious background. Many who grew up as mainstream Christians, Jews or Muslims have rejected the institutional organised faith as adults but still value some of the underlying rituals, she said.
“What they have found through the interfaith concept is a renewed appreciation for their own religious tradition without the trappings of the institution.”
What is today OneSpirit grew out of a theological training college founded in New York in the 1970s by the Jewish rabbi Joseph Gelberman, a prolific proponent of the modern interfaith movement. Called the New Seminary, it sought to train religious leaders to work together.
One of the New Seminary’s faculty later founded the Interfaith Seminary, also in New York, which then inspired one of its British students Miranda Macpherson to plant a UK offshoot in London in 1996.
Over time the seminary has evolved from simply a training programme led by Ms Macpherson into a broader charitable foundation, and changed its name to OneSpirit in 2011 to reflect a similar rebranding by its American counterparts.
Today, there are hundreds of ministers on OneSpirit’s register, offering services from baby naming rituals to divorce ceremonies to spiritual counselling. Some also work as OneSpirit chaplains in hospices or hospitals as well.