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International Network for the Study of Spirituality

Shaping and naming the organisation

Early days

The Minutes of an early meeting (3 March 2008) of the ad hoc group which subsequently came together to take this proposal forward record:

Creation of the National Association

Name: Discussion took place about proposed name - do we need national in the title if we want to open this up in the future. ... A point was raised about use of the word ‘study’ - is this the correct word to have in the title? It seemed the word study would give the association a gravitas and credibility. Previous discussions around the creation and title of the association had suggested ‘Association for the Study of Spirituality in Health and Theology’. A point was raised that this approach could be quite narrow and exclusive. It was agreed that we need a title that is short and punchy. Should the title have the word practice or applied? Again discussion took place that this would come under use of the word ‘study’. There seemed to be some agreement that the constituency of the proposed association or society would determine the scope of the title but we would not be able to accommodate everyone.

Proposed titles are:

  • ·         Association for the Study of Spirituality (ASS)
  • ·         Society for the Study of Spirituality (SSS)
  • ·         British Association for the Study of Spirituality (BASS)
  • ·         British and Irish Association for the Study of Spirituality (BIASS)
  • ·         United Kingdom Association for the Study of Spirituality (UKASS)
  • ·        Research Education and Practice of Spirituality (REPS).

These are to be circulated around the group for them to vote by the end of March 2008.

At the same meeting it was agreed that charitable status should be sought for the organisation. This would require a constitution to be established and actioned. Martin Aaron was to be invited to advise on this in the light of similar work he had undertaken on behalf of the National Spirituality and Mental Health Forum. The terms of reference were to be developed by a working executive which would be representative of the different centres, groups and individuals currently involved in the project. An Executive Committee was established, comprising:

Chair:                                     Simon Robinson

Deputy Chairs:                      Margaret Holloway and John Swinton

       (Margaret to take the lead on convening a conference)

Secretary:                              Wilf McSherry

Associate Secretary:             Linda Ross.

Other Executive Members:   Tim Couchman; Cheryl Hunt; and Bernard Moss

(Cheryl to take the lead on establishing a journal)

As the first elected President of BASS, Edward Bailey (2011: 11), subsequently noted ‘With no designated funding and no permanent meeting place, the group took what might be termed a leap of faith in deciding to follow the dual pathway of establishing a formal Association and hosting an international conference’.

By the end of 2007, the University of Hull had formally ratified the creation of the Centre for Spirituality Studies (CSS) with Wilf McSherry as Director, Margaret Holloway as Director of Research and Conferences and Jane McAteer as part-time Administrator. With the approval of the CSS Executive, Margaret later secured an expansion of Jane’s role in order to provide some administrative support for the development of the as-yet-unnamed BASS.

After much debate, ‘British Association for the Study of Spirituality’ was adopted in early 2008 as a working title for the new organisation, with the proviso that this could be discussed and, if appropriate, changed (to include, for example, ‘European’ or ‘International’) when the title and constitution were brought to the first General Meeting of the Association. It was agreed that BASS should seek formal recognition as a ‘Company Limited by Guarantee’. Plans were put into operation to launch the Association in early 2010 and to hold an international conference soon afterwards. A full draft proposal to establish a journal with the provisional title International Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Spirituality was circulated and discussed, and subsequently submitted to a commercial publisher.

By this point, the interests and expertise of those involved in creating BASS encompassed the academic disciplines and practice constituencies of nursing, social work, mental health, education, business and management, psychiatry, clinical psychology, religion, theology/pastoral theology, counselling and chaplaincy.

Problems and progress

Throughout 2008/9, the Executive group continued to meet when and where it could but, since the fledgling Association had no funding of its own, travel expenses often had to be tied to funding to attend other meetings or met out of members’ own pockets. The provision of meeting rooms was dependent on the generosity of (or the proverbial ‘turning of a blind eye’ by) members’ institutions/organisations.

Further discussions took place about the use of ‘British’ in the Association’s title, and what might be an appropriate logo and strapline. Suggestions for the latter included ‘exploring spirituality in research, education and practice’; ‘creating space through research, education, practice’; and ‘spirituality for today’s world’. The final choice, ‘Research ~ Education ~ Practice’, remains in use. The logo (the ‘three floating commas’), which also remains in use, was chosen from among several designs produced by Carl Schofield, a designer in the Print Unit at the University of Hull.

A potential problem arose about the use of ‘British’ in the title when it was pointed out that the acronym for the Association, BASS, is the trademark of a long-established brewery. Subsequent legal inquiries ascertained that beer and the study of spirituality could co-exist – as long as the latter did not adopt the red triangle and script lettering used in the marketing of the former! A different problem emerged during the process of registering BASS as a Limited Company when it was discovered that the formal use of ‘British’ in any title requires Government permission (which was eventually obtained).  

Such practical problems aside, the title has always begged questions, particularly as the reach of BASS has grown through the several international conferences it has subsequently convened. Indeed, at the first (Cumberland Lodge) Conference in 2010, representations were made by international delegates that it should be an international association. As the Association began to take shape, however, there was concern that it should not over-reach itself. Arguments for using ‘British’ rather than ‘International’ in its title ranged from the need to explore spirituality in a national context before trying to encompass developments elsewhere, to the potential difficulties (in a pre-Zoom world) of including international representation on the committee. At the formal launch of BASS John Swinton made it clear that:

The organisation titles itself as ‘British’, not because of any desire to be parochial or exclusive. Quite the opposite: BASS is committed to open dialogue across cultures and between nations. Nonetheless, the organisation does believe that there is something unique about British culture and about the ways in which spirituality is emerging and developing within it that requires focus and intentional conversation.

He added:

We hope that, over time, the field of spirituality will find coherence and drive; and that, in some small way, BASS will be seen to have contributed to the development of a field of enquiry that makes a difference, both now and in the future. (Swinton 2011: 13,16) 

A decade later, with international representation on both the Board of Directors and Trustees of the Association as well as the Editorial Board of its journal, itself with an increasing proportion of contributions from around the world, adoption of the ‘International’ moniker was finally deemed appropriate. The mission statement of the International Network for the Study of Spirituality encompasses and takes forward the initial hope that its founder-members had for BASS: to contribute to research in, and the development of, a field of enquiry that makes a difference, both now and in the future.

Pulling it all together

There were inevitably many tensions inherent in pulling together all that needed to be done in the three-pronged endeavour to (a) establish BASS on a legal footing with an approved constitution; (b) convene its first international conference; and (c) develop a journal.

The first step towards legal recognition of the Association required agreement to be reached on how its objectives should be expressed. Much discussion was eventually distilled into the statement that:

The purpose of BASS is to:

  • ·         encourage the further study of spirituality in its practical and theoretical aspects;
  • ·         strengthen the teaching and learning of spirituality as an academic and professional discipline;
  • ·         encourage dialogue about spirituality with different faiths, professions and interest groups;
  • ·         encourage and facilitate scholarship and research in spirituality, through the development of a              journal and joint collaborative research projects;
  • ·         establish an international journal of the association;
  • ·         hold a biennial conference.

The daunting task of hosting a conference on behalf of a not-yet-established organisation with no funding, website or database of its own was taken forward by Margaret Holloway. She was supported by a planning committee comprising members of the Executive, with additional contributions from Robin Gutteridge, Dave Hufton and Jonathan Smith, and advice from international colleagues: Carl Becker (Japan), Dennis Klass (USA) and Claudia Psaila (Malta). Bernard Moss generously helped to pump-prime the administration by drawing on funding associated with his National Teaching Fellowship. Plans were further boosted when Margaret successfully obtained a significant Conference Support Grant from the British Academy Additional contributions and endorsements came from the National Spirituality and Mental Health Forum (NSMHF); the National End of Life Care Programme; the Higher Education Academy; and the Montgomery Trust (see Chair's Report). Arthur Hawes joined the conference planning committee, and subsequently the Executive, as a representative of the NSMHF.

Cumberland Lodge, situated in Windsor Great Park, was chosen as the conference venue, partly because of its proximity to the transport interchanges of London, but mainly because its relatively small size and beautiful, peaceful, surroundings seemed to lend themselves to dialogue about the study of spirituality. Significantly, the ethos of Cumberland Lodge,  with its aspiration to ‘promote progress towards more peaceful, open and inclusive societies’, mirrored the values that many of the founder-members of BASS held and hoped to embed within its organisation. The ensuing relaxed and ‘conversational’ nature of the conference became a model for all subsequent BASS conferences.

While the conference plans were taking shape, those for the journal stalled. The proposal was rejected by two potential publishers because of its interdisciplinary nature; doubts about spirituality as a rigorous field of academic study; and concerns about its financial viability. The possibility of affiliation with an existing journal was considered and, to this end, Edward Bailey, Editor of Implicit Religion and Director of the Centre for the Study of Implicit Religion and Contemporary Spirituality, was invited to attend a meeting of the Executive Committee to discuss the nature of the field and what potential there might be for future collaboration. Edward continued to contribute to the work of the Executive in a consultative capacity and was instrumental in drafting much of the documentation which eventually fed into the constitution and legal standing of BASS. However, negotiations with other publishers were also pursued and BASS was eventually able to establish its own journal.

Coming into being

The British Association for the Study of Spirituality was formally launched in London on 29 January 2010 in the prestigious surroundings of the Charterhouse. Facilitated by Arthur Hawes, the event included an optional tour of parts of Charterhouse which were not at that time open to the general public. As a member of the group observed, it seemed fitting to be celebrating an historic moment for BASS in a venue which claims to have been living the nation’s history since 1348’! 

The inaugural speech was given by John Swinton as Acting Chair of the Association (Simon Robinson having stepped down as Chair some months before). Re-viewing the event a decade later, John observed: ‘The Charterhouse launch was the culmination of multiple minds, much passion and many invaluable gifts of time.’ (Swinton 2020: 6)The observation also holds true for the subsequent development of BASS

Plans for the first conference and the establishment of a journal both came to fruition in May 2010 when more than 100 delegates from around the world gathered at Cumberland Lodge for a conference described as ‘a ground-breaking interdisciplinary initiative’ (see the Chair’s Report). It included six keynote lectures, more than 50 papers presented in parallel sessions, and two roundtable workshops. Janet Joyce, Managing Director of Equinox Publishing, was in attendance and the announcement was made at the gala dinner that Equinox had entered into an agreement with BASS to publish a new journal, to be entitled Journal for the Study of Spirituality (JSS).

The conference culminated in the first General Meeting of BASS and the formal election of an Executive Committee. John Swinton and Margaret Holloway had decided to step down from their roles as Acting and Deputy Chair, respectively, but were willing to remain members of the Executive; Bernard Moss did not seek election because of his forthcoming retirement. The following people were elected to the Executive by a vote from the floor:

President:                                Edward Bailey

Vice Presidents:                      Arthur Hawes and Wilf McSherry

Membership Secretary:          Linda Ross

Other Executive Members:     Janice Clarke; Tim Couchman; Peter Gilbert; Margaret Holloway;

   Cheryl Hunt; John Swinton.

Ex-officio member representing JSS: Josie Gregory

There were no nominations for Treasurer but the role was subsequently taken on by Martin Aaron.

What happened next (a potted history!)

Formal status

Martin Aaron completed the process of registering BASS as a Private Company Limited by Guarantee: the Certificate of Incorporation was issued by Companies House on 2 March 2011, with all 12 members of the newly-elected Executive becoming Directors of the Company (Company No. 7549446). David Rousseau successfully steered BASS through a lengthy process towards inclusion in the UK Register of Charities on 9 May 2016 (Registered Charity No. 1166990) (see Achieving charitable status)


The first issue of the Journal for the Study of Spirituality was published in May 2011, with Cheryl Hunt as Chief Editor; Peter Gilbert, Margaret Holloway, Linda Ross and John Swinton as Executive Editors; and Josie Gregory as Book Reviews Editor.

Comings, goings, and events

Tim Couchman resigned his Directorship of BASS in November 2011 having been instrumental, with his colleague Robert Nesbitt, in setting up the Association’s first website. Margaret Holloway also resigned as a Director in 2012 having been seconded to the National End of Life Care Programme, but remained on the Editorial Board of JSS. She was subsequently co-opted back onto the BASS Executive Committee to convene the 2016 conference. The 2012 and 2014 conferences were convened by Arthur Hawes. John Swinton took the lead on liaising with colleagues in the European Conference on Religion, Spirituality and Health (ECRSH) in convening a joint conference in 2018.

Chris Cook, a keynote speaker at the 2012 conference, joined the Executive Committee that year and later became a Director. He was elected President in 2014 when Edward Bailey completed his four-year term of office. Other Officers elected (or re-elected) at the same time were Arthur Hawes and Cheryl Hunt as Vice-Presidents; David Rousseau (who had been co-opted onto the Executive in 2013) as Company Secretary; and Linda Ross as Membership Secretary. Later in the year, Helen McSherry succeeded Martin Aaron as Treasurer; and Melanie Rogers joined the Executive as a representative of the Student Support Network (SSN). Michael O’Sullivan, a member of BASS since its inception, was co-opted onto the Executive in 2017 as a representative for international members. Later co-options included Joan Walton as convenor of the 2020 conference; Sophie MacKenzie as social media co-ordinator for the SSN; Robyn Wrigley-Carr as an international representative for JSS; and Adam Boughey to support work on the website.

During his term of office, Chris Cook enabled the BASS website to be hosted at the University of Durham, with Charidmos (Harry) Koutris as the web administrator. Chris’s retirement from BASS in 2018 and the need to relocate the website led to a decision by the Executive Committee to undertake a comprehensive review of the Association. David Rousseau and Cheryl Hunt acted as Co-Chairs during the review period, key outcomes from which were proposals that (a) BASS should change its title to International Network for the Study of Spirituality (INSS); (b) Executive roles should be redefined; and (c) a completely new website should be developed.

The name change required approval of the BASS membership. This, together with approval of the appointment of Directors and Trustees for the new Network, was given at the Annual General Meeting in June 2020. The meeting was held virtually as a consequence of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, which had also led to the postponement of the 2020 conference. In November 2020 plans to reschedule the conference as an online event in June 2021 were announced and the new website for the International Network for the Study of Spirituality was launched.

(Cheryl Hunt, with additional material and memories from fellow founder members of BASS:

Linda Ross, Margaret Holloway, Wilf McSherry and John Swinton. November 2020)

BASS becomes the INSS


The Annual General Meeting of the British Association for the Study of Spirituality (BASS) took place online on 8 July 2020. (The face-to-face meeting which should have occurred during the 2020 BASS Conference had been cancelled as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic).

A near-unanimous decision was taken at this meeting to approve a proposal put forward by the Executive Committee to change the name of the Association to 'International Network for the Study of Spirituality' (INSS).

The reasons were as follows:

  • The Study of Spirituality has always been, and remains, the primary focus of the Association's ongoing work.
  • International better represents not only the scope and aspirations of this work but also the nature of the Association's current membership, participation in its conferences, and reach of its journal.
  • Network signifies both inclusiveness and interconnectedness.


Inclusiveness and interconnectedness

Since its inception, BASS has been concerned with the kinds of inclusive practices that promote 'hospitable conversations' (Swinton 2011: 13). Such conversations help to develop the study of spirituality by crossing professional, disciplinary and cultural borders in order to deepen understanding, create new syntheses, and encourage best practice in research and professional and community settings. Not only does the term 'Network' encapsulate these kinds of multi-faceted and evolving processes but the imagery associated with it is significant.

As the Editorial of the Journal for the Study of Spirituality notes in reporting on the change of title from BASS to INSS, 'Network' is redolent with the imagery of 'Indra's Net'. This is a concept derived from Vedic cosmology which is also a central principle of Buddhism. The net represents an infinite cosmos, spreading in all directions with no beginning or end. At every node of the net there is a jewel, each one reflecting the constantly-changing patterns in all the others ad infinitum. The imagery suggests that each entity in the universe contains within itself the stuff of the entire universe. Thus, the whole is not created by the coming together of individual parts which each has an independent existence; rather, the whole and the parts are inseparable.

A similar image underpinned the old Anglo-Saxon concept of the 'Wyrd', a vision of the universe 'rather like a three-dimensional spider's web' such that 'Any event, anywhere, resulted in reverberations and repercussions throughout the web' (Bates 1983: 12). Modern scientific research, particularly in both quantum physics and ecology, indicates that the universe may indeed have such qualities. Drawing on influential work undertaken independently at the University of London, UK, by physicist David Bohm (a protégé of Einstein) and Karl Pribram, a neurophysiologist at Stanford University, USA, Michael Talbot (1991: 2) refers to a 'holographic universe'. He argues that this concept is not only compatible with quantum theory but it helps to account for 'a wide range of phenomena so elusive they generally have been categorized outside the province of traditional scientific understanding'. These include phenomena that are experienced in so-called altered states of consciousness – many of which may be described as 'spiritual'.

Such concepts and imagery are obviously radically different from those of the 'clockwork universe' which, as Edward Dolnick (2011) illustrates, have dominated Western philosophical, political and scientific thinking since the seventeenth century. Many thinkers and writers have challenged the continuing relevance of this view - and argued that its emphasis on 'separateness' is not only incompatible with what is now known about the operation of complex systems, but its influence on human society has highly undesirable and unjust consequences. Sally Goerner (1999), for example, points out that, while the science of the Enlightenment was helpful in its own time, it has created a mindset that values competition, control and dominance; it permeates approaches to everything from economics to urban planning. In arguing that the time has come to re-envision the future in ways that take account of complexity theory and human relationships, she refers to a 'web world'. 

A sign of its time?

It is almost forty years since Peter Russell (1984/1991: 89) illustrated how ‘We are deeply entangled in the most complex web of social, political, economic, ecological and moral crises in human history’. Taking a similar view, Norman Myers (1990, 180) concluded that ‘we are at a hiatus in the course of human affairs. It is a unique time: a time of breakdown or breakthrough’. The coronavirus pandemic has now brought our interconnectedness, our wyrd nature, into sharper focus than ever before and poses a direct challenge to clockwork thinking. It illustrates painfully how singular events in one part of the world have reverberations and repercussions throughout the whole complex web of our human and planetary affairs. Whether or not it heralds an imminent breakdown of the clockwork universe or a breakthrough to a new way of understanding and being in the world remains to be seen - but it already seems to have proved the point that Russell went on to make: ‘crises may lead us to question some of our basic attitudes and values: Why are we here? What do we really want? Isn’t there more to life? This questioning opens up … the opportunity to change direction’ (ibid., 90, original italics). Observation suggests that the pandemic is currently providing fertile ground for such questioning.

The newly-titled International Network for the Study of Spirituality offers a forum for the critical examination of such questions and their implications in research, education and practice.


Bates, B. (1996) The Way of Wyrd. London: Arrow Books.

Dolnick, E. (2012) The Clockwork Universe. New York: HarperCollins.

Goerner, S. (1999) After the Clockwork Universe. Edinburgh: Floris Books.

Myers, N. (1990) The Gaia Atlas of Future Worlds. London: Robertson McCarta.

Russell, P. (1984/1991) The Awakening Earth. London: Ark

Swinton, J. (2011) 'What is missing from our practice? Spirituality as presence and absence', Journal for the Study of Spirituality 1(1), 13-16.

(Cheryl Hunt, University of Exeter, UK. November 2020)

In Memoriam

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