Crystal maze: Inside the new age economy

June 15, 2007

Few places in the UK attract such a range of pilgrims and spiritual seekers as Glastonbury. Hailed as "the cradle of English Christianity" and Arthurian Avalon, it is also an important pagan and Druidic centre, boasts England's first officially registered Goddess Temple and is considered to be a significant "earth energy centre", at the convergence of a number of ley lines. It has become synonymous with the "spiritual supermarket", the personalised "pick and mix" approach of contemporary "integrative" spirituality, and a unique spiritual service industry has arisen in the town as a result.

Historically, pilgrimage centres tend to generate a symbiotic mixture of obviously "spiritual" goods and services alongside the "normal" goods and services that cater to the everyday needs of visitors and residents. In Glastonbury, shops such as the butcher and baker exist alongside The Magick Box, The Goddess and the Green Man, The Crystal Man, Stone Age, Starchild Apothecary, Yin Yang and The Speaking Tree bookshop.

There is both regular bed and breakfast provision and a specialist accommodation sector offering services such as massage, meditation and healing. There are local events such as Extravaganzas (concerts in the Abbey grounds) and the Glastonbury Carnival (part of the West Country carnival circuit in November), as well as overtly spiritual/religious annual events, such as the Anglican and Catholic pilgrimage days, the Goddess Conference, the Glastonbury Symposium on crop circles, courses at the Isle of Avalon Foundation, and events throughout the year related to the special times on the "eightfold calendar" adopted by many pagans.

It is worth noting that regular and spiritual businesses alike tend to regard the Glastonbury Festival - held in nearby Pilton - as bad for business: people stay away from the area as they assume roads will be blocked and the town will be crowded. The town also has roughly four distinct groups of residents: what are locally called "alternatives" or "Avalonians" (those drawn to Glastonbury for spiritual reasons); incoming retirees; incoming commuters; and locals, often known as "Glastonians".

Most active are alternatives and locals, who often have radically different views of their town.

The alternatives see Glastonbury as a vibrant centre of spiritual activity and pilgrimage. Their numbers have steadily increased since the 1980s as new people feel "called" to move there, and many of the enterprises they have started appear to be thriving. Some "spiritual entrepreneurs" have now become local employers with, in addition to shop work, either small-scale manufacturing or warehousing and mailing operations. While they benefit from the cachet of a Glastonbury address, their turnover is also boosted by increasing internet sales. Many of these spiritual/alternative businesspeople are particularly sophisticated in their use of the internet, which allows them to handle physically quiet periods more successfully than some others. The Avalonians envisage a great future for the town, based on the spiritual economy and pilgrim services, and wish to explore ways of promoting it further as a spiritual centre. They would like to become increasingly involved and be influential in the Chamber of Commerce.

Meanwhile, many Glastonians tend to feel that the town is in decline, with the loss of traditional industry, retail competition from the Clarks factory outlet in nearby Street, and a variety of socio-economic problems.

They would like to attract more "normal" tourists, although the infrastructure that might encourage coach parties, such as free coach-parking and restaurants able to cater for large numbers, is lacking.

By looking at Glastonbury and unusual aspects of its economy, such as barter time-banking and a range of spirituality/healing-related occupations, I am trying to understand not only what might be best for regeneration of that town but also how the spiritual economy could play a role in regeneration more generally. At the same time, I am interested in the practical and theoretical issues it raises. Literature on entrepreneurship points to the need to be flexible, to take risks, to learn from experience. Entrepreneurs are able to "re-narrate" themselves in response to success and failure, developing different measures of success from those of the corporate world. Many of these qualities match aspects of contemporary spirituality. While not quite on the same scale as development of the Protestant work ethic, today's spiritual entrepreneurship may mirror the way Quaker businesses developed. When you have people with a highly individualised concept of spirituality who reject mainstream values and measures of success, and try to do business with some sort of spiritual insight, different business forms inevitably emerge.

Many of the forms of business found in Glastonbury are indeed different.

While some alternatives make a good living from their businesses, they tend to shun conspicuous consumption and prefer a modest lifestyle. There is a strong sense of being "called" to Glastonbury and of "business with purpose". They consider being successful in business to be proof that they are doing the right thing, or conducting their business in the right way, and the idea of "business with integrity" is very strong.

The owner of a crystal shop in the town, interviewed as part of my research, said: "I don't look at figures, I don't look back - how was it last year and what do I need to do next year. I just roll along with it. As long as there's enough money to pay for everything and something left over I'm happy." Yet he also works hard to make sure there is enough money. This man also has a TV sales show that is attracting huge audiences. He explains this as part of his mission to educate people about the power of crystals.

But as another entrepreneur commented: "There's no point in being spiritual and bankrupt."

Marion Bowman is senior lecturer in the department of religious studies at the Open University. She is in the process of carrying out surveys and interviews in Glastonbury as part of a project on the spiritual economy, partly funded by a British Academy research grant.

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