Isn’t it time we stopped pretending that all religions are equal?

Religious SymbolsThose who keep a close eye on legal issues relating to religion will most likely have noticed that the dispute between the Preston Down Trust, a Plymouth Brethren Christian Church (PBCC) meeting hall, and the Charity Commission for England and Wales appears to have been resolved at last after dragging on since 2009. I was actually asked to appear on BBC 1’s The Big Questions last year to discuss it, but was very glad in hindsight that I wasn’t available. It’s a complex case that revolves around whether this very strict branch of the Brethren church deserves charitable status. In order for an organisation or group to hold this status they have to demonstrate that they provide a beneficial impact to society. The PBCC’s practice of separation from the world  and in particular numerous reports of socially isolating members who have not complied with strict codes of behaviour and ex-members being prevented from having regular contact with family members have caused a great deal of concern.

The Charity Commission has now received acknowledgment from the PBCC for what it describes as ‘past mistakes’ and says it has seen evidence that the PBCC is ‘evolving and increasing its level of engagement with the public’. Although this is a positive development, for a government body to be causing a religious organisation to change historic habits raises a whole series of questions as to future implications of the relationship between state and faith groups that will take some time to answer. What is clear is that interactions such as this where different worldviews collide are often troublesome. The recent decision by the Supreme Court to designate Scientology as a religion led us into the uncomfortable situation where judges and lawyers decide what religion is or isn’t and whether following a philosophy and worshipping a deity should be classed as the same thing. In doing so the state has (once again) rewritten the dictionary.

Trying to quantify the unquantifiable especially when those grappling with theological issues aren’t theologians is bound to cause a lot of upset. If you ask a primary school pupil to explain what a religion is based on their RE lessons, you’ll probably be told that it’s mostly to do with believing in something you can’t see, carrying out acts of worship that involve the use of symbols, festivals and following various rules and regulations that are written in religious books. This is a very naïve and simplistic understanding but it’s not always obvious that our legislators have a much better comprehension of it. If you examine the Equality Act of 2010, which rolled various other acts into one homogenous lot, it doesn’t take much effort to envisage some of the problems it creates. Equal treatment regarding age, disability, marriage, civil partnerships and race should be pretty straightforward to deal with. Gender reassignment and sexual orientation have caused a few problems, but this is nothing compared to religion. How do you make all religions equal when they can be so vastly different? If Scientology, which is still regarded by many as a scam and a cult can be classed as a religion, then surely Jedi (as Archbishop Cranmer argues), which does not demand money from anyone and registered 176632 adherents compared to Scientology’s 1745 in the last census, is more deserving of the ‘religion’ label.

Religion is anything but black and white, refusing to fit into neat little boxes. If it was then we wouldn’t have seen judges reaching opposite conclusions over whether Sunday worship is a key component of the Christian faith in the recent case of Celstina Mba and the subsequent appeal. If followers of a religion hold different views on an aspect of their faith, it’s a joke to expect a high court judge as an outsider to make a decision on their behalf. Christianity in particular falls foul of this approach. It isn’t even seen by many to be a religion if you define one as the need to follow a set of laws in order to achieve greater worth or divine favour. Christianity has grace at its heart – God coming to us rather than us striving to please a deity or reach enlightenment. Giles Fraser picked up this theme in his Guardian article on Christmas Eve:

‘At [Christianity’s] heart is a figure who was thoroughly suspicious and condemnatory of religion. “Jesus came to abolish religion,” says the Washington-based poet and evangelist Jefferson Bethke. His YouTube poem Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus received 16 million views within two weeks of it being released. He’s right: the New Testament must be one of the most thoroughly anti-religious books ever written. It makes Richard Dawkins look very tame fare indeed.

‘Jesus spent much of his time laying into the pious and the holy, and lambasting the religious professionals of his day. And this was not because he was anti-Jewish – as some superficial readings of his anti-Pharisee, anti-Sadducee, anti-Temple polemics would have it – but precisely because, as a Jew himself, he came out of that very Jewish prophetic tradition of fierce hostility to religiosity. Here, for instance, is the prophet Isaiah on feisty form.

The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me? says the Lord. I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New moons, sabbaths and convocations – I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.

‘This is the sort of theology to which Jesus looked for inspiration. And partly, it was this uncompromising anti-religiosity that got him nailed to a cross.’

The Equalities Act may aim to treat religions equally, but rephrasing George Orwell’s famous words; ‘Some religions are more equal than others’. It doesn’t take much effort to realise that Scientology will never be on a par with Christianity. Rather than continuing to spend time attempting to reduce religions via lowest common denominators to manageable impotent organisations as some legislators have done, perhaps a focus on their differences is long overdue.

Jesus didn’t seem to think much of equality of religion; he was pretty scathing of it. What he talked about instead was fruit:

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognise them.” (Matthew 7:15-20)

That fruit is defined later on in the Bible as love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

It might appear somewhat contradictory to use the teachings of one religion to define how all religions should be viewed, but there are universal truths here and if anyone wants to offer a better alternative, they are welcome to do so.

Deep down do we not find it at least uncomfortable when we see members of some religions attempting to impose their beliefs by force or physically attacking those who disagree with them? Do we think that religions that discourage their adherents to consider how their texts should be interpreted or suppress anything that isn’t the official line should be treated with a degree of suspicion? If members of religions aren’t allowed to leave without facing ostracism, persecution or even death, should this not be a cause for concern?

If those who are religious or even anti-religious demand respect rather than attempting to earn it through the way they act, should this be accepted at face value? Atheist groups now expect to be allowed to attend events between religious leaders and politicians because of equalities legislation even though they seek to diminish the role of religion in public life. They are often keen to demolish the existing structures whilst offering very little of substance to replace them. Take for example the position of bishops in the House of Lords. There are good reasons why we have 26 Lords Spiritual, but the British Humanist Association is campaigning to see the back of them. The bishops may be there for historical reasons, but if they were abusing their positions there would be an outcry amongst their fellow peers.

Christianity came to this country not by force and the sword, but by missionaries who sought to win others over through their message. It spread and became the predominant religion because this message was accepted and believed. Over the centuries it has continually proved itself and also its value to society. That is ultimately why the Lords Spiritual deserve their place in the House of Lords.

If we choose to be blind to actions of faith groups who go out of their way even at a considerable cost to themselves to serve the hungry, the homeless, the marginalised, the sick, regardless of their own beliefs in the name of ‘equality’, then we only deprive ourselves of much that will better us just in order not to offend a few people who perhaps in the end deserve to have their sensibilities shaken up with a dose of reality.

Categories: Equality, Faith in society

13 replies

  1. For me, Gillan hits the button in declaring that Christianity has grace at its heart – “God coming to us rather than us striving to please a deity or reach enlightenment”. This is the defining difference between Christianity and other religions and the very essence of what has been lost in so many of today’s churches. Even where the doctrine is known, the Christian ethic seems to be to struggle on, being as good as we can be, and striving to please God enough, ultimately to make it to Heaven.

    In that, mankind is attempting the impossible. Speaking as an ex-Pharisee, Paul says of the Israelites in Romans 10:2-4 that they had a zeal for God, but their zeal was not based on personal knowledge. “Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness”. In other words, their religious efforts actually obstructed what God, through Jesus, could have given them.

    How badly we need to rediscover “God coming to us” in response to genuine heart cries for Him, which He will always hear, giving us new hearts in exchange for the old, as promised in Ezekiel 11:19 & 36:26. “Born again” then becomes a reality, far more than human resolutions ever can. The disciples asked how any man could be saved? A fair question – to which Jesus replied “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible”(Matt 19:26). A new heart is a miracle by the Holy Spirit, a gift from above and the very reason for which Jesus chose to die for us (Heb 12:2).

    This is what the revivalists of the past discovered, often to their own surprise. It was something that far surpassed “the religion” of their day, revived the churches, galvanized our nation and spread to many parts of the world. That is our heritage. I can think of nothing that would more truly define the worth and uniqueness of Christianity in today’s muddled world.

    As for politicians and interpreters of laws, the reason for their lack of knowledge and consideration is understandable. Maybe the majority do not believe that religions any longer matter in themselves. Their prime concern is that people get along together peaceably, and can we blame them for that?

  2. Thanks, as always, for an interesting and thought-provoking post – but may I offer a slightly different take on the issue?

    Freedom of thought, conscience and religion is protected by Article 9 ECHR. So long as we remain signatories of the Convention, that is a given. However, while people can believe what they like and practise their religions as they wish so long as they remain within the law (human sacrifice on religious grounds and slavery, for example, are emphatically out), that does not necessarily privilege them in other respects. The point about the Exclusive Brethren case is that charitable status confers tax advantages on them which are not shared with groups that are not charities. Charity law in all three jurisdictions establishes that, in order to be charitable, the advancement of religion must be “for the public benefit”; and the Charity Commission concluded that, on the facts, what the Exclusives were doing did not confer sufficient public benefit to qualify them for charitable status. (The Commission made a similar ruling against an application for registration by the Church of Scientology in the 1990s.)

    As to the recent decision by the Supreme Court to designate Scientology as a religion (which might have implications for its possible registration as a charity at some future date) I don’t think the principle was anything new. What happened was that the SC effectively reversed the decision of the Court of Appeal in R v Registrar General ex parte Segerdal & Anor [1970] 3 WLR 479 CA which seemed to hold that “religion” implied the worship of a Supreme Being and then went on to make an exception for Buddhism. I should say in passing that his judgment in Segerdal was not Lord Denning’s finest hour and, in my view, the SC was entirely right to reverse it; but the wider point is that the courts seem to have been defining “religion” since at least 1970.

    Similarly, there have been two contested attempts by the LDS to have its temples in East Grinstead and Preston registered under the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855 as places of public worship, which would exempt them from business rates; and both have been rejected by the English courts on the grounds that LDS temple worship is not public because only Mormons with a “temple recommend” are admitted. The second of them, Gallagher v Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints [2006] EWCA Civ 1598, is currently the subject of an appeal to Strasbourg and a lot of people, including me, are awaiting the outcome with interest.

    In short, I guess that what I’m trying to say is that, though as a soaking-wet liberal Quaker all my instincts are to agree with you, the law has got to try to be objective as possible as between different – and sometimes competing – religious claims. To turn the issue on its head, if we were to start to discriminate between particular religions against some kind of theological quality-assurance criteria, there are a lot of people out there who would regard my version of Quakerism as almost indistinguishable from humanism and who might suggest that what Friends do, even if it is otherwise socially-useful, is not for the advancement of “religion” (as they understand it) at all.

    Frank Cranmer

    • Thank you once again Frank for your laser sharp insight and depth of knowledge. Sometimes I wish that I had you on tap when I write my posts to run things by you especially when they relate to the law. Your Law and Religion website is a fantastic resource that I drew upon heavily when writing this. I think your final paragraph is particularly important. Objectivity in relation to the law and religion will always be a struggle but we should try to avoid the more benign faiths losing out because they are less aggressive in their demands. Of course more easily said than done!

      • (Er, now I’ve stopped blushing…) I think you’ve stated the problem in a nutshell – and it’s an incredibly difficult one to resolve. The trouble is that one person’s devoutly-held religious beliefs can often add up to another person’s definition of “barmy” – so I reckon the function of the law has to be to hold the ring in as objective a way as possible. And for charities, I’m content that that should mean some kind of assessment by the regulators of benefit/disbenefit in individual cases.

        It’s not as if it’s a new concept: in Gilmour v Coats [1949] AC 426 the House of Lords held that a bequest to an enclosed order of Carmelite nuns was not for the public benefit – and therefore not charitable – because the nuns did not engage with the public. So what the Charities Act 2006 (consolidated into the 2011 Act) did was to give statutory effect to what was already in the common law. But it’s a very, very difficult judgment for regulators to make and I don’t envy them having to make it in the slightest.

    • I note with interest Frank, your comment that, “Freedom of thought, conscience and religion is protected by Article 9 ECHR. So long as we remain signatories of the Convention, that is a given.”

      I have long held the view that the Exclusive Brethren now calling themselves Plymouth Brethren Christian Church or PBCC, are violating this Human Right in many ways (along with at least 14 other
      ECHR Articles). The reason I came to this conclusion was, that 99.99% of members are born into the group and were given no choice or personal decision to join the PBCC. This is totally unlike other traditional churches such as RC and CofE, where a child may well be Christened as a child yet still have to act on their own to apply to become members as they become old enough to make a decision.

      This total enforced membership in the PBCC is then punishable by loss of spouse, children, other family, home, job, finance, friends and Church, if and when the person grows up and decides to act on their own free decision (backed up by the very Human Rights Article 9 you referred to), on whether or not to continue to be involved in the PBCC as members. However, there is no real choice in this as they have already been made members, often against their will or without even being allowed to have a choice in the matter, and there is certainly no freedom in this either, which totally violates this Article.

      Leaving the PBCC has not been tolerated or permissible without serious consequence and awful punishment in the past, which includes losing everything you have, as the list above will show. There is also no allowance for personal conscience or thought in the PBCC at any time, there is only ever an “Assembly” position, which all members have to conform to, or be put out of the Church totally, if a time of “shrinking” or shunning does not bring about a change to that person’s conscience and thought, to bring it in line with the dictates of the PBCC Leader, called the Minister of the Lord in the Recovery.

      I have a personal friend, who is a dedicated born-again Christian, who loves Jesus and who has always sought to follow Him, who was told to leave her family and the PBCC just for not agreeing to follow their rules and dictates but wanting to follow Christ. This kind of thing is unchristian and tragic. The behaviour of the PBCC in this manner so concerned me, that I was instrumental in helping to formulate a complaint to the IHRC to make specific complaint about all the ECHR Articles the PBCC were breaching. It appears they have in word at least, sought to re-write their principles and practices so they fall outside of these breaches at this point, however time will tell if they really put there new policies into action. If they do not, the IHRC case will continue to be taken forward, as it should be.

      • Suzie

        There are two things going on here, and they aren’t on all fours.

        First: are the Exclusive Brethren practising a “religion” protected by Article 9 ECHR? The answer to that, in law, must be “yes”. Whether or not one agrees with a particular religion is not to the point: there are all sorts of religious practices with which non-adherents of a particular religion might not agree. A member of the Society of St Pius X, for example, would no doubt regard me (and, probably, Friends generally) as not only a deluded heretic but a dangerous one who, by rejecting almost the entire Nicene Creed, was helping to put the immortal souls of others at risk. It’s not a description I would recognise of myself, but it takes all sorts…

        Secondly, for the purposes of recognition as a charity, is what the Exclusives do “advancement of religion for the public benefit”? That’s an entirely separate issue: enclosed religious orders certainly advance religion, but because they are enclosed they do not normally do so for the public benefit: Gilmour v Coats.

        The Charity Commission decided initially that what the Preston Down Trust did was not for the public benefit and said that it would lose its charitable status then, after negotiation, concluded that, on the basis of the document submitted to it by the PBCC it did, in fact, demonstrate sufficient public benefit to retain its charitable status and agreed that it would continue to be recognised as such. But, so far as I can see, the Charity Commission’s decision means nothing more than that: it says nothing whatsoever about the truth (or even about the desirability) of the PBCC’s doctrines and practices. What will happen in future, as the Charity Commission monitors compliance, we must wait and see.


        PS: Church “membership” is a very difficult concept indeed. In my own Society one has to apply formally to become a member, applicants are visited by two existing members to talk over their application and the visitors then report back to Area Meeting. But only very, very rarely would an application for membership be refused – it’s never happened in my own Area Meeting in my experience. (I still remember my own membership visit ten years ago; and since I was admitted to membership I’ve done a few such visits myself – they’re one of the most enjoyable things that a Quaker gets to do!)

        But it’s not exactly like that in the outside world. Certainly, so far as the C of E is concerned, “membership” is conferred by baptism: would anyone seriously suggest that baptised children were not members of the Church? Confirmation and entry on the electoral roll are another matter entirely. Moreover, baptism and confirmation don’t, so to speak, wash off: so as someone who was baptised and confirmed in the C of E I suppose that if I presented myself at the communion rail at Mass I wouldn’t be turned away. Of course I wouldn’t do such a thing, partly out of respect for the feelings of the person administering communion and partly because it would by totally inconsistent with my position as a Unitarian/Universalist Quaker – but I guess that, from a C of E point of view, in some tenuous sense I’ll always be an Anglican by default. In any event, it’s not got much to do with being on the parish electoral roll.

      • Thanks for your response Frank, you are of course right, however I was coming at the issue from a slightly different viewpoint, which I many not have made clear in my post, so I apologize for that.

        In the International Charter of Human Rights, it is Article 18 which gives Freedom of Thought, Conscience & Religion, written as below:

        “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

        It was more the fact that the PBCC (previously Exclusive Brethren) enforce non-choice membership in a way that is foreign to even most Christian Churches – in that they decide you are a member when you “break bread” as a small child with no idea or thought of your own, and if you choose not to be a member any more when you grow up and use your own mind and free will, you are punished most severely by loss of everything including your own family. As a member of the C of E (or here, the Anglican Church), I can guarantee that they do not treat their members in this way. Just because a child is Christened in the Church, does not mean the Church imposes its religious beliefs on that child by force, nor do they refuse to let it go when it grows up and makes up its own mind. That child has not made a choice in freedom to believe, and C of E/Anglican Churches respect and uphold that. That child would also be free to attend any other church during life and also to come back to the C of E/Anglican Church at any time in its life and to freely participate in Church and also with its family at all times without restriction. In that you are very right, the Christening or Baptism of the child into the C of E/Anglican Church does confer membership privileges, but it also doesn’t come with punishment.

        The PBBC certainly do not give you any freedom to change your religion or belief, well they certainly have not in the past. They punish you for not conforming to their Church beliefs, even if you never believed them and never wanted to be a member. They have no respect for the fact that children are unable to choose freely to participate in their religion by exercising their thought and conscience, as this is as yet undeveloped. Their actions in doing so is removing all of the Human Rights conferred in the Article above. As previously mentioned, they also do not allow any individual freedom of thought or conscience either, if you disagree with their collective or assembly decision, you are out, that’s it. I would imagine that the clear breach of freedom to change your religion or belief as expressly granted in the above Article, is the reason why the PBCC have really been forced to take a new and different line when dealing with those who leave their group. They knew that if they did not, then the complaint to the International Human Rights Council would continue. We know that they have said they will change, but whether or not we find this follows through to any action or not, still remains to be seen.

        I hope that this explains my position more thoroughly, but I would still appreciate your thoughts on the matter, as you seem to have a very firm grasp on the legal side of religion in our world. God Bless, Suzie

  3. I agree with you that it’s worrying when the government starts putting pressure on religious groups to follow it’s own code of behaviour (hence my alarm at the PMs ‘get with the programme’ comments on women bishops). But I’m a bit confused about the Plymouth Brethren case. Isn’t it a bit difficult to describe yourself as a charity if you’re not actually involved with the public? Surely the charity commission weren’t trying to close down the group or force them to change how they operated, they were just explaining that they had reconsidered the charitable status when they discovered that they were more involved with the wider community than they had previously thought. I guess the question I’m asking is, do we have a right to expect the government to give us tax breaks so that we can organised our own closed prayer meetings?

  4. I’m still not convinced that the PBCC deserve charitable status for the reasons that you point out. There is still that difficult element of defining how beneficial to the public an organisation has to be. It is a fine line and one that the Charity Commission appears to have trodden carefully in this case. We do need to appreciate that it is difficult for those deciding on these cases and that ruling on matters of religion is rarely simple. That is why it is important that legislators are sufficiently religiously literate in order to avoid rulings that make little sense or swayed by those who shout the loudest or kick up a fuss.

    I found this summary of the PBCC case from the Evangelical Alliance very helpful:

  5. Good article Gillian. I however found the initial statement from the Evangelical Alliance as to the Charity Commission decision in the PBCC case to be questionable indeed. It appeared they seemed to have the idea that just because a group was called Christian, that this conferred special treatment in the eyes of the law. I found this article from Law and Religion, to be much more balanced:

    I have been following the case closely as I have helped to rescue victims of abuse by the PBCC and I am very also publicly outspoken about their failing to address this problem, both in the past and still currently. I feel totally vindicated by the Commissions findings that there were indeed “elements of detriment and harm”, as I have been often accused by the PBCC as lying about this. I would like to note here, that although the PBCC have apparently demonstrated willingness to “address” their admitted “past mistakes” to the Commission, there has yet been no evidence of this being acted in any practical way by the PBCC.

    To that end, I truly doubt their sincerity and are left to wonder if all this new “compassion and forgiveness” is purely a ploy to obtain the Charity Status they have long sought. Thankfully however, the Commission does not appear to have been duped in the slightest, and they have wrapped their agreement with the PBCC up pretty watertight, although there are still many ‘out clauses’ in the new “Faith in Practice” document which has been made binding on the amended Trust Deeds. I guess only time will tell how truly repentant the PBCC are, and especially in how they might address these past mistakes with at least a very public apology. On top of this, I believe a dialogue and audit and compensation, in much the same way as the RC Church and the C of E are currently doing, is necessary for them to retain any credibility.

    • Yes I recommend the Law & Religion article too. Their site is an excellent resource and always gives very balanced and accurate information and comment. Frank Cranmer who co-runs it has commented above.

      I also have major concerns about the PBCC’s sincerity too. If they were aware of serious past failings, why did it take the Charity Commission to cause them to act?

  6. Your concern about the PBCC’s sincerity is justified. They used to just call themselves Brethren or Plymouth Brethren, but to distinguish them from others who did the same they were known as Exclusive Brethren. When a question arose with the Charity Commission as to their charitable status, they began to concern themselves with charitable acts such as giving to other charities and the setting up of their Rapid Relief Teams the world over to provide refreshment to firefighters etc.

    In their doctrine however, they say that “You have got to hate the world”. Computers and mobile phones used not to be allowed. Brethren whose work involved computers (or even radio pagers) had to leave their jobs and some who had mobile phones were “withdrawn from” (excommunicated). They used litigation to pursue and bankrupt any ex-brethren who set up a website, finally taking over one such website. Computers (with limited access to the internet) are now actually on sale by a brethren firm. Last year they rebranded themselves as the PBCC and on their new website they trumpeted all the charitable acts they were engaged in and published a book “Public Benefit” doing the same. It does seem unusual that they are prepared to alter the principles of their faith, as stated in the revised Preston Down Trust document, in an effort to convince the CC that they are of benefit, and not harm, to the community.

    While it is laudable that they are actually doing good to people other than themselves, what is questionable is whether all this activity is for the sake of the financial benefit that charitable status confers.

    What remains to be seen is how they will treat ex-members (some of whom were “withdrawn from” for trivial reasons and were treated as outcasts), will they allow such to have free intercourse with relatives, and will they make reparation to those whose families have been broken up and lives shattered by the divinely ratified “assembly judgements” they now aver to have been wrong.


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