Those 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.