Are Certain British Officials Hopelessly Behind the Times? Or Merely Trying to Revise the Past?
he Charity Commissioners for England and Wales are attempting to deny what has been universally recognised for more than two thousand years—that Paganism is Britain’s most ancient religious belief.
Pagan religions flourished for half a millennium in pre-Roman Britain before the arrival of Emperor Claudius in AD 43. In the waves of conquests that followed, and particularly under the onslaught of Christianity, the religion of the ancient Celts was almost extinguished.
But through means unclear to historians, elements of the ancient ways survived, and today in Britain Pagans claim there are as many as 100,000 people who choose to follow the religious heritage of our earliest ancestors.
Yet despite the antiquity and endurance of their beliefs, the Pagans are not “religiously correct” in the eyes of the Charity Commissioners, who wield the modern sword of authority in deciding what is and is not “acceptable” religious belief in Britain.
In refusing to recognise Paganism as a religion, the Charity Commissioners are not only ignoring voluminous evidence to the contrary, including official recognition from the Home Office, they are also violating international law and perpetuating dark spectres of Christian intolerance.
Spiritual Support for Families
For more than 10 years, the Carmarthenshire-based Pagan Hospice and Funeral Trust (PHFT) argued for official recognition as a religious organisation from the Charity Commission.
The trust declared its purposes as “the relief of sickness and suffering particularly by providing physical, emotional and spiritual support, guidance, counselling and assistance for those who are terminally ill, particularly but not exclusively those who are Pagans or subscribe to Pagan beliefs, and by extending such spiritual support, guidance and counselling assistance to such persons, families and carers.”
But when the Commission finally agreed to register PHFT in July 1995, it was not as a religion, but under a general clause in charity law relating to organisations with purposes beneficial to the community.
Less than a year later, the Charity Commission notified the Pagans that they intended to revoke the organisation’s charitable status.
According to the Charity Commission, PHFT was apparently devoting too much of its efforts specifically for the benefit of Pagans and the advancement of the religion of Paganism.
In other words, an organisation which could not be registered as a religion because it is “not a religion” was violating its charity status by focusing too much on its religion.
“The original registration,” wrote the Charity Commission’s Pamela Holt on June 21, 1996, “may have been mistaken.” The Commission, she added, was seeking “to establish objectively whether or not the actual objects and activities of the PHFT do in fact further any purposes which have been established as charitable in law.”
The Pagans, in response, assert that the problem is a “blatant case of discrimination.” In support of that argument is the damning fact that it should not take ten years to determine that an organisation is a charitable organisation, only to comment almost immediately that this needs to be reviewed and “established objectively.” Clearly, the Commission is acting arbitrarily.
The Pagans also argue that the Charity Commissioners are exploiting the fact that they do not have the wealth of the established churches with which to defend themselves. The Commission can discriminate against them, said Trust coordinator Claire Prout, “safe in the knowledge that our only appeal against the decision is to the High Court for what amounts to a judicial review and that the Trust is very unlikely to be able to afford the cost.”
As a result of the Commission’s action, the Pagans will lose some very important financial benefits available to the many other charities that the Commission has recognised—including tax benefits, as well as the eligibility to receive grants from other charities. But more importantly, the Pagans now are likely to be classified—in the eyes of the public—as a “pseudo” or “fake” religion, something other than what it is.
The Charity Commission has suggested that Paganism is not a valid religion which, it suggests, “signifies a system of faith and worship involving the recognition on the part of man of some higher unseen power having control of his life and destiny which is entitled to reverence and worship in particular ways.” Further, this “unseen power” must be “a deity having an entity outside the body and life of the worshipper.”
Obviously, what the Charity Commission is trying to do is limit the definition of religion to one in which the Supreme Being is patterned on the Judaeo-Christian model. Nonetheless, it would appear that the Pagans easily meet this restrictive definition. As Prout points out, “all Pagans recognise that there is a force higher and more powerful than ourselves.... The difference between, say, a Christian or Islamic Deity and Pagan Deity is that we do not require another person to intercede for us.... Our Deity is within us and within all things that we perceive, as well as beyond us.”
But would the simple fact that the Pagans’ Deity is both within and “beyond” them be enough to make them fail the religious test? It should not, for the Charity Commission has for many years registered as religious charities groups which advance religions which do not meet this narrow definition.
For example, both Buddhist and Hindu organisations are registered by the Commission as religious charities despite the fact that Buddhists recognise no god, and that while Hindus have a number of them, many Hindus nonetheless seek Nirvana through introspection.
The Commission maintains that these exceptions are made for the world’s great religions because of their “antiquity.”
But could anything be more perverse than the British Charity Commission acknowledging the antiquity of religions of other cultures, while denying the oldest, pre-historic beliefs of their own land?
The Charity Commission portrays itself as an objective body, entirely independent of any personal prejudices. It merely administers the law. The Commission would have us believe that this definition of “religion” is simply an outdated hangover from an insular era when England knew little else than Christianity, and that the Commission therefore cannot be held responsible for any injustice suffered by religions such as the Pagans that do not meet its archaic definition.
This argument does not hold water. This is in fact a new suggested definition of religion, which is entirely unsupported by any binding authority in English law. Indeed, English law actually condemns such a restricted definition of religion—it has long been held that the English courts will not discriminate against any religion.
Further, as the Commissioners stated in their 1996 annual report, “It has long been recognised that the court has treated the concept of charity flexibly and has been willing to extend the meaning of ’charitable purposes’ to meet changed circumstances. It has been our belief that when Parliament entrusted us with the duty of registering charities and thereby of determining the charitable status of applicant institutions it expected us to bring to this task the flexibility which the court had already shown....”
Discrimination against non-Christian minorities like the Pagans is even more perverse when the present state of Christian belief in the UK is considered. Polls in recent years by Gallup, MORI, and other survey-conducting organisations concur that more Britons—even many Christians—believe in “some sort of spirit or life force” rather than a personal God in the traditional Christian sense.
Furthermore, even within the Church of England, many do not adhere to the “traditional” view of God. The Sea of Faith network—which views the concept of God as entirely a human creation—includes more than 100 Anglican priests. “You don’t need to believe in God to be a Christian,” said David Hart, senior Anglican chaplain at Loughborough university when the Sea of Faith arose in 1994.
Commission Out of Step with Home Office and International Law
The Commission’s denial of Paganism is also contrary to the unequivocal view of the Home Office which has recognised it as an official religion for the purpose of administering religious services within the prison system.
As described by The Reverend John R. Hargreaves, Assistant Chaplain General of HM Prison Service Chaplaincy:
“... Paganism is a valid religious registration that may be taken by prisoners coming into prison and registered as such they have recognised full religious rights in the practice of their faith.”
“From our point of view there is no question that Paganism is a valid religion having a deity, a clearly defined system of belief and practice.”
Even more importantly, in interpreting British law, the Charity Commission must ensure consistency with our obligations under international treaties to which the United Kingdom is a signatory. The European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights both forbid religious discrimination.
Article 9 of the European Convention states that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion....” A 1992 Council of Europe publication expressly states that this right “is not confined to widespread and globally recognised religions but also applies to rare and virtually unknown faiths. Religion is thus understood in a broad sense.”
Article 18 of the International Covenant contains similar provisions to protect freedom of religion. In 1993, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors the implementation of this Covenant, adopted a General Comment:
“Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions. The Committee therefore views with concern any tendency to discriminate against any religion or belief for any reasons, including the fact that they are newly established, or represent religious minorities that may be the subject of hostility by a predominant religious community.”
Since Parliament has ratified these international treaties, their application is not “optional.” But even if it were, does Britain want to be known as a country whose standards of human rights are below European and International norms?
Rights Upheld in Court
Although these two instruments are already enough to compel the Commission to register any appropriately organised Pagan organisation, a recent ruling of the European Court of Human Rights made the point even more finely.
The September 1996 Court of Human Rights ruling concerned a case brought against the Greek government by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The religious group had applied to the Greek Minister of Education and Religious Affairs for authorisation to establish a place of worship.
In the Greek procedure, the Ministry seeks the advice of the Bishop of the Greek Orthodox Church. In the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Ministry and the Bishop simply ignored the application.
The Court ruled that the Greek government had violated the applicants’ rights under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Court emphasised this point by stressing that “nontraditional” religions must be given the same opportunities as every other religion:
“The right to freedom of religion as guaranteed under the Convention excludes any discretion on the part of the State to determine whether religious beliefs or the means used to express such beliefs are legitimate.”
This point is worthy of note here, even though it may be said that Pagans are more traditional than tradition itself.
It is not wrong that members of a given faith consider their own beliefs above all others. People naturally believe their religion is “best"—or possibly even the only “true” religion – otherwise they would change.
What is wrong is that in the UK, where a Protestant Christian Church is part of the government establishment, the model of the “dominant” religion is used as a standard by which to measure others. If religions are to be judged at all for purposes such as the registration of charitable bodies, this must be done by the state acting in neutrality and tolerance of religious diversity.