Druidry is to become the first pagan practice to be given official recognition as a religion in the UK. After a four-year fight, the Druid Network has been granted charitable status by the Charity Commission for England and Wales, making it the first pagan group to be recognised under the 2006 Charities Act. This guarantees the group, set up in 2003, valuable tax breaks, although it doesn’t currently earn enough to benefit from this. It could also pave the way for other minority faiths to gain charitable status.
Emma Restall Orr, founder of the Druid Network, said: “The Charity Commission now has a much greater understanding of pagan, animist, and polytheist religions, so other groups from these minority religions – provided they meet the financial and public benefit criteria for registration as charities – should find registering a much shorter process than the pioneering one we have been through.”
In its assessment the Commission accepted that Druids worship nature, in particular the Sun and the Earth; and that they believe in the spirits of places such as mountains and rivers as well as “divine guides” such as Brighid and Bran. The document listed the “commonality of practice” in Druidry, including its eight major festivals; rituals at different phases of the Moon; and gorsedd – gatherings of bards on sacred hills.
All charities must now demonstrate their benefit to the public, and Druidry was said to qualify since its followers were keen to conserve Britain’s heritage and environment. The Commission’s 21-page document noted that, although there were only 350 members of the Druid Network, a BBC report in 2003 claimed as many as 10,000 people followed the faith. Membership of the group costs £10 per annum but rituals, such as marking the Summer Solstice at Stonehenge, are open to all.
The original Druids were a priestly class in Celtic Western Europe during the Iron Age, but our knowledge of them is limited to a few descriptions left by Greek and Roman writers – recurring themes include human sacrifice, a belief in reincarnation, and the ritual of oak and mistletoe described by Pliny the Elder. As Professor Ronald Hutton of Bristol University says in Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain (2009): “Not one single artefact or image has been unearthed that can undoubtedly be connected with the ancient Druids.” Modern Druidry stems from the Celtic revival in the 18th century; human sacrifice has been superseded.
The antiquarian John Aubrey erroneously linked Druidry and the far more ancient Stonehenge in the 1690s. Modern Druids began going there around 1905, but before that, from around 1870, local people gathered there informally in large numbers to watch the midsummer sunrise, with pubs staying open all night for their benefit in the 1890s.
Spiritual rather than cultural Druid groups began in the early years of the 20th century, but did not really take off until the revival of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids in 1988 and the founding of the British Druid Order in 1992. Today there are over 30 different Druid organisations in Britain.
Not all bodies that consider themselves religions are successful in seeking charitable status. In 1999, the Charity Commission ruled that the Church of Scientology “is not a religion for the purposes of English charity law”.
D.Telegraph, Independent, BBC News, 2 Oct 2010; Andy Worthington, “Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion” (Alternative Albion 2004, pp15–16.)
Melanie Phillips and the 'Stones of Praise'
If right-wing tabloid columnists measure their success by how many letters of complaint they receive from offended readers, Melanie Phillips must have been delighted by the reaction she received to her piece on Druids in the Daily Mail on 4 October.
Entitled “Druids as an official religion? Stones of Praise here we come”, the piece began: “Will someone please tell me this is all a joke.” She goes on: “Can it be long before the BBC transmits Stones Of Praise, or solemnly invites listeners to Radio 4’s Thought For The Day to genuflect to a tree?” Philips says that classing Druidry as a religion, as the Charity Commission have done, “is an attack upon the very concept of religion itself” and then states categorically that Druidry is not a religion but a cult – a distinction that sociologists of religion frequently spend entire chapters on.
Phillips then asks rhetorically, “Can it be long, indeed, before the wise and learned theologians of the Charity Commission similarly grant charitable status to sorcery, witchcraft or even the Jedi.” (In fact, Ronald Hutton estimated in 1996 that there were then over 10,000 members of initiatory witch traditions in Britain, and the 2001 Census figures suggest that taking all neo-pagan religions together, they make up the seventh largest faith group in the UK.
In the course of her article, Phillips describes the Charity Commissioners’ decision as “absurd” and “malevolent” and Druidry and other neo-pagan beliefs as “totally barking mumbo-jumbo”, and finishes: “We are hurtling backwards in time to a more primitive age.” And here’s a memorable addition to Mad Mel’s Meditations: “There is nothing remotely enlightened about paganism. It was historically tied up with both communism and fascism, precisely because it is a negation of reason and the bedrock values behind Western progress.”
The Druids responded rapidly. Within a week an online petition raised over 4,000 signatures, demanding “a full and public apology from Melanie Philips” for her article “as it is no more than an ill-informed attack upon the religion/faith/ spirituality of Druidry”. Comments alongside signatures included, just on the first page: “Highly offensive, inaccurate, poorly researched and bigoted”, “abhorrent”, “disgusting and totally ignorant”, “Mocking any belief system only foments hate and intolerance” and “Clearly hate mongering… biased and uninformed”.
The petition was delivered to the headquarters of Associated Newspapers, owners of the Mail, on 11 October by a delegation led by the colourful Druid activist King Arthur Pendragon, first fully robed, then in a T-shirt proclaiming “I’m the one the Daily Mail warned you about”.
The protest then moved on to the Press Complaints Commission, where a second copy of the petition was handed in. The PCC report that in all they have received 119 formal complaints about the Daily Mail article; they are handling all the complaints together, focusing on an un-named lead complainant.
Many of the complaints cited Clause 1 on accuracy and Clause 12 on discrimination of the PCC’s Editors’ Code of Practice. When the PCC acknowledged each complaint they pointed out that Clause 12 is designed to protect individuals rather than entire religions. “It is therefore unlikely that a complaint under this Clause will prosper, taking into account the Commission’s previous decisions. We will therefore concentrate our investigation under Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code,” they wrote.