Earlier posts here and here have considered the discrimination issues faced by church authorities regarding the commercial letting of churches, chapels and church halls to other groups for yoga classes, concerts and other activities. To the Portsmouth example of ‘spiritual yoga sessions’ should be added an earlier event in which the High Priestess at the Crystal Cauldron was refused the use of Our Lady’s Social Club in Shaw Heath, Stockport for her Pagan group’s Annual Witches’ Ball.
The general issues concerning what constitutes a religion are discussed in Chapter 3 of Law and Religion, and one of the few articles on the law and witchcraft is ‘Witchcraft: from Crime to Civil Liberty’ by Caroline Briggs-Harris, (2011) Law and Justice, Trinity/Michaelmas, No 167, p 54 which notes:
‘courts appear to be moving towards accepting a wider definition of religion and faith. Paganism and witchcraft, although not yet specifically identified by the courts, could be deemed to fall within the protection afforded by the human rights legislation’.
But not yet. However, Gloucester Cathedral appeared quite willing to permit the filming Harry Potter and the Sorcerers’ Stone. The cloisters and crypt were transformed into Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, causing upset to a local Christian group who complained that the cathedral was no place for a story about magic, sorcery and witchcraft.
Durham Cathedral was equally willing to allow the filming of the controversial final episode of the 1960s police drama Inspector George Gently, which featured a gunfight in the Cathedral, where young choristers are seen fleeing from rehearsals before characters are shot dead and collapse in the central nave.
The Northern Echo reports that Chapter of Durham Cathedral said ‘gave much consideration to the programme’s content before making a decision on filming and sought the advice of the bishop’. It continues
‘the episode reflected the cathedral’s history of having been a place of both sanctuary and brutality and was a kind of morality play in which it was obvious the perpetrator of the violence was bad, and good and evil were clearly identified.’
In fact, a search on the internet for churches and cathedrals that have appeared in films will reveal that many have been used as such at some time or other. Perhaps most problematic was the filming of the 1976 horror film ‘The Omen’, and the subsequent adverse reaction of those who might otherwise have visited the Cathedral, here. The Dean voiced strong objections when the film was remade, (in Prague), but an official Church of England spokesperson ‘used more measured tones to fight its corner over The Omen’ is quoted as describing the Book of Revelation as a ‘difficult text full of allegory and allusion’.
The many issues to be addressed when permitting third parties to use an (Church of England) church building were reviewed in an article by Charles George QC, a former Chancellor of the Diocese of Southwark, ‘Shared Use of Church Buildings, or, Is nothing Sacred? (2002) 6 Ecc. LJ (31) 306. He concluded that the nineteenth century outlawing of pure secular uses on consecrated land was (in 2002) merely part of legal history, and the present position was that the use:
- need not be ecclesiastical in purpose, provided the primary use of the church remains that of worship;
- need not be ancillary to worship;
- not be pastoral in motivation;
- can be purely commercial; and
- the prime motivation for allowing the use can be to raise revenue for the church.
The only impermissible uses were those which:
- prevent the primary use of the church being for the purpose of worship; or
- involve activities which are unsuitable in a church, either because of some conflict with the teaching of the church, or because they would be unlikely to be regarded as acceptable by right-thinking members of the Church of England.
The situation has progressed and the CofE now actively encourages the use of churches as venues for wedding receptions, here, and Diocese of London gives detailed practical and very useful advice on filming within the diocese, here, and on ‘marketing your church as a location’.
When addressing the use of a church building by other churches, faith communities and voluntary groups, here, the underlying issue within the Roman Catholic Church is how the building is considered: as domus Dei, the house of God; or domus ecclesiae, the house of the People of God. After Vatican II there was a tendency to move from the first approach to the second, although the first concept remained important. The guidelines note:
‘If the Church is considered the house of the People of God, then the use of the church will depend in part on who is seen as the ‘People of God’.
The present wider use of churches and cathedrals shares with this approach a common appreciation of a ‘sacred space’ within the building, although the delineation of that ‘sacred space’ and the permissible uses of the building may differ.
I sometimes wonder what, precisely, might now be “unlikely to be regarded as acceptable by right-thinking members of the Church of England” for the purposes of “permissible use”. I haven’t forgotten the minor row in 1996 about a Bill Viola video installation commissioned for Durham Cathedral – The Messenger – showing a naked man emerging from a pool, then sinking and re-emerging. Some people thought it was “art” (whatever that might mean), while others thought that it was “obscene” (whatever that might mean).
I’m sure that Charles George was and is correct in his assessment; but what it might mean in practice becomes harder and harder to determine. And it ducks the question as to who qualifies as a “right-thinking” member of the C of E: Michael Nazir-Ali? Giles Fraser?
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