The Council of Europe’s draft document on sects: one Quaker’s perspective

The Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has produced a report on The protection of minors against excesses of sects. Perhaps the key passage in the draft Resolution included in the report is this: That the Assembly

“… strongly condemns the ‘excesses of sects’, namely acts which have the purpose or effect of creating, maintaining or exploiting a state of psychological or physical submission in an individual, causing harm to that individual or for society. Such excesses may cause human rights violations, particularly in terms of the health, physical and psychological integrity, schooling and social and emotional development of minors, who are often removed from their family environment and/or cut off from any outside contact”.

We have posted previously on the activities of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe: on Resolution 1928 (2013), Safeguarding human rights in relation to religion and belief and protecting religious communities from violence (here) and on Recommendation 2023 (2013)Children’s right to physical integrity (here). The first was uncontroversial but the second gave rise to criticism from the worldwide Jewish community, not least complaints that the Rapporteur, Marlene Rupprecht, had produced a draft that was biased in favour of children’s rights over religious rights. As for the Council of Europe’s draft Resolution on sects, a formal complaint has been lodged with the Secretary General of the Parliamentary Assembly alleging bias by the Rapporteur, a French deputy. We have also noted that one of the reasons why the Parliamentary Assembly can sometimes drift into areas of controversy may be the presence of a historic anticlerical strand within the politics of continental Europe. Anticlericalism is particularly strong in France; and the French have an office within Government, MIVILUDES [Mission interministérielle de vigilance et de lutte contre les dérives sectaires], charged specifically with monitoring the activities of sects.

The problem with the draft Resolution is that nowhere in the document is the word “sect” defined, presumably on the basis that you’ll just recognise one when you see it; and that absence cannot go unremarked. In contrast, the Church of England’s policy document, The Church of England in relation to New Religious Movements and Alternative Spiritualities, makes a serious attempt to categorise and explain the difference between the historic world religions, new religious movements and alternative spiritualities. The document explains the Church’s position in relation to the latter two groups like this:

“The Church of England does not have formal dialogue with any group of this kind or provide services to such groups.

The Church of England does not facilitate access, engage in advocacy or provide funds or access to funds.

The Church of England does attempt to listen, to encourage and support informal local contacts with groups, and to provide pastoral assistance where this is requested.

The Church of England uses and supports INFORM at the London School of Economics and some other information groups to resource its knowledge of New Religious Movements and Alternative Spiritualities. INFORM also provides access to legal and counselling services, parents’ and ex-members’ groups.

The Church of England does not act to suppress groups, either directly or by supporting anti-cult or counter-cult groups” [emphasis in original].

A further point made by  Professor Eileen Barker (OBE, FBA and Chair of the Board of Governors of INFORM), in a paper about her own experience as an impartial researcher of “unpopular religions”, Stepping out of the Ivory Tower: A Sociological Engagement in ‘The Cult Wars’, is the nature of some of the reporting about new religious movements:

“Perfectly accurate accounts of undesirable actions by members of an unpopular religion are frequently pointed to by commentators with the implication that such actions are not only typical of, but caused by, the movement in question. An example I have often used in an attempt to demonstrate this potential fallacy is that if the media report two or three instances of suicide by a member of a ‘cult’, it is not uncommon to start to wonder what it is about the cult that causes people to kill themselves, without recognising that the media are unlikely to report an Anglican’s suicide – or at least the fact that a person committing suicide was an Anglican”.

No rational person would disagree with the generality of the sentiments expressed in the draft Council of Europe Resolution: certainly not I. But the seemingly-unthinking and undefined use of “sect” is disturbing for a lawyer – and more so for a Quaker. Friends do not indulge in “the ‘excesses of sects’” referred to in the text of the draft Resolution (or, at any rate, I devoutly hope not and if we do it’s certainly news to me); and our somewhat quirky views have been recognised in English law at least since the passing of the Marriage Act 1755. But on any rational definition the Religious Society of Friends must be a “sect”: it’s small, hardly any other religious group (with the possible exception of the Unitarians) shares many of its religious convictions, it isn’t “in communion” with any other ecclesial organisation (nor could it be), its liturgy (or lack of it) is sui generis and it holds tenaciously to some fairly controversial positions on pacifism/conflict resolution, the environment and social issues such as poverty and the distribution of wealth.

In short, by “sect” does the Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee mean “small, quirky religious group” or, maybe, “small, quirky religious group we disapprove of” or simply “any variety of religious expression, large or small, we disagree with”? As Private Eye would say, “I think we should be told”. Even allowing for my personal prejudices, it seems to me that the rather muddled thinking behind the draft is simply not good enough for the body that has parliamentary oversight of the operation of the ECHR.

Frank Cranmer