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

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

  1. “No rational person would disagree with the generality of the sentiments expressed in the draft Council of Europe Resolution”

    I think what you are saying, Frank, is that no *good*, *wise* and rational person would disagree with what *you* take to be the generality of the sentiments expressed. What you appear to take to be the benign generality of the sentiments expressed, I take to be nothing less than the euphemistic marketing of a malign generality of sentiments on the part of the proponents of this draft resolution.

    My perception is informed by my real life experiences – and not as a Quaker either. You can easily educate yourself what it is actually like to be at the sharp end of the sword here wielded, just as lethally, inside a cotton wool sheath (so-to-speak) in order to disguise its true nature as an offensive weapon. For example,you can read of several recent interventions by social services, police and courts in certain European countries, who have removed children from parents of faith who have educated the children at home. Closer to home, you could read “Why foster carers, but not natural parents?” or “Two year-old’s contact stopped with ‘homophobic’ dad” on my own blog.

    I agree with your piece in general. I just don’t share your confidence that the abuses I have referred to are mere side-effects of the over-zealous excesses of a basically benign “generality of sentiments”, rather than the intended agenda of a malign generality of sentiments too thinly disguised as benign to fool me, even if you are posing (perhaps merely for rhetorical reasons) to have been fooled yourself.

    The UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child Principle 6 acknowledges the right of every child, “where possible”, to be brought up by both his natural, male father and his natural, female mother. “Where possible” does not mean “where the parents hold government-approved beliefs.” It means “unless impossible”.

    It is that right of the child that is under attack today. The attack is on many fronts. One of those fronts is the sophistry that minority religious, moral or ideological beliefs on the part of natural parents (unless they happen to be minority beliefs favoured by government, such as feminist, pro-choice or homosexualist beliefs) render it not “possible”, for the child to enjoy his right to be brought up by his father and his mother.

    • What I took to be “the generality of the sentiments expressed” was the condemnation of “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”. Surely no-one in his or her right mind could be in favour of “acts which have the purpose or effect of creating (etc)”.

      Precisely what those acts might be, however, is evidently another matter.

      • Doesn’t this highlight the problem with “rights-based” law. There is, in fact, no room for a concept of truth. Moral judgement is based either on the nature of the results or the perception of a theoretical individual.

        It is possible to envisage that a bible-believing Christian or any denomination could one day fall within this “condemnation”. Preaching which has the effect of instilling the fear of God could be deemed to be “creating .. a state of psychological or physical submission”. This might cause harm to society if it results in any kind of “holy” or distinct behaviour. There is no defence available to the preacher that he believes what he preaches to be true – and, moreover, that the individual’s salvation to be thereby furthered. What if the starting point of the “generality of the sentiments expressed” is that there is no God?

        Alas, I think the answer is that “sect” means “any variety of religious expression, large or small, we disagree with” – as you say. This way of thinking is not new. As you probably know, the UK Government has finally decided to bring in a general anti-avoidance rule to combat “tax avoidance” – a famously undefinable concept. It is, at its root, a “reasonable person” test. So these kinds of judgments will depend, in future, on whether the man on the Clapham omnibus is an atheist.

  2. Pingback: The Council of Europe on sects: update | Law & Religion UK

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