Magazine article The Spectator

The Stink from Lambeth Palace

Magazine article The Spectator

The Stink from Lambeth Palace

Article excerpt

The following people could be found hovering over the lunchtime buffet at a seminar I attended last Saturday: Mormons, Scientologists, Islamists, pagans, Methodists and members of the Family (a Christian sect that practises group sex). The seminar was hosted by the only organisation in the country capable of assembling such a spicy religious smorgasbord. Inform, a Home Office-funded charity based at the London School of Economics, provides information about cults and sects to anyone who needs it - academics, social workers, university chaplains, the police, cult members themselves and their worried parents. Saturday's seminar was held under Chatham House rules, so I can't report what was said, but - precisely because some of the opinions voiced were so pungent - it was vastly more enlightening than the obsequious platitudes of 'multifaith dialogue'.

Inform is controversial because it rejects the thesis, popularised by the 'anti-cult' movement, that people join cults because they have had their minds bent by unscrupulous leaders. Its founder, Professor Eileen Barker of the LSE, was the first sociologist to demonstrate that brainwashing, as it is commonly understood, does not exist (though she does not for a moment deny that some cults harm their members, and has indeed helped people to leave abusive groups). She has also campaigned against proposed European and Russian laws that would criminalise minority religions. These activities have earned her the hatred of the loopier sort of fundamentalist Christian, for whom all non-evangelical religions are Satanic, and of authoritarian Eastern Orthodox bishops, for whom all non-Orthodox are dangerous sectarians.

Fortunately, the British government and Britain's mainstream Churches recognise that, in an age of religious instability, Inform is a precious source of unbiased information. Its board of governors includes representatives of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and the Free Churches. I am also a governor, though let me stress that this article reflects only my personal views.

Inform's chief patron, since its inception in 1988, has been the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is hard to overestimate the importance of this patronage; it showed that the leader of the English spiritual establishment was prepared to defend the human rights of the most marginalised and despised religious believers. Christianity, after all, was once a cult whose opponents told lies about it. Robert Runcie grasped this point. So did George Carey, who resisted the arm-twisting of fellow evangelicals and offered strong moral support to Inform.

There was no reason to suppose that Rowan Williams would be anything other than a generous patron. Certainly no one was prepared for what happened at the end of last year. Professor Barker received a letter from Lambeth Palace informing her that the new archbishop was dropping a number of his patronages, and that Inform was one of them. To cut a long story short, a disbelieving Eileen Barker wrote back asking if she could meet Dr Williams. No, came the answer; but she could talk to his chief of staff, Chris Smith. Mr Smith duly visited Inform, but the decision remained the same (although Lambeth would continue to make a modest contribution to Inform's running costs). …

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