Watch out, there's a charity about

Spectator/October 28, 2000

James King says the charity commissioners have no real idea what constitutes a religion - and we are the losers SPARE some change, guv? Money for the blind, anyone? The season of goodwill approaches, when tins are rattled outside Tube stations, when we all reach for the pound coin that makes us feel good about ourselves; and, when we do so, we might remember that many charities are of course wonderful and reputable. Others are a scandalous abuse of public generosity and public subsidy.

There is no better example of the chaos in Britain's law on charitable giving than the affairs of the Panacea Society, a small sect based in Bedford. Adherents study the speculations of a farmer's daughter and feminist, Joanna Southcott, who believed it was her fate - in the words of the Book of Revelation - to `bring forth a male child to rule the nations with a rod of iron'.

At the age of 64, Joanna, a spinster, declared herself pregnant with a son by the Holy Spirit. Her followers prepared for a virgin birth. Then, in December 1814, she died. Her prophecies are allegedly sealed in a box which, say her devotees, can only be opened by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the presence of 24 Church of England bishops. The chairwoman and controller of the sect, 68-year-old Mrs Ruth Klein, tells me that this `Ark of the Testament' is `about the size of a small coffin, bound with strong cord, sealed with copper nails and weighing 1561b'. She will not say where it is; only that it is somewhere in the Bedford area.

For the last 75 years the Panacea Society has been promoting its doctrines of anti-Semitism, as well as its plans for world domination by the end of this year. The five elderly surviving members of the movement have a cash fortune of about 15 million, and also own a property empire of 29 rented houses, worth additional millions, in favoured locations - all of it acquired thanks to generations of followers who have left money in their wills, on the understanding that they were making a contribution to the establishment of a `New Jerusalem' in Bedford.

And the truly amazing thing is that the sect does not pay tax on any of it. The Panacea Society was registered as a charity in 1926 and its status has never been called into question. The society continues to file its annual accounts with the Charity Commission, listing among its religious activities the acquisition of property and the accumulation of funds.

The truth is that the Charity Commission, and British law on charities, are a shambles. The legislation originally dates from 1601 and was refined in 1891 to give four classifications for charitable uses of money: `relief of poverty, advancement of education, advancement of religion and other purposes beneficial to the community'. Desperately trying to apply these principles are the five charity commissioners, based at Harmsworth House in London: chief commissioner John Stoker, secondin-command Michael Carpenter, and three wise men referred to, for some unaccountable reason, as part- timers. There are also 547 administrators and 50 so-called investigators. But the Charity Commission has no fewer than 187,200 charities on its books, and the officials are nowhere near establishing in their minds what a religion is, or what a charity is, or what it means to be religious in a charitable sense. Two years into the first-ever review of the list, Mr John Stoker and his colleagues would appear to be in a state of terminal muddle.

The commission is at odds with other European countries, who think that the Jehovah's Witnesses are a destructive cult. On the contrary, the commission continues to believe that the Witnesses are `charitable in concept', with the untold tax advantages that brings. And yet we in Britain can't quite agree with the Americans, who approve of the Church of Scientology. Our charity commissioners say there is no deity central to Scientology's beliefs, and therefore John Travolta and others do not hold to a proper religion, and certainly not one that qualifies for charitable status.

No wonder, in the current confusion, that Tom Spring, the American lawyer retained by the Scientologists, is arriving this week in London to challenge the ruling against his peeved clients. He believes the classification is unfair and prejudicial and contrary to the new Human Rights Act, and who shall say he is mistaken? He has only to look at what the Jehovah's Witnesses have achieved to see how the intellectual fog can be exploited. We think of the Witnesses as mumsy housewives in crimplene and shiny-faced, smiling men in neat Sixties suits and polyester ties calling at homes to warn the occupiers that Armageddon is about to strike (but not before they've bought a magazine or book). They are the butt of endless jokes and are considered harmless - loopy but harmless.

A growing number of countries within the EU are beginning to see things differently. The movement was classified as 'a dangerous cult' by the French government two years ago and was consequently denied charitable status in that part of the European Community. A penalty of FF300 million was imposed for non-payment of backdated taxes, and a lien was declared on all French property belonging to the organisation.

The case went to appeal, but judgment was upheld on 4 July. More than six million followers of the movement swamped politicians on both sides of the Atlantic with letters of protest. Full-page announcements appeared in the New York Times and principal newspapers across France seeking public sympathy and support. Twelve million copies of a leaflet -- `People of France, You Are Being Deceived' - were delivered by `Les Temoins de Jehovah' as thousands marched through the streets of Paris calling for an end to `the defamatory statements spread about us'. Witness children were insulted and harassed at school, and some adults lost their jobs and were threatened because of their religion.

President Clinton has appealed for `tolerance toward religious sects', while President Jacques Chirac declared that the subject would not be on the agenda in future bilateral talks. Alain Vivian, chairman of the ministerial committee which sat in judgment on the Jehovah's Witnesses, accused the Clinton administration of compromise and deference towards ' religious sects in exchange for political finance.

Developments in Europe have been constantly monitored from Watchtower Headquarters, the Brooklyn-based nerve-centre of the Witnesses' billion-dollar printing and publishing empire. In an effort to ward off further discord on the subject between Washington and some EU countries, a team of Jehovah's Witness accountants and lawyers have made legal 'readjustments' which will utilise the UK's expansive charity laws. Arrangements are now in hand to transfer `substantial amounts' of cash from the American headquarters of Jehovah's Witnesses to the London branch, to be invested in tax-free UK-based holdings. Additionally, legal connections with the `mother organisation' have been severed. The British arm will be used as a safe haven for staggering amounts of money, protecting the war chest from a slew of `class action' lawsuits threatened by dissenters in America.

Opposition to the French government's crackdown on cults will, in future, be mounted, sustained and financed directly from London.

What does our Charity Commission say about all this? `There are stringent tests and controls which are applied to all religious charities in the UK. Any mere disapproval of the tenets and practices of a religion does not amount to grounds for withholding registration. In the absence of clear and adverse public-interest factors, the commission cannot decline registration of a religious charity. The choice of religion is a personal one and capable of provoking strong feeling. The Watchtower Society [of Jehovah's Witnesses] is established for religious purposes and there is no legal requirement for it to help people in need.' Try telling that to Chirac.

The Witnesses perform no recognisable charitable work which benefits the public; members have even been excommunicated for making contributions to the Red Cross. Does a charity merely have to advance religion, or does it have to advance religion in so far as it is beneficial to the community? A high-ranking tax inspector commented on the lucrative tax-free status of certain religious charities which actually perform no charitable acts or recognisable public service: `Unless it can be shown that the Exchequer is wilfully and unlawfully being deprived of funds, the Inland Revenue is powerless to act.' What is needed is legislation to clarify in law just what 'charity' is, and whether religious belief without `charitable works' can be deemed charitable in itself.

So what are the charity commissioners going to do? What results can we expect, after two years of contemplation of their 187,200 beneficiary organisations? Mr Stoker isn't saying, and has refused repeated requests for an interview.

One of his few actions has been to excommunicate the Pagan Federation - an organisation which embraces a loose understanding of druids, witches and the Viking god Odin, in conjunction with an affiliated Pagan Hospice and Funeral Trust. Under the old rules this organisation was granted tax-free charitable status ten years ago; but the Charity Commission has recently decided that paganism does not now constitute a religion `in the charitable sense'. But if the Pagans do not qual\ify, why do the members of the Panacea Society? If the Scientologists are off-side, why do the Jehovah's Witnesses meet with Mr Stoker's approval?

It is time for Stoker to stand forth and explain his reasoning, and he might begin by making a special pilgrimage to Bedford, where the Panacea Society's annual net income - from property and investment - is currently in excess of L540,000.

From her headquarters in Albany Road, Mrs Klein tells me, `We believe the town of Bedford is situated at the geographical centre- point of England, and was long ago chosen by God to be the future location of the "New Jerusalem" - British seat of world government to be administered by the Archbishop of Canterbury under the direct guidance of Jesus Christ and his spiritual sister Octavia, both of whom are expected to make an appearance in our private chapel towards the end of this year.' (Octavia is the `spiritual name' of Gertrude Blanche Hallwood, the founder of the sect, who died in 1934.)

How many of you are there? I ask her. `We never give numbers, but I understand our private chapel sometimes had as many as 50 or 60 attending - but that was before the war, of course.'

Where, exactly, is the box, and why don't you just send it to Lambeth Palace for the Archbishop to open there? `The sacred box is in the safekeeping of one of our members and will never leave Bedford.'

Is all this in the Bible?

`Of course it is - Revelation - you can read it for yourself: "And the temple of God was opened and there was seen the Ark [our box you understand] of His Testament." This is our ministry. We are guardians of the sacred manuscripts of Joanna Southcott and devoted to persuading the bishops of the Church of England to assemble here for enlightenment. We have written continuously to them but most of our letters are not even acknowledged. All we ask is a little obedience from the Archbishop. The fate of the nation, and the world, is in his hands.'

Come on, Stoker: tell us why we're subsidising these people.

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