Feb 2, 2017

The profusion of minority faiths in a Sussex town hints at Britain's attitudes to religion

The Economist
EAST GRINSTEAD
February 4, 2017 |

EVERYTHING about East Grinstead seems rather ordinary. The road from the station into town is lined with a timber merchant, a dog salon and launderette. The black-and-white striped Tudor high street is more attractive, though hardly unique. But in the middle of town, an unobtrusive brick building provides a clue as to what makes the place unusual. It is the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also known as the Mormons. A few miles north sits the London England Temple, a striking limestone-clad edifice, topped with a soaring, copper-coated spire. The Mormons are far from alone: East Grinstead and its environs are home to an unusually rich array of rare religions.

Just south of the town lies the 18th-century Saint Hill Manor estate, the British headquarters of the Church of Scientology which, according to the census, had 2,418 followers in England and Wales in 2011 (the church itself has put the figure in the “tens of thousands”). A squat Norman-style castle (pictured), built in the 1960s-80s, sits next to the manor. Devotees attend “auditing”—a kind of counselling—inside.

Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic organisation, hold retreats at Wickenden Manor, a little farther out into the countryside. The Christian Scientists, who do not believe in conventional medicine, had a church in East Grinstead until the 1980s. In nearby Crowborough, the Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (also known as the Rosicrucians) has a base.

That so many minority faiths have come to practise in this corner of southern England is a puzzle to many locals. Some put it down to the existence of ley lines, prehistoric mystical pathways. The more prosaic explanations seem more plausible. L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, bought Saint Hill Manor for a song from the Maharajah of Jaipur in 1959. The site was perfect, says Graeme Wilson, a spokesman for the church. It is an hour from London and 20 minutes from Gatwick airport—convenient, since Scientologists travel to East Grinstead from around the world (Tom Cruise owned a mansion nearby until 2016).

Other groups offer similarly pragmatic explanations for their presence. Opus Dei appreciates the proximity to the capital for its retreats; the Mormons, who have been in the area since the 1950s, happened to find a nice spot with scope to build a church, says a spokesman.

East Grinstead has not always been so tolerant: in the 16th century three Protestants were burned there for their faith, as Queen Mary sought to restore Catholicism. More recently, however, the town has been welcoming to pious outsiders. Few objections were made when the Scientologists turned up, points out Simon Kerr, a trustee of the local museum. That may have encouraged others, leading to a religious kind of clustering.

The Scientologists stress their neighbourliness. They made a sizeable donation to the restoration of the local Bluebell steam railway. This winter they hosted an ice-rink, open to the public. They even hold multi-faith services, says Mr Wilson. This has not stopped some townsfolk grumbling about the church’s plans to cut down trees and expand a car park.

Mr Kerr highlights an alternative period of the town’s history. During the second world war Archibald McIndoe, a plastic surgeon, treated desperately disfigured servicemen at the local Queen Victoria Hospital. East Grinstead was dubbed “the town that did not stare”, for its warmth and openness towards the outsiders. Some of that spirit remains, Mr Kerr suggests.

In fact, East Grinstead’s approach may point to Britain’s attitudes more generally. The state is more tolerant of religious diversity than many European countries, argues Amanda van Eck, director of Inform, a research group that studies religious movements at the London School of Economics; in France, for instance, sects may be prosecuted for crimes including manipulation mentale. Britain’s relative cultural openness makes minority groups less likely to operate clandestinely.

As part of its hands-off way of doing things, Britain has no official definition of what counts as a religion. But the more unusual ones are increasingly keen for recognition, aware of the legitimacy it confers. After an appeal to the Supreme Court, Scientologists have been allowed to perform weddings since 2013. According to the census, the number of pagans increased from 42,000 to 57,000 between 2001 and 2011—mainly because pagans have become increasingly willing to declare themselves as such, believes David Spofforth of the Pagan Federation, a pan-European group. They might all gather in East Grinstead, at a tiny pub decked with flowers aptly named “The Open Arms”.

This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline “The joy of sects”

http://www.economist.com/news/britain/21716065-scientologists-mormons-opus-dei-and-others-have-settled-around-east-grinstead-why

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