Guest Post: Being a Druid is Good for Society, Says UK Charity Commission

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  October 8, 2010 — 2 Comments

[The following is a guest post by Alison Shaffer. Alison lives, moves and practices her Druidry in the lovely, thrice-rivered city of Pittsburgh, where she dwells on the edge of a wooded park with her fiancé, her cat, her pet frogs and her houseplants. A member of the Ancient Order of Druids in America and the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, her spiritual studies revolve around a fascination with theology, peacemaking, ecology, Celtic mythology and ritual aesthetics, as well as a love of song and a great deal of poetry. She writes frequently on these themes at her blog, as well as contributing essays to publications such as Sky Earth SeaPatheos.comPagan+Politics and, of course, The Witches’ Voice.]

Being a Druid is good for society, says UK Charity Commission. Or so the headlines should have read in the BBC, the Telegraph, the Times, the AFP, the Associated Press and CNN this past week, as each major media outlet reported on the [Charity Commission]’s approval of The Druid Network‘s application for religious charity status. Instead the news, which has earned a surprising amount of attention (and not a bit of bile) since the decision was announced in a press release on 1 October, has run under headlines declaring, Druidry recognized as a religion in Britain.

Which is, strictly speaking, true. But it also isn’t news. In fact, modern Druidry has been a recognized religion in Britain for as long as there have been practicing Druids to call it one.

Religious Freedom in UK Law

Similar to the religious freedoms protected in the United States’ Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the freedom to believe and practice according to one’s personal conscience has long been protected in the legal systems of the United Kingdom. Article 9 of the Human Rights Act 1998 (based on the European Convention of Human Rights, in effect since 1953) states that a person’s right to freedom of religion includes: “…freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”

In other words, under British law a system of belief or practice is “recognized as a ‘religion'” — and protected as one — if one or more adherents to that system say it is a religion. That goes for Druids, Pagans, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Scientologists, Jedi and Pastafarians alike.

So why all the fuss? Because the rights and freedoms granted to religious practitioners of Druidry and Paganism in the UK are, as in the US, not necessarily guarantees that they will also have access to all of the same benefits available to more mainstream faiths — benefits such as nonprofit status, state-recognized holidays, prison and military chaplaincy, clergy who are legally empowered to perform marriages and burials, and so on. In short, although British law provides freedom from discrimination for practitioners of all religions, the freedom to participate fully and equally in civil society is something that rests on a foundation of legal precedent. For many religious minorities, securing the latter means buckling down to a long process of challenging numerous individual instances of oversight and exclusion, in order to push past the tipping point from legal tolerance into social acceptance and support.

In the United States, the work of Patrick McCollum and the Lady Liberty League, among others, helps to establish just such a critical mass of legal precedent for Druids, Witches and Pagans within mainstream American society. Similar strides have been made in the UK, where Pagan chaplains already work in hospital and prison ministry and Druids have played prominent roles in public discourse about the protection and preservation of ancient monuments and other important aspects of British heritage and culture. In both countries, several Druid and Pagan organizations also already enjoy not-for-profit status, including The Pagan Federation, the Children of Artemis, Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF), the Henge of Keltria, and the Avalon Druid Order. Yet, despite the exaggerations and well-intentioned misrepresentations in much of the mainstream media coverage this past week, The Druid Network’s success in becoming the first Pagan organization to earn charity status under the new Charities Act 2006 is a momentous stride towards wider social acceptance of Druidry and Paganism in the UK.

TDN’s Journey to Charity Status

The Druid Network officially began the arduous, four-year-plus process of seeking charitable status under English Charity Law in February 2006, when they submitted their application to the Charity Commission of England and Wales (more briefly known as the Charity Commission or CC) just as the new Charities Act 2006 was passing through British Parliament. A great deal of research, reflection and discussion had already gone into the formulation of TDN’s constitution and by-laws before that point, however, as Phil Ryder, Chair of Trustees for TDN, explained to me recently in an interview.

Ryder said he became involved in the process early on: “I simply asked if we were registered and got the reply, ‘Should we be?’ So I investigated the options and found that we did indeed need to register.” As an unincorporated association that accepted membership fees and donations from contributors, The Druid Network was legally obligated to pursue one of two courses of action. “We could have registered with Companies House as a Limited Company,” Ryder explained, “or we could register with the Charity Commission. ‘TDN Ltd’ didn’t seem right, so the trustees decided to register with the Charity Commission.”

After that decision came the challenge of drafting a constitution in a way that, as Ryder put it, “reflected our vision of TDN as an organisation with no hierarchy based on pagan principles of honourable relationship.” Easier said than done. Harder still was the process of crafting a forward to that constitution that included a definition of religious Druidry describing, as simply and inclusively as possible, the basics of Druidic belief and practice that would be both acceptable to the CC and approved by as many of the major Druidic organizations as possible. As an article published to the TDN website clarifies:

Druids by nature (pun intended) don’t wish to be tied down or submit to definitions; however, they all relate to the term ‘Druid’ so it must mean something, or it would simply be a meaningless word. Great thought, mediation and spiritual guidance went into the drafting of the definition of Druidry adopted by TDN (Annex 1 to the decision [.pdf]). It was intended as a statement of common ground held by the majority of Druids who felt that Druidry was a religion or deep spirituality; it was not a full definition. […] It is not, and was never intended to be, a creed or definition that all Druids must accept, but a legal explanation of common ground of those Druids who consider their path to be essentially religious.

The carefully-crafted religious focus of this definition was necessary, Ryder explained in our interview, because English Charity Law requires charities to register under what are called “Heads of Charity” (for instance, “the advancement of religion,” “the advancement of education” and “the relief of the poor”) which outline potential causes in the service of “public benefit.” Although the British government provides no formal, legal mechanism for defining “religion” — and indeed, the term remains ambiguous and problematic even among academics — English Charity Law has its own working definition for the purposes of determining charitable status.

At the time of TDN’s initial application, the CC’s understanding of religion was determined by the Charities Act 1993 and precedent set by several legal cases since, including the application and rejection of the Church of Scientology for charitable status in 1999. In fact, the CC originally rejected TDN’s application as a religious organization under the assumption that Druidry was esoteric or occult (that is, a mystic or mystery tradition intended for only a small number of initiated members) and therefore not beneficial to the public at large. This initial rejection led to a review procedure of TDN’s application, during the course of which the new Charities Act 2006 came into effect and began to change the rules of the game.

The Druid Network’s application for charitable status stalled as the CC scrambled to determine what the new Charities Act, which amended and expanded upon much of the previous Act, meant for their definitions of “religion” and “public benefit.”

An opportunity for change came with the implementation of the Charities Act 2006. It stated for the first time that a religion could involve a belief in more than one god or a belief in no god at all. After its implementation, the Charity Commission embarked on a lengthy process of consultation on how this Act affected charity law, which it followed by drafting various guidance documents that set down how it would interpret the law.

TDN remained deeply involved during the public consultation process that followed, submitting numerous documents and emails expanding upon their definition of Druidry and provoking detailed examination of how it compared to other non-Abrahamic faith traditions. “The CC just didn’t understand us,” Ryder said,

they are lawyers, not theologians, and have their own beliefs. It must have been hard for them to break down those barriers of monotheism. We simply provided information and answered any questions they raised. Of course, many times it served to confuse them even more and raised even more questions. At times we had to make comparisons with other world religions that the CC already had registered, and demonstrate that our understanding of deity and practice was not that far removed from those religions. It was hard, but on both sides, and full credit to the CC.

After four years of rigorous inquisition and debate, the Charity Commission finally informed TDN on 1 September of this year that its Board Members would be holding a meeting to determine its final decision on TDN’s pending application. The CC’s approval of The Druid Network’s status as a religious charity, ratified on 21 September 2010, was published in a 21-page document (available in .pdf) detailing the many areas in which TDN has demonstrated itself up to the task of “advancing a religion or belief system for the benefit of the public.”

Perhaps most interesting about this decision is the fact that the Charity Commission lists among TDN’s publicly beneficial activities not only those such as “promoting the preservation of heritage and culture” and “promoting conservation and preservation of the environment” but also “the provision of information on the practice of Druidry to the public” and “facilitating the practice of Druidry through conferences, camps, workshops, retreats and courses, and through its affiliated groups.” In other words, according to the CC, a non-ministerial department of the British government, greater access to information about Druidry and the practice of Druidry itself are both beneficial to the general public.

News Spreads, The Druid and Pagan Communities Respond

Given the impressive influence The Druid Network had on the Charity Commission’s evolving approach to definitions of religion and public benefit, and the implications of the CC’s decision to acknowledge TDN’s understanding and practice of Druidry as not only legitimately religious but also beneficial to the larger community — it’s no surprise that the mainstream media coverage of this story entirely missed the point.

News reports soon spread in several major media outlets (both in the UK and here in the US, where the story even made it on to a local nightly news program in California), announcing that Britain had “officially recognized” Druidry as a religion for the first time in thousands of years. Stock photographs of bearded men in white robes hoisting staves above the silhouettes of Stonehenge graced every page. CNN reporter Phil Gast even indulged in a bit of good ol’ tacit American competition with Merry Olde England about who was more tolerant of Pagans, when he quoted Professor Marty Laubach of Marshall University saying, “‘In some ways, Druidry in Britain is catching up to Druids and other neo-pagans in the United States, which already provides tax-exempt status for religious groups,'” completely overlooking the fact that, while Pagan non-profits already exist in the UK, there is no comparable process of earning charitable status in the U.S. Amidst the hubbub, one columnist for The Daily Mail produced an article of astounding prejudice, decrying Druidry as a bunch of “barking mumbo-jumbo” and demonstrating not only the writer’s gross ignorance of even the basics of Druidic belief and practice, but her fundamental misunderstanding of religious freedom under British law. Yet all in all, the coverage was positive and congratulatory in tone, if often far off-the-mark on the facts.

Meanwhile, Druids and Pagans in the UK and abroad had begun to weigh in with their own views. For many, The Druid Network’s success was cause for celebration and optimism. “It’s an awe inspiring thing to have seen happen,” wrote Brynneth at The Pagan & The Pen, one of the first public responses to the news. “One of the things that charitable status for the Druid Network shows is that we can engage and be heard, without having to become something other than we are. That gives me hope.”

“I, for one, am quite excited at the development,” said Kirk Thomas, Archdruid of Ár nDraíocht Féin, one of the most influential Neopagan Druidic organizations in the U.S. “We have an ADF Grove in Hampshire, and have long wondered what it would take to get ADF recognized in the UK. We suspect that TDN has ‘broken the ice’ as it were, and this might make it easier for other Druid groups to become recognized.”

Tony Everett, who has been a member of TDN for a number of years but has usually kept in the background of the organization’s activities, felt both pride and humility: “When the news came I was so humbled by all the work that must have gone into the application over the last couple of years and proud to call myself Druid. Once all the negative press has settled and the antagonists have had their fun, I am certain that this can only do great things to promote Druidry and inform the public of the truth behind our beliefs.”

“It’s a good first step, wonderful in fact.,” said Farrell McGovern, another member of ADF residing in Canada. “[W]e have to be responsible adults if we want to be recognized as a religion. We thus need to jump through all the hoops and pay our dues just like every other religion out there.”

However, amongst the congratulations was also a hint of ambivalence and caution among some Druid and Pagan voices. In a post titled “Is Druidry a Religion?” on his blog, Philip Carr-Gomm, head of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), one of the largest Druidic organizations in Britain, expressed mixed feelings about the news, saying:

I ‘and many other OBOD members’ have always liked the way Druidry has avoided being ‘boxed-in’ to one definition: a spiritual path to some people, a magical tradition to another, a religion to a third, a philosophy or cultural phenomenon to another, and so on. As soon as you start on the path of trying to define Druidry you run into problems. […] Not all people who call themselves Druids would agree with all aspects of the definition of Druidry that The Druid Network have agreed with the Charity Commission. As with many things there are positives and negatives and it’s a question of weighing these up and looking more closely at the implications of the decision.

Carr-Gomm’s post prompted several other OBOD members to leave comments both on his blog and Facebook page expressing their concern, discomfort and even fear at the CC’s decision to approve TDN based on their definition of religious Druidry.

Graeme Talboys, Druid scholar and author of Way of the Druid: Renaissance of a Celtic Religion and its Relevance for Today, also had a few misgivings about the decision, although he emphasized that it was generally “a step forward”:

On the surface, all that has happened is that TDN has been granted legal permission to operate as a charity. At a deeper level this has been achieved by persuading the Charity Commission for England and Wales that Druidry (sic) is a bona fide religion. It is another recognition in law of Druids and what they believe. [… I]t is now just a little bit easier, in England and Wales, to be Druid.

Pointing to several statements contained within the The Druid Network’s definition and description of Druidry, however, Talboys expressed his qualms with some historical inaccuracies and conceptual inconsistencies, worrying that “any pedant” could use them as an excuse to pick apart or challenge the definition on purely factual grounds.

Whilst I am grateful to [TDN] for the work they have done in this respect (and it cannot be denied it is a big step in terms of recognition in England and Wales), it is only a single step for one particular group of Druids. Whether it brings benefit to the whole Druid community, including those of us in the Hedge, remains to be seen.

Members of The Druid Network have, in turn, attempted to respond to some of the concerns raised by other Druids in the larger community, particularly those who do not consider Druidry to be distinctly Pagan or explicitly religious in nature. A comment shared on TDN’s website by a writer under the name ‘Celtic Knight’ notes:

I have seen some criticism that this move makes Druidry part of the establishment. I don’t accept that. What it has done is to force the establishment to take Druidry seriously. Some fear that this will somehow define or box in Druidry. It will not. The Commission accepted the diversity of beliefs and practices that represent Druidry and that these are a reflection of the diversity inherent in nature. […] Many dislike the label ‘religion’, with its associations of rigid dogma, archaic institutions and being told what to believe. However, the decision accepts that Druidry is an experiential religion: Druids’ beliefs come from their experience and not from what they are told. They change and adapt over time and in different environments, just as nature differs according to time and space. This is not a case of Druidry being forced into the straightjacket of religion, but of the very definition of religion as accepted in charity law being changed to accommodate beliefs such as ours.

In our interview, Phil Ryder replied to my questions on the matter by appealing to what is positive about the decision, rather than what might be divisive. He asked that others obtain facts before voicing uninformed opinions, but acknowledged that “even then there will be those who disagree with TDN’s approach. And I celebrate that! How can we learn and evolve if we all have the same beliefs? We all perceive this reality in different ways, and that is Nature.”

In some ways, it is precisely this aspect of Druidry and the greater Druidic philosophical tradition — with its ever-evolving, self-analytical understanding of how the specifics of landscape and local community give rise to a diversity of religious experience and belief without jeopardizing the bonds that unite us together in a dynamic, thriving community — that may transform religious and interfaith discourse and bring the most benefit the British society in the future.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Eilidh

    Very nice article, Alison. Thanks for writing it!

  • Baurch Dreamstalker

    Thanks, Ali, for shedding light on just what they do across the Pond!