Tag Archives: London

This IS Britain in the 21st Century?

from C4 News

In a letter – seen by Channel 4 News – members of the British Belz Hasidic sect in Stamford Hill were told by religious leaders that any children driven by their mothers should be turned away from school from June this year onwards.

The letter, originally in Hebrew, said that a growing number of “mothers of pupils who have started to drive” has led to “great resentment among parents of pupils of our institutions”.

It read: “In particular, there is great consternation and resentment amongst our students studying in the holy establishments against this practice. A woman driving a vehicle cannot send her children for education within the Belz institutions.

“Therefore, we are to inform you that as of the beginning of June 2015, it will not be possible for a student to study within our establishment if his/her mother drives a car.

“Any mother who must drive due to a special reason (such as a medical condition) must forward a request to a special committee and that committee will consider her request.”

After the reports first surfaced in the Jewish Chronicle, the Board of Deputies of British Jews distanced itself from the advice, saying that the “vast majority of the Jewish community has never had any problem with anyone driving”.

A spokesman said: “This is an ultra-Orthodox sect and they have weird rules on what they think women should be doing. It’s not a mainstream Jewish thing. It seems to be a marginal group. Across the strictly orthodox community, women drive as much as anyone else does and no one has ever questioned it.”

Dina Brawer, the UK Ambassador of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, said that the directive had no basis in Jewish teachings. “It is a perversion of Jewish law and values. There is no foundation for banning women from driving within Jewish sources, it is not reflecting the tradition.

‘False dichotomy’
“What these ultra-Orthodox movements sometimes do is create a dichotomy between what a person of faith and part of the modern world; it is a false dichotomy.

“Rabbis have always been pragmatic and have adapted to the changing world they are living in, while upholding our values. They are trying to react against change and modern society.”

But, in a statement released on their behalf after the letter came to light, the women of the sect said they felt that driving a car was a “high-pressured activity”.

The statement read: “As Orthodox Jewish women belonging to the Belz community in London, we feel extremely privileged and valued to be part of a community where the highest standards of refinement, morality and dignity are respected. We believe that driving a vehicle is a high-pressured activity where our values may be compromised by exposure to selfishness, road-rage, bad language and other inappropriate behaviour.

“We do, however, understand that there are many who conduct lifestyles that are different to ours, and we do not, in any way, disrespect them or the decisions they make.”

Neither of the schools associated with the sect responded to requests from Channel 4 News to clarify their policies.

A Department for Education (DfE) spokesman said it was looking into allegations that the independent school standards have been breached after receiving a series of reports on Thursday. The department was not able to say how many schools were being looked at as part of the investigation, which is at an early stage, but it is understood that both of the Belz institutions are included.

The spokesman said: “If schools do not actively promote the principle of respect for other people they are breaching the independent school standards. Where we are made aware of such breaches we will investigate and take any necessary action to address the situation.”

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June 14, 2014 · 20:20

After a schism, a question: Can atheist churches last? via CNN

Sunday Assembly founders Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans have begun to franchise their “godless congregations.”
January 4th, 2014

By Katie Engelhart, special to CNN


The world’s most voguish – though not its only – atheist church opened last year in London, to global attention and abundant acclaim.

So popular was the premise, so bright the promise, that soon the Sunday Assembly was ready to franchise, branching out into cities such as New York, Dublin and Melbourne.

“It’s a way to scale goodness,” declared Sanderson Jones, a standup comic and co-founder of The Sunday Assembly, which calls itself a “godless congregation.”

But nearly as quickly as the Assembly spread, it split, with New York City emerging as organized atheism’s Avignon.

In October, three former members of Sunday Assembly NYC announced the formation of a breakaway group called Godless Revival.

“The Sunday Assembly,” wrote Godless Revival founder Lee Moore in a scathing blog post, “has a problem with atheism.”

Moore alleges that, among other things, Jones advised the NYC group to “boycott the word atheism” and “not to have speakers from the atheist community.” It also wanted the New York branch to host Assembly services in a churchlike setting, instead of the Manhattan dive bar where it was launched.

Jones denies ordering the NYC chapter to do away with the word “atheism,” but acknowledges telling the group “not to cater solely to atheists.” He also said he advised them to leave the dive bar “where women wore bikinis,” in favor of a more family-friendly venue.

The squabbles led to a tiff and finally a schism between two factions within Sunday Assembly NYC. Jones reportedly told Moore that his faction was no longer welcome in the Sunday Assembly movement.

Moore promises that his group, Godless Revival, will be more firmly atheistic than the Sunday Assembly, which he now dismisses as “a humanistic cult.”

In a recent interview, Jones described the split as “very sad.” But, he added, “ultimately, it is for the benefit of the community. One day, I hope there will soon be communities for every different type of atheist, agnostic and humanist. We are only one flavor of ice cream, and one day we hope there’ll be congregations for every godless palate.”

Nevertheless, the New York schism raises critical questions about the Sunday Assembly. Namely: Can the atheist church model survive? Is disbelief enough to keep a Sunday gathering together?

Big-tent atheism

I attended my first service last April, when Sunday Assembly was still a rag-tag venture in East London.

The service was held in a crumbly, deconsecrated church and largely populated by white 20-somethings with long hair and baggy spring jackets (a group from which I hail.)

I wrote that the Assembly “had a wayward, whimsical feel. At a table by the door, ladies served homemade cakes and tea. The house band played Cat Stevens. Our ‘priest’ wore pink skinny jeans.”

I judged the effort to be “part quixotic hipster start-up, part Southern megachurch.”

The central idea was attractive enough. The Assembly described itself as a secular urban oasis, where atheists could enjoy the benefits of traditional church – the sense of community, the weekly sermon, the scheduled time for reflection, the community service opportunities, the ethos of self-improvement, the singing and the free food – without God. I liked the vibe and the slogan: “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.”

Shortly thereafter, Assembly services began bringing in hundreds of similarly warm-and-fuzzy nonbelievers. The wee East London church grew too small, and the Assembly moved to central London’s more elegant Conway Hall.

The Assembly drew criticism, to be sure—from atheists who fundamentally object to organized disbelief, from theists who resent the pillaging of their texts and traditions. But coverage was largely positive – and it was everywhere.

In September, a second wave of coverage peaked, with news that the Assembly was franchising: across England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, the United States and Australia. That month, the founders launched a crowd-funding campaign that aims to raise $802,500. (As of mid-December, less than $56,000 had been raised.)

Still, prospective Sunday Assembly franchisers seemed exhilarated. Los Angeles chapter founder Ian Dodd enthused that he would “have a godless congregation in the city of angels.” In November, his inaugural Assembly drew more than 400 attendees.

But as the atheist church grew, it began to change—and to move away from its atheism.

“How atheist should our Assembly be?” wrote Jones in August. “The short answer to that is: not very.”

Pippa Evans, Assembly’s other co-founder, elaborated: “‘Atheist Church’ as a phrase has been good to us. It has got us publicity. But the term ‘atheist’ does hold negative connotations.”

Warm-and-fuzzy atheism gave way to not-quite atheism: or at least a very subdued, milquetoast nonbelief. Sunday services made much mention of “whizziness” and “wonder”—but rarely spoke of God’s nonexistence.

The newer, bigger Sunday Assembly now markets itself as a kind of atheist version of Unitarian Univeralism: irreligious, but still eager to include everyone.

In a way, this is a smart move. According to the 2012 Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 20% of Americans have no religious affiliation, but just a fraction of those identify as atheists.

A godless congregation is likely to draw crowds if it appeals to what Herb Silverman, founder of the Secular Coalition for America, calls “big-tent” atheism, which includes “agnostics, humanists, secular humanists, freethinkers, nontheists, anti-theists, skeptics, rationalists, naturalists, materialists, ignostics, apatheists, and more.”

But atheists who wanted a firmly atheist church—a Sunday Assembly where categorical disbelief is discussed and celebrated—will not be satisfied.

As the Sunday Assembly downplays its atheism, it also appears increasingly churchlike.

Starting a Sunday Assembly chapter now involves a “Sunday Assembly Everywhere accreditation process,” which grants “the right to use all the Sunday Assembly materials, logos, positive vibe and goodwill.”

Aspiring Sunday Assembly founders must form legal entities and attend “training days in the UK,” sign the Sunday Assembly Charter and pass a three- to six-month peer review. Only then may formal accreditation be granted.

This is not an East London hipster hyper-localism anymore.

Selling swag and charisma

Organized atheism is not necessarily new. French Revolutionaries, for instance, were early atheist entrepreneurs.

In 1793, secularists famously seized the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, to build a “Temple of Reason.” They decorated the church with busts of philosophers, built an altar to Reason, lit a torch of Truth – and brought in an actress to play Liberty.

A half-century later, French philosopher Auguste Comte drew acclaim for his “religion of humanity,” which imagined an army of secular sages ministering to secular souls. London has hosted formal atheist gatherings for almost as long.

History suggests, then, that there is nothing inherently anti-organization about atheism. As Assembly’s Sanderson Jones puts it, “things which are organized are not necessarily bad.”

To be sure, Sunday Assembly members in the United States say they’ve long wanted to join atheist congregations.

Ian Dodd, a 50-something camera operator in Los Angeles, had long been a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church; he enjoyed it, but wanted something more explicitly irreligious.

Nicole Stevens of the Chicago chapter found herself yearning for a secular community—a “place to check in and think about things bigger than the day-to-day”—after having her first child.

But it is one thing to support an atheist “church” – where the ‘c’ is small and the effort is local – and another to back an atheist ‘Church’ that is global and centralized.

The former responds directly to the needs and fancies of its community. The latter assumes that its particular brand of disbelief is universally relevant—and worthy of trademark.

Centralized atheism also feeds hungrily on charisma, and Sanderson Jones, who resembles a tall, bearded messiah – and who, despite the SA recommendation that Assembly hosts should be regularly rotated, dominates each London service – provides ample fuel.

But it remains to be seen whether the Sunday Assembly’s diluted godlessness is meaty enough to sustain a flock.

“Because it is a godless congregation, we don’t have a doctrine to rely on,” explains Sunday Assembly Melbourne’s founder, “so we take reference from everything in the world.”

So far, Assembly sermonizers had included community workers, physicists, astronomers, wine writers, topless philanthropers, futurologists, happiness experts, video game enthusiasts, historians and even a vicar. The pulpit is open indeed.

My own misgivings are far less academic. I’m simply not getting what the Sunday Assembly promised. I’m not put off by the secular church model, but rather the prototype.

Take an October service in London, for example:

Instead of a thoughtful sermon, I got a five-minute Wikipedia-esque lecture on the history of particle physics.

Instead of receiving self-improvement nudges or engaging in conversation with strangers, I watched the founders fret (a lot) over technical glitches with the web streaming, talk about how hard they had worked to pull the service off, and try to sell me Sunday Assembly swag.

What’s more, instead of just hop, skipping and jumping over to a local venue, as I once did, I now had to brave the tube and traverse the city.

Back in New York, Lee Moore is gearing up for the launch of Godless Revival – but still speaks bitterly of his time with the Sunday Assembly network.

Over the telephone, I mused that the experience must have quashed any ambition he ever had to build a multinational atheist enterprise.

“Actually,” he admitted, “we do have expansion aims.”

Katie Engelhart is a London-based writer. Follow her at @katieengelhart or http://www.katieengelhart.com.

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Teenage Exorcists Slam ‘Harry Potter’ On London Visit Because Magic Comes ‘From Satan’
Yasmine HafizThe Huffington PostSep 11, 2013
These teenage exorcists have a target in their sights as they arrive in London to battle demons — Harry Potter.

Brynne Larson, 18, Tess Sherkenback, 18, and her sister Savannah, 21, have been performing exorcisms since high school under the leadership of Brynne’s father Rev. Bob Larson, who claims to have performed over 15,000 exorcisms.

BBC3’s clip of the upcoming documentary “Teen Exorcists,” shows the poised and photogenic trio earnestly talking to filmmaker Dan Murdoch about why they consider London a “center of witchcraft.” The Arizona girls headed to London as part of their first international tour with Rev. Larson, and they believe that J.K. Rowling’s beloved Harry Potter series is responsible for an upsurge of occult activity in the U.K.

Savannah seriously weighed in on why London is full of dark forces, explaining, “I think it’s been centuries in the making, but I believe it all kind of came to a pinnacle, a peak, with the Harry Potter books that have come out, and the Harry Potter rage that swept across England.”

Her sister Tess agreed, commenting, “The spells and things that you’re reading in the Harry Potter books? Those aren’t just something that are made up– those are actual spells. Those are things that came from witchcraft books.”

“Harry is using this magic for good. So here we have the dangerous idea that you can use this magic for good or bad. Whereas in reality, all magic is bad, because you’re getting your power from Satan,” said Brynne.

The girls have vowed never to read the Harry Potter novels, and hope to help U.K. teenagers defend themselves from “inviting Satan to possess them by reciting the spells in the Harry Potter books.”

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Scientology case has judges debating the meaning of religion

Owen Bowcott, legal affairs correspondent

The Church of Scientology Centre in Queen Victoria Street, London.

The Church of Scientology Centre in Queen Victoria Street, London. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Five supreme court justices have spent a day wrestling with notions of God, nirvana and what constitutes worship in an attempt to decide whether Scientologists may conduct weddings.

In one of the more curious appeals to come before the UK’s highest court, senior lawyers – wearing puzzled expressions, and bemused smiles but no wigs – ranged across centuries of legislation and a number of faiths to try to establish what religion is.

The case has been brought by Louisa Hodkin, who wishes to marry her fiance, Alessandro Calcioli, in the Church of Scientology‘s building on Queen Victoria Street in the City of London.

The registrar-general of births, deaths and marriages has declined to license the Scientologists’ “chapel” as a place of meeting for religious worship under section two of the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855. Hodkin and her partner, who are volunteers at the Church of Scientology, claim the refusal is discriminatory. At a previous hearing, the court of appeal rejected their application.

Wigs and gowns are rarely worn in the supreme court in Westminster these days. On Thursday, the air of intellectual informality was enhanced by the eccentricity of the issues. On one hand was James Strachan QC, for the registrar-general. Scientology, he told the court, was initially founded by the American writer L Ron Hubbard as “dianetics” – a process of self-discovery. Scientology did not describe itself as a religion until 1951. Its eighth level of perfection, Strachan said, was a state of “infinity”. “The process of Scientology is not about worshipping God, infinity or a supreme being,” he said. “It’s about auditing, training and developing self-awareness. The judge [in the courts below] had difficulty in understanding whether it might be a theistic religion.”

Strachan, however, insisted Scientology did not qualify as religion: “It does not involve worship of a divine being. The central processes of Scientology are not about reverence or veneration. It’s about constructing the self.”

Scientologists do refer to a “creed” and “sermons”, he conceded, “but it’s not religious worship. If the registrar-general has wrongly registered Buddhists or Jains [other faiths that do not worship gods] then they should be de-registered. The argument that it’s discrimination [against Scientology] goes nowhere.”

Against him was Lord Lester, the veteran Liberal Democrat peer, who pointed out that the Church of Scientology already enjoys “charitable rates relief” on its London headquarters worth £300,000 a year.

Scientology was akin to Buddhism, he implied. “[The Buddhist principle of] nirvana is not venerated as a being or power that is supernatural or divine. In Scientology, L Rob Hubbard is not venerated.”

In other jurisdictions, such as Australia, Scientology has been accepted as a religious denomination. The refusal to register the chapel was religious discrimination, Lord Lester insisted.

The five supreme court justices – Lord Neuberger, Lord Clarke, Lord Wilson, Lord Reed and Lord Toulson – brought in Islam, Unitarianism, Quakerism and other faiths to develop comparisons.

“A Quaker service often consists only of silent meditation,” one justice observed.

The appeal is of wider significance since Scientologists have applied for certification at other premises in England that they claim are used for religious worship.

Speaking after an earlier judgment, Hodkin said: “I hope the court allows me to marry in my own church, surrounded by my family and friends, which means everything to me.”

The court has reserved judgment. At the end of the hearing, Lord Lester tried a note of religious reconciliation: “Nirvana,” he explained, “is a state which an individual attains, the state your lordships attain quite often at the end of a case.”

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July 22, 2013 · 09:46

Working in a Pub

Learning from the Landlord

Posted by Paul Levy


I recently got locked out of my house and spent the morning in our local greasy spoon, ‘The Hanwell Cafe’, and the afternoon in our local pub, ‘The White Hart’, affectionately known in the area as ‘The Dripping Blade’. It’s an old style London pub that hasn’t been gentrified. I took Trueman in there on his recent trip. He was terrified; constantly looking shifty as if he’d walked into a Gospel Coalition committee meeting. On another visit recently with a minister friend it took us 15 minutes to convince a man under the influence that we weren’t the ‘Old Bill’. In a pub like the White Hart policemen are not the most popular of people.

The previous landlord of the White Hart used to say to me: ‘You know what the problem with this pub is?’, at this point I shrugged and he gesticulated with his arms and said in an exasperated tone ‘The locals!’. He had a point in some ways, but, although having a fair crack at running the pub, with an attitude like that it was never going to be a roaring success. In a traditional English pub you go partly for the vibe.It’s the same faces, telling the same jokes, enjoying each other’s company. In the words of the Cheers song ‘You wanna go where everybody knows your name’. For a time darts was banned at the White Hart because of the potential danger and pool cues could only be obtained when asked for at the bar, it didn’t make for the most congenial of atmospheres.

The new landlord and landlady are Polish and not particularly adept in the art of pulling pints but both are delighted to be there. The pub food is still as bad; an English breakfast cooked badly with Polish sausage is no fun. It’s a man’s pub. There’s rarely a woman in there and when she is I would have thought she would instantly regret it.

Having spent an afternoon in there being quizzed by locals about why I had a Bible and a lap top it struck me there are lots of similarities between running a local pub and being a minister. I know the obvious differences. I’m not proposing that we start pub church and all that kind of stuff, but there is a sense where a landlord must be warm as toast, hospitable, tough, hard working, able to talk to people, working ridiculously long hours, willing to take the criticism and moans of regulars, being able to accept whoever walks in the door and try and engage with them, having the guts sometimes to ask people to leave. I wonder whether part of ministerial training should involve working in a pub?

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