Another Scientology Wedding in the UK (Plymouth) – Does This Make a Difference?

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Western Evening Herald  | Wednesday 28th January 2015
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I couldn’t resist this Scientology-related story from a local paper in Plymouth in the UK (where I happen to live).

The Church of Scientology seem to have embraced an opportunity to generate some positive PR which is essentially critic proof. Anyone who criticises a ‘Church’ wedding is going to sound mean.

I sincerely wish this couple well. At the same time, we still need to examine the claims made in this article more closely because it contains a number of  factual errors, distortions and omissions.

After the break, there is a complete transcript of this news item, followed by my  (slightly different) interpretation.

Transcript

First Ever Plymouth Scientology Wedding

by TRISTAN NICHOLS @tristan_nicols

A happy couple have made history after tying the knot in the first ever wedding at Plymouth’s Church of Scientology. Mark Goddard and Vera Fomina married at the Ebrington Street site on Saturday in front of friends and loved ones. In exchanging their vows the couple became the first people to legally marry in a Church of Scientology ceremony in Plymouth.

Mark, who has been a volunteer staff member of the church in Plymouth for more than 20 years, said the couple feel “deeply honoured”. Their wedding follows the milestone judgement in December 2013 when the Supreme Court ruled that a Scientology Church in London is a place of meeting for religious worship, and that Scientology is a religion. The first Legal Scientology wedding in England took place in London in February last year.

Following the ceremony on Saturday Mark said “This has been a wonderful day. It is a privilege for us to able to make our vows with friends in our own church. We are also deeply  honoured to be the first Scientologists in Plymouth to be able to do this. This is a wonderful day for both my wife and I”.

Lisa Coffey from the Church of Scientology Plymouth said the Supreme Court ruling made it possible for the Church of Scientology – established in Plymouth since 1971 – to register to solemnise marriage ceremonies in the city for the first time.

“The occasion was very meaningful as Saturday was the first day any couple could actually sign the official register and receive their marriage certificate in the Plymouth Church”, Lisa said.

“We wish them every happiness in their future life together” Scientology wedding ceremonies are performed by a Scientology minister. They are solemnised used wedding ceremonies which include traditional vows of loyalty and devotion.

[Sidebar]

Scientology: The Facts

The Church of Scientology was founded in 1954 by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard.

In 2005, the Church of Scientology stated that that its worldwide membership was eight million. Members say there are more than 12,000 Scientologists in the South West.

According to official literature,”Scientology is a religion that offers a precise path leading to a complete and certain understanding of one’s true spiritual nature and one’s relationship to self, family, groups, Mankind, all life forms, the material universe, the spiritual universe and the supreme being.

Scientology teaches that people are immortal spiritual beings who have forgotten their true nature.

In December last year the supreme court – Britain’s highest court – swept aside 158 years of law to rule that  worshipping a god is not essential to religion. That paved the way for Scientology to be officially recognised as a “religion” in the UK.

Celebrity Scientologists include Tom Cruise and John Travolta, Will Smith, Juliette Lewis, Kirstie Alley and Lisa Marie Presley.

 Comment: The Article

Their wedding follows the milestone judgement in December 2013 when the Supreme Court ruled that a Scientology Church in London is a place of meeting for religious worship, and that Scientology is a religion.

In fact, the supreme court did not rule that Scientology is a religion. It ruled that Scientology Church’s were “places of religious worship” within the meaning of the law governing who can  perform wedding ceremonies.

CCEW-logo-smallScientology has made a great deal of this ‘concession’ because they see as a step on the road to acquiring charitable status in the UK after charitable status was refused in 2011 by the Charity Commissioners (the official body which makes such determinations)

Their decision was so bomb-proof that the Church has never appealed or re-applied and it is likely to  stand for some time because of two other grounds for refusal, according to the law.

  1. The church does not satisfy the public benefit test (it engages in no meaningful charitable activity).
  2. Membership and participation are not feely available to the general population – Scientology ‘training’ involves secret teachings which are only delivered on the receipt of substantial ‘fixed donations.

Since charitable status is the nearest thing to a tacit official recognition of religious status in the UK  and the Church of Scientology have, in practice,  failed to achieve this.

 The Sidebar – Errors and Omissions

Scientology Membership

In 2005, the Church of Scientology stated that that its worldwide membership was eight million. Members say there are more than 12,000 Scientologists in the South West.

UK_2011_Census_FormIn my previous post, I discussed the official data from the 2011 UK census. It shows that are, in fact, only 2,418 Scientologist in the whole of England and Wales, and only 26 in Plymouth. In the previous (2001) census, there were only 1781 Scientologists recorded in England and Wales.

Scientology has always been notorious for including everyone who had ever bought a book in the street, and everyone who had ever taken a Scientology ‘course’, in their membership figures permanently. However, a brief Google search suggests that recently, they are simply making figures up. Their own official statements are all over the place, and do not cite sources.

The best (academic) estimates of Scientology’s worldwide membership is about 30,000.

Scientology Beliefs and Practice

According to official literature,” Scientology is a religion that offers a precise path leading to a complete and certain understanding of one’s true spiritual nature and one’s relationship to self, family, groups, Mankind, all life forms, the material universe, the spiritual universe and the supreme being.

This is the most that they will ever reveal. Scientologists ‘advance’ in their ‘studies’ by taking a series of ‘courses’. They are all secret. Each one requires a “fixed donation” – this is a ‘pay-as-you-go religion.

Members are not even allowed to discuss the content of their studies with outsiders – or even among themselves.This leads to the strange situation that ‘beginner’ Scientologists do not actually know what they believe, and are are not allowed to consult any source of information other than the Church in order to find out.

Also, while people are entitled to their beliefs, it hard to see how some Scientology practices advance the members spiritual welfare. L Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, created a number of  “High Crimes“, punishable by  excommunication.

If a Scientologist is ‘declared’ (excommunicated) other Scientologists must  ‘disconnect‘ from them. Failing to do so is a ‘High Crime’ in itself. They must write the offender formal letter telling stating that they will have no further contact with them until they repent, and are accepted back by the Church.. Disconnection is one of the most controversial practices of the Church of Scientology.

Consequently, if one of the happy couple pictured above were to:

  • Reveal a ‘secret’ teaching
  • Leave the Church
  • Sue the church
  • Ask for a refund
  • Publicly criticise the Church of Scientology
  • Say anything negative about Scientology to the press
  • ‘Commit’ any other ‘High Crime’

They would be required to disown and disconnect from their partner. Their marriage vows are conditional to remaining in good standing with the Church of Scientology.

Celebrity Membership

lisa marie presleyCelebrity Scientologists include Tom Cruise and John Travolta, Will Smith, Juliette Lewis, Kirstie Alley and Lisa Marie Presley.

Lisa Marie Presley left Scientology around 2013.

Whether the reporter used dated /incomplete sources or simply took local a Scientologist’s word for it (they would not have been officially informed of such an event) Presley has not been a Scientologist for some considerable time.

The Venue

2014-05-23 16.06.58

Plymouth Org

The Church of Scientology in Plymouth presently occupies this small shop in Ebrington Street, a side street just off the main shopping area in the City Centre.

I passed this place on the morning of the DSC_0047ceremony. The books you can see stacked in the window were cleared out, and the signs were removed. A small lectern bearing a Scientology symbol was set up on right-hand side of the space, facing the opposite wall. With the lights on inside, the proceedings were highly visible from the street.

There was more than enough room in this modest space for all of the city’s Scientologists to attend. The picture to the right shows the first few rows of a total of 20-25 seats.

In many ways the Ebrington Street Org is a curious choice of venue. The Church of Scientology has owned a fine old hotel elsewhere in the city since 2010. This historic building boasts fifty bedrooms, two ballrooms, a residents lounge, a restaurant and several bars.

ideal org heraldOfficial statements from the Church claim that they are planning to refurbish it in order to create an ‘Ideal Org’ (a lavish ‘super-church’). Quite why this is necessary for a city with only about 26 Scientologists is not entirely clear.

Unfortunately, it would not be a pleasant place to celebrate a wedding as it has laid empty since it was purchased and is suffering from a serious lack of maintenance.

The building cost £1,000,000  – $1,680,187 and critics suggest that money is the real motive for this purchase. In Plymouth, and many other cities throughout the world, the Church of Scientology raises funds from wealthy Scientologists to buy buildings, many of which have been left empty for years. Often, these buildings are found to be unsuitable. They are sold, and fund raising begins for a new site.

Conclusion

Going_Clear_PosterThe Church of Scientology is, of course, entitled to seek positive publicity. However, it is interesting that this story should appear at a time when generating good PR is an unusually urgent priority for members.

Only days ago a documentary film entitled  “‘Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief” by Alex Gibney saw its US première at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.

It is based (and expands) upon Lawrence Wright’s book “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief“. It uses the testimony of eight prominent ex-Scientologists to question the behaviour of the Church and the support of its celebrity supporters, notably Tom Cruise and John Travolta (whose pictures appear prominently in the “Herald” article).

When this film is broadcast on the US cable channel HBO on March the 16th, it will be the greatest PR challenge in the history of the Church. In the meantime, Scientology is likely to make great efforts to improve its public image.

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