Gno to the gnostics

Third Sector, 1 February 2010

Gno to the gnostics

The Charity Commission made the wrong decision when it refused to register the Gnostic Centre as a charity, says Third Sector columnist Rosamund McCarthy

What makes a religion worthy of charitable status? From a secular perspective, no religion should receive tax breaks from the state. Having been raised in a fundamentalist Christian family, I spent most of my 20s as a hardcore atheist.

My 30s were a time of exploration: Buddhism, solstice celebrations and six months living with monks in a silent Anglo-Catholic monastery. Although I have found a home with the Quakers, I still have a lot of sympathy with certain secular views, including the disestablishment of the church and the abolition of faith schools.

But if religious organisations are going to be registered as charities, can the law please be consistent? The Charity Commission has recently refused to register the Gnostic Centre as a charity. Why? Although the commission accepted that gnostics believe in a supreme being, it found no evidence of an accompanying moral or ethical code.

The decision highlights the absurdity of the law. Because the courts have no means of judging the merits of different faith claims - is there one god or many? - they have concluded that a religion must promote an ethical code capable of benefiting society. A spiritually improving effect on its own is insufficient, they say.

And what about the competing truth claims of different ethical codes? On the Charity Commission register there are religions that are pro and anti-gay, for and against medical treatment, against abortion and in favour of women's right to choose, supportive of just war and pacifist. How can these conflicting moral codes all be for the public benefit and equally worthy of tax breaks?

Surely if any one of these moral codes is right, the commission should explore the extent to which its opposite might be harmful to the public. And what if a belief - for example, that being gay is a sin - is contrary to secular equality and diversity legislation? One has to disappear down the rabbit hole in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to try to make sense of it all.

Reading between the lines of the gnostics decision, I am left with the impression that the commission decided it was a lifestyle choice rather than a religion. Given the subjective process of assessing religious charities, the commission's finding that the gnostics failed to provide evidence of public benefit must be treated sceptically. If religious organisations are going to have charitable status, then gnosticism is a worthy recipient. Rosamund McCarthy writes in a personal capacity.

- Rosamund McCarthy is a partner in law firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite.

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