Tuesday, 20 January 2009

And is There Scientology Still for Tea?

Fifteen years ago I was walking around Manchester with a friend who had lived in California as a child. I imagine we were going to the pub, which one I cannot remember, but our walk took us down Deansgate, to the part opposite the old Great Northern warehouses. Back before the IRA bomb which blasted the middle out of the city, beginning a period of restoration and building which is still a surprise at times, this end of Deansgate was not the best, the warehouses were deserted (now an 'entertainment' centre) and the road carried on to a couple of grotty pubs and the arterial road out of town, now unrecognisable in a flurry of restaurants, hotels and estate agents selling the loft apartments built into buildings that were, at the time, deserted.

I mention my friends Californian childhood simply because it made him aware of the Scientologists, which I was not, therefore he realised that the peculiar people standing outside the building above, which has changed not one iota, as far as I can remember, inviting us in, were Not To Be Trusted. To cut a long story short, I was happy to escape the talk we were given about the 'Church' of Scientology and to not have to grip strange steel rods which, in a way that even to my teenage mind seemed bonkers, produced readings directly relating to, it appeared, my need to purchase books which as luck would have it, they had in stock. Being in possession of a small amount of money which was destined for being spent over the counter of the saloon bar and not into the hands of American religionists hanging around outside a shop on the dark end of Deansgate, we bought nothing, much to the annoyance of the vendor, who made it clear that we were not only wasting his time by not doing so, but were also in grave moral danger.

I cannot imagine that the last fifteen years of Mancunians have been any more receptive to the advances of the Scientologists who still hang around outside their shop, sometimes decked with cheery balloons, inviting people in for their tests which always seem to result in the urgent need to purchase books. But there they still are, I suppose now their main attentions will be focused on the new wave of rich footballers and bankers who keep the new champagne bars afloat, it would be a coup for any religious group to have a star player in their place of worship on a Sunday or whatever day is chosen. I imagine though that, used as the wealthy now are to being cushioned from the real world, they would want, as in times past, their own private pew, as fine an example of which as you can see anywhere can be found at the Church of Rev'd James Milnes of Coronation Street cross crossness fame in Alderley Village.

Would we do it though? Knowing what we now know about community and the Church having moved on since the days of pew rents, would we accommodate people into their own private experience of Church as shops, I am told, will, by shutting the store to all but the celebrity so he or she is not worried by having to encounter the Great Unwashed? This in effect is what Scientology provides, a secret experience of 'church', as the old Roman Cults used to, bringing people one more stage into the mystery, advancing their position in the Church and in society each time they are brought further in, until eventually the object of worship is revealed to you (an ear of corn, in one memorable example). It is religion as social climbing, a structured society in which the wealthy and well connected will rise to the top, forming ever more exclusive layers of fraternity.

Back in the real world, Christianity operates, theoretically, in the polar opposite direction. The Bible is ubiquitous, freely available anywhere, online, in stores, free and finely bound. Teaching is there for the asking, Biblical Commentaries abound as do websites expounding their own personal spin (much as we like to deny it) on the Faith and the world. Initiates are armed with the catechism during the period before Baptism or reception and the source and summit of all life is given in the form of bread and wine freely to the convert, indeed so freely is the gift given that one could take it without being baptised, if the correct, simple procedure were known.

Is the ubiquity of the Church, in text and buildings, part of the reason for its decline? Is the fact that people know what goes on inside and therefore deem it boring or irrelevant something we can overcome? Is bad teaching the reason for this, I wonder, and is the secularisation of society to blame? Dislike it as we may, the Church's well publicised infighting has not helped in the campaign to make us seem relevant, which the teachings of Christ assuredly are. Under attack from a belief system which opens shops on the High Street and stands outside bringing the rich and famous in -during a time when we become obsessed with celebrity- are we retreating into our own certainly, under attack as well within our own Church, do we, understandably, turn to the initiates and say with more fervour what the uninitiated would benefit from hearing?