Thursday, October 7, 2010

Interview with Phil Ryder about The Druid Network's Charity Status

The following is an interview with Phil Ryder, Chair of Trustees for The Druid Network and one of the members most deeply involved in the four-year-long process of applying for religious charity status with the Charity Commission of England and Wales. I want to express again just how grateful I am to Phil for taking the time to answer my questions and give me, and all you readers, a little more insight into the long and difficult journey that TDN has made over the past several years. Congratulations once again to him and all the members of TDN on their success!

For my full coverage of this story, please hop on over to The Wild Hunt and stay tuned for my guest post tomorrow! To read the full text of the Charity Commission decision document, you can download the .pdf or visit The Druid Network's website.

Ali: Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview, Phil! I know you and everyone at TDN must be very busy these days.

Phil: As you can imagine, I've been flat out trying to deal with the media folk — and on the whole it has been positive, within their limited ability to understand just what we are about. But I think it's important for everyone to understand just what this acceptance means and why TDN did it. I'm not sure we can cover everything in such a limited time — the amount of material we've sent to the CC would fill a very large book and covers everything from the anarchic setup of TDN through to explaining not only Druidry but all nature-based spiritualities and how they are religions. I know many shy away from that term — and I'm not keen either on the terms 'pagan', 'religion' and to some extent 'druid' — but 'religion' simply means to bind one to the sacred, and religions are defined by their identifiable method of doing that....

Oooops — there I go, going off on one! So, yes, fire away and I'll see what I can do to help.

Ali: All right, here we go!

Applying for Charitable Status

How did The Druid Network as a community decide to pursue status as a religious charity rather than, for instance, as a not-for-profit company? Was there internal debate within TDN about defining the organization as "religious"?

Phil: We applied because we were legally obliged to do so as an unincorporated association with subscribing members, and therefore an income. The Inland Revenue folk want to know what happens to the money if you claim you are not-for-profit. We had two choices at that time, although now there are other options. We could have registered with Companies House as a Limited Company, or we could register with the Charity Commission. 'TDN Ltd' didn't seem right, so the trustees decided to register with the Charity Commission. The membership was informed of our intent, but we had little option.

I have seen a few of your comments circulating the 'blogosphere' about the four-year-long process of applying for religious charity status with the Charity Commission. Could you go into more detail about what this process entailed and the steps it involved?

Phil: Under English Charity Law there are what are called 'Heads of Charity' under which charities must register (eg 'relief of the poor', 'education' and 'furthering religion'). You must register under the one that matches the objects of your constitution, and in our case that had to be 'furthering religion' because that is our purpose — to inform, inspire and facilitate the practice of Druidry as a religion.

So that is how we applied, and we were rejected simply because they thought Druidry was esoteric and occult and therefore not for the public benefit. Now you would think that all you'd have to do was explain that one point to be accepted, but that isn't the case. You must go through the 'review procedure' with their legal department. Unfortunately we applied in February 2006 when the new Charities Act was passing through Parliament. This act removed the presumption of public benefit for religious charities and also added to the definition of religion, so that you could have more than one deity or no deities at all. The removal of the presumption of public benefit left the Charity Commission in a position where they did not know how to establish public benefit for religions, and so started a public consultation that TDN contributed to. But this involved huge delays because the CC would not make a decision on our application until they had established how they were going to judge public benefit. In the meantime, we had meetings and emails, and submitted numerous documents discussing the validity of Druidry as a religion; once the consultation period was over, we had the same process for public benefit.

Finally they informed us that on the 1st September they would hold a meeting to give a final decision on our application which would be ratified on the 21st of that month. If we had failed at that point, we would then have needed to appeal to the charities tribunal. However, the decision was in our favour, and we are now registered as an 'organisation that has objects that further religion for the public benefit'.

How did you personally get involved in the process? Did you have any background in navigating the 'legalese' of drafting a constitution and by-laws for TDN?

Phil: I became involved soon after I joined what was then referred to as the 'Committee of TDN'. I simply asked if we were registered and got the reply, 'Should we be?' Keep in mind, though, that TDN was in its infancy at this time and only just finding its feet. So I investigated the options and found that we did indeed need to register. I had no previous experience with this and so began a few months of reading books, case histories and talking to folk until I did have a small understanding of what was needed. We then had to draft our constitution in a way that reflected our vision of TDN as an organisation with no hierarchy based on pagan principles of honourable relationship. We also had to draft the foreword to our constitution. That was the hardest thing I've ever been involved in writing, mainly because the intent was to provide the CC with the bare bones of druid belief and practice and at the same time get agreement from as many of the major druid organisations as would respond.

You've said that you basically had very little choice but were required by law to register as a religious charity — however, I note in ¶15 of the Charity Commission decision document that they state, "the organisation, if not able to establish itself as a religion within the meaning of charity law, may be eligible for registration as a charity under the promotion of moral or spiritual welfare or improvement for the benefit of the community, if it can be demonstrated that it is established for the public benefit." Was this a viable option for TDN at any point during the process of application? Did you consider pursuing this path as an alternative if TDN's initial application was not approved?

Phil: That was always an option, and one we made absolutely clear to the CC that we would not accept. As previously mentioned, you have to register under a Head of Charity and you can only provide services under that Head. There was a case involving 'The Pagan Funeral Trust', who was registered as being 'for the promotion of moral or spiritual welfare or improvement for the benefit of the community' and was then deregistered for providing religious services. They had applied originally as furthering religion and been rejected, and then advised by the CC to go down the alternative route. No, it doesn't make sense to me either — but that is English Charity Law.

So no, it was never an option we would have taken — we made it very clear to the CC that we would prove our case and would not go away until they accepted us.

You have noted in other interviews that the tax benefits, while appreciated, will be relatively minor because of the small size of The Druid Network (only 350 members). What other reasons did you have for pursuing legal status as a religious charity (other than complying with UK law, of course)? What did you hope your success would accomplish for TDN members and supporters, and for other Druids in the UK and abroad?

Phil: There is a level of respectability and acceptance for registered charities, a level of confidence that charities are regulated by the CC and complaints can be made to the CC about any irregularities perceived within a charity. Also, some service providers will not deal with you if you aren't registered — for example, if we wanted trustee liability insurance, which we don't, as an unregistered not-for-profit it is very difficult to obtain acceptable premiums.

What advice would you offer for other organizations or groups interested in pursuing this course?

Phil: My recommendation to others wishing to register would be to read our application, constitution and the CC's decision document, and go for it — but be prepared for a long haul. TDN may have laid the path but others will be judged on a case by case basis — the more of TDN’s definition they use, the easier it will be, as that definition is now accepted by the CC.

Defining Druidry & Religion

The Charity Commission decision document is extensive and exhaustive in its examination of TDN's definition of Druidry, particularly the conception of deity as outlined in your application and the question of 'coherence' within the larger Druid community. How did you handle this rigorous examination, and did your approach change at all over the course of the four years?

Phil: We handled it with patience and understanding. The CC just didn't understand us; 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. They could simply have refused and let the tribunal system have all the headache.

The CC document notes (in ¶41) that "the applicants consulted other Druid organisations throughout the world and canvassed their views as to the core beliefs. Those organisations were asked if they considered whether the definition was right and they all generally agreed that it was, although some might have added to it." What other Druid groups did you consult with? How did you incorporate or otherwise respond to the feedback of these groups?

Phil: I do have a list of those approached and the answers given, and those who didn't respond — and the latter were very few. As mentioned we wrote the foreword to our constitution to be the core of druid understanding and practice. All who responded did so with agreement; some said they would add to it to reflect their Order's teachings, but all agreed it was a good core description.

To what extent do you see the CC's decision as influencing the legal status and/or public recognition of Druidry as a religion in the UK (and beyond)? How did you address the CC's concerns about "cogency, coherence, seriousness and importance" (¶47) in light of TDN's (to use your phrase) "anarchic setup"?

Phil: It doesn't really change the legal status — there is no definition of religion in English Law — but it does give recognition to Druidry and paganism as serious, coherent religious practice, or that they can be practiced as such. Proving "cogency, coherence, seriousness and importance" was not simple, and Dr Graham Harvey's report went a long way in helping, as did evidence supplied from other organisations and individuals, for example Manchester Museum. We simply answered their questions and provided supporting evidence.

You've mentioned a certain ambivalence about the word 'religion' and even the names 'Pagan' and to some extent 'Druid.' Could you describe a little more your personal views on these words, as well as how they are used within and beyond the Druid community?

Phil: Mention the words 'pagan', 'religion' or 'druid' and ask for a definition, and you will find little agreement — even from those who use them to define their own path. 'Pagan', of course, originally had no religious meaning. Jesus would have been considered 'pagan' by the Romans. 'Religion' is associated with organised belief systems with rules. 'Druid' can be cultural, fraternal or spiritual. My personal understanding of them is that 'pagan' is any nature-based spirituality; 'religion' is any recognisable way of forming relationship with deity; and 'druid' is the natural spirituality of these islands and its peoples, that others through ancestry or culture also feel deep within their core and can practice in their own lands. But that is entirely my personal view, and I don't expect all to agree with it.

Have your personal views of 'religion,' 'Pagan(ism)' and 'Druid(ry/ism)' changed at all as a result of your work with the Charity Commission?

Phil: My view on religion has changed, and perhaps also on the word 'pagan' to a lesser extent. When I first looked at our application, I would have gone down any other route possible rather than apply the term 'religion' to my understanding of Druidry. I had the same idea of monotheistic control and dogma. But I had to study and gain an understanding of many other religions to put our case, and I came to realise that the accepted definition of religion, and indeed the one used by the CC, could not be applied to many accepted world religions. I could not have proceeded with the application had I not reached that understanding, arguing something I didn't fully believe to be true.

Media Coverage

The response to this news has been pretty amazing in some respects, including coverage in major media outlets like the Telegraph, the Times, the BBC, the AFP, the Associated Press and CNN. Were you expecting the story to make such a splash? Why do you think it became such a big story?

Phil: The response by the media was amazing, and currently ongoing. Why? Perhaps they presumed it would be controversial and therefore a good story. Had we anticipated such a response we would have been better prepared.

How do you think the mainstream media has handled the coverage? Has there been a lot of sensationalizing or misrepresentation of The Druid Network, or Druidry more generally, in your opinion? What have they gotten right?

Phil: The media, not unlike the CC, have no understanding of Druidry, and that is reflected in their coverage with the usual photos of revelry at Stonehenge. So yes, much misrepresentation, but for the most part, I think they tried to be positive — with a few exceptions. What did they get right? That we have been accepted for registration, very little else.

What has the news coverage so far left out or overlooked that you wish they hadn't? What do you feel is the most important aspect of this news that deserves to be shared?

Phil: I wish they'd taken a little more time to do some research and get the story at least some way correct. An understanding of Charity Law, for example. The Druid Network has not been recognised as a religion, it has been recognised as an organisation that furthers religion for the benefit of the public — to do that, the CC had to establish that Druidry as put forward in our Foreword met the criteria under English Charity Law of 'religion'. So yes, a level of recognition, but not that which the media implied, i.e. that we were not a religion before and now, through this decision, we suddenly are. Nor does it make all druid organisations religious. Another piece of misinformation is about the 'tax breaks' — it makes it sound like TDN will be now funded by the tax payer. TDN will continue to be funded by the support of its membership, including the trustees and the many other folk who devote their time to TDN. Yes, we could claim tax relief on any funds we raise for specific projects, but those projects must benefit the public and so, as with all charities, not just those under the head of religion, gifts to benefit the public are tax free. Now the person giving the money could claim that tax relief — or they can choose through the gift aid scheme that allows the charity to claim it on their behalf. So it isn't charities that get tax breaks, it is those who donate to charities.

Melanie Philips of the Daily Mail wrote a derisive and intolerant article in response to TDN's new religious charity status. Care to share any reaction or response to this and similar hostility?

Phil: We have published a response on our website on behalf of the trustees. On a personal level, I can only feel sorrow for someone who is so blinkered, bigoted and ignorant of the facts. I think she has done herself more harm than her intended target. That our application brought that about does cause me genuine sadness, but the responsibility is hers and that of the newspaper that allowed her to voice those opinions.

Druid and Pagan Response

The response among the Pagan and Druid communities has been somewhat mixed, with both excitement and ambivalence about The Druid Network's new status as a 'religious' charity. Much controversy seems to surround the claim in the CC document (¶41) that "the definition used by The Druid Network represents a coherent statement of the core and basic principles of Druidry." What is your understanding of what this statement means, and what might be its broader implications?

Phil: There has been mixed understanding of what this means, but really it is self explanatory. In essence, it means that the core beliefs of Druidry as expressed in our Foreword are coherent and recognisable as those capable of being recognised as a religious practice. It doesn't mean they have to be, nor that they can't be added to. If I asked what the core belief of all Christians was, what would be the answer? I'll make a stab at that: 'Jesus was the son of god who died on the cross and in doing so redeemed our sins and ensured a path to everlasting life.' Is that all that Christians believe? No! Christian denominations add to that and some even take bits away, yet all are Christian. Some see Christianity as a philosophy and not a religion. Some try to follow the ethics of Jesus yet don't accept a creator god. You see the similarity?

What has been your response (and TDN's response) to the reactions of those who are uncomfortable with the Charity Commission's conclusions regarding Druidry as a (Pagan) religion?

Phil: I'm only going to give my personal response, and that is to ask that we don't look for that which is divisive but rather to look for the positive. Also, to obtain the facts before voicing an opinion — we have enough with the media failing to do that. But I fully accept 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.

The CC document states that, under charity law, a 'religion' must be "more than a philosophy or way of life" (¶21) and includes a definition of 'beliefs' as "more than just mere opinions or deeply held feelings" (¶38). Yet some members of the Druid community have expressed that they "do not wish to see Druidry classified as a religion, as [...] it is more than a religion." Could you reflect some on these different approaches to 'religion' and 'philosophy/way of life,' from your perspective? (Elsewhere, you have compared these distinctions to those found within Buddhism as a religion/philosophy - could you expand on this idea?)

Phil: This could be an article in its own right! All I can say is that 'religion' in English Charity Law requires a deity or supernatural principle, even though the Charities 2006 Act states that a religion does not require a deity. As a philosophy, you don't need that aspect — you can simply care for the physical world based on an understanding similar to the idea that you wouldn't cut your finger off because you know that to damage even a small part damages the whole. As a religion, you must perceive something beyond the physical and seek to connect with those 'powers', accepting them as being worthy of respect — and yes, even worship. But as we explained to the CC, this worship does not need to be subservient, it can be in terms of the original meaning of the word, which is 'to accept the worth' of something.

Now for myself, as an animist, that is as far as I can go. Others understand deity in other ways. We try to understand in the best way we can. I have no perception of deity in corporeal form, and so how can I in truth connect with that? I live in the North of England, in what was the land of the Brigantes. Brigantia is, to me, the spirit of this land on which I live and has no other form. I have no understanding of those who see Brigantia as a Goddess, but how can I reject that and say they are wrong?

As I mentioned earlier, it comes down to perception. And for myself, it involves an understanding that we each perceive this manifest realm in many ways, and that that is an essential part of Druidry. It allows us to flow with an open mind, understanding that tomorrow our views may well have changed. Indeed, by the time you read this my view on something will have changed, no matter how small that change is. This is how we learn.

Another concern that has been raised is the potential exclusion of non-Pagan Druids from this definition of Druidry, such as Christian Druids and atheist Druids among others. Problematic statements include:

  • "It is important to remember that, even if a Druid does not actively revere a particular deity, he will not dismiss a god as nonexistent. A Druid will accept the existence of all gods, even if he knows nothing about them." (Annex 2)
  • and
  • "The Druid does not acknowledge deity to be existent outside of Nature, for nothing is beyond Nature: the Druidic understanding is of Nature as All, in a process of perpetual self- creating. This is not Christianity." (¶30, quoted from TDN website) (Although elsewhere, the CC document notes: "Thus while most within Druidry honour what are known as the Celtic named and mythologized deities, others honour Christian, Saxon, Nordic or Classical Pagan gods." (¶27))

Can you clarify TDN's position on inclusion of Christian, atheistic and other non-Pagan Druids within The Druid Network itself?

Phil: The one that is very difficult to explain is how a Christian can be a druid within TDN. Well, for a start, we are inclusive, and folk coming new to TDN may simply be exploring. More than that, and we get into a theological and philosophical discussion — and that should involve more than my words here. However, what I will say is that members of TDN are asked to read and agree to the Constitution. Many Christians have joined, including Christian ministers, and it is because they feel they can agree with the Foreword — that's what really answers that question. I would say that it depends on how the individual perceives deity — is it imminent or transcendent? — the latter being the more traditional Christian understanding. Those with the former view would agree with the Foreword, while those with the latter may feel it less than acceptable. But TDN is a pagan organisation, and as such embraces a pagan understanding, not that of the traditional Christian Church. I am constantly puzzled as to why many feel this is a problem.

Can you speak to how you think the religious charity status of TDN and the use of its own definitions of Druidry and deity in the CC document may affect (if at all) the inclusion of non-Pagan Druids in other groups and in larger society?

Phil: Will TDN's definition of Druidry have an effect in other areas of society, or on the practice of other druids or pagans, now that the CC has accepted our application? The simple answer is that it is only Druidry as expressed by TDN that has been accepted. Others are free to disagree, and I welcome that diversity. If we look for what is divisive we will find it — but if we instead look for commonality, we will find more that connects us than divides us. It is that acceptance, that plurality, that makes Druidry the wonderful path that it is. We each, on our own land, seek understanding and creativity, each of us perceiving it personally. But it is when we come together to celebrate that we feel the commonality of understanding that is Druidry. We can sit around a campfire and discuss philosophy, and even get heated about our own perceptions. But when we are in the grove, we come together and there is always that shared understanding — something that is beyond my attempts to convey to the CC, or whoever else reads this — but that is what Druidry is all about. We just know, yet the words to describe are always just out of reach. And I like that — that Druidry refuses to be defined and contained by mere words but we know what it is. Long may that be.

Ali: Again, thank you so much for your time and your willingness to do this interview with me, Phil! I know that I've covered a lot of ground and asked a lot of detailed questions — though hopefully I'm not as bad as the CC! One final question: is there anything else you wanted to add that we haven't mentioned, any thoughts or reflections you wanted to share with readers?

Phil: Only, I want to stress, that this is my own path and my own views, and whilst they may coincide with those of TDN that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Also this has all been very condensed. We could write volumes on this subject and still have omissions that could lead to ambiguity. So I hope readers will appreciate that, and understand that this cannot be the full picture, but is rather a glimpse at what we've had to go through and how we made the decisions that led to TDN’s registration as a charity.

I must also say that it was not just Emma Restall Orr and myself that achieved this. We certainly drove it, but there are many others who were involved and without them the journey would have been much harder.


  1. Great interview. Thanks for posting this!

  2. No problem. Glad you enjoyed it! :) If you haven't already, I recommend checking out my article for the Wild Hunt that posted today, for more details and coverage.