nthposition online magazine

The joy of sects

by Damian Thompson

[ strangeness - april 02 ]

At noon every day, in a manor house in the middle of the Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, members of a mystical order file into a tiny, quasi-Masonic temple. In semi-darkness they perform esoteric rites which they believe stretch back three thousand years to the Pharaohs.

Further north, towards the Surrey border, the owners of another manor house wire themselves up to electric meters whose flickering needles register the innermost depths of the psyche. They, too, believe that they have uncovered the secrets of the past; only theirs date back billions of years to a cosmic catastrophe.

Twenty miles away in the village of Robertsbridge, bearded men in lumberjack shirts and women in peasant headscarves are walking silently through the narrow streets. They do not swear, smoke, watch television or marry outsiders. When Christ returns, they believe, everyone will live like them.

Down on the Sussex coast, meanwhile, the occupants of yet another manor house do battle with demons: evil spirits of illness and sexual obsession which, when commanded to leave, come wheezing out of the body in the form of a cough or an involuntary bark.

There is something about the soil of East Sussex which allows even the most exotic religions to take root and flower. Little pockets of cultic and fundamentalist belief are sprinkled right across the county, in far greater profusion than in any other part of the British Isles. Once you wake up to this fact, the evidence is everywhere: a glimpse of a Mormon temple through the trees, the polished buttons on a Scientologist uniform, a nervous headline about exorcists in the local newspaper. But why is this reserved and surprisingly desolate county so drawn to the joy of sects?

The question has puzzled me for ages, and for the last few weeks I have been travelling around East Sussex in an attempt to answer it. My journey began, however, not in Sussex but in a dingy outbuilding of the London School of Economics. Inform, a Home Office-funded religious information service, is the only place in Britain which supplies reliable computerised data about groups which society labels cults or sects. "Just punch in Sussex," said the information officer. The result: 32 hits, as opposed to 19 for Hampshire and just 15 for Yorkshire.

This is a selection of what you can find in Sussex: Rosicrucians, Druids, Scientologists, Anthroposophists, the Bruderhof, the Divine Light Mission, The Institute of Universal Light, and Pagans. Where should I start? The Rosicrucian file looked promising. It contained press cuttings of $3.5 million embezzlement charges against a former leader of the Order; some delightfully naff publicity leaflets ("Please send me a free copy of 'The Mastery of Life'. I am sincere in my wish to learn more about my cosmic connections"); and tantalising photographs of a manor house hidden away in the woods. Feeling a tiny prickle of apprehension, I picked up the telephone, dialled the number and asked for the Grand Master.

The Ashdown Forest is a sadly threadbare affair, its luxuriant oaks torn down by Henry VIII for naval timber and never replaced. But it still has a wild, overgrown feel to it: according to Lowerson's Short History of Sussex, its hamlets have "the ragged appearance of poorly-organised frontier towns". It is certainly uncharted territory for my taxi driver, who stops for directions four times before turning into a dense estate of Scots pines. The sign at the entrance says "AMORC": the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis.

Greenwood Gate, built at the turn of the century, is Hollywood's idea of an Elizabethan manor: half-timbered gables, cavernous fireplaces, a galleried great hall. The only snow of the winter has fallen during the night. A middle-aged lady ushers me into an old kitchen. It is far too cold to take off my overcoat.

A man with a grey-flecked beard comes bustling in, glasses swinging from a cord. "Sorry about the temperature," he says. "We've run out of oil, and these leaded windows..." He is Sven Johansson, a former computer programmer who discovered Rosicrucianism through a Rhodesian women's magazine. Now he is Grand Master of Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

He tells me that Rosicrucianism originated when the Pharaoh Thutmose III ordered all the wisest people in the world to come to Luxor. From there it spread to the desert Essenes, to Moorish Spain and the alchemists of medieval Europe. "Quite how it survived we don't pretend to know," says Sven. "Our members were burnt as witches during the Inquisition, so we adopted the clothes of the day, dressing as shoemakers or priests or farmers." (He is wearing a woolly jumper and trainers.) The essence of Rosicrucianism, explains Sven, is the relationship between matter and spirit: "Whatever operates in the material world operates analogically in realms that are not material." And vice versa.

We stroll into the great hall and sit down on a velvet sofa, sending little puffs of dust into the air. Sven apologises for the fake red roses over the fireplace: they can't afford real ones. So how did they manage to buy this splendid house? "It was bought for us by a Greek shipping magnate. But that was before my time." He jumps up from the sofa. "Wait there while I prepare the Temple," he says. Ten seconds later his voice trails down from the gallery. "You can come up now."

At the top of the staircase, a door swings open. Inside, blue electric lights throw shadows onto a chequered floor. The Grand Master's throne stands in front of a hand-painted mural of the Valley of the Kings. On a triangular altar sits a globe filled with sand from the Egyptian desert. The effect is genuinely imposing. I ask Sven about the daily ritual, but he doesn't seem comfortable talking about it. Do the officers wear Egyptian or medieval robes? "Er, medieval," he says. "Now, have you seen enough?"

On the train back to London, I can feel the melancholy of Greenwood Gate clinging to me like cigar smoke. The Sussex Rosicrucians have seen better days. Since its foundation in California in 1905, AMORC has relied on advertisements and mail order to spread its message. These days, its amiable promises of enlightenment appeal mostly to correspondents from the Third World. No wonder no-one in East Sussex has heard of it. One suspects that AMORC might even welcome a little local notoriety.

The same cannot be said of the Bruderhof, the Amish-like inhabitants of Robertsbridge; yet recently they have had it in spades. Like AMORC, they are not as old as you might think. They were founded in Germany in 1921 by Eberhard Arnold, a charismatic preacher whose followers expected the return of Christ in their lifetimes. Passionate opponents of Nazism, they spent most of the war in Paraguay. The Robertsbridge Bruderhof was founded in 1971 in an old TB sanatorium: apparently the elders were looking for somewhere relatively isolated but close to London. Its 300 members support themselves by making toys and selling vegetables. They look, someone once said, like the couples who pop out of little chalets to tell you whether it's going to rain, though perhaps that makes them seem too cuddly: a recent book accused them of merciless interrogations, obsession with childhood sexuality and fear of demons. The Bruderhof responded by buying up a hefty slice of the print run, apparently to stop it falling into the hands of the public.

The Bruderhof are a tough nut to crack. They have already refused to give me a guided tour, something they would once have been happy to do. Their change of heart, I suspect, is thanks to a BBC drama called Heaven On Earth, which was screened last year. In it, a thinly disguised (and viciously caricatured) Bruderhof was taken over by a madman and turned into a blazing Waco. So, no more media tours. But I decide to pay them a visit anyway.

The sign at the empty gatehouse says "Welcome", so I walk down the long path which arcs around the baby firs towards the old sanatorium. A blackbird swoops low across the fields and up into a threatening sky. Two youths are loading timber into a warehouse; they have the pale faces and thick glasses of young Hasidim. "Sir?" one of them calls out in an American accent. "Sir?" He directs me to a hut well away from the community buildings: a place for outsiders.

A brother called Kim Comer is sent to talk to me. He is American, powerfully built and crop-haired. "You've caught us at a low ebb in terms of our interest in the media," he says quietly. Stalling for time, I find myself asking idiotically why he hasn't got a beard. "There's no rule," he says. "Did you think there was?" He grins, but the message in his eyes is clear: This is not a good place for you to be. As I walk back up the path I can feel his gaze following me.

Or perhaps it's just my paranoia. In the public bar of the Ostrich, landlord Tony Robins is pouring afternoon pints for local businessmen. I tell him where I've been. "Oh, the Dinglies," he beams. "We call them that after the Dr Dingly who ran the TB hospital. Tell them you need some help with some digging, and fifty of 'em will turn up with shovels. What do you think, Bob?"

Bob likes them, with one reservation. "They're ever so light-fingered when it comes to wild flowers and the like. Every autumn you see a great herd of them moving through the fields, and that's the end of our blackberries."

When the Scientologists first arrived in East Grinstead, they would walk into pubs with notices round their necks which read: "Please don't talk to me. I'm being processed". According to the old boy in the High Street chemists who tells me this, local people were not surprised: it was all of a piece with the peculiar stories emanating from Saint Hill, the 18th-century manor house bought by Scientology's eccentric flame-haired creator, L Ron Hubbard, in 1959.

Forty years later, there is still something irreducibly bizarre about the Church of Scientology: the extraordinary claims it makes for machines called E-meters; its vocabulary of words such as "theetie-weetie" and "flubless"; its dated myths of inter-galactic warfare. Add to this allegations of cruelty and financial malpractice, plus the fact that the Church has now built a Disneyesque sandstone castle next to Saint Hill Manor, and it might seem unlikely that the people of East Grinstead will ever get used to this strange presence on their doorsteps.

Nevertheless, that is what appears to be happening. Eight years ago, when I first visited Saint Hill, some local people seemed genuinely frightened of "the Synies". "I can't say too much," my taxi diver told me, "because one of our drivers is one of them." Now, chatting to shoppers and commuters, I hear plenty of criticism, but the balance has shifted. They might be a cult, people imply, but at least they're our cult. Suzanne Purvis, campaign director for the Crowborough Hospital appeal, praises them unreservedly. "They sell our merchandise, they organise little events for us, they even trot in and out serving teas," she says. "It's like being helped by the Mothers' Union." Shades of the Bruderhof and their shovels; do minority religions have a desperate urge to be liked, one wonders, or does the intensity of their beliefs produce acts of unforced charity?

Now the Scientologists are serving me tea in a long pavilion next to the castle. I mention E-meters, and am offered a quick demonstration by Lorraine Bulger, a strikingly pretty woman with warm brown eyes. The idea is that you hold two metal tubes while answering questions; the rise and fall of the meter's needle will reveal the contours of your psyche to a trained "auditor" such as Lorraine.

She warms the tubes in front of the heater, then tells me: "Think about something sad that has happened to you." The needle quivers: evidence of negative vibes. "There!" she says triumphantly.

Then I confess that, naughtily, I actually dredged up the happiest memory I could find. "Well, it read on something," says Lorraine in a hurt voice. "Perhaps it picked up the fact that you knew you were deceiving me, and weren't entirely happy about it." I can feel myself blushing. Here I am wired up to an electric meter that Scientology's critics regard as an outrageous piece of trickery, and I'm the one who comes across as a fraud.

By this stage in my journey, it is beginning to dawn on me that the groups I've met so far aren't so much exotic imposters in East Sussex as part and parcel of a more widely diffused strangeness. Their choice of county seems to have been little more than a matter of convenience; but, once settled, it is amazing how well they fit in.

Certainly the local histories of Sussex yield more than their fair share of weirdness. According to the Venerable Bede, the people of south Sussex would jump off cliffs, lemming-like, when the harvest failed. This was the last place in England to abandon paganism, though judging by Sussex folklore its traces lingered for centuries. Interestingly, many of the most macabre tales focus on manor houses: in the 17th century, Horselungs Manor and Scotney Castle were rumoured to be the scene of baby-murdering orgies, while one Sir Goddard Oxenbridge of Brede was accused of cannibalism. Not coincidentally, all the villains of these stories were Catholics. Sussex was Puritan during the Civil War, and in the eastern part of the county sectarian and anti-Papist traditions (such as the creepy Lewes bonfire) still run deep, adding an extra touch of severity to an already bleak landscape.

My final visit promises the perfect marriage of frightening ideas and sinister backdrop. Glyndley Manor is built on a patch of raised ground above the drained marshland near Pevensey. The house is Elizabethan, covered in creeper, with spiky Gothic pinnacles, "the ideal setting for a horror movie", according to the Shell Guide to Sussex. Actually, it is ideal in more ways than one. Since 1991 it has been occupied by Ellel Ministries, a born-again Christian group which offers "deliverance" from evil spirits.

"We're not exorcists," says David Cross, a member of the Glyndley staff. "We would never use that word. The people who come here are Christians, already saved. But they can still be troubled by an unclean spirit, perhaps a legacy of ungodly behaviour years ago. Think of it like a house that has a bit of woodworm in the rafters." David has bushy grey hair, aviator specs and a modest moustache. When he describes the process of deliverance, he sounds like a GP reassuring an anxious patient: "There might be a spot of yawning or coughing; perhaps you might be a bit sick. Nothing dramatic."

The manor house has been converted - pretty crudely, it must be said - into a residential conference centre, complete with tiny spartan bedrooms, an alcohol-free bar and little packets of ketchup on the dining room tables. Over a lunch of cheese on toast and semolina, I summon up the nerve to ask David about a story which always crops up in hostile articles about Ellel, involving its founder Peter Horrobin splashing Ribena onto a man's genitals to drive away a sexual spirit.

"You'll have to ask Peter about that," he says, "but perhaps we did some silly things in the early days. What I can tell you is that 99 per cent of our visitors go away with a new sense of peace. Evil spirits are a tiny part of what we do here. We're all about helping people to achieve Christian healing and wholeness." He's a nice guy; I believe him.

Glyndley Manor, more than any of the other places, conveys a sense of the changing anatomy of English religion. The combination of demonic spirits and the language of therapy is perfectly attuned to society's postmodern neuroticism. Of course, it is not most people's cup of tea, but then neither is the Church of England. My guess is that flirting with minority religions or philosophies could become one of the great leisure activities of the new millennium, in which case the religious map of Britain could soon reproduce the spiritual topography of East Sussex.

Is that such a bad thing? Greenwood Gate, the Bruderhof, Saint Hill and Glyndley Manor are all places where ordinary people have found answers, of a sort, to the questions of existence and mortality which plague us all. It seems churlish to begrudge them their hard-won peace of mind.

On my way out of Glyndley Manor, I pass a woman planting shrubs in an ornamental garden ravaged by years of neglect. She looks up, pink-faced from her exertions, and tells me that in a few weeks the garden will be restored to its pristine beauty. I ask her if gardening has any connection to her faith.

"Of course!" she sings out. "I'm doing it for Him!"