Daily Telegraph, London, 3/23/2001: Article about Co$

23 Mar 2001

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A church for celebrities, but what about me?
Victoria Combe remains sceptical about Scientology

It was a sad day for the Church of Scientology when Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman announced their separation last month. The Hollywood couple have been invaluable promotional agents, their success and white smiles doing more for the controversial movement than 100 television advertising campaigns could.

Since their announcement, there have been repeated suggestions that Scientology was a possible reason for the break-up - that the couple had disagreed about their two adopted children's involvement, Kidman preferring that they should be raised as Roman Catholics. However, Cruise's attachment to the church remains intact: this week, he has issued a statement denying that he has severed links with Scientology.

The British wing of the movement has reacted to the Cruise/Kidman setback with a vigorous publicity campaign. Its headquarters and training academy are in Saint Hill Manor, East Grinstead, a fantasy castle built in the Sixties. Scientology is struggling to be recognised as a mainstream church, having twice had applications for status as a religious charity turned down by the Charities Commission.

"Inevitably, we have suffered discrimination in the press," says Graeme Wilson, director of special affairs at Saint Hill. "All great movements that sought to bring man wisdom and greater freedom have faced often vicious and virulent attacks. But if even a fraction of what has been said about Scientology were true, it would have ceased to exist."

The publicity campaign began with "The Great Exhibition", which ran for 16 days last month in an empty Oxford Street shop, with a jazz band playing outside. Leaflets promised "free consultation on how to think more clearly" and advice on how to "remove toxins and drugs from your body".

An invitation to a Sunday service at the Scientology Celebrity Centre in Bayswater, west London, sounded promising. As well as the Cruises, celebrity members include John Travolta, Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley and Kirstie Alley. Attending a service also seemed a good way to discover whether there was any religious content in Scientology.

The movement, founded by the American comic book and science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard in 1954, has always struck me as a self-help programme, peppered with jargon. Followers practise "auditing", a form of counselling in which one member asks questions and another holds two metal cans attached by wires to an electronic instrument called an E-meter. This sends a small current through the body and is supposed to detect the "energy and mass" of suppressed emotions and spiritual angst.

Scientologists believe they must understand their own spirituality to reach "the supreme being", which is not one God but a spiritual being of their choice. Their manual on bringing up children in Scientology says that, to prevent damage to the "prenatal" memory, a couple must be silent "before and after the sex act", and when the pregnant mother coughs or sneezes. Absolute silence must also be kept during labour and birth.

The Celebrity Centre is a four-storey house flanked by hotels. I was greeted by the president, Alison Batchelor, a former opera singer. A pianist was playing show tunes in the service room. The centre seeks to nurture the artistic temperament and to help celebrities cope with fame. Sadly, stars seem more likely to be found in the lobby of a nearby hotel.

"One of Tom Cruise's entourage has visited us, but not Tom himself," said Mrs Batchelor.

"John Travolta was going to come when he was in London, but his schedule would not allow it."

In the congregation of 25, there was Miss Holland 1993, a pianist who used to play with Ian Dury, and a former princess of Beirut who lost her title when she divorced the prince. There was also a decorator who had started a science fiction novel and a hereditary peer, Lord McNair.

The minister, Tom Harding, read from Hubbard's books and the congregation recited the "creed". This is mostly about man's "inalienable rights" to freedom, but it also declares that killing others is wrong and that man's spirit can be saved.

The rest of the service was a "group auditing session" and the press officer asked if I would like to leave. No chance. The session lasted 20 minutes, beginning with Mr Harding asking: "Is there a floor there?" Everyone said "yes" and so it went on, to the walls, ceiling, then feet, legs, hands, and the head. People were asked to "experience" their body parts and Mr Harding asked: "Was that better than ever? Is it more real?"

I was certainly not brainwashed but nor did I feel enlightened in any way. The former Miss Holland, Hilda Vander Meulen, who became a Scientologist in 1994 when she signed up for a "purification" course in Los Angeles, told me that the movement had changed her life: "I am calm, capable and I can deal with issues now." She has given up wine, tobacco and all drugs.

There are believed to be 100,000 Scientologists in Britain and eight million worldwide. All of these people became involved through a course that promised a happier and easier life - though some found otherwise. Unhappy ex-members tend to inhabit the internet, where there are sites such as "Scientology Lies", "Scientology Kills" and "Eight Steps out of Scientology", to help people leave Hubbard's movement. I just used the door.


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