The rain bounced off a podium fit for an Oscar ceremony, soaking the lavish red carpet, and pouring down the collars of celebrants sporting incongruous California tans and sunglasses. And still they smiled. Each wore a lapel badge marking them out as followers of one of the most controversial and fastest growing “religious” movements in the world, the Church of Scientology.
For two hours yesterday Hollywood glitz supplanted British mundanity on the streets of London as the most senior figures within the movement joined 5,000 members from all over the world for the opening of their £24m “church” in the heart of the Square Mile.
City of London police closed roads and 10ft foot high screens either side of the building, a five-storey former bible centre on Queen Victoria Street, relayed proceedings to thousands of followers who stood beneath specially-designed Church of Scientology umbrellas to watch.
The opening of the vast complex, with its marble floors, stuccoed pillars and gold lettering, is testament to the growing financial strength of the Scientology movement which boasts 10 million members worldwide, including 123,000 in the UK.
(Keep in mind that lying and other unethical behavior is encouraged and condoned in Scientology’s scriptures, which were written by L. Ron Hubbard – a man who had trouble telling the truth.
Standing on the sidelines a handful of protesters chanting “Stop scientology ruining lives” were the only sign that not everyone welcomed the new and dominating presence in London of an association which has been investigated by the FBI since it was formed in the 1950s by the science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard and faces accusations that it is a modern-day cult.
Statements by Hubbard adorn the inside walls of the London centre, although visitors yesterday were not enlightened by one of the often-quoted statements from the man they know as LRH: “Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.”
One demonstrator, who gave his name only as Stefan, claimed that during his nine years in the association, which asks all followers to donate a minimum of $450 ( £240) a year, he had lost his home.
His complaints remained unheard from the podium where Chief Superintendent Kevin Hurley, the fourth most senior police officer in the City of London, welcomed the scientologists to their new home, just a stone’s throw from St Paul’s Cathedral. Mr Hurley said the scientologists were a “force for good” in London and were “raising the spiritual wealth of society”, to applause and cheering from the gathered crowd. He paid tribute to the work of hundreds of the Scientology members in the aftermath of the July 7 attacks last year.
The standing ovation, however, was reserved for David Miscavige, chairman of the Board of Religious Technology Centre, the senior ecclesiastical structure which runs the religion. He promised scientology could “improve the grades of schoolchildren across the education system in one term, completely reverse 80-90% recidivist crime rates and cut drug addiction by 10-20% within a generation”.
“This day will go down in history,” said Mr Miscavige. “Of all the foreign lands where LRH lived and worked, he called England home. This is the city wherein he first defined the human spirit as an immortal being possessed of capabilities beyond anything predicted and so arrived at the axiomatic truths on which the whole of Scientology is founded.”
Among the celebrity guests at the event yesterday were Anne Archer, who starred alongside Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction and Golden Globe nominee Jenna Elfman. There was no sign of the Hollywood actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta, the most high profile Scientology members. But according to staff who worked at the event, Cruise attended a lavish dinner on Saturday night at the British headquarters of the Church of Scientology in East Sussex which was held to give awards to those followers, known as silver, gold and platinum members, who donate the largest sums of money to the movement.
Insiders who were at the event said the 2,000 guests paid from £500 for ordinary tables to £1,500 for the seats nearest to Cruise’s table, which was situated in a sealed-off VIP area. After a meal of fois gras, Aberdeen angus beef and a dessert of chocolate, passion fruit and papaya tart, which took two weeks to prepare, awards were presented to the many elite donors in the movement.
– Justice Anderson, Supreme Court of Victoria, Australia, quoted at What judges have to say about Scientology
A donation of $100,000 entitles the follower to the patron of honour medal, $10,000 qualifies the member for the crusader medal and a $10m donation to the church earns the follower the ultimate accolade, the Patron Laureate medal.
A blurb in the programme explains the laureate award is “for members who have donated the amount … (or its equivalent in other currencies) to the association”. Several of the patrons were seated in the VIP section at yesterday’s opening, while up to 5,000 ordinary followers stood to watch proceedings.
One man who remained behind closed doors throughout, was Alan Griffin, vicar of St Andrews by the Wardrobe church, which is next door to the new Church of Scientology Centre. Rev Griffin, whose congregation numbers 40, watched the thousands of followers from his flat within the church yesterday.
Asked if he was worried, he said: “Oh, I don’t think they are going to put Christianity out of business, do you? I mean, almost anyone can get 5,000 people out to support them. Can’t they?”
The Church of Scientology was formed in England in 1954 and has grown into an international movement which last year opened 1,300 new missions around the world. Scientology means “the study of truth”. Followers believe that we are all descended from immortal aliens called Thetans who were brought to Earth 75m years ago. Humans are seen as temporary vessels who can only become Operating Thetans by exorcising painful memories through intensive counselling, known as “auditing”, and having their mental pain measured by an electropsychometer, a device invented by L Ron Hubbard, who died in 1986. Critics claim it is a modern-day cult.