Coven seeks freedom to worship on council land

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Martin Prop, witch and high priest of the Milton Keynes Wiccan coven, does not seem immediately to be a threat to society. Only the broomstick hanging above the settee hints at odd, but hardly dangerous, activities.

All the animals - 12 cats and two huge Bull Mastiff dogs - in his three-bedroom terrace house in Bletchley came from rescue centres and Maggie, his partner and high priestess, works as a telephonist for British Rail.

But tonight, councillors of Milton Keynes Borough Council may hear blood-curdling tales of the dark path down which the practice of witchcraft may lead: to mind-numbing indoctrination, to bloody sacrifice and the corruption of mind and body. The council

has to decide whether to support Mr Prop's application to allow the coven to worship openly on waste ground near the back of Elfield Park, the Milton Keynes Bowl and one of the town's industrial estates.

The financial and general purposes committee has agreed to the plan for weekly liturgies and the celebration of eight major festivals. Mr Prop had hoped the group would have the licence in time to worship Yule on the date of the winter solstice (or the nearest weekend).

But the committee's decision faces a rescinding motion by other members of the council, supported by Christian evangelists. The vote is expected to be close. "Whether we go to Elfield Park is not the point," said Mr Prop. "It's whether or not there is freedom of religion in this country."

Such a view does not find favour with Betty Hanks, the only member of the finance committee to vote against the application and one of six signing the rescinding motion. "There is concern about witchcraft and my big fear is that vulnerable people will take it too seriously. We cannot stop it being practised, but it is our own land. We don't allow fox hunting on our land and that is also legal," she said.

Ms Hanks is a Labour councillor but the issue is not political. John Bedford, a Conservative member of the council, has also signed the rescinding motion. "People can do anything they want on their own land. I don't think it's the sort of thing to be carried out on land used by ratepayers," he said. "We get a lot of youngsters for the pop festivals at the Bowl and I certainly would not like them to see anything like this going on there."

Mr Prop maintains that the Wiccans, one of a growing number of Pagan groups, are not missionaries and do not recruit new members actively. He says the ancient religion, which has both a god and goddess, has only one fundamental principle and that is thatmembers should do no physical or mental harm to any other person. The Pagan Federation estimates there are about 250,000 active supporters of Pagan faiths country-wide.

The group's application to the council details rituals to be conducted on the site. Each member (no more than 20) will dress in robes, candles will be placed at the four corners and a small open fire will be lit. The fire is to provide light as the ceremonies are usually conducted in the early hours, to burn incense and "to warm up food, such as jacket potatoes".

Mr Prop said his robes were white although other members of the group choose their own colours and materials. Apart from the besom (the broomstick), the only other instrument used is a ceremonial dagger, the tip of which is used to channel the life forces in blessings of people or things. All the daggers are blunt. His partner's, used in her role as high priestess, is a letter-opener from John Lewis.

Like most witches, the Milton Keynes coven has great difficulty in escaping from hostility and ridicule. If the application is turned down, the group will have to continue to worship in Mr Prop's front room.