The existence of another world that lies beyond death has always exerted a powerful grip over the human imagination. For centuries, spiritualists have faced down the challenges of science and established religion.
Now they fear changes to the law could leave them open to civil action from sceptics. Today, representatives of British mediums will march up Downing Street to deliver a petition containing some 10,000 signatories demanding that the Government change its decision to repeal the 1951 Fraudulent Mediums Act in favour of a new EU directive.
While the move has prompted a flurry of "they should have seen it coming" gags from detrac-tors, spiritualists are anything but amused about the new laws.
"What we have here is a fundamental attack on our right to practise our religion. We want to stop the charlatans but the existing Act gives us reassurances which the Government seems unable to do under this new legislation. They tell us we will probably be all right but we fear this will end up with one of us in court in front of a judge," said David McEntee-Taylor, head of the Spiritual Workers Association (SWA), that organised the protest.
The SWA complains that the 1951 law, which replaced the 1735 Witchcraft Act, guarantees "genuine" mediums legal protection, penalising only those who seek to hoodwink the public.
However, by treating spiritualism as merely a consumer service, mediums believe they risk being sued if customers are dissatisfied with advice brought from the other side – advice they say they always point out should always be treated with care. The solution to the present impasse, according to lawyers advising the crystal-ball fraternity, is via the prosaic expedient of a pre-consultation disclaimer, describing any dialogue with the deceased in terms of either entertainment or scientific experiment. It does not sit comfortably with purist believers.
Psychic mailingsnetted £40m from the British public last year and the number of telephone and internet services are soaring – an unsurprising fact considering some 50 per cent of the public claims to believe in the phenomenon, according to Professor Richard Wiseman, a stalwart critic of the religion. A further third claim to have had a psychic experience. "The problem is that there is no repeatable scientific evidence to back this up," he said.
The latest furore has exposed a split within Britain's 400 spiritualist churches, with the long-established Spiritualists' National Union (SNU) backing the changes and attacking the upstart SWA, founded four months ago. SNU spokesman, Minister Steven Upton, sought to disassociate his organisation from the new protest group, insisting it did not represent the views of mainstream spiritualists, a claim denied by SWA supporters.
He said: "We are quite happy with the Act being repealed. We have no problems with the new legislation and think it will be good news for spiritualists and will help out those people preying on the vulnerable."
Hanne Stinson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, also welcomed the change. "We hope the new regulations will make real changes to the current situation, where psychic practitioners are permitted to make completely unsubstantiated claims and to take payment for their services, without fear of legal action." While few dispute that there are some con men operating big money schemes, supporters say there is a genuine need to liaise with dead friends and relatives. Lyn Guest de Swarte, editor of The Spiritual News, said for most practitioners it is a "sacred calling". "A labourer is worth their hire. But if people don't feel they have been best served they should refuse to pay."Reuse content