A being that works in mysterious ways

Who is to say what is a proper religion? That all-seeing judge of transcendental things, the Charity Commission
Take a deep breath of oxygen, for you are about to enter the rarified atmosphere of arcane metaphysics - a journey to the heart of our Byzantine charity law.

The pagans are deep in spiritual combat with the Charity Commission. For 10 years, the Pagan Hospice and Funeral Trust tried to get registered as a religious charity but the Commission said no - they were not a proper religion. Finally, last year, the Trust managed to get themselves registered under a different clause of charity law - not as a religion, but as a group doing good to the dying and the bereaved. However, less than a year later, the Commission is trying to take away their charitable status again, on the grounds that the Trust's work is essentially spiritual and religious rather than of general public use. This is a peculiarly circular argument - they are too religious to be an ordinary charity, but not religious enough to count as a religion.

The Trust is a tiny charity. It trains counsellors to minister to the pagan dying and conducts funerals. Paganism is recognised as a proper religion by the Home Office, which allows registered pagan chaplains into prisons. The Trust's attempt to buy a pagan burial ground in Wales appears to be what caused the Commission to think again. There is no suggestion of any wrong-doing: "We may have made a mistake in granting them charitable status," the Commission says.

Faut de mieux, the Commission has become the nation's official theologian, decreeing what is and what is not a bona fide religion. This intellectually impossible task leads them into the counting of angels on pins, the weighing up of trascendental things, the judging of the ineffable. Paganism, they pronounce, is not a religion.

The law says that the promulgation of religion is a public good per se and therefore a charitable cause (despite the history of mankind suggesting quite the contrary). Will any religion do? "Well, it must have a Deity or Supreme Being, modelled to some extent on the Judaeo-Christian tradition." What about the Buddhists, who have no God, or the Hindus, who have encyclopaedias full of them? "Oh, of course we accept the world's five major religions. They are substantial." So size matters? "Yes, and antiquity." What about the Mormons? They are not ancient and their beliefs are distinctly odd. "There are a great many of them." What about the Exclusive Bretheren, who do definite harm to those born into their closed ranks? "We do allow cults and sects within the main religions."

But why not the pagans, who claim, perhaps not entirely convincingly, some 100,000 adherents? "They do not believe in a single Supreme Being, but they worship aspects of nature. Paganism is a loose association, not like a church. They are too self-defining, without initiation to mark membership, without much ceremony and ritual." So more mumbo-jumbo with more smells, spells and bells might do the trick?

Clare Prout, a witch and co-ordinator of the Pagan Hospice and Funeral Trust, fulminates with indignation. They have initiation rituals - with blindfolds, circles and a turning to the North, South, East and West. Their covens have ceremonies, casting circles, casting spells, sending out powers to do good. They are not devilish, but believe whatever they send out for good or evil rebounds upon the sender fourfold. They reject the Christian tradition of dividing things into good and evil, a dualism that fails to describe things as they are - an inextricable mixture of both.

Pagans have many gods. There are eight main rituals a year - the two solstices of Yule and Summer, Lammas, Beltaine (Mayday), Sawaine (Halloween, the old Celtic new year), Imbolc (ewe's milk) and the two equinoxes. Their ceremonies, she says, create energy but they are not as emotionally consuming as the speaking in tongues of the Pentecostalists.

You may think all this is fairly loopy. It is, however, no loopier than other religions. Nor is it odder than others on the commission's register. Consider The Odinic Rite, which got its charitable status as a religion in 1988, for "The continuity and promotion of the organic spiritual beliefs and religion of the indigenous people of Northern Europe as embodied in the Eddas and as they have found expression in the wisdom and historic experience of these peoples." Quite apart from the eerie racist overtones, the pagans mutter that the Odinists only got registered as a bona fide religion by pretending that Odin worship is monotheistic, when it has myriads of gods.

Case law on acceptable religions makes enjoyably silly reading. For a long while, the South Place Ethical Society - atheists, humanists and agnostics - were absurdly registered as a religion, although their aim has always been to demolish belief in a God or a hereafter. They were thrown off the religious register in 1980, but crept back as a charity under the more likely clause that they do public good by debunking superstition. Chinese ancestor-worship and scientologists, however, failed in the courts.

What is the answer to all this? Religion is ineffable, mysterious, an act of faith, a state of grace, a light inaccessibly hidden from our eyes - not, in other words, the sort of thing courts or charity commissioners should be expected to codify and police. There is only one sane answer - and that is to deregister them all. Our secular society, where only 35 per cent of people believe in a Supreme Being, should not be spending public funds, in tax forgone, to finance any of these curious beliefs.