Striking out in the tough world of religion

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The Independent Online

Considering that an entirely new belief system was launched only weeks ago, there has been disappointingly little news of late from the Free Church of Country Sports. It has a website, of course, and a few, rather less than respectful, reports have appeared in the press. But, for those of us who were initially rather attracted by its combination of spirituality with love of the country, there had been precious little information.

Considering that an entirely new belief system was launched only weeks ago, there has been disappointingly little news of late from the Free Church of Country Sports. It has a website, of course, and a few, rather less than respectful, reports have appeared in the press. But, for those of us who were initially rather attracted by its combination of spirituality with love of the country, there had been precious little information.

This much we know. The Free Church of Country Sports was born this spring, having been inspired by Ben Bradshaw, the Animal Welfare minister. Bradshaw had announced that the ritual slaughter of animals by Jewish and Muslim groups would be acceptable under law out of respect for their religious freedom. This set a group of West Country businessmen a-thinking.

They decided that, in a very real sense, foxhunting and other country sports were also a form a form of ritualised slaughter, and so could be legitimately described as a religion. Under the Human Rights Act of 1998, it would therefore be exempt from anti-hunting legislation.

The precise theology of the Free Church is more difficult to pin down. One founding father, an agronomist called John Milne, told The Sunday Telegraph that the original idea came from his fellow believer Rod Brammer, a shooting school manager. "He is the thinker," said Milne. "We think it's valid. We have plenty of headed notepaper."

Brammer himself was a little more expansive. He explained that, for many ordinary people, hunting is as intense an experience as anything that might happen in a church on a Sunday morning.

Unfortunately, he then drew parallels between country sports and religion. "Those in the Jewish faith blow a horn, the shofar, and so do we. We baptise our children by blooding them with the blood of that which we kill. Is this any more strange than dressing them in white and submerging them in water?"

Frankly, Rod, yes, it is. All but the most hardcore supporters of hunting are slightly uneasy with "blooding", an initiation ceremony which involves smearing the cheek of a child with the bloodied stump of the brush of a freshly killed fox. Comparing this practice to baptism takes the Free Church of Country Sports perilously close to a sort of Jorrocks version of the sacrament, with the blood of the lamb being replaced by the blood of a fox.

Some believers may well be comfortable with the idea of a fox as the emblem of their new church, part of a Holy Trinity - God the Master, the Fox and the Whipper-in. After all, the patron saint who gave his name to the church's website www.saint-hubert.org was a seventh-century Belgian who, while hunting on Good Friday, encountered a stag wearing a crucifix between its antlers.

Some might think that coming across a crucifix-toting deer that he had been about to shoot would undermine Hubert's enthusiasm for hunting, but far from it. He hunted even more eagerly, but from within the church.

The new church has much to learn from that pragmatic spirit. It needs now to compete for the hearts and minds of the British people by behaving appropriately. It should make a pitch for 'Thought for the Day', the spot on Radio 4 on which virtually any view is acceptable so long as a reference to God is squeezed in.

Then it should become involved in contemporary debate. Where do Rod, Vic and the other church leaders stand on Iraq, and the unborn child? Can we expect a gay huntsman to be ordained into their church soon?

A launch, a website, a patron saint and some headed notepaper are a good start, but momentum is the thing in the competitive world of religion. The Free Church of Country Sports needs to kick on and make a kill or two on behalf of true believers.

Miles Kington is away

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