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England’s Centre of Curious Religions

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

East Grinstead is a market town 27 miles (43 km) south of London. Sam Jordison in The Guardian describes East Grinstead as “a pretty, unremarkable place. Until, that is, you start to notice the sheer density of religious buildings in the town and surrounding area.”

High Street, East Grinstead.

High Street, East Grinstead.

Scientology

Saint Hill Manor, East Grinstead is a stylish, large country house built in 1792. One of its owners was the Maharaja of Jaipur until he decided to sell. The buyer was Lafayette Ron Hubbard, science fiction writer and founder of Scientology, which his followers claim to be a religion. Saint Hill Manor is still owned by the Scientologists and is the headquarters for its United Kingdom operations.

The founding principles of Scientology go back 75 million years. At the time Earth, and 90 other planets, was under the tyrannical rule of a person called Xenu. The despotic Xenu got rid of excess population by vapourizing them with hydrogen bombs. The souls of these folk, called thetans, were scooped up and put in cinemas. After several weeks of watching movies, the souls all glommed together and began to inhabit the minds of people.

Now, here comes the tricky bit, not that this hasn’t been a hoot and a half already. Those rascally thetans have to be evicted and only Scientology’s self-improvement courses, which cost money, can get the job done. Clever.

Plant the idea in the minds of vulnerable people that there are mischievous thetans in their heads creating havoc and then sell them the cure.

Scientologists don’t make a big thing of Xenu and his homicidal habits these days because they sound―what’s the word?―ah yes, bonkers, nuts, dotty, barmy, loopy. Your choice.

Rosicrucians

There’s a very attractive mock-Tudor building in East Grinstead known as Greenwood Gate. It’s home to what the BBC terms a “secret society that claims to guard a body of esoteric truths about the universe.”

They call themselves Rosicrucians and they trace their origins to a 15th century German doctor called Christian Rosenkreuz who probably didn’t exist. The phantom Rosenkreuz appears in texts that reveal the wisdom of the ancients gleaned from travels in the Middle East and North Africa. The teachings of Jesus, Pythagoras, and an Egyptian Pharaoh are somehow woven into the Rosicrucian doctrine.

There is also alchemy, mysticism, and the occult. Some of the other notions that are patched into Rosicrucianism are: telepathy, pantheism, psychic power, astral out-of-body travel, and reincarnation. Time travel seems to have been overlooked.

The Grand Master of the U.K. branch is Sven Johansson. He told The Independent “"We have traditions, of which we don’t have any proof, and which it is not necessary to believe, which help with that. But we are not like many who call themselves Rosicrucians who are just quasi-religious organisations some of whom, dare I say, are a little bit wacky.”

Not what you’d call a full-throated endorsement.

Greenwood Gate suggests the Rosicrucians are not short of money.

Greenwood Gate suggests the Rosicrucians are not short of money.

Opus Dei

Wickenden Manor is another fine East Grinstead country house that has become home to a religious group. Built in the early 20th century in a mock-Tudor style, the manor is where the Roman Catholic group, Opus Dei, holds retreats.

The group was founded in 1928 by a Spanish priest, Josemaría Escrivá. His core teaching was that holiness comes from daily activities, such as peeling spuds, rather than living a monastic existence. That sounds benign enough, but to say that Opus Dei (it translates to “work of God”) is controversial is a bit of an understatement.

Josemaría Escrivá was made a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2002.

Josemaría Escrivá was made a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2002.

Here’s Terry Gross on National Public Radio, “Critics and some former members have accused the group of having cult-like practices and promoting a right-wing agenda.”

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It is also accused of aggressive recruitment of young people and then using fear tactics to keep them tied to the faith. And, there are stories of people within the group living in Opus Dei centres being forced to hand over their pay cheques.

From time to time, Opus Dei members whip themselves, wear spiked chains to ward off the temptation to not be celibate, and don hair shirts. This practice of self-mortification is because, supposedly, that’s what an all-loving, all-merciful god would want them to do.

Jehovah’s Witnesses

The Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW) in East Grinstead is a very unpretentious building―plain, square, red brick. Not for them the splendour of a country house.

Of course, we’ve all been pestered by teams of Witnesses trying to get us to join their cult and hand over money to what is an already immensely wealthy organization.

The JWs are very much a “don’t religion” with a long list followers are not allowed to do:

Members reject:

  • Blood transfusions;
  • Voting;
  • Alcohol;
  • Military service;
  • National anthems;
  • Holiday celebrations; and,
  • People who leave the organization.

There are many allegations of sexual abuse within Jehovah’s Witness congregations that are covered up. Sadly, the group doesn’t have an exclusive hold on this sordid business within religious communities.

Jehovah’s Witness assembly halls often don’t have windows, it’s said to reduce the risk of vandalism.

Jehovah’s Witness assembly halls often don’t have windows, it’s said to reduce the risk of vandalism.

The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (LDS)

Joseph Smith’s Mormons have planted their flag in a village called Newchapel, eight miles north of East Grinstead. This is the only congregation listed here with a purpose-built house of worship.

Their Mormon Temple is a 42,642 sq ft concrete box with a proper Christian steeple. There’s also an Elizabethan-style Manor House with 40 rooms on the site to accommodate the needs of the church.

As with all the groups mentioned here, it’s really easy to find some bizarre behaviours; the knickers for example. Members are required to wear knee-length undies, because, as the church puts it, such garments provide “protection against temptation and evil . . . [and are] an outward expression of an inward commitment” to follow Jesus Christ.

Between 1834 and 1842, the LDS founder, Joseph Smith, was commanded three times by an angel brandishing a sword to take multiple wives. What could he do but obey? So he took 40. They gave up polygamy more than a century ago.

Mormons have also been on a mission to baptize everyone, living or dead, whether they want to have this done or not. Controversially, the LDS “prayed in” all the victims of the Holocaust as honourary Mormons. So, the turning of Jews into Mormons is part of their proselytizing mission.

It’s easier to get into the Mormon Church than to get out of it. Shunning is commonly used to punish those who lose their faith.

The Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah, the centre of Mormonism.

The Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah, the centre of Mormonism.

Why East Grinstead?

The Greenwich Meridian goes straight through the middle of town and the belief, among some, is that powerful ley lines intersect with it. The claim is that ley lines form a mystical energy grid.

Richard Creightmore studies divination and searches for hidden knowledge with the help of supernatural powers. He told the BBC that East Grinstead lies “at the intersection of the High Weald sandstone ridges―whose quartz crystalline structure enhances cognitive clarity―with the Greenwich Meridian . . . but the esoteric spirituality appears to be most concentrated at the conjunction of both, in the hub around East Grinstead . . .”

Or, maybe, being 30 miles from central London, means slightly lower real estate prices making it easier for religious groups to set up shop.

East Grinstead is home to traditional faith groups such as St. Swithun’s Church of England.

East Grinstead is home to traditional faith groups such as St. Swithun’s Church of England.

Bonus Factoids

  • Founder of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith had quite a rap sheet. He was in trouble with the law at least 30 times, including charges of illegal banking, conspiracy to commit murder, perjury, and treason. While awaiting trial in Carthage, Illinois he was murdered by a mob angry at his destruction of a newspaper that was critical of him.
  • In 2018, in Helena, Montana, a judge ordered the Jehovah’s Witnesses to pay $35 million in compensation to a woman who was sexually abused by a member of the congregation when she was a child.
  • Actor and Scientologist, Tom Cruise, is said to have isolated himself in Saint Hill Manor, East Grinstead as a precaution against Covid-19.
  • Diligent research has failed to detect the presence of the Pastafarians (Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster) in East Grinstead―yet. Give them time.

Sources

  • “Tom Cruise Will Feel Right at Home in East Grinstead, Britain’s Strangest Town.” Sam Jordison, The Guardian, April 8, 2016.
  • “Cross Purposes: Who Are the Rosicrucians?” Paul Vallely, The Independent, October 23, 2011.
  • “A Glimpse Inside a Catholic ‘Force’: Opus Dei.” Terry Gross, National Public Radio, November 28, 2005.
  • “England’s Sleepy ‘Scientology Town.’ ” Daniel Stables, BBC, January 4, 2021.
  • “9 Things You Likely Didn’t Know about Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Derek Miller, CTV, March 24, 2018.
  • “Romney’s Mormon Problem.” Christopher Hitchens, Slate, October 17, 2011.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 11, 2021:

East Grinstead certainly has its share of different religions or beliefs. I have heard of all of these with the exception of the Rosicrucians.

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