I visited two of the church's British bases and found sad, empty husks.
Anonymous activists milling around the entrance to Saint Hill Manor (Photo via)
Saint Hill Manor isn't your average British beauty spot. Firstly, although one part of it looks like a Norman fortress - all round barrel turrets and the kind of pointy windows you'd see in an Asterix comic strip - that extension was actually built in 1968. Secondly, its centrepiece is a large statue of a man carrying a shield decorated with a symbol you might recognise from the placards at Anonymous rallies. Thirdly, it used to be rammed full of Scientologists.
Saint Hill is the last great bastion of Scientology in the UK. The original manor house was built in the small West Sussex town of East Grinstead in the 18th century and purchased in 1959 by American author L Ron Hubbard. His decision to turn it into Scientology's British head office made it a mecca for followers of Hubbard's philosophy, of which there are now said to be 10 million (for whatever reason - maybe because 10 million is the population of Portugal - this number is disputed by basically anyone who isn't a signed up Scientologist).
"Nowadays, Saint Hill's car park is usually all but empty. You can almost see the tumbleweed blowing through," says Jon Atack, a former Scientologist and the author of A Piece of Blue Sky, a written takedown of the sci-fi belief system. "The vigorous harassment of critics has slowed down, too - as I can attest!"
Jon Atack (Photo by Lizy Atack)
Jon has repeatedly challenged the membership figures posited by Scientology's top brass, telling me: "Scientology was never big business in the UK. The last census showed just over 2,000 UK members. The international figure is probably about 25,000."
I grew up near East Grinstead, a town that represents Middle England at its most repressed. Constituents are represented in Westminster by Nicholas "Bunter" Soames, Winston Churchill's grandson, and the nearest Lidl is almost 10 miles away. As a child, I was forced to play rugby at a club whose pitches were straight over the road from Saint Hill. We used to hear whisperings about the Scientologists (and Mormons) in the area, but I don't remember them amounting to much more than the kind of standard xenophobic chatter that traditionally greets a large influx of Americans. Before Tom Cruise and John Travolta outed themselves, nobody really cared about the group of crackpot alien worshippers making their way over from Camden (New Jersey).
But Saint Hill used to be the bustling international headquarters of Scientology. Jon was there between 1975 and 1977, and then again from 1982 to 1983. "It was fairly busy then, with about 180 staff and usually about a hundred students," he tells me. "But, despite a weekly service, there were no pretensions to religion. The weekly service was usually held to an empty room, but was a necessity to gain recognition as a religion."
With hundreds of Scientologists ("mainly Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans and Israelis", says Jon) descending on East Grinstead, the town began to entice followers of all sorts of alternative spiritualities. East Grinstead council might tend to focus on attractions like its beautiful 14th century timber high street, or the local coffee shop owned by Peter Andre, but it was better known for years as the UK base of Scientology, Mormonism, Opus Dei and Rosicrucianism.
In London, Scientologists have shown no sign of acknowledging their diminished following. In the last 10 years they've opened both a major church near St Paul's Cathedral and the Dianetics and Scientology Life Improvement Centre on Tottenham Court Road. Wedged in between the various shops flogging digital radios and second-hand tripods, this is intended to be a place for silent reflection and the acquisition of knowledge.
A polite young man with gelled blond hair and a thick northern accent greets me at the door. He gives me a guided tour of the centre's three video chambers - all of them lined with copies of Hubbard's seminal text, Dianetics, in every language from Arabic to Zulu - and offers me tea and coffee. I'm charmed. So charmed, in fact, that I settle in on a sofa to watch a documentary about the life of Lafayette Ron Hubbard.
The Dianetics and Scientology Life Improvement Centre on Tottenham Court Road (Photo via)
It's worth noting, at this point, that I'm the only person here. Every passer-by has something to say about the centre, whether it's a general derogatory quip or a specific South Park quote, but nobody enters. Perhaps that's why my new buddy is so friendly - he spends all his days trapped inside an empty museum, the informational videos endlessly repeating themselves like some kind of nightmarish Groundhog Day. It must be nice to have someone to talk to for once.
Irene Thrupp, L Ron Hubbard's personal secretary during his residence at Saint Hill, tells me her story from the video screen. She's a posh old lady who was charmed by "Ron" and his acquisition of expensive desk chairs. There's something very sad about the way that Irene - and other honest Brits, like Bill, the rough-and-ready gardener - venerate this man to an empty congregation.
Saint Hill is not what it was in Irene and Bill's day. I'd chatted to an elderly East Grinstead resident about her reflections of the place. She remembers the annual "Medieval Fayre" and skiffle concerts held in the grounds, back when the Scientologists knew how to throw a decent party, concluding by telling me that I looked "susceptible" and warning me not to get sucked in.
But what is there to get sucked into? Sure, the man at the Tottenham Court Road centre is very friendly - the kind of guy who'd fix your printer for free - but there's nothing here to actively participate in. I ask what my first step to enlightenment should be. "Err," he puzzles, as though he's never been asked this question before. "You could try filling out this free personality test?"
Question 1: Do you make thoughtless remarks or accusations that you later regret? Yes, I do.
Question 88: If we were invading another country, would you feel sympathetic towards conscientious objectors in this country? Who's "we"?
Question 92: Are you a slow eater? Defiantly so.
Question 98: Would you use corporal punishment on a child aged ten if it refused to obey you? Wait, what?
This is the test that the Church of Scientology uses to determine whether you can be saved by their purification schemes, or whether you're insufficiently pro-discipline. As initiations go, it's hardly that enticing for a faith that's already been battered by bad publicity.
South Park's depiction of the stuff Scientologists believe in
"I think that the combination of South Park and Anonymous has turned away potential recruits from the new generation," says Jon, musing on the statistics from the most recent UK census. "Add to that the broad availability of material on the several hundred dedicated websites, and most people will simply shake their heads and leave."
One of those websites is "Operation Clambake", an anti-Scientology organisation so widely followed that it even has its own Wikipedia page. I spoke to its founder, Norwegian activist Andreas Heldal-Lund, to ask him why he thinks Scientology has failed in the UK.
"Scientology aims for the universe, but only has a net big enough to catch a limited number of fish," he tells me, somewhat confusingly. "But you can achieve a lot even with a few fish if you meet the right people."
Andreas' organisation has captured the attention of what he calls "the nerdy early implementers of the internet". And that, he believes, is where Scientology has shot itself in the foot. "They lost the big and most important battle: the internet," he says. "For most people, the cat is out of the bag, and they're less and less likely to fall for this."
Despite what Jon and Andreas have told me, and the dismal emptiness of the Scientology venues I've visited in the UK, I can't help but feel sorry for Britain's Scientologists. It might have a bizarrely corporate hierarchy for what's ostensibly a real proper serious religion, but on a ground level there are impressionable people who actually believe what they've been told. They filled out the personality test, discovered they were pathetic mortals and were told that the only way to rebuild themselves was through Scientology. I'd argue we should sympathise with this lot, rather than constantly berating them. It's not like their nonsense, made-up religion is any more ridiculous than all the other made-up religions.
Scientology has always been a poor fit for the UK. It's a phenomenon better suited to wealthy, tanned Americans who've spent their entire lives being told they can be anything they want to be if they throw enough money at it, not the Irene Thrupps of this world, or the poor northern lad giving tours of the Dianetic Centre.
Saint Hill might present itself as the headquarters of Scientology in the UK, but that clearly doesn't count for much. The manicured lawns, placid ponds and Travelodge interiors have been left to fester, completely rejected by a nation that can't even deal with moderate Protestantism any more. As for the old guard of British operations, most - including Irene Thrupp - have died, taking Scientology to the grave with them.
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