Rory Reynolds: Even Paganism isn't beyond belief
By RORY REYNOLDS
IT'S perhaps the most iconic scene in Scottish film history. God-fearing highland cop Edward Woodward cowers, praying in his pyjamas, while pagan temptress Britt Ekland cavorts naked in the next bedroom, seducing him with distinctly un-Christian song and dance.
It worked in the movie, but Willow's seduction would have been utterly wasted on the group of police outed by the decision of the Home Office this week to allow pagan officers in the UK eight days off to observe their special holidays.
The judgement was taken as a recognition that paganism, once an illegal act, is an increasingly common form of belief, with its own holiday and, naturally, it's own entitlements under modern law.
While naked dancing, fire juggling, worshipping lactating sheep and feeding the wandering dead might sound like something from the classic horror flick The Wicker Man, events like the Capital's Beltane Fire Festival draw in whole families, and thousands flock to Scotland's wicca gatherings.
The ruling effectively means paganism is now being treated no differently to any other religion in the UK, and that claim is expected to be backed up when this year's census shows around 250,000 faithful followers.
The controversial decision to allow pagans the right to have their own representative group for police officers recognised by the Home Office, alongside black, Muslim and gay associations has thrust the faith to the fore.
So should pagans be afforded the same rights as other, more mainstream faiths, and if so, what will be next?
It's doubtful that you could fit the entire pagan police group in Stonehenge – or perhaps even fill an archway at the famous site. After all, how many men and woman in blue will be wearing purple velvet robes at the weekend?
Despite this, they will be able to take official religious holidays, leading many to ask whether this new PC – pagan consideration – could lead to groupings of Jedi cops also demanding "sacred" days off.
Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, claims that the current faith and orientation groups already highlight divisions between officers in the police force.
He said: "We have already raised concerns over the number of groups that we have within the police now. To encourage the growth of these groups is very dangerous because you get the situation we saw recently where a Muslim police officer refused to stand guard outside the Israeli embassy.
"That said, the pagan association cannot be blocked now because of diversity and equality rules that the police forces follow.
"The only way to deal with this issue is if all groups are scrapped to prevent any kind of division in the police force."
However, Dave Taylor, spokesman for the Children of Artemis group – a witchcraft membership group that organises Witchfests, popular celebrations of witchery – denies the claims that paganism is not a proper religion, and he estimates that there are at least a quarter of a million people practising the pagan and wicca faith in the UK.
He said: "We are very much a religion because we are defined by the people who believe in this faith.
"People who practice pagan and wicca hold these beliefs like you find in any other religion.
"A lot of people have had to think very carefully before they speak out about their beliefs because of the attitudes towards wicca and paganism.
"With regards to films like The Wicker Man, there is no such community like that anywhere, and what is practiced in the film is based on historic events rather than modern paganism.
"The coming to prominence of ecological issues over the past few years has struck a chord with many young people and we have seen a big increase in the number of people contacting us."
Mr Taylor added that the prominence of pagan police officers may even help forces deal with their duty to prevent discrimination.
He said: "One of the reasons that the police force has recognised paganism is that because there are now so many people in this country practising it, it helps to have an officer on hand to deal with these issues.
"This is in the same way that a Muslim officer might be assigned to a particular case to help to perhaps give an insight to a particular issue.
"Wiccas in particular have been discriminated against terribly over the last 100 years, and indeed until the 1950s it was illegal to practice the faith under the Witchcraft Act.
"But government legislation is beginning to cater for people of our faiths, ensuring they are protected from discrimination, while companies are ensuring that their equality pledges include us."
Prior to the precedent set this week, the faith – comprised of wiccans, druids, shamans, sacred ecologists, odinists and heathens – has attracted some high profile coverage in the past.
In 2002 Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, was inducted as a druid in the Welsh Gorsedd of Bards, a literary group, using a Christian-based ceremony, and pagan characters have been popularised in teen drama series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and hit movies including The Craft.
Despite paganists' experiences in the past this, new validation of their religion could bring around something of a revival not seen since its decriminalisation.
So perhaps this week's announcement could provide the impetus for paganists to finally shake off that Wicker Man image and seize their magic moment.