Cathedral clerics lobby MPs to include exception for substances which set minds on a higher plane
Since at least the days of the Old Testament it has helped turn people’s thoughts to higher things.
But there are fears that the burning of incense in churches, temples and other places of worship in Britain could be criminalised inadvertently under plans by Theresa May, the Home Secretary, to crack down on another type of “high” altogether.
Cathedral deans and ecclesiastical legal advisers are warning that the substance could be treated in the same way as so-called legal highs such as mephedrone – or “miaow-miaow” – under legislation currently before Parliament.
The Psychoactive Substances Bill would introduce seven-year jail terms for dealers in an effort to stop the proliferation of drugs that have been blamed for dozens of deaths.
Crucially, the bill has been drawn deliberately broadly to prevent producers and dealers simply making minor changes to the chemical composition of such substances to avoid the law.
The bill imposes a blanket ban on anything capable of “stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system” or which “affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state” but includes a long list of substances such as caffeine or alcohol which are official exempt.
However one study involving mice suggested that incense, which is not included among the list of exemptions, can also have a minor effect on the mood.
Significantly the bill specifically includes substances consumed through “fumes” as well as tablets or powder, meaning that smoke from incense could potentially be included depending on how the law was interpreted.
The Home Office signalled that incense is unlikely to be covered because the bill specifies the “intentional” use of a substance “for its psychoactive effects” rather than as part of worship.
But clerics fear the broad wording could inadvertently criminalise traditional Catholic and High Church practices – as well as those in a string of other religions.
The Association of English Cathedrals, which speaks for the 42 Church of England cathedrals as well as Royal churches such as Westminster Abbey, and the Churches’ Legislation Advisory Service, a charity, have sent formal submissions to the Commons Home Affairs Committee warning of the potential oversight.
“We wouldn’t want to see clergy committing illegal acts simply by carrying on something which the church has been doing for 2,000 years and indeed something the Egyptians used two and a half thousand years BC,” The Dean of Wakefield, the Very Rev Jonathan Greener, explained.
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