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The Theosophical Society in England Has Been Granted Charitable Status

on Thursday, 17 December 2020.

The Charity Commission recently published its decision to register the Theosophical Society in England, which applied for charitable status on 29 July 2015.

The Theosophical Society (the Society) was founded in 1875 in New York City and its international headquarters were established in 1886 in India. In England, the Society is a national body with many local branches which spreads publications and provides a range of courses, talks, workshops and events on the topic of Theosophy and similar subjects. Until 2015 the Society operated as an unincorporated association. It then incorporated as a company limited by guarantee and the application was made by that company.

In considering the Society's application for charitable status, the Charities Commission (the Commission) had to consider whether the Society was established for exclusively charitable purposes for the public benefit.

The Society's Purposes

The Society's objects, as stated in their articles are:

"for the public benefit to promote moral and spiritual welfare, and the advancement of education, through the promotion and study of Theosophy"

This was confirmed by the Society to be a modern restatement of the objects used by the Society since 1896, these being:

"i. To form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour.

ii. To encourage the study of comparative Religion, Philosophy and Science.

iii. To investigate unexplained laws of Nature and the powers latent in man."

The original objects have been considered on two separate occasions by the courts, and in each case the courts found that the Society's purposes could not be deemed charitable. In Berry v St Marylebone Corporation [1957] the Court of Appeal held that the Society could not be considered to be for the advancement of religion as "the teaching of the Fatherhood of God and the recognition of the corresponding brotherhood of humanity without distinction of creed appears to us to be, at best, the teaching of a doctrine which is of philosophical or metaphysical conception rather than the advancement of religion."  In the earlier case of Re Macaulay's Estate [1943] the first object of the Society was deemed to not be a charitable purpose, as it was understood to simply mean that the Society would form a central body of persons to study and understand the principles of Theosophy.

The Commission concluded that the Society could be registered despite those earlier decisions as:

  • the objects of the Society had been updated significantly since they were considered by the Court,
  • the Commission could take into account changes in social and economic conditions that might mean purposes regarded as charitable and beneficial in one age may not be so regarded in a later age and vice versa, and
  • the Court had not considered whether the Society was established to promote the moral and ethical improvement of the community - earlier cases focused on whether Theosophy was a religion.

While the Commission still does not consider the Society's purposes to be for the advancement of religion, they have accepted that they are charitable by analogy for the advancement of the mental and moral improvement of the public, following the approach taken by the courts in the unrelated case of Barralet and others v AG [1980]. While there is relatively sparse case law relating to this charitable purpose, the Commission determined that to demonstrate the Society's purposes are for the advancement of mental and moral improvement, the Society had to satisfy the following criteria:

  • The Society's objects must be clear and certain, incorporating a coherent definition identifying the beliefs, principles and practices. While the fact the Society's articles state that it is "for each member to interpret those teachings known as Theosophy" and that it "imposes no dogmas", the Commission was satisfied that the Society had a distinct and unique character with a clearly defined set of principles and practices. The Commission particularly focussed on the Society's emphasis on universal brotherhood as evidence of its distinct character.
  • The beliefs, principles and practices must be accessible to the public and capable of being understood and accepted and applied or rejected by individuals according to their individual choice or judgement from time to time. The Commission was satisfied that the Society met this criteria as the definition of Theosophy provides a succinct explanation of the Society's principles and publications on the matter are widely disseminated by the Society.
  • Moral improvement must be central to the beliefs and practices. The Commission noted that the definition of Theosophy gave sufficient prominence to moral improvement as the definition of Theosophy found in the Society's articles of association reads: “Devotion to truth, love for all living beings and a commitment to life of active altruism are the marks of a true Theosophist.”
  • The Society must not benefit members only and must aim to promote moral improvement in society generally. The Commission was satisfied that the Society's promotion of inclusiveness, equality and love for all beings demonstrated that it is not an inwardly focussed organisation. The Commission also noted that the Society invites the general public to participate and promotes behaviours which would have a beneficial impact on the wider community, such as reverence for life and compassion for all.

The Commission also considered whether the Society's objects met the requirements of education in charity law. In Berry v St Marylebone Corporation [1957] the Court held that the work of the Society could not be considered education as the Society only provided teaching on the Theosophical doctrine itself. However, the Commission has now accepted that Theosophy as a subject is capable of educative merit for the purposes of charity law. The Commission accepts in its guidance that education has a wide meaning which includes personal development as "the development of an individual's intellectual, physical, emotional and spiritual capabilities are of fundamental value to both the individual and to the health and well-being of the society around them". The Commission concluded that there are therefore aspects of the Society's purpose and work that qualified as advancing education.

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Public Benefit

The Commission also considered whether the purposes of the Society are capable of delivering public benefit, concluding “the likelihood is that the promulgation of the principles of the Society can be said to benefit society through promoting moral and ethical values”.

Satisfied that the above criteria were met, the Commission determined that the Theosophical Society is a charitable body being established for the promotion of moral or ethical improvement and the advancement of education.

This decision illustrates that it can be useful to review carefully whether your organisation is established for charitable purposes or is capable of being restructured to meet the requirements for registration as a charity, even where you have failed to secure registration in the past.

For more information on charitable purposes, please contact Christopher Connell in the Charities team on 0117 992 9407 or complete the form below.

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