Essex

The Jedi and the Bishop: two men from Essex, two religious outlooks

Michael Kitchen, Jedi Image copyright Laurence__Cawley
Image caption Raised in a non-religious family, Michael Kitchen is now a senior figure in the Temple of the Order of the Jedi

Both Stephen Cottrell and Michael Kitchen were born in Essex, both are the sons of non-religious parents and both went on to study religion. But that is where the similarities end.

Michael Kitchen laughs and shakes his head when asked the inevitable question: do you have a light sabre?

He does not. In fact he is not particularly keen on the Star Wars films. Though he does have a robe.

Born and raised in Saffron Walden, Mr Kitchen has been a member of the Temple of the Jedi Order for seven years. His Jedi name is Akkarin and he is a member of the order's inner sanctum, the council.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Michael Kitchen says Jedis do not need to dress up or carry a light sabre

Stephen Cottrell was born in Leigh-on-Sea and has been the Bishop of Chelmsford since 2010. A founding member of the College of Evangelists, he has also served on the Church of England's Mission, Renewal and Evangelism committee.

But how do their spiritual journeys compare, what do they make of each other's beliefs and does Jediism shed any light on the world of "new religions"?


Journey of faith

Image copyright Laurence__Cawley
Image caption Bishop Stephen Cottrell describes his journey towards faith akin to "falling in love"

Both Bishop Stephen and Mr Kitchen say they were brought up in families that were "not particularly religious".

But while Mr Kitchen, 22, says he was an atheist before finding Jediism, Bishop Stephen felt from an early age a longing to "change the world".

"About seven years ago my father told me there was this thing called the Jedi religion," says Mr Kitchen. "I thought it was a bit of a joke.

"I 'Googled' it and while I was reading through some of the beliefs that were outlined I thought this was something I could really relate to."

"Believing in something inspired by a fictional universe, well I suppose it is a bit crazy.

"But once you start trying to understand what it is about, and once you get down to the substance of it, most people are in broad agreement."

Bishop Stephen, on the other hand, says his journey of faith was akin to "falling in love".

"As a student I was very political and politically active," he said.

"I wanted, and I still want, to change the world.

"I think increasingly I came to understand that most of the problems of the world begin in the human heart. How does the heart change? Only then (when we can answer that) can we change the world.

"So a number of things led me to think maybe there is a god.

"And once I had started down that road, I found faith. But it was a long journey for me."


Each other

Image copyright Laurence__Cawley
Image caption Although he first thought Jediism was "a joke", Michael Kitchen says he found its tenets made sense to him

"Anybody can become a Jedi. Many people find they already agree with much of the teaching, such as equality and treating people with respect.

"Being a Christian does not mean you cannot be a Jedi," says Mr Kitchen, who openly accepts Jediism has taken on aspects from other religions, including Christianity.

"I think we all know where Jediism comes from," says Bishop Stephen. "We've seen the Star Wars films, and we're all actually quite attracted to the powerful idea of a force for good and force for evil.

"These are not strange concepts to the Christian faith.

"But it is not a religion in the sense that it is about what God has done. In this case it is about what George Lucas has done."

Asked whether he thought God would punish somebody for believing in Jediism, Bishop Stephen said: "No, no - but I think he might have a wry smile."


God

Image caption Bishop Stephen believes God exists outside of time and space

"I believe as a Christian that I am responding not to a set of beautiful ideas created by another human being, I am responding to God himself who acted in Jesus Christ," says Bishop Stephen.

Bishop Stephen believes in a God which exists outside of both time and space. And because he exists beyond time, is therefore "equidistant" from everybody who has ever, or will ever, live.

Asked about other - especially the "new" - religions, Bishop Stephen sees them as various expressions of a deep inner "longing" for the spiritual, and for God.

But the idea of new religions taking elements from older religions, practices and beliefs jars with Bishop Stephen, for whom religion is about God and truth, and not about selecting possibly tasty items from a "smorgasbord" of spiritual fancies.

Mr Kitchen, on the other hand, does not believe in a god.

So it might come as a surprise to some that he is studying comparative religion at the University of Kent.

Mr Kitchen sees religions as a means of living well in a social setting and the study of them is a way of studying the various ways societies over time and space have endeavoured to achieve this.

But while Mr Kitchen might not believe in a god, he does believe in a power beyond the human.

"We don't believe in a metaphysical deity, but something which we call the force," he says. "For many people this might be an energy field or it might be relationship between objects and people in the universe."

Mr Kitchen says some Jedi believe Jediism to be more a moral code rather than a religion. The central tenets of this code concern non-discrimination, reciprocity and the importance of all life.


Prayer

Image copyright Laurence__Cawley
Image caption Bishop Stephen says his journey of faith grew out of political activism

"Prayer," says Bishop Stephen, "is the most natural thing in the world, uniting the human heart with the heart of God. It is not just what we say to God; it is the way God speaks and acts through us.

"When we pray we open ourselves up to God's purposes for the world and we become, as it were, the answer to our own prayers.

"Our hearts and wills are united and aligned with God's heart and will, as we have seen it and as it has been made available to us through Jesus Christ."

Jediism does not involve prayer, but meditation and quiet contemplation form a key part in Jedi practice.


Church

Image caption The Jedi church is based entirely online where members meet and discuss issues of interest and seek advice

The Jedi place of worship is the internet. They have no physical buildings. The Jedi website hosts sermons, information and a lively topic forum, covering such issues as what it means to be a Jedi.

Discussions on whether Jedi in the US should carry weapons also feature - as do matters of etiquette.

Mr Kitchen says the Jedi would struggle to exist as a community without the internet because its members, sparsely peppered across the globe, would have been unlikely to encounter one another in the flesh.

This may surprise some who, if they believed the census figures of 2001 and 2011, might think Jedis were lurking on every street.

The 2001 census saw 390,000 people declare themselves Jedis, apparently making Jediism the nation's fourth most popular religion - above both Judaism and Buddhism. By 2011, that number had dropped to about 170,000.

Image caption Church buildings are used for a wide variety of services including prayer sessions

But Mr Kitchen says the census figures should not be taken seriously. He estimates there are just a few thousands Jedi in the world.

The Church of England, which has about one million people participating in services each Sunday, also has a website.

But it also has more than 16,000 churches up and down the country used for all manner of services including weddings and christenings, as well as a quiet setting for private prayer.


Expert View

Beth Singler, of the University of Cambridge's school of divinity, says:

  • People might think Jediism is "silly" because of "unfamiliarity". People might know about Jediism through the Star Wars films, but not "the religious practice that is drawn from" those films
  • With established religions, people have "several hundred years to get used to" them - "the way they dress, the style of their buildings and their forms of religious worship"
  • Jediism is attractive to "a certain generation, one which has grown up with the science fiction stories and it expands on their already quite intense interest in science fiction and a culture of expressing their own inventions and desires"

For more: BBC Religion and Ethics


Seeking good

Image copyright Laurence__Cawley
Image caption Michael Kitchen believes in a "force" rather than a deity

"God rejoices whenever human beings seek that which is good," says Bishop Stephen. "So if a person who is a Jedi is compelled, or propelled, to lead a good life, to love his neighbour, to care for the earth, then God can do nothing but rejoice."

"We don't take inspiration from Star Wars but from what George Lucas was inspired by in creating Star Wars - a range of much older spiritualist beliefs," says Mr Kitchen.

"Everyone is their own hero. Rather than trying to dictate to people, Jediism encourages people find their own answers as to what should be done."

Inside Out will be broadcast on BBC One in the east of England at 19:30 GMT and available on iPlayer afterwards.

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