Analysis: Religion and public benefit

Why does being a charity mean so much to the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church? David Ainsworth looks at their legal dispute with the Charity Commission and assesses what they have to lose; Ian Griggs attends a meeting

A Brethren meeting hall in Beckenham, Kent
A Brethren meeting hall in Beckenham, Kent

A long-running dispute over the Charity Commission's refusal of charitable status for the Preston Down Trust, a Plymouth Brethren congregation in Devon, entered a new phase last month when the Brethren requested a stay of their appeal to the charity tribunal, citing the cost involved, and negotiations resumed with the regulator.

The Brethren, a Christian group with about 16,000 members in the UK and about 50,000 worldwide, have a strict doctrine of separation that limits their contact with those outside their faith, including family members who have left. Unlike the Preston Down Trust, most of more than 100 Brethren charities in the UK already enjoy charitable status.

The commission said it had concerns about this doctrine, saying it was likely to lead to a lack of contact with the wider community. It also questioned whether there was sufficient advertisement of, and access to, the trust's religious services for it to qualify as a public place of worship (see below). It concluded last June that the trust was not "established for exclusively charitable purposes for the public benefit".

A Brethren meeting hall in Beckenham, Kent, one of about 100 in the UK run by the groupThe importance of charitable status to the Brethren is illustrated by the strength of their response. They appealed to the tribunal in July and stepped up a lobbying campaign, including letters of complaint to MPs and the commission, and glossy brochures intended to give an insight into their way of life and illustrate their contact with the wider community. An email to all Brethren groups in October asked for details of local community and charitable activity, which it called "critical to our defence".

Their campaign generated coverage in national newspapers and intensive interest in parliament: scores of MPs signed motions in support of the Brethren and spoke in debates on their behalf. The case also prompted Jewish and other Christian organisations to express concern about the potential effect on their own charitable status. These concerns intensified after the emergence of a letter sent to the Attorney General in 2011 by Kenneth Dibble, head of legal services at the commission, who identified other religious groups that the commission was concerned might not meet the public benefit test.

Extensive counter-lobbying began by opponents of the Brethren, chiefly former members who claimed that the organisation caused substantial harm to members who left and to some who stayed. The Brethren faced allegations that their disciplinary structure had involved bullying and child abuse, separated families, was intolerant of gay rights and oppressed women.

The commission said in its original decision that it was required to balance "benefit and disadvantage", but it did not have any evidence "to demonstrate disadvantage which may serve to negate public benefit". It has since said it has been contacted by people who wish to give evidence of disadvantage. If the matter goes to the tribunal, witnesses will be called by the commission to give evidence of harm.

Sources have told Third Sector that there is concern in the commission about the validity of the trust deeds of Brethren meeting rooms. Those deeds suggest that considerable power over UK Brethren charities is held by an Australian accountant, Bruce Hales, whom the Brethren refer to as the minister of the Lord in the Recovery, and who is said to be the absolute leader of the Brethren worldwide.

Former and current members of the Brethren say that trust deeds of all meeting rooms are functionally identical. A sample deed seen by Third Sector suggests that Hales has the power to dismiss trustees instantly and appoint nominated representatives in their place, and a power of veto over any changes. In effect, he and his successors can change any element of a Brethren charity - potentially including its objects - at will. Continued below...


WHO ARE THE BRETHREN?

The movement sometimes known as the Plymouth Brethren began in the 1830s. They were one of several small religious groups that split from the established church, returning to what they saw as a more Biblical view of religion and using a looser form of worship led by the members of the congregation. The organisation currently known as the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church is the largest branch of the Exclusive Brethren, who separated from the rest of the Brethren movement in 1848.

The Exclusive Brethren increasingly followed a doctrine of separation, based on Biblical passages that emphasise the need for purity among believers - including a line in the Second Book of Timothy, as translated by John Nelson Darby, the founder of the Brethren, which says: "Let everyone who names the name of the Lord withdraw from iniquity." They became characterised by limited contact with those outside their own group.

A century later, one group of Exclusive Brethren, under the leadership of James Taylor, went in "a decisively sectarian direction", according to Neil Summerton, a historian associated with the Open Brethren. The Brethren narrowed their focus on separation and on the leadership of a single individual - currently Bruce Hales. Former and current members say that in recent years the organisation has become more focused on business and attaining wealth.

The doctrine of separation lays down that Brethren do not eat, drink or have social contact with others, and go to great lengths to preserve themselves from what they see as impure influences. They do not listen to the radio or watch television, and use the internet only through approved devices. All electronics are bought through agreed suppliers, who have limited what users can obtain access to. This process of separation has become more pronounced in recent years, according to some former members and critics: Brethren are no longer permitted to work for non-Brethren companies, and Brethren children are no longer educated in mainstream schools.

Breaking the rules of the faith might be punished by 'shutting up', a process in which other members refuse to have any contact with the individual. Critics say this can sometimes last for weeks or even months and can involve an individual's partner and children being removed from their home. Spokesmen for the Brethren say 'shutting up' is used rarely and that "all organisations must have a form of discipline"; critics say that although it is less common than in previous decades, it is still practised today and is used regularly to discipline children.

Representatives of the Brethren say that they ensure all members of their faith are well provided for, earn good salaries and are looked after if anything goes wrong in their lives. They provide, they say, "care from the cradle to the grave". Those who have left the faith say there is no tolerance of anyone who does not conform.

"The moment you think, you're in trouble," one discontented member of the Brethren told Third Sector. "They have an expression: 'We'll do the thinking, you do the doing.' You are well taken care of, but you're also expected to work really hard. Other than work, there's nothing else to do - except stay at home and drink."


cont...All the indications are that the Brethren will put up a fight to retain their charitable status, both in renewed discussions with the commission and in the charity tribunal if need be. The Brethren are known to be well organised and wealthy, and have said that they will fight to keep their meeting halls, which they regard as the core of their communities.

Charitable status is also extremely financially valuable to the Brethren. They currently give a private education to almost every child in the faith, at a cost of about £30m a year, in schools that do not charge fees but solicit Gift Aid-able charitable donations from parents. Former and current Brethren members have told Third Sector that these donations are, in practice, all but compulsory.

They have also made unsuccessful attempts to win free school status, which would bring with it state funding, for 14 of their 40 or so schools. The Brethren also control about 100 meeting hall trusts and a number of other charities, including the £63m-a-year Grace Trust, which provides general services to Brethren groups.

Several hundred million pounds of charitable assets - land, buildings, companies and cash - could be lost if all Brethren-led organisations were determined not to be charitable. The Brethren and their charities also receive business rate relief, Gift Aid and relief for higher-rate taxpayers believed to be worth tens of millions of pounds a year. The loss of these reliefs would lead to a significant dent in their income.


POINTS OF CONTENTION 1: ACCESS

Existing case law on access suggests that religious organisations need only provide an act of prayer that is open to a relatively small group of believers to qualify as providing sufficient public benefit for charitable status.

The courts have previously said that whereas a cloistered order of monks or nuns is unlikely to qualify, a synagogue that does not allow non-Jews to attend is still acceptable because those who attend will spread its benefit into the community.

However, all case law on this predates 2006, when the Charities Act removed the presumption of public benefit for religious organisations.

Alison Paines, head of charities at the law firm Withers, says this raises questions. "One advantage of going to the tribunal is that it would tell us more about whether the cases we look back at are still good law," she says.

The Charity Commission's refusal of charitable status to the Preston Down Trust mentioned limited advertisement of its services and questioned whether it provided "meaningful access to participate in public worship". To test whether Brethren meetings are genuinely open, Third Sector reporter Ian Griggs presented himself as a member of the public at a hall in north London. His account appears on the right.


MY EVENING WITH THE BRETHREN ...

On a cold January evening I'm outside a Brethren meeting hall in north London. I know there's a service, but it's not listed on the noticeboard. A car pulls up and a man in his mid-50s asks if he can help me, and I tell him I'm thinking of attending the meeting.

He gives me a quizzical look and asks how I know about it. In fact, I found out from an anti-Brethren website, but I say something vague about being local and hearing about it. He appears satisfied, introduces himself as "Tim" and ushers me into the foyer, where he asks me to sign the visitors book. Others are filing in and Tim guides me into the meeting room and sits down next to me.

The room is large and square, with octagonal rows of benches rising from a central depression. The congregation consists of about 150 people of all ages. The women, wearing brightly coloured headscarves, sit separately. The congregation sings a sombre hymn, then shift and cough in their seats, waiting for someone to speak.

The first is a man in his mid-40s who asks us to read parts of the Bible before he interprets them forcefully, his voice rising and falling. A man in his 70s speaks next, then another hymn is sung and the service is over. Children start running around at the back.

Tim asks me to take a Bible away. I tell him I would prefer a few more visits first. He asks me where I work and I tell him that I'm the manager of a supermarket. He offers me a lift home, but I politely refuse and start back down the long, dark lane.

Later I phone Tim and tell him that I am in fact a journalist and that I am trying to establish whether anyone could attend a service. He says most people who inquire are directed to the Sunday service because times and venues of other services vary.

"We have had several people turn up at the Barnet hall, mainly as a result of our outreach days," he says. "We also post leaflets through doors. I don't think it's a problem to find us."


POINTS OF CONTENTION 2: HARM

It has been established in charity law that, for an organisation to be charitable, the benefit it provides must outweigh any harm. The Charity Commission's letter of refusal to the Preston Down Trust said that it was aware of public criticism of the Brethren's practice of 'shutting up' and of the effect the practice of separation had on family, social and working lives.

The harm alleged by former Brethren - some of whom have spoken to Third Sector - includes breaches of equality law by the Brethren, who ex-members say do not allow women to work and expect them to marry and have children whether or not they wish to.

The Brethren are also accused of being strongly opposed to homosexuality and of breaking up families in the way they punish those perceived as transgressors.

"If you don't believe in every dot and comma of their tenets, you will be removed from your family and your home," says Richard Stay, a former member of the Brethren who left many years ago.

"I was thrown out of my home at the age of 18 with no job, no money, no qualifications, no family, no friends and without the faintest idea how the real world worked. My parents still don't know the reasons I was told to leave. The decision was made by the elders."

However, it is not clear how allegations of harm would be assessed by the commission or the tribunal. There is little case law on the subject and it is not clear how the teachings of a religion, or the activities of its adherents, would be weighed against the charitable objects of an organisation that exists to conduct acts of prayer.

Rosamund McCarthy, a partner at the law firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite, says that many allegations levelled at the Brethren could also be made against mainstream religions. She says that there is no societal agreement about the good or harm of religion, and that opinions on morality change swiftly.

"There is a spectrum of opinion," she says. "At one end is the Oxford academic Richard Dawkins, who says all religion is harmful. In the middle there are many people who say that several religious teachings are harmful in terms of standard morality.

"In some religions it's common to teach vulnerable young teenagers that being gay is a sin. In others, if people marry outside the faith other members are encouraged never to speak to them to again. I can't see how the tribunal could draw a line in the sand."


POINTS OF CONTENTION 3: CHARITABLE OBJECTS

The trust deed of Horsforth Gospel Hall Trust, a Brethren meeting room charity that is a party to the charity tribunal case, says its charitable purposes are to carry out various activities, including holding meetings and gospel preachings, and to follow Christianity "as expounded by his servants the ministers of the Lord in the Recovery".

The deed contains a list of ministers of the Lord in the Recovery - a title given to the worldwide leaders of the Brethren - dating back to John Nelson Darby, founder of the Brethren, and continuing to the current leader, Bruce Hales.

Former and current members of the Brethren say the key element is that the charity must follow Christianity "as expounded by" Bruce Hales. They say this means, in effect, that the charity must follow whatever rules Hales lays down: if he changes his instructions, the charity must change with him.

One former Brethren member says such changes are sufficiently common that an expression for this exists: "The Lord has turned a corner." He says: "This expression means Bruce Hales has changed his mind."

The Horsforth deed also appears to give Hales considerable powers to appoint and dismiss trustees. It says that no one can be a trustee or member of the congregation unless they are "in fellowship" with Hales, and that this "fellowship" is defined solely by Hales himself.

The deed says that an appeal against dismissal as a trustee can be made only to Hales himself, in writing. Former Brethren say the Horsforth deed is typical of the trust deeds of Brethren meeting halls. Other trust deeds seen by Third Sector contain similar provisions.

Benjamin James, a partner with the law firm Wallace, says that it is not unique to have a deed that requires a charity to follow the word of a single leader. "There are many charismatic churches within the UK that follow the word of one individual," he says. "So long as they advance the Christian religion for the public benefit, that would still be charitable."

It is also common for an individual outside a particular charity to retain an element of control in appointing and dismissing trustees, he says. But no matter what powers are held by someone outside the trustee board, trustees still have a duty to act in accordance with charity law - and failure to do so means they could be challenged or replaced by the Charity Commission.

Rosamund McCarthy, a partner at Bates Wells & Braithwaite, says she has reservations about charitable purposes that vest all power in a single individual, such as those in the Horsforth trust deed. "I would argue that for it to be charitable - as opposed to a private faith group - there need to be sufficient checks and balances to protect the public from harm or detriment," she says.

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