The Charity Commission has said that its refusal of the application for charitable status by the Preston Down Trust, a Plymouth Brethren congregation in Devon, was based on the church's doctrine of separation from the rest of society and on "insufficient evidence of meaningful access to public worship".
An initial explanation of the decision was given by the commission in a letter to the trust's lawyers in June last year. The trust is appealing to the charity tribunal and the issue has been taken up by the Commons Public Administration Select Committee, which is conducting an inquiry into the regulation of the charity sector and the Charities Act 2006.
The commission's further explanation of its reasons came in a recent written response to the committee, which had asked it what public benefit was provided by the Druid Network, which does have charitable status, and why the Preston Down Trust did not meet the same requirement.
The commission said the Druid Network reached out to the wider community, that there was evidence that membership and involvement in ceremonies was open to all and that the opportunity to learn about Druidry was available to the public through the Druid Network website.
"The Druid Network supports the provision of public rituals and ceremonies and engages in inter-faith activities and community projects," the commission said. "The Druid Network is not exclusive and confirmed it does not support events or organisations that are exclusive or accept exclusive groups into membership."
It was evident that the Preston Down Trust was a religious organisation, the commission said, but the point of contention was whether it was established for exclusively charitable purposes for the public benefit. "Preston Down Trust promotes particular beliefs and practices, in particular the doctrine of separation, which is central to their beliefs and way of life, and this has the consequence of limiting their engagement with non-Brethren and the wider public," it said.
"The evidence we were given showed that the doctrine of separation as preached by the trust requires followers to limit their engagement with the wider public, and there was insufficient evidence of meaningful access to participate in public worship. The commission concluded that the evidence of beneficial impact on the wider public was not sufficient to demonstrate public benefit. This was a finely balanced decision."
The commission added that any alleged harm or detriment must be balanced against the benefit, and it was aware of some criticism of the practices known as "shutting up" and "withdrawal" by the Plymouth Brethren, and of the effect of the doctrine of separation on family and social life.
"At the time of making our decision we had no evidence of this and it was not a factor in our decision," it said. "Since our decision was made public we have received submissions on this point and will be putting these to the tribunal to consider, but it is for the court to decide what weight to give these. Hearing and assessing evidence of this kind is a role much better suited to the courts as it is done under oath, than to a body like the commission."
Meanwhile, Garth Christie, a Plymouth Brethren representative, has apologised to the select committee for misquoting commission statements when he gave evidence to the committee last year. He had earlier corrected what he had said, which conflated parts of the refusal letter from the commission with statements made by its head of legal services five years ago, but had not apologised.
In a new submission to the committee, Christie said the quotations were correct but he had repeated them in a way that gave the impression they were stated at the same time. "This is clearly not the case," he said. "The mistake was entirely inadvertent and a result of notes that I should have better prepared. Nevertheless I apologise fully for this error and for any confusion it may have caused."