Analysis: Plymouth Brethren Christian Church heads for the courts

A trust that runs a Brethren meeting hall in Devon is appealing to the charity tribunal against the refusal of the Charity Commission to register it as a charity. Stephen Cook looks at the case and David Ainsworth profiles the church

Plymouth Brethren
Plymouth Brethren

Earlier this year the Preston Down Trust, which runs the meeting hall of the Plymouth Brethren in Paignton, Devon, was taken aback by a letter from the Charity Commission turning down its application to become a registered charity.

It had been in discussion with the commission for several years, arguing that it clearly fulfilled the twin requirements for charitable status, which are a legitimate charitable purpose - the advancement of religion - and the provision of public benefit - its religious services, street preaching and other activities.

At worst, the trust was expecting the commission to refer the question of public benefit by religious charities to the charity tribunal for clarification. The Charities Act 2006 abolished the presumption that they provide public benefit, leaving some uncertainty about how such benefit should be demonstrated.

The outright refusal meant that the trust could advance its case only by an appeal - at its own expense - to the charity tribunal, which it lodged in the summer. But it also went public about its grievance, lobbying MPs and gaining an invitation to give evidence to the current inquiry into the workings of the 2006 act by the Public Administration Select Committee.

The allegation that the commission was discriminating against religious charities was enthusiastically taken up by some Conservative MPs - Charlie Elphicke and Robert Halfon in particular - and The Sunday Times quoted the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, as being "very concerned".

Elphicke also attempted to draw into the dispute the new chair of the Charity Commission, William Shawcross, by asking him for assurances that the commission was not anti-religious, as he said some of his constituents believed it to be. Shawcross gave the assurance, but also referred to the "teething problems" of the 2006 act.

So the scene is now set for another highly charged legal conflict about public benefit in the near future. Feelings ran high over the Upper Tribunal case about fee-charging charitable schools, which resulted last year in the commission having to rewrite much of its guidance, and could well run even higher in a case that centres on the ever-sensitive questions of religious belief and practice.

The dispute has been fuelled further by the release last week of the commission's four-page letter to the trust giving the reasons for its decision, which are questioned by some charity lawyers. "It doesn't portray a picture of the law as I understand it," says Benjamin James, a partner at Wallace LLP who specialises in charity law.

Stephanie Biden, a charity lawyer at Bates Wells & Braithwaite, says the letter appears to take an extreme view. "It makes for interesting - and troubling - reading," she says. "It would potentially preclude many mainstream Christian churches from charitable status."

The letter from Kenneth Dibble, head of legal services at the commission, doubts whether a 1981 case that granted charitable status to a Brethren meeting hall can still be regarded as a precedent in light of the 2006 act, and points out that the independent schools case judgment "makes it clear that there is no presumption that religion generally or at any more specific level is for the public benefit, even in the case of Christianity and the Church of England". It then lists eight principles from pre-2006 case law on religion and says it considers that four of them "may well be affected by the removal of the presumption".

On the trust's application, the letter questions whether having a noticeboard saying the hall is a public place of worship and giving contact details, but no service times, is sufficient to demonstrate meaningful access. "We also have concerns about the lack of public access to participation in one of the key religious services provided, that of Holy Communion," it says.

The letter says that the limited engagement of the Brethren with the wider public raises a concern that the trust is "primarily for the benefit of its followers" and that the evidence of beneficial impact on the wider public is "perhaps marginal".

It concludes: "We are aware of some public criticism, which we have discussed with the applicants, in connection with the disciplinary practices of shutting up and withdrawal and the effects of the doctrine of and practice of separation on family, social and working life." But it adds that it has no evidence about this.

Biden says the commission's view has ramifications for other faith-based organisations. "It's normal for a wide range of them to restrict access to people who subscribe to and live according to their principles," she says. "You can have congregations that are closed but actively reach out to communities through public preaching and community service."

James questions the letter's argument that case law is affected by the act. "The existing case law would have to be repealed specifically by the act, differentiated on the facts or changed by a higher court," he says. "They seem to be trying to predict how a court would respond, rather than interpreting the law as it stands."

He says the letter also seems to show little understanding of religion on the question of access to Holy Communion, because both Anglican and Catholic churches officially restrict it to people who are confirmed.

On the advertisement of services, James says he recently visited a mosque, a Catholic church and an Anglican church. "The Catholic noticeboard didn't give times, the Anglican one gave the time of one service but not others and the mosque just said 'open at 12.30'. The commission is taking a very hard line in this case."

- Read David Ainsworth's profile of the church

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