Analysis: The Plymouth Brethren take a literal view of the Bible

The Preston Down Trust belongs to the Exclusive Brethren, a church with about 16,000 members in the UK and 47,000 around the world.

Brethren founder John Nelson Darby
Brethren founder John Nelson Darby

The Plymouth Brethren Christian Church was established in Plymouth in 1828 by a group who believed the established church had lost its way. It was founded by John Nelson Darby, a student at Trinity College, Dublin, who advocated that people should base their lives on an exact interpretation of scripture - a principle the Brethren has maintained ever since.

In 1848 a split developed between what are known as the Open and the Exclusive Brethren. The latter regards the name as one imposed on it by outsiders and refers to itself as Plymouth Brethren or just Brethren. Today, there are about 16,000 members in the UK and 47,000 worldwide. The Preston Down Trust in Devon, which has been refused charitable status, belongs to this exclusive branch.

Brethren practices include the doctrine of 'separation', which instructs members to socialise, eat and drink only with fellow Brethren - although it says members will interact normally with other people in other circumstances and live as normal members of the community.

Tim Grass, an author on religion and associate tutor at Spurgeon's College in London, which teaches Bible studies, says separation is intended to protect the Brethren from what it considers to be evil and corrupting influences, including the internet, television and the radio. But Bruce Hazell, a member of the Brethren who gave evidence to a Public Administration Select Committee investigation into charity regulation last month, says members will use the internet, the phone and email as normal. They will also watch DVDs. They dress as other people do, he says, although women wear hairbands and headscarves. Children attend mainstream schools, Hazell says, although there are specialist Brethren schools.

Hazell says that his church makes considerable efforts to advance religion among those outside its own group: members preach in the streets and distribute gospel tracts, and non-Brethren can attend services at gospel halls. Generally, Holy Communion is not open to outsiders, but he says this is in line with other faiths, including Roman Catholicism.

The Brethren says in publicity booklets produced to explain its faith that it does not widely advertise its services and does not seek to convert others to its own faith, but it welcomes visitors, and members seek to help others to become Christians. The Brethren says there is a dress code for its services, but this is not intended as a barrier and is intended to show "sufficient respect for a holy place".

The role of women in services is also limited and members of the Brethren obey parts of the Bible that suggest men should act as the leaders in family and religious life. But the Brethren says that women are actively involved.

Another key practice of the Brethren is "excluding error" - stopping members who are seen as transgressors from coming to meetings. Frank Rich, a member of the Brethren, referred to this as "shutting up" at a 1981 court hearing that confirmed charitable status for the Kingston Meeting Rooms Trust in west London.

He said the practice was used to protect the assembly from the evil of a transgressor and "give the transgressor an opportunity to perceive that evil and put it away from himself". Today the Brethren says the practice is rare and that "all religions must have a disciplinary procedure".

- Read our analysis


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