The latest edition of the Aldeburgh Gazette newspaper carried a letter from Celia Leggett, a former councillor and mayor of the Suffolk coastal town, in praise of the "outstanding job" done at the Anglican church hall by one "very helpful and extremely friendly" group at the time of the recent tidal surge in the North Sea.
"They produced very welcome cups of tea, coffee, hot soup, chocolate, mattresses, duvets, pillows and even magazines for people who left homes at severe risk of flooding," wrote Leggett. "Before you ask, there was no preaching."
She was referring to local members of the Plymouth Brethren, formerly known as the Exclusive Brethren, whose "rapid response teams" have recently also turned out to help at other flood sites, an industrial fire in Oxfordshire and two helicopter crashes in Glasgow and Norfolk.
Such public-spirited activity by the Brethren has been more in evidence since one of their congregations, the Preston Down Trust in Paignton, Devon, was refused registration as a charity by the Charity Commission nearly two years ago on the grounds that it did not provide sufficient public benefit.
The Brethren have been fighting back ever since, lodging an appeal with the charity tribunal, producing glossy publicity brochures about their beliefs and lifestyles and mounting a lobbying campaign that prompted one sceptical Labour MP, Paul Flynn, to declare that he felt "bullied".
This campaign paid dividends last week when the commission, after a year-long dialogue while the tribunal appeal was stayed, announced it would accept a renewed application for registration on the grounds that the Brethren had acknowledged "past mistakes in relation to its disciplinary practices", changed some of these practices and amended their trust deed.
The amendments include a schedule called Faith in Practice, which pledges that the organisation will not act "at any time in a manner that lacks compassion, care or fails to pay due regard to the needs or vulnerabilities of others". One concern of opponents of the Brethren has been that some members have been cut off from their families and even barred from funerals.
The trust’s application was seen as a test case for other Brethren meeting halls, of which there are
99 in the UK. Some, such as the Horsforth Gospel Hall Trust in West Yorkshire, were registered before the Charities Act 2006 removed the assumption of public benefit for religious organisations. Others are now expected to apply, using the Preston Down Trust’s revised deed and gaining the tax exemptions that charities enjoy.
The outcome is a deserved victory for the Brethren in the eyes of Robert Halfon, a Conservative MP and member of the Public Administration Select Committee, which looked into the affair. "They were exercising their lobbying rights like any other constituents," he says. "If you look at these guys’ appearances in front of the committee, these people are not professional lobbyists. One of them started quoting the Bible – it was really quite endearing."
Neil Summerton, a historian of the Brethren movements and chair of Partnership, a support body for the more moderate Open Brethren, which parted from the Exclusive Brethren in 1848, says the new trust deed is ground-breaking. "It seems to me that the Plymouth Brethren have given a lot of ground," he says.
Laurie Moffitt, who left the Brethren in 1993, says he is "delighted that the Charity Commission has taken so much care" over the revised trust deed for the Preston Down Trust, but says he is hopeful rather than expectant that the church will now change.
But he says there are reports that individual members, who use computers provided by the church, cannot get onto the Charity Commission’s website to view the decision. He is now working with two current members to distribute hard copies. "That’s the only way the rank and file will get to know of the decision," he says.
Jill Mytton, who left the church in 1960 at the age of 16, agrees it is unlikely that ordinary members will see the decision because the hierarchy – its Australian leader, Bruce Hales, is styled Minister of the Lord in the Recovery – would lose too much face. A spokesman for the Brethren says this suggestion is "completely unsubstantiated".
Mytton doubts that the organisation will really become more open. "If they were to give it all up, they would in a way cease to exist," she says. "They would lose their identity and become more like the Open Brethren." The revised trust deed maintains the doctrine of separation, but notes that individuals "must ultimately exercise their own judgement" on it.
Charity lawyers appear unsurprised by the commission’s decision and suggest it is unlikely to mean much for other religious organisations. Benjamin James, a partner at Wallace LLP, says that in many respects "what was going on with the Brethren from a religious point of view was no different from other religions. It has always been my position that since the Brethren became more open, it met the threshold to be a charity."
Stephanie Biden, a partner at Bates Wells Braithwaite, says the commission’s decision was "not particularly surprising", given that it was "under quite a degree of pressure", primarily from politicians at Westminster.
"The trade-off that the Brethren have made in order to get charitable status is that they are now accountable in how they administer their church practices and the working of their doctrine to a secular regulator," she says.
She says that if the charity were to be found in breach of the revised trust deed, the commission could in theory strip it of its assets and apply them to another, similar church. "Such action seems to me to be quite unlikely, but theoretically it is there," she says.
Life in the Brethren
Members of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, formerly known as the Exclusive Brethren, follow a strict code, according to Dr Eileen Barker of the London School of Economics, who gave the Charity Commission independent advice on the church.
She told the commission that Brethren cut themselves off socially from non-members or "worldlies", including their own families, will not eat at the same table as non-members and cannot live in houses sharing a common wall with outsiders. They do not vote, do not allow their children to go to university and cannot join any secular, vocational or ecumenical organisation.
"Shrinking", formerly known as "shutting up", is imposed on dissenting or disaffected members, according to Barker; they are sent to live alone, and are brought only food and reading material. They can go to work or attend school and are visited by elders to discuss their situation, but cannot attend any services or meetings. In the new appendix to its governing document, Faith in Practice, the Preston Down Trust, a PBCC congregation, says shrinking is "relatively rare as pastoral care is intended and does in most cases resolve the matter".
Barker said the Brethren also practise "excommunication", formerly known as "withdrawal". Some people excommunicated from the PBCC "have found themselves ejected from their homes, completely cut off from their family and friends, having nowhere to go and no one to whom they felt they could turn". Faith in Practice says that excommunicated Brethren are given "follow-up pastoral and shepherd care in view of the possibility of re-including the person concerned in fellowship".
Preston Down Trust timeline
18 February 2009 The Preston Down Trust in Paignton, Devon, applies to register as a charity in what the Charity Commission says "was seen as a test case for other Plymouth Brethren meeting halls".
7 June 2012 The Charity Commission writes to the PDT to reject its application for charitable status, saying it is "not satisfied it was able to determine conclusively" that the PDT meets the public benefit requirement in charity law.
19 June 2012 The PDT appeals to the First-tier Tribunal (Charity), with Horsforth Gospel Hall Trust, a PBCC trust in West Yorkshire with identical objects, joining the appeal as a party potentially affected by the decision.
December 2012 An initial ‘directions’ hearing is held in preparation for a full tribunal hearing. The tribunal agrees that witnesses can give evidence anonymously behind screens if they can demonstrate that the appellants should not know who they are.
2013 Multiple stays are granted to the PDT during the year, allowing the hearing to be put back, in the hope of reaching an agreement and saving on legal costs. The final stay would have expired on 6 January 2014.
9 January 2014 The commission announces that "it is prepared to register the PDT on the basis of a new application for registration based on revised trusts". The revisions include a schedule called Faith in Practice.