Charity Commission will accept Plymouth Brethren application for charitable status

The regulator says the Preston Down Trust, whose initial application was rejected in 2012, has agreed to change its governing documents

Preston Down Trust
Preston Down Trust

The Charity Commission has said it will accept an application for charitable status from the Preston Down Trust, a Devon-based Plymouth Brethren congregation.

The regulator announced today that it would accept an application from the trust, which adheres to a doctrine of separation that limits members’ contact with the outside world, after it agreed to change its governing documents.

The commission said the trust had agreed to amend its trust documents by entering into a deed of variation, which sets out, in a manner that is binding on trustees, the church’s core religious doctrines and practices.

It signals an end to a dispute dating back to February 2009, when the trust first made an application for charitable status.

A draft deed of variation, published by the commission, includes directions on issues such as how disciplinary matters should be dealt with among members. It also says meeting halls should display prominent details about how non-members can attend services.

The commission’s decision document says that it has heard allegations of harsh disciplinary practices for minor transgressions and people being cut off from the community.

It says there had been claims that threats of legal action had been made against people who spoke out against the Brethren and those who leave "are ostracised and consequently treated differently from other members of the public".

In responding to these allegations, the commission said the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church had told it some were of an historic nature but it did acknowledge "past mistakes in relation to its disciplinary practices".

The regulator said the trust had "demonstrated a willingness to make amends and to do what it could as a Christian organisation to ensure, as far as it was consistent with its religious beliefs, it would act with Christian compassion in the future", particularly in respect of its disciplinary practices and in its relations with former members of the Brethren. 

Under a section called "compassion", the draft deed of variation sets out how that pastoral care should be provided "including but not limited to where fault occurs".

"No action should be taken in any way to treat vindictively, maliciously or unfairly persons whether within or outside the community, including those who were within the community and who are leaving or have left the community," it says.

"Every care should be taken to provide for and support the welfare and education of children and young persons within the community. Where persons seek to leave the community, reasonable assistance should be afforded to them in terms of support and/or financial assistance relating to employment or other matters, where they have been dependent on the community for that support."

It also says that "reasonable steps" should be taken to allow the continuation of family relationships where a family member has left the community, including providing access to family members, in particular children.

The commission rejected an initial application from the trust in June 2012 because the regulator was not satisfied that the trust had been established for the advancement of religion for public benefit.

The trust then appealed to the charity tribunal in July 2012, but the case, which has now been dropped, had been on hold since last February because of cost concerns.

William Shawcross, chair of the Charity Commission, said: "I am pleased that the PDT has agreed to adopt a new governing document and am confident that the organisation now qualifies for charitable status. This was a complex and sensitive case, which involved strong views and feelings on both sides of the argument. I am grateful to all those who shared information with us, and for their patience in awaiting today’s decision.

"I hope that the organisation’s new explicit focus on compassion and forgiveness will help allay the concerns of people who remain uncomfortable with some of the practices of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church."  

Gerry Devenish, a member of the Preston Down Trust, said it had been a complex case. "We’re relieved that the commission has made this decision after a thorough examination," he said. "It’s confirmed our place in the Christian church."

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