A Conservative peer is calling for a church-led inquiry into the Exclusive Brethren to determine its beliefs before any decision is made to grant it charitable status.
In a House of Lords debate on religion in the UK yesterday, Baroness Berridge, who has family members in the Exclusive Brethren, called for a former Archbishop to set up a church-led inquiry into the theological and psychological implications of Exclusive Brethren beliefs.
She said: "Groups, where there is credible evidence that they harm health, split families and refuse to allow members to attend university, can exist in a liberal society, but should they be charities?"
The Charity Commission has refused to grant charitable status to the Preston Down Trust, a Brethren gospel hall in Paignton, Devon, because the commission was not satisfied that it had been established for the advancement of religion for public benefit. The Preston Down Trust has appealed to the charity tribunal against the decision.
The commission’s decision has proved controversial among some MPs who have accused the regulator of "suppressing religion" by rejecting the application. But Berridge told the Lords yesterday that she heard many negative stories about the Exclusive Brethren and its practices.
"Exclusives cannot live in semi-detached houses as this would mean having a party wall with non-brethren," she said. "They cannot eat with non-brethren, cannot have friends who are non-brethren, cannot join membership groups like trade unions or the AA."
She added that she had spoken to a former member this week who had been "shut up", a term meaning that fellow Brethren cannot live with them, after he was spotted in a pub by a fellow Brethren member. As a result, his wife and family were removed from the family home by Brethren leaders and he has no contact with them, she said.
She commended the Charity Commission for "seeking to deal with this Christian sect", but added that "victims" of the religion must be allowed give evidence and tell their stories anonymously at the forthcoming charity tribunal hearing.
Berridge is also planning to host a parliamentary event for former members of the Exclusive Brethren to allow other parliamentarians to hear their stories.