Editorial: Will a leopard change its spots?

The Plymouth Brethren Christian Church has pledged to be more forgiving and compassionate in its disciplinary practices and its treatment of former members, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

It's a year since the Charity Commission and the Preston Down Trust, a congregation of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, started their latest negotiations about whether the trust could be registered as a charity.

The commission had said in 2012 that concerns about public access to worship and harm to the public meant it could not be registered, and the Brethren's appeal to the charity tribunal had been put on hold to see if the negotiations could succeed.

The commission has persuaded the Brethren to change the trust deed of the Preston Down Trust to incorporate, among other things, a commitment to mitigate the harmful effects that many people claim to have suffered as a result of the Brethren's harsh disciplinary practices, including the "shutting up" and "excommunication" of members.

The commission said it received evidence that these practices had had the effect of breaking up families if members left the Brethren or were expelled, and of limiting the opportunities of children by restricting their use of technology and preventing them from going to university.

But it also said there was evidence that the organisation was evolving and increasing its engagement with the public, and that it would accept a new application from the trust for registration as a charity. The Brethren had acknowledged past mistakes, and the new Faith In Practice document in the revised trust deed showed a new emphasis on compassion and forgiveness.

The decision will be a disappointment to opponents of the Brethren, which practises a fundamentalist, separationist Christianity that most ordinary citizens would find bizarre, and is led by an Australian called Bruce Hales, who styles himself Minister of the Lord in the Recovery.

But the argument is not necessarily over. There might be an appeal to the charity tribunal against the regulator's decision, and many will be watching to see whether the leopard changes its spots. If they feel it doesn't, they will doubtless argue that the Brethren are in breach of their new trust deed.

- See our Big Issue on the Plymouth Brethren case

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