Fifty-eight Plymouth Brethren congregations have gained charitable status since Preston Down Trust

The Charity Commission registered the PDT, a Devon-based congregation that is part of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, in January last year

Preston Down Trust
Preston Down Trust

Almost 60 Plymouth Brethren congregations have gained charitable status in the year since the Charity Commission agreed to register the Preston Down Trust.

Since the regulator made its decision to register the Devon-based congregation, which is part of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, a further 58 Brethren halls have gained charitable status.

Both the commission and the PBCC, which adheres to a doctrine of separation (it defines this on its website as "a commitment to eat and drink only with those with whom we would celebrate the Lord's Supper"), saw the PDT decision as a test case that could pave the way for other congregations to register as charities.

The PDT first applied for charitable status in February 2009, but was rejected by the commission in June 2012.

The trust appealed to the charity tribunal and, after several stays in the proceedings to try to avoid a costly hearing, the commission announced on 9 January 2014 that it had accepted the trust’s application after it agreed to change its governing documents.

In announcing the decision, the commission said that the trust had "demonstrated a willingness to make amends" for harsh disciplinary practices and that it must ensure meeting halls display prominent details about how non-members could attend services.

Since then, a further 58 meeting halls, all with identical charitable objects, have been put on to the register.

A spokeswoman for the commission said that because each congregation was a separate charity, each application was taken on its own merits, but with reference to the PDT decision. "Plymouth Brethren Christian Church applications for charity registration are subject to the same requirements as any other – the registration resources available from our website set those out," she said. "Our assessment is as thorough as for any other application, and the factors set out in the decision on the Preston Down Trust inform the registration decision."

A spokesman for the PBCC said the church was satisfied that the applications were being assessed with no undue difficulty or scrutiny. He said: "One might have wished for a smoother process in some cases, but the church respects the need for the commission to make due enquiry of every trust." He said that further applications were being prepared – there are nearly 100 PBCC meeting halls in the UK.

The commission spokeswoman said the regulator hoped to hold a meeting with the trustees of the PDT in January, but gave no further details as to the reasons for the meeting. "We cannot comment further at this stage, but will be publishing the results of our findings in early 2015," she said.

The commission said in January 2014 that it would carry out a review to establish whether the PDT was complying with its new trust deed.

The PBCC spokesman said last month: "The trustees of the Preston Down Trust have not yet been informed of the meeting or its agenda, nor have they been presented with any ‘findings’ or consulted in the process the commission is undertaking, so are unable to comment."

When the PBT was registerd as a charity, it agreed to amend its governing documents to say: "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.

"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."

The amended documents also say 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.

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