Open Brethren write to the Charity Commission to stress differences with Exclusive branch

Neil Summerton, chair of Partnership, says he fears the forthcoming charity tribunal case involving the Preston Down Trust will damage the reputation of other types of Brethren

The Gospel Hall, Plymouth

The chair of a support body for the Open Brethren has written to the Charity Commission and the Public Administration Select Committee to outline the differences between his faith and the branch of the Exclusive Brethren which has been refused charitable status by the regulator.

Neil Summerton, chair of Partnership, told Third Sector he was worried that allegations about the Exclusive Brethren could damage other types of Brethren in the UK.

In June last year, the commission refused charitable status to the Preston Down Trust, a congregation of Exclusive Brethren in Devon. An appeal to the charity tribunal is due to be heard in March.

In the letter to the commission, Summerton says the Exclusive Brethren split from his own faith in 1848, and that one branch of the Exclusive Brethren, now under the leadership of an Australian accountant called Bruce Hales, "went in a decisively sectarian direction" in the 1950s.

He says this branch, which includes the Preston Down Trust, has recently renamed itself the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, which the group says is its historical name.

There are other branches of the Exclusive Brethren in the UK, he says, that do not follow Hales and have not adopted the new name.

He says the Open Brethren congregations, of which there are about 1,000 in the UK, do not follow a central leader and do not practice the doctrine of separation followed by the Exclusive Brethren. This practice forbids followers to eat and drink with outsiders, watch television or listen to the radio, or live in semi-detached houses next to non-Brethren.

Summerton has also written to the PASC, which took evidence from Plymouth Brethren as part of its inquiry into the regulation of the voluntary sector and the implementation of the Charities Act 2006.

He told Third Sector that he expected the case before the tribunal to cause considerable difficulty and potential reputational damage to other types of Brethren.

"One of the concerns of this particular case before the tribunal is the risk to the charitable status of other types of Brethren," he said. "Another risk is the issue of harm."

A number of former members of the Hales-led Brethren have accused the organisation of substantial harm, including preventing members from talking to parents, children and siblings outside the organisation and sanctioning bullying and abuse. Summerton said he expected that allegations of harm would be made during the tribunal.

"We want to make it very clear that there are differences between other sorts of Brethren and this group," he said.

Before the Exclusive Brethren renamed themselves the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, he said, none of these terms had been in common usage.

"The most surprising thing is that they have used the term church," he said. "They would previously have used the term assembly, which is the literal translation of the word 'church'.

"They would also have been reluctant to call themselves Christian. And the term Plymouth Brethren is one that has always been used by outsiders, not one that any Brethren would commonly use."

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