We have posted previously on the dispute between the Preston Down Trust and the Charity Commission for England and Wales over the Commission’s decision to withdraw recognition from the Preston Down and Horsforth Gospel Hall Trusts of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church (“PBCC”: otherwise known as the “Exclusive Brethren” and not to be confused with the Open Brethren). Two linked appeals against the Commission’s decision to the First-tier Tribunal (Charity) – CA/2012/0003 in the name of Besley & Ors and CA/2012/0003(b) in the name of Armstrong & Ors – were set down for hearing from 22–28 March 2013 but were stayed until 6 January 2014, pending negotiations between the representatives of the Trust and the Commission.
The Commission has now announced that the appeals have been withdrawn and that it will accept an application for registration from the Preston Down Trust of the PBCC. The Trust has agreed to resubmit an application for registration based on a revised governing document and to amend its trusts by entering into a Deed of Variation which will set out, in a manner binding on the trustees, the Church’s core religious doctrines and practices.
In its summary decision published on 9 January the Charity Commission found evidence that:
“12 … the PBCC has a beneficial impact through its instruction and edification of the public in a Christian way of life by:
- providing the public with access to worship. The public have an opportunity to attend and to participate to some extent in services. The requirement to be a well disposed person and adhere to their dress code does not prohibit public attendance and is common to some other religions;
- engaging in street preaching, which involves distribution of religious publications and spreading the word of God; and
- engaging to a certain extent in the wider community, including through disaster relief work, encouragement of charitable giving and living out Christian beliefs in the community”.
On the other hand,
“14. Evidence relating to allegations of detriment, harm or disbenefit was presented to the Commission following its decision in June 2012 and considered by it in the context of assessing public benefit. The allegations related to:
- The nature of the doctrine and practices of the PBCC generally
- The nature and impact of its disciplinary practices
- The impact of the doctrine and practices on those who leave the PBCC
- The impact of the doctrine and practices on children within the PBCC.
Further detail is contained within the decision document”.
The Commission concluded inter alia that, on balance,
“15. … there were elements of detriment and harm which emanated from the doctrine and practices of the PBCC and which had a negative impact on the wider community as well as individuals so as to present a real danger of outweighing public benefit. In particular, the nature and impact of the disciplinary practices and the impact of the doctrine and practices on those who leave and on children within the PBCC may have consequences for society.
16. The PBCC acknowledged past mistakes, demonstrated a willingness to make amends and proposed to address these issues by amending its trust deed, clearly setting out its doctrine and practices, including highlighting the concept of showing compassion to others. The Commission was satisfied that the doctrine and practices are integral to the trusts; these demonstrate charitable intent and are binding on the trustees when administering the meeting hall. The Commission was further satisfied that it is able to regulate against these trusts”.
The Church’s statement on “Faith in Practice”
The full decision (for which thanks to Brother Rev and Will Garnier) includes in a Schedule the PBCC’s draft statement on “Faith in Practice”. The draft expressed the PBCC’s position on its most controversial practice – separation from the world – as follows:
1) The principle of separation … involves drawing away from the world in a moral sense, rather than in a physical sense. It represents a commitment to those with whom we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and involves choosing to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and to eat and drink together in social fellowship only with those persons. Eating and drinking in social fellowship with other persons who share our faith represents a bond of Christian fellowship with them (1 Cor 10.18-31). As a consequence, the Lord’s Supper is the centre of our lives and it promotes a foundation for the bond of Christian fellowship and our commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:3, 7, Eph 5:11).
2) Within the parameters set out above, the principle of separation permits inter-personal communication and social interaction with non-Brethren (including former Brethren) and service to them – because we seek to do good to all in the world, as opportunities arise. (2 Cor 9:6-8, Gal 6:10).
3) Those in fellowship must ultimately exercise their own judgment in the practice of separation both from those (family, friends, colleagues) they leave when joining the Brethren community, and from those (family, friends, colleagues) who choose to leave the Brethren community. They exercise this judgment based upon their understanding and appreciation of Holy Scripture, the guidance provided in Ministry (now including this statement of doctrinal principle), and the exemplary practice of fellow members of the community.
4) The nature, and extent, of inter-personal communication and social interaction between those within and outside the community – including former Brethren – is therefore based upon a continuous and personal assessment by each member of the community of whether such communication is consistent with Holy Scripture and his or her committal to the bond of the Lord’s Supper. The principle of separation permits inter-personal communication and social interaction between those within and those outside the community – including with former Brethren – (except for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and eating and drinking in social fellowship which … is confined to members of the community), and indeed this is necessary and desirable in all sorts of contexts.
5) An example of the practical consequence of the principle of separation is that we abstain from media used for the delivery of the entertainments of the world (such as television, radio and other electronic technology and the internet) but this does not extend to education and business activities where the use of electronic technology and the internet are accepted for the purpose of modern communication.
6) Our adherence to these principles should never stop us offering to the wider public (including former Brethren) the opportunity to attend and benefit from our system of Christian worship … or to learn from us the benefits of a Christian life. Nor should these principles ever result in us acting other than in accordance with the law, or at any time in a manner that lacks compassion, care, or fails to pay due regard to the needs or vulnerabilities of others. A person who acts otherwise is not acting in accordance with our doctrine or beliefs…”.
To describe the PBCC’s acknowledgment of its past mistakes as “interesting” would be an understatement. It remains to be seen, however, what immediate effect the Commission’s decision will have on the PBCC’s “doctrine and practices” in relation to “those who leave the PBCC”. William Shawcross, Chairman of the Commission, was quoted as saying that he hoped 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 PBCC”. So does the extract on “Separation” quoted above mean that the PBCC might now end its discipline of not eating or drinking with those who are not members of the Church, on the grounds that those practices have been part of its “past mistakes”?
It will also be interesting to see what degree of revision of the PBBC’s practices the Commission will require before accepting a revised governing document. But, in any case, the Commission will monitor the Preston Down Trust’s future compliance and assess any serious individual concerns or complaints about the Trust, in line with its risk framework and usual practice. A spokeswoman for the Commission said that a review would take place “around a year after the trust is registered” – a process expected to be complete in the next couple of months. The review would not look at whether the decision to register the Preston Down Trust had been correct, but only at whether or not the Brethren were complying with the new deed.