The Preston Down Trust, part of the Devon-based Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, has had its application for charitable status accepted after agreeing to make changes to its governing document.
The approval by the Charity Commission marks the end of a long process of debate, appeal and evolution at the Plymouth Brethren.
The Charity Commission's initial refusal in 2012 led to an appeal
which had to be temporarily halted because of legal fee issues, before
eventually resulting in a decision in favour of the Church on Thursday.
The controversy rested on whether the trust's religious activities
could be described as "advancement of religion for public benefit", part
of the criteria for the Charity Commission's acceptance of religious
In official documentation on the subject, the Charity Commission
states that in order for a religious organisation to be recognised as
charitable, they have to demonstrate that their aims are for the public
"It would not be sufficient for any such organisation to show that it
is established solely for the benefit of the followers or adherents of
the religion," the guidance states.
In its decision document on the Plymouth Brethren, the Charity
Commission outlined concerns about "the doctrine of separation from
evil, which… resulted in (i) both a moral and physical separation from
the wider community and (ii) limited interaction between the Brethren
and the wider public".
This doctrine resulted in policies such as limiting the attendance of
church services to those who were already considered members and
forbidding members to socialise in any way with non-members.
The commission said it had received evidence relating to allegations
of "detriment, harm or disbenefit" following its 2012 decision to refuse
charitable status to the Plymouth Brethren.
Disciplinary procedures against members were found to include the
controversial practice of "shutting up", where members of the
congregation are not permitted to speak to a particular individual.
The possibility that this practice was inflicted upon children was investigated in early 2013 by Parliamentarians.
This practice had previously resulted in the physical separation of
family members to such an extent that non-Brethren family members were
not permitted to attend their Brethren relatives' funerals.
The decision document also claims of legal action against former
members, and members who left the Church being "ostracised and
consequently treated differently from other members of the public".
Dialogue between the Preston Down Trust and the Charity Commission
resulted to changes to the trust's governing document and the Commission
being satisfied that it met the requirements for charitable status.
It is uncommon for the Charity Commission to take such an approach, a
fact that was remarked upon by Tory peer Baroness Berridge, who was
involved in gathering evidence in relation to the Church.
"The grave concerns of the Charity Commission should not be
underestimated as they have required the EB (Exclusive Brethren) to
agree to a 'faith in practice' document and it is remarkable for them to
require a religious group to, in effect, alter its practice and
doctrine to qualify for charitable status," she said.
She also echoed concerns about the Plymouth Brethren's practices, saying: "This religion is not one I recognise as Christian."
The Plymouth Brethren welcomed the outcome in a statement that read:
"This decision is a great relief to us and we are hugely encouraged and
comforted, that after a thorough explanation of our Christian beliefs
and practices, which are based on the infallible and eternal Word of
God as set out in Holy Scripture, the Charity Commission has agreed
that the doctrines and practices of our Church advance religion for the
The decision to grant charitable status could still be appealed and
the Charity Commission will be reviewing the status in a year's time.
Baroness Berridge added: "I recognise that those harmed by their
experience of the EB may be disappointed by today's decision and may
have relevant standing to appeal the decision."
Explaining its decision to grant charitable status, the Charity
Commission said the trust had "demonstrated a willingness to make amends
and to do what it could as a Christian organisation to ensure, as far
as it was consistent with its religious beliefs, it would act with
Christian compassion in the future".
Changes include ensuring worship services are open to all members of
the public and making it public what the accepted dress code is to those
who wish to attend.
In a section of the new governing documents entitled "Compassion",
the trust sets out how that pastoral care should be provided "including
but not limited to where fault occurs".
"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," it says.
"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 new governing document also states that "reasonable steps" should
be taken to allow the continuation of family relationships when a
family member leaves community, including providing access to family
members, especially children.
The Plymouth Brethren Christian Church welcomed the Charity
Commission's decision in a statement, despite noting that it did not
agree with all aspects of its opinion.
Spokesperson for the Plymouth Brethren, Gerry Devenish, refused to be
drawn on the specifics of what they disagreed with but told Christian
Today that their core values "as a mainstream Christian church remain
He said the Charity Commission's opinion document "speaks for itself"
and was positive about the new governing document making the Church
William Shawcross, chair of the Charity Commission, was quoted on
ThirdSector.co.uk as saying: "I am pleased that the PDT has agreed to
adopt a new governing document and am confident that the organisation
now qualifies for charitable status.
"This was a complex and sensitive case, which involved strong views
and feelings on both sides of the argument. I am grateful to all those
who shared information with us, and for their patience in awaiting
"I hope 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 Plymouth Brethren