A conservative Christian fellowship in England is appealing the U.K. Charity Commission’s decision to deny it charity status because it does not offer a “public benefit.”
The Charity Commission said the Preston Down Trust, a part of the Plymouth Brethren community, does not contribute to the community at large because of its separatist tendencies. The group’s exclusivity disqualifies it for the significant tax exemptions available to charities, the commission ruled.
Although churches once received charity status automatically, the Charities Act of 2006 removed the assumption that “advancement of religion” offered a public benefit to the community.
The Plymouth Brethren, also known as the Exclusive Brethren, started in the early 19th century in opposition to the Anglican church. The Brethren rejected ecclesiastical authority and focused on fellowship with other believers, meeting for communion, and preaching the gospel. The Brethren work in small businesses owned and operated by others in the fellowship. Children often attend schools run by the Brethren.
But the public often confuses the larger Brethren movement with a more radical sect, the Raven-Taylor-Hales Brethren, which bans TV, radio, and Internet; does not associate with anyone outside the community; and cuts ties with those who leave the group. Most other Plymouth Brethren do interact with the community.
"It's a feeling of puzzlement and great sorrow to us that we're having to go through this battle," Rod Buckley, a member of the Preston Down congregation, told The Guardian. "I don't quite understand it. We do a lot in the community and people that know us, know that."
According to the church’s website, the group helps with soup kitchens, supports soldiers, and provides disaster relief for floods and earthquakes. Brethren-owned businesses hire those outside the community, and the Sunday gatherings are open to everyone, with only the communion closed to non-members.
After hearing the testimony of Brethren elders, Charlies Elphicke, a member of parliament investigating the Charity Commission’s work, said the regulator was “committed to the suppression of religion.”
The case has caused an uproar, especially after the Druid Network—a loosely connected neo-pagan organization—gained charitable status in 2010. The Charity Commission said the group qualified while the Brethren did not because its events are not “exclusive” and it engages in inter-faith activities.
Stephanie Biden, a senior associate at charity law firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite worries that the case may cause concern for other religious charities. "It does potentially impact on other organizations, particularly where they restrict access to participation in religious services, meetings or activities, or where there's an emphasis on an enclosed community,” she told The Guardian.