Plymouth Brethren Christian Church
The Plymouth Brethren Christian Church is a protestant sect, often known as Exclusive Brethren or Raven–Taylor–Hales Brethren. These Brethren hold an uncompromising 'separatist' doctrine and their practice has steadily evolved differently from other Brethren groups and also from mainstream Christianity. Most media reporting of "Exclusive Brethren" relates only to the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church although other branches exist.
- 1 Brethren practices
- 2 Exclusive Brethren and the media
- 3 History
- 4 See also
- 5 References
- 6 Bibliography
- 7 External links
Brethren in the PBCC believe that what they call God's principle of unity is achieved by separating from and excluding that which they consider evil. As a result, open means of communication such as television, radio, and the internet are banned for members. The Brethren reserve all social activities for those with whom they celebrate the Lord's Supper, excluding even family who are not members of the sect. Such activities include eating, drinking and entertainment, as well as club and professional memberships, directorships, shares and health insurance. Eating in restaurants and staying at hotels are also avoided.
Services on Sunday start with the 'Lord's supper' at 6am and worship in small groups. At 9 the Bible Study meeting is held and other activities continue through the day. There are further meetings every night of the week. The addresses of Hales and senior Brethren men are recorded, transcribed by the Brethren publishing house in the UK and distributed to all members at a price of A$90 per six months; every family member must have their own copy and people are quizzed on their knowledge of these. Only members are allowed in to their worship meetings, despite the fact that in many jurisdictions they receive rate rebates which require them to be places of 'public worship'. Most 'gospel preaching' has been done on street corners, though they do not seek to make converts: they 'leave the word of God hanging in the air'.
The Brethren encourage a traditional marriage (usually around the age of 20) and family life. Children live at the family home until they marry and are required to marry within the fellowship. Physical contact between young men and women before marriage is not tolerated, and courting between couples is chaperoned. Once married, contraception is not considered acceptable and large families are the norm, with 5 children being common. Men are expected to provide for their families while the women manage the household. A study of the Australian Brethren in May 2006 suggested that the number of divorced, single people in the Brethren is approximately 0.8% compared to 10.8% for the general population, although there have been many separations without divorce. Women married to men outside the church are known as 'widows for the truth.
The aged and sick are usually cared for by other member families (possibly unrelated), although private (non-Brethren) nursing homes are sometimes utilised for the elderly. Few people not born into the Brethren become members, and relatively few of those born into the group leave. Former members say that life inside the Brethren is defined by the "three Fs": fear, family and finances. The strongest is family.
Women have to be strictly subservient to men, to sit behind the men in meetings and are only allowed to select hymns, not to pray out loud or teach. They have to wear a scarf or ribbon in their hair to signify that the man is head of the woman. In Brethren businesses they are not allowed to have any position where they direct men, so are limited to junior roles.
Brethren members drink alcohol freely at home, whisky being drink of choice, but being visibly drunk is frowned on and smoking and gambling are forbidden. Drinking is also common with children. The rate of alcoholism is unknown but probably high. Two of the leaders in the past (James Taylor Jnr and Jim Symington) had problems with alcoholism.
There are two main forms of discipline in the Brethren: 'shutting up' and 'withdrawing from'. Shutting up is a temporary measure where the offending member has no contact with the other members except for occasional visits from designated elders, when they are quizzed about their 'sin', told what they need to do to 'get right' and assessed whether they have repented sufficiently. The period can be humiliating long.
A person who is 'withdrawn from' is excommunicated, cut off from all family contact and regarded as a pariah. Both punishments are handed out by senior members of the assembly who may consult other brethren up to and including the 'Man of God'. They are given for sexual misdemeanours, and for speaking out against others or inappropriately in the assembly, but less often than in previous years.
For example, one of the witnesses of the 'Aberdeen incident' was withdrawn from for simply reporting the incident back to his home assembly in Brighton in a quite orderly way. After he left the room, his persecutor showed his loyalty to Jim Taylor but a serious lack of judgement by saying "if Mr Taylor wanted to take his wife Eunice to bed he would feel honoured". At this point half of the 700 people present left the room in protest and most never returned.
When Hales became the 'Man of God' he instituted a 'Review' in 2003 so that particularly people whose relatives had been put out during the harsh period under Symington could contact them and invite them to return. Although many assemblies overturned previous judgements, and many family reunions took place, it didn't change much in the long term as it simply reopened old scars, although some contacts were quietly maintained.
Leaving the fellowship
In the case where someone chooses to leave the Brethren or is excommunicated by the fellowship, their parents, siblings, spouse and even children 'withdraw' or disassociate themselves from them. This process allows for no social, domestic or church contact from church members, something which may not always be voluntary, especially in the case of children.
If one parent leaves, this is the same as a legal separation and they are never allowed to communicate with children who remain inside. This is a powerful disincentive particularly for women. The Brethren provide legal support to fight joint custody arrangements. One mother said to her daughter as she was leaving "I hope you are raped before you reach the end of the street so you know this is a place of safety".
In December 2006, the Australian newspaper Sydney Morning Herald described how Exclusive leader Bruce Hales instructed a 12-year-old girl to separate from her father. Hales reportedly told her, "Your mother will not be able to accept you if you continue contact with him" and "you cannot be a Christian if you leave the Brethren". The girl and her mother were moved 700 km away from her father with the assistance of the Brethren. The father lost all contact with the girl, despite having been awarded joint guardianship and weekly access by the Australian Family Court.
Typically Brethren either own their own business or work for a business run by another Brethren member. Their businesses include manufacturing, distribution and sales, including in the fields of clothing, architecture, rehabilitation aids and food and the import and resale of industrial hardware including welding equipment and consumables. Trade unions are not permitted and the Brethren have even successfully fought regulations which permit unions to visit workplaces to talk to employees.
Traditionally, Brethren companies have not been permitted to use computers, fax machines and mobile phones which Hales described in 2004 as 'tools of the devil' and 'instruments from hell'. However these regulations have been relaxed since it became obvious that some companies were resorting to creative tactics to avoid the ban. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that a letter from the Brethren leadership in July 2005 states that "no authority is given for individual businesses to purchase their own computer equipment." However, most Brethren businesses now have access to computers and email, leased from the Brethren company, National Office Assist. This is part of One Fund, a network of companies that allow offsetting of taxes to Brethren enterprises such as schools.
Brethren run private schools for their children between the ages of 11 and 17. Members are not allowed to attend university because of the campus environment. In 2005 David Bell, the Chief Inspector of Schools in England, praised the Brethren schools for their standard of teaching and said in his report that "the quality of teaching, most of which is done by experienced practitioners, is generally good." Because of the lack of tertiary education, the teachers are not Brethren, and are not allowed to be members of a union. However, their schools have also been criticised for not including the use of computers or other modern technology. Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the British National Secular Society, stated, "Denying children access to knowledge that would help them to cope in the modern world is tantamount to abuse." Brethren schools now have computer banks and students have restricted access to the internet.
As with many private schools in Australia, Brethren schools receive Australian Federal government funding. This included $313,000 of capital grants to Brethren schools during 2005–2006. The campus in the former Australian Prime Minister John Howard's electorate of Bennelong was granted $70,000. In 2007, the Victorian State Government provided $1.08 million in funding to the Glenvale Exclusive Brethren School, which has a dozen campuses in Victoria. This was a significant increase from $370,419 in 2002–03.
Exclusive Brethren and the media
The PBCC Brethren have been the subject of quite widespread controversy and adverse publicity, at various times since the mid-1960s. Other Exclusive Brethren are normally ignored by the media, but loathe the confusion caused by mistaken association with this group, and careless use of the broader term Exclusive Brethren.
Claims aired on the ABC Four Corners program accused the Exclusive Brethren of being a cult, breaking up families, and avoiding the issue of suicide among their members. Additionally, the Brethren have been accused of covering up the child abuse activities of a high ranking Australian member from 2003 to 2006 (and ignoring written warnings from as early as 1991).
In early 2007 the Brethren began interacting with the media and appointed an official media representative.
In general, brethren are apolitical since at their core they are a separatist movement. They will obey the laws of their country as long as they do not perceive them to contradict the Bible. They will meet secretly in countries that require religious groups to register with the government as this would be perceived as putting their church under worldly authority. In accordance with the dispensational teachings of John Nelson Darby, they view an apocalyptic future for humanity after the rapture of all Christians (Brethren and non-Brethren). Thus, they see no reason to be involved in politics because of the prophesied apocalyptic future that cannot be changed. There is a story among the exclusive brethren of a woman member who decided to vote every year and informed her husband of her candidate choices. In response, her husband voted for the exact opposite candidates to ensure the two votes cancelled each other out.
Unlike most exclusive brethren groups, the PBCC Brethren have been more involved in politics, though until recently their activity was limited to behind the scenes lobbying of politicians. On the basis of religious conviction they have since the 1940s asked for and obtained exemptions to trade union legislation (both membership and representation in brethren businesses), compulsory voting laws and lobbied on moral issues including abortion and homosexuality.
The Brethren made media headlines in 2005-6 with their political activities in both Australia and New Zealand, despite the fact that members are barred from voting in elections, even in countries which have compulsory voting. But lately Brethren members have been encouraged to work with elected officials "to express a moral viewpoint of legislation in relation to the rights of God". In recent times this has included political campaigning as detailed below.
In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Daniel Hales, brother of Bruce Hales (the current worldwide Brethren leader), explained how they could support political parties and not vote: "I see it as a sin and you don't. So I'm very happy for you to vote because to you it's your obligation to the community. But to me, it's my conscience that doesn't allow me to vote."
In the 2004 Australian federal election the Brethren were linked to political advertisements campaigning for the re-election of the Australian Prime Minister John Howard. The advertisements were funded by Willmac Enterprises Pty Ltd, a company wholly owned by Mark William Mackenzie who is a member of the Brethren. Willmac's contribution to John Howard's election campaign, of $370,000, was later investigated by the Australian Electoral Commission and is currently the source of an ongoing criminal investigation by the Australian Federal Police.
In March 2006, members of the Brethren placed press advertisements and distributed leaflets attacking the Australian Tasmanian Greens in the Tasmanian state election. In September 2006, Prime Minister John Howard confirmed that he met with the Brethren, stating he has no problem with the group and that they are "entitled to put their views to the Government". In December 2006, The Age reported that Brethren representatives met with the Australian Attorney-General Philip Ruddock lobbying for family law changes to "ensure that a child is not subject to a radical lifestyle change without compelling reason".
Then Prime Minister John Howard met with Brethren representatives in his parliamentary office on short notice early August 2007. The Brethren also approached the then Federal Opposition Leader, Kevin Rudd who refused to meet with them saying that he believes they are "an extremist cult and sect" that "breaks up families".
In 2005 the Brethren attempted to influence a gay-marriage parliamentary vote by waging an aggressive but anonymous campaign (identifying themselves only as CCP or Concerned Canadian Parents) using direct-mail and advertising with a full page ad in the Hill Times newspaper, a Parliament Hill weekly directed at Senators studying Bill C-38.
In 2000, as a result of their avowed lack of interest and lack of involvement in the political process, Brethren-owned businesses were granted an exemption from legal requirements under the Employment Relations Act 2000 to allow union representatives onto the premises to talk with employees. As a result of the lobbying and other campaigning, there have been threats from MP's to change the relationship between Brethren-owned businesses and labour unions.
In the 18 months leading up to the 2005 New Zealand General Election, a group of Brethren met with and lobbied many members of Parliament, particularly MPs of the centre-right National Party but also including the parliamentary leaders of the centre-right New Zealand First and United Future parties and the neo-liberal ACT party with no success. Late in the election campaign they spent approximately NZ$1.2 million producing and distributing to letter boxes at least eight pamphlets attacking the policies of both the socially liberal and centre-left Labour party and the Green party. Though not mentioning the National Party, the wording and colour of the pamphlets hinted at support for National. The leaflets appealed for the election of a "government that would prosper the country economically and govern in a morally upright way". The pamphlets caused some controversy and seven Brethren held a press conference in front of television cameras to explain themselves.
Deputy Leader of the Opposition Gerry Brownlee and Economic Development spokeswoman Katherine Rich expressed concerns about the Brethren's lack of political sophistication and loss of female voters for the New Zealand National Party at the 2005 general election. Some National MPs have declared that they will not accept help from the Brethren in the future.
In September 2006, Leader of the New Zealand Labour Party and Prime Minister, Helen Clark alleged that the Brethren had been involved in spreading "baseless rumour, slander and lies" after accusations that her husband, Peter Davis, might be homosexual appeared in the Sunday Star Times newspaper. She also alleged that the Brethren had hired a private investigator to follow Davis to dig up dirt. It was later confirmed that private investigators had been hired by members of the group to investigate Labour MPs.
In October 2006, Prime Minister Clark mentioned the Exclusive Brethren in "mirth" during her opening speech at the Labour Party's annual conference. She also said that it was time to move on. Deputy Leader and Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen further attacked the group in his closing comments to the conference.
In November 2006 Nicky Hager published the book The Hollow Men alleging, amongst other issues, the involvement of the Brethren with the National Party. This was seen as one of the reasons for the resignation of party leader Don Brash, though that was denied strongly by Brash.
In April 2007 senior members of the Brethren considered setting up a group that would be politically active.
The outing of the Brethren's activities were a major catalyst for the drafting of the Electoral Finance Bill.
The Swedish tabloid newspaper Aftonbladet alleged that the Brethren funded an advertising campaign supporting the centre-right Alliance for Sweden in the Swedish 2006 elections. The advertisements and fliers were distributed by 'Nordas Sverige', an agency set up by Swedish business-owners who, whilst members of the Brethren, acted on their own initiative. Aftonbladet traced it to a company named 'Nordas Ltd' operating from Liverpool, UK, run by business-owners, also members of the Brethren.
In 2004 the Exclusive Brethren held prayer meetings and took out newspaper ads supporting the re-election of George W. Bush as President of the United States. A committee, called the Thanksgiving 2004 Committee, formed by Brethren in Florida raised $530,000 for the ads supporting the re-election of Bush and of United States Senator Mel Martinez of Florida. $377,262 of this amount came from a single donor, Bruce K Hazell of London, England. The committee raised none of the money in Florida, according to a report filed with the Federal Elections Commission. A White House spokesman later described the group as "shadowy".
The Brethren have for a long time used defamation lawsuits to silence their critics. In 1984, the Dutch Open Brethren theologian Willem J Ouweneel prepared to publish a German translation of his book about the history of the whole Brethren movement in which he discussed the Aberdeen incident. The Exclusives brought a suit on the basis that they 'felt offended'. The case was heard, and settled out of court, but he never published the German version, though he claims he had simply told the truth. In 1992, they brought a $3.2m case against New Zealand MP Nick Smith for his determined questioning of their behaviour in a family custody case. The case ended without a payment and the Brethren later apologized for the action.
With the arrival of the internet, these incidents could no longer be hushed up. In 1997, an ex-member, Dick Wyman, opened a simple guest book site which allowed former members to get in contact with each other and eventually became www.exclusivebrethren.net. In 2004, the Brethren filed a defamation suit against Wyman in the Minnesota district court. Faced with the prospect of massive legal costs, Wyman decided to settle, taking down the site and promising never to start another or pass on the information, whilst the Brethren paid him some compensation. A similar site withdrawnfrom.com lasted only months when it was added to the Wyman case.
A new site peebs.net was started up by a database specialist Tim Twinam, who lived in a log cabin in Vermont and took advantage of the possibility of anonymous ownership of websites in California. This grew to be the largest ex-Brethren site with 597 members vetted for genuineness. It had several levels of security allowing for greater privacy, an emergency button for those considering leaving or committing suicide with a worldwide panel of volunteers who could be contacted, and provided a clearinghouse for news about the Brethren. In 2005, Brethren's publishing house, the Bible and Gospel Trust, started 'fishing expeditions' to flush out who was responsible by threatening lawsuits against likely candidates. Eventually they found out and launched a copyright violation suit against Twinam in Vermont in 2007 over obscure documents that were allegedly published on the site, claiming $500,000 damages. After trying to fend it off on his own, Twinam had to employ legal help, pointing out that this was a classic SLAPP tactic. A settlement was reached in 2009 which allowed the site to continue  but the Brethren continued to pursue him and in early 2013 the site descended into a permanent maintenance mode, possibly connected with a serious illness that Twinam was suffering. At least one other website has appeared to replace it.
A number of documentaries have been made about the Exclusive Brethren. These include Anno Domini – Doctrine that Divides – A BBC television programme (no. LRP1383E) first broadcast 26 September 1976 and Inside New Zealand: Leaving the Exclusive Brethren aired in New Zealand on TV3 Thursday, 18 August 2005.
The Inside New Zealand: Leaving the Exclusive Brethren documentary followed the experiences of five people who had left the Brethren. Shortly after its airing, Michael Powell submitted a complaint to the television station (TV3) stating that "the programme had breached the privacy of members of the Brethren, and was unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair." Upon review of the issues, the New Zealand 'Broadcasting Standards Authority' rejected the complaint on 22 February 2006.
The Plymouth Brethren were distinguished from the beginning by a refusal to accept ministers or priests, believing that all members were saints, although in practice, John Nelson Darby became increasingly dominant in the exclusive branch of the movement during his lifetime. It was not until James Taylor Senior became undisputed leader of the Raven faction in 1910 that a stricter hierarchy emerged by which discipline was imposed and the centre of power moved to New York where Taylor lived. He established a norm that someone in leadership should be in their own business, not an employee (although Raven had been a civil servant) and began to speak of certain brothers as 'Levites' or 'the Lord's servants' who were especially able to interpret biblical truths.
When James Taylor Senior died in 1953, there were two candidates for the leadership: Taylor's youngest son, James Taylor Jr (1899–1970) and Gerald R Cowell(1898–1963) of Hornchurch, Essex, UK who struggled for six years for supremacy.
At the Central Hall conference in 1959, a decisive confrontation took place between Gerald Cowell and James Taylor Jr. The latter proposed that more radical, immediate separation from 'the world' was necessary while the former took a more moderate line. James Taylor Jr won and excommunicated Mr Cowell less than a year after the Conference, judging him 'unfit for Christian fellowship'. James Taylor Jr then went on to introduce a raft of new directives including a ban on any member eating or drinking with anyone outside their immediate circle of assembly fellowship, including family members.
During the next ten years, 'Mr Jim' delivered hundreds of new edicts, demanding strict obedience on how people dressed, how they conducted their business, and banning beards and young people from attending university.
A considerable number of individuals and assemblies left the Exclusives during the ministries of James Taylor Sr and James Taylor Jr, chiefly as a reaction to the increasingly restrictive directives of the latter. Some of these leavers joined with other groups of Brethren (including others who left after 1970) or other local churches.
Aberdeen incident of 1970
In 1970 James Taylor Jr, exhibited increasingly erratic behaviour which came to a head in meetings at Aberdeen in Scotland on 25 July, where he was drunk on whisky and used strong language, including calling other members "bums", "bastards", and the like. At the weekend, James Taylor Jr was found in his bedroom with a married woman, both of them nearly naked. His host published a long letter of protest which was sent to the New York assembly. James Taylor Jr immediately rejected both accusations as lies and the incident definitively divided the Brethren membership worldwide. Very few based near the scene of the events stayed in fellowship with James Taylor Jr−including just two families in Aberdeen and 200 out of 3,000 in Scotland. Others, especially those overseas, believed Taylor's supporters' line that he was a pure man and that this incident was used by God to expose his enemies. James Taylor Jr died shortly afterwards the same year. 'The Taylor Brethren interpretation of events is rooted in the conviction that God had a vessel whom he would not allow to fail; Taylor spoke and acted as he did to bring out what was in others by provoking reaction, being willing to draw reproach on himself to do so.'
Following this incident, those who separated from James Taylor Jr continue to hold the doctrine and teaching of Taylor(Sr) but "rolled back" the directives that had been introduced during James Taylor Jr's leadership. This fellowship further fragmented in 1972, and the party which broke away has since further sub-divided.
Developments since 1970
After Taylor Jr's death there were four contenders for leadership: James H Symington was a pig farmer in Neche, North Dakota, George Maynard, a doctor in Barbados, Taylor's youngest son, James Taylor III and two brothers from Australia, John S. and W. Bruce Hales. The Hales brothers had become pre-eminent in Australia with their "System" which proclaimed that "inefficiency equals unholiness" but had been "withdrawn from" by Jim Taylor for bringing commerce to the meeting. "Symington, declaring that there was an unbroken line of succession in the Recovery and that the seat of Paul was never vacant, reached out and grasped the prize." He promptly excommunicated most of his rivals, including those who supported Taylor Jr at Aberdeen and became known as the "Paul of our day". Regulations became more extreme, including the banning of faxes and computers, and meetings were full of sordid accusations and admissions of sins which the members had to confess. Symington also centralized control of all the trusts which held the property portfolio of meeting places around the world.
Symington, who was also an alcoholic, died in 1987 and shortly after, the leadership passed to Australian businessman John S Hales, who by this time had been expelled three times, but was able to produce a full statement of 'facts' from the Australians giving him full spiritual health. Hales had been trained as an accountant and encouraged the faithful to make substantial donations to the sect out of their estates when they died. He used some of this to establish Brethren-only high schools around the world, starting with one in the Sydney suburb of Meadowbank. In 2002, John S Hales died, and his son Bruce David Hales, another Australian businessman, succeeded to the leadership. For the second time in exclusive history the position of universal leader was transferred to a son from his father.
The following year, Bruce Hales introduced 'the Review': he published a worldwide instruction to people whose relatives had been put out during previous administrations to invite their loved ones back into the fold. Not surprisingly, it didn't bring large numbers back. "For many of those approached and apologized to, the process simply reopened new scars. Most of those invited to return were reluctant to subject themselves again to the strictures of Brethrenism."
In 2004, Hales reversed a long standing Brethren tradition on political involvement and encouraged the church to support conservative political causes: in the USA, large donations were given to the George W. Bush campaign, in Australia support was given to John Howard, and in New Zealand to the National Party. Internal rules are being relaxed, the dress code is breaking down and access to technology is widely allowed. Hales travels the world in a chartered Cessna Citation executive jet at a cost of up to $5,000/hour.
Under Bruce Hales's leadership, meetings continue to take place once a day from Monday to Saturday, and four or five times on Sunday. Sunday meetings include the Lord's Supper (Holy Communion at 6am Sunday), a scripture reading/discussion meeting, and several preachings. The church encourages participation at meetings by all adult males ('brothers'); women ('sisters') may only choose and announce ('give out') hymns, and apart from joining with group singing, are otherwise silent in church meetings as required by the Brethren's interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14:34.
In 2012, the Preston Downs Trust (a Plymouth meeting room in England) attracted considerable media attention when the Charity Commission rejected an application for charitable status on the grounds that it could not be sure that it met the criterion for public benefit. In January 2014, they announced that, following legally binding changes to its trust documents, they would accept its application.
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- Bachelard, Michael (2008). Behind the Exclusive Brethren. Melbourne: Scribe. excerpt on Amazon
- Nicky Hager: The Hollow Men: A Study in the Politics of Deception: Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing: 2006: ISBN 1-877333-62-X
- Roger Shuff: Searching for the True Church: Brethren and Evangelicals in Mid-Twentieth-Century England: Paternoster Press: 2005: ISBN 1-84227-254-3
- Ngaire Thomas: Behind Closed Doors: Random House New Zealand Ltd: 2005: ISBN 978-1-86941-730-7
- Plymouth Brethren - The Exclusive Brethren Church – official web site.
- The Exclusive Brethren – BBC fact sheet from Religion & Ethics – Christianity category.
- Further information Four Corners Background information on Exclusive Brethren.
- My Brethren – History and Ministry of the early 'Exclusive Brethren'
- Wikipeebia - A support network run by ex-Exclusives
- Cult Help and Information