The Plymouth Brethren discourage interaction between their followers and outsiders, and the church encompasses all aspects of social and professional life for its members. Critics say it has gone from being a Christian sect to full-blown cult.
Jill Aebi-Mytton, a counselling psychologist in London, England, recently did a large-scale study of the mental health of former PBCC members.
Aebi-Mytton was raised a Plymouth Brethren. Her parents left when she was 16, but not everyone got out. Her older brother stayed in. An aunt and uncle also stayed in. Curiously, the aunt and uncle were part of the group that relocated to Stonewall in 2003 to start a new Plymouth Brethren church. They came from Liverpool. They were at quite an advanced age to be called upon by their church to relocate, and died within a few years.
Aebi-Mytton doubts much change will come from the Charities Commission ruling in her country. She wanted the case to go to a public tribunal with personal testimonies. "We wanted the detriment and harm to be made public rather than kept private and concealed," she said. Instead, the commission only accepted written witness statements.
Even so, there was much to like in the ruling. "It is an extraordinary situation that (the Charities Commission) has to tell a church to show compassion. It’s quite unprecedented, really." But there are also questions about how much power the Charities Commission has to enforce its ruling, she said.
Her study found people who leave the Brethren or are withdrawn from are poorly equipped to make their way in the outside world,. Many suffer traumatic symptoms such as nightmares, intrusive thoughts, distressing memories and flashback. Sixty-four per cent of those she surveyed had sought professional help from psychologists or counsellors.
"It’s a massive trauma, leaving. It requires a lot of guts and resilience. The ones with the most resilience make it, and those with less don’t."
Among the 264 ex-members surveyed, more than half had children or parents still in the Brethren; 68 per cent had brothers or sisters in and 23 per cent had grandparents in.
Did they ever see them?
The survey found 64 per cent of respondents saw their family in the Brethren either never or less than once a year; 60 per cent said they want more contact but are refused; and nearly all of the rest, 35 per cent said, neither side wants contact.
Aebi-Mytton recalled her own family experience with the Brethren. Relations between her and her parents, and her brother, have been continuously estranged. He once called her "the epitome of evil." But she knows how much it pained her mother to lose her son and not be able to have contact with him.
"It’s like a living death. It’s like they’re dead to them but not dead," she said.
"Once someone dies, you can grieve. You get to point where you still feel sad but it’s OK. But when they’re still alive, you don’t reach that point. You can’t grieve them because they’re still alive. My mother used that term. ‘It’s like the living dead.’"
Note: The Plymouth Brethren Christian Church has, through their lawyers, raised concerns about portions of this article. As noted in the article, members of the Church declined to be interviewed by the Free Press. However, the Free Press has learned that a response to the article has been posted on the Church web site.
Updated on Saturday, May 10, 2014 at 8:57 PM CDT: Fixes typo.
May 12, 2014 at 11:34 PM: Correction: Superb Sprinkler Service is no longer owned by a member of the Plymouth Brethren.
August 18, 2014 at 3:47 PM: Note added.
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