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The closed-door church

Inside the secretive and strict Plymouth Brethren sect in Manitoba

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.

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Belonging to Plymouth Brethren is most restrictive for women. They cannot wear makeup or jewelry or dye — or even cut — their hair. Women are not allowed to occupy any position in authority over a man. Their work is mostly secretarial in various Brethren businesses, and only lasts until marriage. Women marry early, and then don’t work outside the home, although exceptions are made for a husband’s business. They typically have large families. Contraceptives are prohibited.

In church services, women sit at the back with the children while the men sit in the centre. The Brethren church in Stonewall is bowl-shaped inside, with the men at the centre, starting with the most important men, usually business leaders. Women and children are seated in the outside rows. Women’s only role is to hand out hymn sheets. They are not allowed to speak.

Smoking is not permitted, but alcohol is. Former members say alcohol is a problem for Brethren and tell stories of abuse. For example, former Man of God Jim Symington was known to imbibe. Symington was a hog farmer from Neche, N.D., before he served as leader of the Plymouth Brethren from 1970-87. A former Brethren member (who will be formally introduced later) tells of seeing Symington so drunk one time, two men had to help him walk into church.

Taylor Jr. had a problem with alcohol. He was caught in bed with a married woman half his age in Aberdeen, Scotland, as detailed in Behind the Exclusive Brethren (2008), an extraordinary book by Australian journalist, Michael Bachelard. The Brethren responded with an incredible defence, saying Taylor allowed himself to be discovered in bed with someone else’s wife to trap his opponents into denouncing him.

Meantime, current Man of God Bruce D. Hales lives in a $5-million mansion, owns a private jet, and Forbes magazine lists him as the fourth-richest man in Australia.

Manitoba’s has about 450 Plymouth Brethren members, about one per cent of the Brethren worldwide, but when Symington was Man of God, there was steady traffic through Winnipeg of Brethren delegations going to meet Symington in North Dakota. Because Brethren can’t stay in hotels, delegates were billeted by PBCC families in Winnipeg and Woodlands, making Manitoba the centre of the world for Plymouth Brethren.

While Brethren do help out with community events, such as assisting annual community clean-ups in Stonewall and Woodlands, they must do so separately. They will join walks for cancer but must be left to themselves.

Those are just some of the rules. Before his death in 1970, Taylor Jr. had issued a total of 390 directives.

History

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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