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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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How could a people who claim to worship a loving Christian God be so cold?

I emailed that question to my contact with the Brethren in Stonewall, Dave Henry. I also asked him to respond to allegations from ex-members that the Brethren split up families. I also asked him whether my questions to him were being viewed or screened by anyone before he answered them.

Finally, I asked if there have been any recent changes in Brethren doctrine, such as the 2005 decision to allow limited use of computers.

It took him five days to reply.

He chose to interpret my question about the breakup of families to mean the breakup of marriages, which he pointed out is "well below societal norms" among Brethren. This is true, but he failed to mention the apocalyptic consequences of divorce; that one of the parties, usually the husband, is withdrawn from and loses everything including his job, and will have to fight in court just to see his children, who are being actively turned against him.

As to how Brethren could be so cold to family members who are withdrawn from, he turned around the question. "Anyone is free to leave the Brethren," he said. "This is always a matter of regret and obviously, they would no longer be free to participate in church activities."

The one question he refused to answer is whether my questions had been viewed or screened by anyone.

Finally, as to whether there have been recent changes to the PBCC, he said: "The Brethren are a vibrant progressive group who seek to find their way through this rapidly changing world whilst staying true to their core values and scriptural principles."

This was perhaps the most insightful answer of all.

To really find out what is happening with the PBCC I had to telephone London, England to speak with Eileen Barker, professor emeritus of sociology of religion at the London School of Economics.

Barker came into contact with Plymouth Brethren about a decade ago through an organization she started called INFORM (Information Network Focus on Religious Movements), a charitable organization that provides information on religious groups. The Brethren approached her about doing a study for them. She declined, but she was interested in meeting them and staying in contact.

"I went to their houses, they came to my house fairly frequently, I went to some of their services, and I got to know some of them fairly well," she said. "When I go to their houses, they’ve given me a very nice plate of food in another room (separate from the Brethren). They don’t eat in my house but recently they did have a cup of coffee, which they didn’t do five or six years ago."

"They’re delightful people to talk to when you just sort of meet them or go into their homes. There’s nothing strange or weird about them. They’re polite, they play games, they drink. One family I’ve been to quite a lot, the children are very musical."

She also found out "they’re pretty rich." Few people live alone, perhaps only widows. "Old people move either into a part of the house, a granny quarter, or in a small house nearby, perhaps in the garden," she said.

"If you obey the rules and show up to church and do everything, you’re all pretty well protected as for as your material needs."

Barker points out there have been positive changes in the Brethren. About a decade ago, there was something called a "review," where Brethren visited former members to apologize for past treatment and urge them to return to the church. The review, decreed by their Man of God, was an acknowledgement that the Brethern may have been too severe in the past.

"They had a period where they were very, very exclusive and they’ve apologized for that to many people," Barker said.

As the legal battle played out, it became clear that not only could the U.K. Charities Commission find no public good performed by the Plymouth Brethren, it found plenty of bad.

For Danylchuk in Winnipeg, this led to her first contact with her mother and siblings in the Brethren in 25 years. All they could do was talk on the phone; her family had been relocated to Montreal to shore up the congregation there.

"It really isn’t much of a relationship other than that," she said, but she still appreciates it.

Admiraal also received an apology but then never heard from the Brethren again. Like most ex-Brethren, Admiraal felt the review was little more than a feeble one-off.

As for university, Brethren leadership still doesn’t support it.

"I suspect it’s more because they fear they might lose people," said Barker. But the leadership is permitting some tertiary education in such things as accounting, which can benefit their small businesses.

Brethren are becoming adept at working with computers, Barker said. When she mentioned she couldn’t get her printer working, they showed up the next day and fixed it for her.

"It’s possible for them to change, and they have changed," Barker said.

Some of the change is coming because of external pressures, however. The biggest influence in recent years has been a legal battle in the United Kingdom.

The fight erupted when the Charity Commission for England and Wales wanted to take away the charity tax exemption enjoyed by the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church.

The job of the commission is to make sure any group that receives tax exemptions due to its charity status is actually doing work for the public good.

The commission could find no public good that the PBCC performed to obtain its charity tax exemption. In fact, any funding raised by Plymouth Brethren went to the church itself to be spent on things like building private schools.

"We were told not to give to charities," said one former member in Manitoba.

The Brethren fought back with some of the best lawyers in the U.K. The charity tax break is a massive source of income for the Brethren. If it were overturned, they would have to start paying tax on tens of millions of dollars worth of properties in England and Wales. Donations to its church and schools would no longer be exempted from taxes.

The legal fight lasted two years. As the battle played out, it became clear that not only could the Charities Commission find no public good performed by the Plymouth Brethren, it found plenty of bad. It chastised the church for "elements of detriment and harm which emanated from the doctrine and practices of the PBCC and which had a negative impact on the wider community as well as individuals so as to present a real danger of outweighing public benefit."

It also scolded the PBCC for its disciplinary practices and the impact they have on people who leave.

However, the commission also noted the PBCC indicated a willingness to make changes. When the commission came down with its ruling at the start of 2014, it agreed to extend charitable status for a trial period on certain conditions. In other words, the commission put the PBCC into a version of a "shutting up" phase.

The major condition is that the PBCC must show greater compassion. "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."

Another clause states that PBCC must provide to people who seek to leave its community "reasonable assistance… in terms of support and/or financial assistance."

Perhaps the clincher is this provision: "Reasonable steps should also be taken in these cases to allow the continuation of family relationships where a family member has left the community, including providing access to family members, in particular children."

The ruling left the PBCC with a choice: doctrine or tax exemptions. It is believed to be modifying its doctrine to keep the tax exemptions, but proof will be in the pudding.

"From my perspective, I thought it rather good, because it’s encouraging them to move in a direction I approve of, encouraging them to be more open," said Barker. The Canada Revenue Agency has announced it is also reviewing the tax exemption status of Canadian charities, including religious groups. However, critics maintain the Harper government is just using the review as a witch hunt of NGOs that have been critical of the Conservative government.

The CRA recently threatened to pull its charity tax exemption from the Canadian Mennonite magazine. The CRA maintained an article about Mennonite youth urging the federal government to spend less money on war, engaged in "partisan political activities."


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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