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23 August 2023

Escaping Eden

For those who leave the Exclusive Brethren sect, separation comes at great personal cost.

By Pippa Bailey

Abi Thompson has two birthdays. The day she was born in 1996, and the day she left the Exclusive Brethren, on 20 September 2022. The latter she describes as the “rebirth of the actual me”.

Thompson’s story is unusual: unlike most members, she wasn’t born into the Brethren (officially, the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, or PBCC). Her mother left the sect in the mid-Nineties, married and had two children, before returning, taking her family with her. Thompson, then six, could no longer see her friends; contact with her paternal grandparents was limited to a few meetings a year.

Thompson had a difficult childhood. Problems at home meant she was often sent to live with relatives or other Brethren families. She found she didn’t fit in with the Brethren children, who viewed her as an outsider, nor with the children at her mainstream primary school in Taunton, Somerset: “I was bullied by the non-Brethren for being different,” Thompson, now 26, told me over Zoom. “But I was bullied by the Brethren even more severely, because I was an alien to them.”

As she grew older, she suppressed any doubts about the Brethren way of life. “You were taught not to trust your mind. They’d relate it to the scripture that talks about the renewing of your mind: you need to have a new mind and become a new person, and the old thoughts should go away. My thought processes were interrupted.”

[See also: Obedience, disobedience and the demands of the Catholic Church]

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In 2017, still “fully engrossed in the system”, Thompson married happily and had a child. For five years, she and her husband tried to observe the Brethren way of life, despite struggling with the social expectations and tensions over their shared business (Thompson said the couple were considered “independent thinkers”). In a final bid for guidance and support, Thompson wrote to the Brethren’s leader, 70-year-old Bruce Hales, who is based in Sydney, Australia, but never heard back. When the couple finally left last year, their isolation was complete: Thompson, already estranged from her family, was cut off from her friends; her husband’s family no longer speak to them. “We were led to believe that everything had changed, and that if we left we wouldn’t lose anyone,” Thompson said. “But it’s just as it’s always been.”

To some, life in the Brethren might seem a conservative idyll. The family unit and the raising of children are central. The divorce rate is negligible, and children live at home until they are married. Homosexuality is not permitted, nor is abortion (as is the case in many Christian denominations); most members use natural methods of contraception. Private education and healthcare are provided. The elderly are cared for at home; poverty is rare. It is unusual for women to work after marriage, and for men, well-paid employment is almost guaranteed in Brethren-run businesses. The Church provides financial assistance to young members to buy homes.

But governing all this is what the Brethren call the “doctrine of separation”. For nearly 200 years members have lived by a literal interpretation of Bible verses such as 2 Timothy 2.19 (“Let everyone who names the name of the Lord withdraw from iniquity”), dividing themselves from the perceived evil of the world. Outsiders are known as “worldlies”. At its most extreme, separation means that when a member leaves or is “withdrawn from” (excommunicated), those who remain will not eat, speak or live with them.

Family may be central, but a willingness to sever all earthly ties is a test of faith. It happened to Thompson’s family – and, many decades ago, to mine.

It started with a horse. In 1827 John Nelson Darby, an Irish barrister turned curate, was forced by a riding accident into confinement. Spending it in study and contemplation, the 27-year-old became convinced that the established Church had grown decadent; when his father died, he refused to attend his Church of Ireland funeral. Darby’s disdain went beyond organised religion: “Now God is leading some, a very few,” he wrote, “to see that all this business, politics, education, governments, science, inventions, railroads, telegraphs, social arrangements, charitable institutions, reforms, religion and all, are of the world-system.” Satan, he said, “is the god of this world, the prince of the power of the air, and manager of this stupendous system”.

Darby left the Church and began meeting with a few like-minded men in Dublin in 1828. There were no priests, no pulpits, no crosses; they would be guided only by a fervent reading of the scriptures. By 1845 a congregation of 1,200 members was established in Plymouth; by the century’s close, there were assemblies across Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the US and Jamaica. (Between 1862 and 1877 Darby made at least five mission trips to the US and Canada – a considerable feat by boat.)

In 1845 Darby returned to Plymouth after a period of travel to find the Brethren had introduced a system of elders, which he thought too close to a priesthood. In the first of many schisms, he split from them, taking 50 or 60 members. This group became known at the “Closed” or “Exclusive” Brethren for their more uncompromising theology, while the remainder became the “Open” Brethren. (I use the word Brethren throughout as a shorthand for the Darbyite branch.)

Darby was a prolific theological writer who produced his own translation of the Bible. He developed the influential eschatological concept of the “secret Rapture” – widespread in fundamentalist churches today – whereby true believers will be taken to Heaven, after which a period of tribulation on Earth will precede Judgement Day. He died in 1882, aged 81.

John Nelson Darby, photographed in Geneva in 1840

Nearly 200 years after its founding, the movement has grown into something perhaps not even Darby would recognise. Today, the sect has 50,000 members worldwide, with 16,000-17,000 in the UK. (“Sect” is a compromise of sorts: some ex-members prefer the term “cult”; the PBCC describes itself as a “mainstream” church. Officially, it rejects the label “Exclusive Brethren”, though it formed part of its name in the Companies House register as recently as 2020.) It is small compared to better-known Christian sects – Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses number in the millions – but under Bruce Hales, and his father before him, it has become an empire. In the UK, there are at least 1,000 Brethren-owned businesses, with a combined annual turnover of £5bn; companies linked to the group were awarded £2.2bn of government Covid contracts. Much of this wealth remains within the community, donated to Brethren-linked charities such as its independent schools network.

The Brethren don’t vote, but nor do they abstain from politics entirely: they have proved vociferous lobbyists when legislation has encroached on their way of life, on issues from annuities-linked pensions to compulsory Aids education in schools. In 2013 the late Labour MP Paul Flynn told the Commons that a Brethren campaign for charitable status was “the most egregious example of intensive, million-pound lobbying by hundreds of people that I have experienced in my 25 years in the House”. In Australia its members have campaigned for the centre-right former prime minister John Howard; in the US for the re-election of George W Bush; and in New Zealand in 2005 for Don Brash, the then leader of the conservative National Party.

[See also: Britain’s crisis of unbelief]

Despite the non-hierarchical ideals of its founders, the group has since its beginning been led by a single man, known variously as the “Man of God”, “Elect Vessel” or “Minister of the Lord in Recovery”. Darby was succeeded by Frederick Edward Raven, a secretary of the Royal Naval College and the grandfather of the Labour politician Tony Crosland. In 1910 the leadership moved to the US when the Irish-American James Taylor Senior took over; his son, James Taylor “JT” Junior, was recognised leader in 1960. Next came Jim Symington, a pig farmer from North Dakota, before the leadership shifted to Australia with John S Hales, and later, his youngest son, Bruce.

The process by which the leader is chosen is opaque and can take years: seven passed between the death of Raven and the ascension of James Taylor Senior, under whom the power of the Elect Vessel changed significantly. When the Man of God spoke at an assembly, he said, the Holy Spirit was present. His words represented “new light” – fresh revelation of equal weight to scripture. Leaders were no longer bound by Darby’s complex theological ideas.

The Brethren had long shunned entertainment including the theatre, radio, cinema, television and tabloid newspapers. But with the advent of “new light”, restrictions grew more numerous and esoteric. Membership of professional bodies was no longer allowed (unions were already outlawed), meaning doctors, pharmacists and lawyers had to give up practising. University attendance was banned. Men could not wear shorts (“the Lord takes no pleasure in the legs of a man”) or have facial hair. For a woman to cut her hair was an “affront to God”. Symington declared that there should be no sharing of walls or sewage lines with outsiders, necessitating that Brethren live in detached houses.

Today, while many of these restrictions are still in place, the rules are unwritten (the PBCC website says there are none), and the extent to which they are followed varies between communities, even families. Former members speak of an image-conscious, “keeping up with the Joneses” lifestyle. “My priority was to have an immaculately run household,” Abi Thompson told me. “Everything was perfect, everything in its place, because anyone could call round at any time.” For her, the isolation of early lockdown, before the PBCC established virtual services, was a taste of freedom.

But the edict that had the greatest impact was made at a meeting in Manchester in 1960, and remains in place today. Brethren were no longer to eat with non-Brethren, JT Jnr decreed, ending “mixed” marriages and dividing families. Men could not dine with “worldly” colleagues; children came home from school for lunch. These new rules drove many to leave, people JT Jnr referred to as “profitable losses”. Among them were my grandparents.

My maternal grandmother was born in 1935 to a Brethren family, as were her parents before her. Her grandfather was a friend of John Nelson Darby. At three weeks old, in 1959, my mother was baptised into the sect, though she has no memories of being “in”. Her father, my grandfather, left in the early 1960s, after refusing to give up his professional registration as an architect, or to stop eating with clients. Many in his family later also left, but my grandmother was less fortunate: when she left with her daughter three weeks later, she left behind her parents and five siblings. She saw her parents just once more, when she took my mother, aged 11, to meet them. Her parents and all but one of her siblings have since died.

In January I saw my grandmother’s wedding photographs for the first time. Though the guests must have included her siblings, I could not pick them out. They captivate me, these family members: the network of cousins and children I can never know; the kind of life my mother might have led. Last year I posted what little I knew about my grandparents’ families on a Facebook group of former Brethren – names, their dates and places of birth. Piecemeal details followed: towns where they had lived, children they’d had. Among those who responded was a cousin of my mother’s. One described my great-grandfather, who at 6ft 3in was the shortest of five boys, as “a lively, friendly brother”. I passed these crumbs to my mother, who received them with wonder and grief; my grandmother prefers not to think of the past.

The Facebook group has existed for 15 years, but recently the ex-Brethren community has become more vocal. Last year the Get a Life podcast launched, in which leavers from around the world share their stories. Many echo those of Abi Thompson, or of my grandmother: of husbands separated from wives, children from parents, brothers from sisters. At a 2006 meeting Hales described a loathing of the outside world as foundational to the Brethren: “We have to get a hatred, an utter hatred of the world. Unless you’ve come to a hatred of the world, you’re likely to be sucked in by it, and seduced by it.” A text called “Faith in Practice”, which the Brethren adopted in 2014 as a condition of retaining its charitable status in England and Wales, puts it less forcefully: separation “involves drawing away from the world in a moral sense, rather than a physical sense”. It also says that separation “permits interpersonal communication” and that “those in fellowship must ultimately exercise their own judgement”.

Before excommunication, a Brethren member may be “shut up” (more recently, the practice has also been called “shrinking” away from someone). They are not allowed to attend meetings or socialise with other members. Church elders visit the shut-up person – sometimes called “priestly visits”, or “priestlies” – to discuss the point of contention. One former member told me her sister, then 16, was shut up for watching Charles and Diana’s wedding on TV through a shop window. For Thompson and her husband, who had already stopped attending meetings, the experience was more virtual: “We were shut up the day before my birthday. I’d normally wake up to hundreds of happy birthday messages. Last year I got zero. We were withdrawn from in February, the day before my husband’s birthday.”

In the past, a shut-up member was required to live apart from their immediate family in their own home, and children of a shut-up parent might be sent to live elsewhere. In Andover, Hampshire, in 1974, Roger Panes, who had been shut up for several months after wrongfully shutting up another man, killed his wife and three children with an axe as they slept, before hanging himself.

A spokesperson for the PBCC told the NS that both excommunication and shutting up are now rare, and that, while someone facing a disciplinary process cannot attend church meetings, “in all other aspects they are free to go about their lives”. They added that “many families remain in touch with former members”.

[See also: My grandmother, the quiet radical]

Anne Hamilton was born into the Exclusive Brethren in November 1968 in Bangor, Northern Ireland. She had, she told me over Zoom from her home in Cheshire, a happy childhood. “But I had a fear in me from the first time I heard the words ‘the Rapture’.” She described lying in bed aged four, listening for signs of the world ending, the faithful being swept up to Heaven. Once, she returned from school to find her mother and grandmother weren’t home. “I thought that was it – the Rapture had come and I’d been left behind.”

She got married when she was 18, having met her 19-year-old husband “about six times, for an hour at a time. I didn’t love him. We were brought up in the same lifestyle, but there was nothing about us that connected.” When Hamilton left the Brethren 25 years later, the lovelessness of the marriage did not come as a surprise to her children. “They could see all that. What was the biggest shock, and what I have covered [up] all my life, was the whole living a lie. I was a good actor.” They hadn’t realised that she had doubts about her faith.

“The start of the end of the beginning,” she said, came in 2010, when Bruce Hales visited Warrenpoint, Northern Ireland. “At this point, we were talking about him as though he was God. And I thought: if I even get to say hello, everything will be sorted, because he’ll have the answers.”

She was refused a meeting, but awarded an aisle seat in the gospel hall. Five hundred people squashed into a room designed to hold 250. When the Man of God passed her, Hamilton handed him a gift. “He asked my name, and that was it. He just turned to the next person and walked off. I thought: he’s only a man.”

Hamilton told me that when she decided to leave, in January 2013, her eldest three children – all over the age of 16 – each in turn withdrew from her. She won custody of her youngest two, then 13 and 11; her husband saw them on weekends. One of her sons who remained within the Brethren later wrote her an email, apologising. But when Hamilton asked if she could attend his wedding, he refused. Instead, in 2016, he and his wife brought her an album of photos from the day. “That’s the last time I ever spoke to him.”

The year after she left, Hamilton was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I’d just finished chemo, not a hair on my head. I was low as low, and my dad and my brother came and said: ‘We’re talking over your matters tonight at the meeting.’” After the meeting they returned. “And they said the Brethren have come to it that we can no longer walk with you.”

Over time, Hamilton lost contact with her remaining children, who, when they were old enough, chose to live with Brethren families. She has built a new life with her partner, Dan. It took her a year to buy her first TV: “I didn’t know that you choose what to watch. In my mind, you just turn it on and you might see something evil.” She didn’t understand that actors were acting, that they could appear in multiple films as different characters. Restaurant menus were confusing, too. She can’t swim, having not been allowed to take lessons as a child. She loves music, “but I struggle to understand what I like”.

She returned to Northern Ireland in 2021, to sell her house, and tried to visit her eldest son. “Dan and I walked up to the front door and there was a little boy at the window, my grandson. We knocked and you could see him saying: ‘There’s someone at the door.’ And then we never saw him again; they never answered.” Hamilton still doesn’t know how many grandchildren she has.

Anne Hamilton, near her home in Cheshire. Photographed for the New Statesman by Fabio De Paola

It all ended for JT Jnr in Aberdeen. The World Leader arrived in Scotland on Thursday 23 July 1970 for a three-day meeting, the largest of Brethren gatherings. As Brethren weren’t then allowed to use hotels, he stayed with a local member, along with several other guests. That first evening, another guest led his wife, Madeline Ker, to JT Jnr’s bedroom and returned to his own alone; Ker was seen leaving at 6am.

On the Saturday afternoon JT Jnr, who had been drinking, gave an incoherent and scatological address, repeatedly using the phrase “son of a bitch” and telling the congregation they’d “never had it so good”. “You stinking bum!” he said to one congregant. “You stink! Why didn’t you bring some toilet paper with you?” That evening, Ker and JT Jnr were found in bed together. In the aftermath of the scandal, about a fifth of the membership worldwide left or were excommunicated for refusing to support JT Jnr. Among them was Rebecca Stott, then seven years old, and her family.

It was on reading Stott’s memoir, In the Days of Rain, which won the Costa Biography Award in 2017, that I first learned anything about the Brethren beyond my grandmother’s stories. Stott is five years my mother’s junior, and so reading it, I felt I was imagining the childhood my mother might have had. We met on a damp, darkening afternoon late last year in Lewes, Sussex, where Stott had recently moved – and where my grandparents lived when they were newly married.

It has been 50 years since Stott was “in”, yet she feels she has never truly left: “I don’t think I ever will.” Before she wrote the book, everything she knew about the Brethren she had learned from a relative who left after she did. He was 21 or 22 when they met, “and very broken. He kept talking about putting the bad memories into black plastic bags and locking them in cupboards.” After the book came out, she received 300 letters within a year, from ex-Brethren and former members of similar groups; there were stories of psychological and spiritual abuse, of breakdowns, addictions, suicides.

Stott told me that as a child she was “in a state of fury the whole time” about her lower status as a girl: “These long strings of primogeniture, father, son, father, son, and women being written out.” Did she think about her future as a Brethren woman? “Homemaking and children was not unattractive to me, but it was the only option. I remember feeling that it was unfair, that the boys never had to do that. That’s not in the Bible: ‘Thou shalt not do housework, wash a plate, or pick up your socks.’”

In her memoir she writes evocatively about imbibing the language of the devil and the Rapture: “I was constantly watching – or listening – for Satan, hearing the tapping of his hooves on the cobblestones in the streets of Brighton.” Does she feel angry about her childhood now? “Not towards my parents, [but towards] the whole system; they were victims, too. I feel angry on behalf of the children who are still in it. I think it’s a vicious way to raise a child.”

[See also: Settling scores with God: Leszek Kolakowski at the End of History]

Sandwiched between residential streets and a business park in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, is a long, windowless building: the Rose Lane Gospel Hall. Brethren meeting rooms are typically like this: single-storey, fenced and gated, with windows blacked out, frosted or entirely absent. Inside, seats are arranged in concentric circles, and there are no altars or pulpits, no crosses or depictions of Jesus. Each hall displays a sign declaring it a place of public worship; select meetings are open to “properly disposed persons”, though non-Brethren attendance is rare.

There are at least 200 such halls across the UK. Meetings are held every day, and on Sunday begin at 6am and continue into the evening. Christmas and Easter are not observed; instead, “the Lord’s Supper” (communion) is celebrated weekly. Women wear headscarves (when not at church they wear a “token”, often a headband or bow) and do not preach, but take part in services by announcing hymns. There is no Sunday school. My grandmother remembers dreaming up games as a child – counting the holes in the ceiling – to stave off boredom.

A short drive from the Rose Lane Gospel Hall is another Brethren property, this time surrounded by fields: the Biggleswade campus of OneSchool Global (OSG) UK. Until the 1990s Brethren children worldwide attended mainstream schools, but in 1994 the movement’s first school was established in the Sydney suburb of Meadowbank. OSG now has 125 campuses worldwide, 27 of them in the UK; those based in England educate around 3,000 pupils. Each campus is owned by a separate trust and commands school fees of around £1,200 a term.

Many children travel great distances: students at Biggleswade come from Cambridge, Thaxted, Hertford, Bedford and Stamford, in minibuses mostly driven by volunteer Brethren mothers. The Independent Schools Inspectorate has been responsible for inspecting the OSG schools in England since January 2019; so far none has had an Educational Quality inspection, though they are due soon.

A former teaching assistant who worked at an OSG campus in the early 2010s, and who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, described the students as having been happy and well-behaved, with a strong sense of discipline. Given their future employment among the Brethren was almost guaranteed, was motivation lacking? “They value education greatly. Study is inculcated from an early age – that to get anywhere in life, you have to study.”

Because most Brethren don’t attend university, teachers come from outside the community, producing a curious dissonance. “I did feel like I was among the Midwich Cuckoos,” the former assistant said. “It was their rules, their world, their little bubble, in which everything happened their way.” (Thompson told me she “did not know a single Brethren person with a degree”, but a PBCC spokesperson told the NS that “many of our young people study university courses by correspondence”.)

Schoolteaching follows the national curriculum, with key differences. Religious education is not taught, and “you’re not allowed to challenge anything they say or believe [about the Brethren world-view],” said the former staffer. Thompson, who attended a Brethren secondary school, echoed this: “The teachers were never allowed to challenge the Brethren’s viewpoint. They would never encourage us to look at other things, other religions.”

The teaching assistant described how the study of literature was limited to a “white list” of approved reading. What made it through? L Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (“They haven’t seen the film”). The boys loved Biggles, the girls Malory Towers. Thompson said that until 2014 some school books were censored: she recalled pages being cut from a copy of Macbeth, and others having edited text stuck over the real words. “I remember, as a kid, holding a page up to the light, trying to read through it.”

The PBCC denied the existence of a “white list”, telling the NS: “As in many schools, texts are selected by our English department… OSG works to ensure these texts align with the ethos and values of the school.”

Since the early 2000s, the Brethren have changed their approach to technology, and the OSG website describes “technology-rich” classrooms. Internet access was filtered even “for simple things”, recalled the former teaching assistant, which “you and I would not expect to be blocked, like a Wikipedia page on whales”. In 2015 the Times reported that pages about evolution had been torn from Brethren textbooks, and Thompson told me evolution was “a definite no” when she was at school. But the former assistant said that during their time with OSG, it was taught “as a theory, which we can write about, and we can pass exams about – but we don’t believe in”.

The PBCC denied this, telling the NS its schools teach evolution “in line with the national curriculum”.

[See also: Could I become Christian in a year?]

In 1919 JT Snr left his employer and joined his son JT Jnr’s linen business – a decision that would transform Brethren life. Four decades later his son decreed that, wherever possible, Brethren should be employed by other Brethren; many left their jobs to partner in family businesses. Today, this is the norm. Such companies are often light-industrial (manufacture, assembly, importing and reselling) or in business services (marketing, sales) because separation rules out industries such as hospitality. Many employ non-Brethren, and pay staff very well, making it harder, Thompson told me, for members to leave: “They’re paying 90 to 100 grand upwards for being a salesperson. You’re never going to get that level of wage out here.”

Hamilton believes the preoccupation with business has “escalated” since she left. She recalled her brother going to a Brethren meeting in 2012 and “coming back and saying – and he thought this was good – you couldn’t distinguish between what was a meeting in a spiritual sense and what was a business meeting. The lines had become very blurred even back then, and I think more so now.”

With a combined annual turnover of £5bn, British Brethren-run companies make £294,000 a year for every man, woman and child who is a member in the UK. According to research carried out by the investigative website Open & Candid, half this figure – £2.5bn a year – is made by just 80 firms. One such company, Unispace Global, was identified by the National Audit Office as one of the biggest beneficiaries of the pandemic, winning £680m of government Covid contracts between March and July 2020. Unispace was co-founded in Australia in 2010 by Charles and Gareth Hales – sons of Bruce Hales.

Behind the OSG campus at Biggleswade is another Brethren enterprise, marked only by a sign on the perimeter fence. Campus&Co is a chain of Brethren-only supermarkets, of which there are 68 in the UK. The stores are run by more than 9,000 volunteers worldwide; all profits are donated to Brethren-linked charities, including OSG. Campus&Co is part of what is known inside the Brethren as the “ecosystem”: a collection of charities and businesses that support the Brethren way of life. Part of this system is UBT, headquartered in Sydney, which offers IT services, consultancy and group-buying power to its clients, all Brethren-owned businesses. It also plays a role in Brethren households, providing IT equipment and filtering software, broadband and phone packages, fuel cards (through which rebates are paid to OSG), even apps, such as Trove, a sort of Spotify for Brethren music, and Community TradeLink, a resale platform.

In the UK, UBT has, since at least 2017, donated its profits – £14.9m in the year ending December 2021 – via Gift Aid to a charity of which it was, until last year, a subsidiary, the Grace Trust. Donations from individuals and other businesses brought the trust’s total 2021 income to £129.8m. The trust gives to hundreds of charities, including secular ones, from the British Heart Foundation to Great Ormond Street Hospital. But in its 2021 accounts these donations are small, at most in the tens of thousands of pounds. Alongside them, large numbers – some in the millions – stand out: in 2021 the Grace Trust gave away £38.4m, around 98 per cent of which went to charities linked to the Brethren. The National Assistance Fund, which supports Brethren schooling and helps parents with OSG fees, was awarded £8m; OSG was awarded £26m. The Rapid Relief Team (RRT), a Brethren outreach project that provides disaster relief such as the delivery of food boxes in Ukraine and to vulnerable families in the UK, received £1m. There is no suggestion of illegality in this arrangement, and Brethren-owned businesses pay the tax required of them.

The PBCC told the NS that “like many organisations and religious groups, we have trading subsidiaries and charities. All of our charitable enterprises do due diligence on all donations received… Legal requirements are met by all businesses.” Asked about UBT’s donations to the Grace Trust, it said: “By donating its profits to fund PBCC community schools and welfare programmes, UBT helps reduce the burden of the community on wider society, while maintaining the community’s values and way of life.” The donations have a positive impact, said the PBCC, that “extends far beyond the Brethren community and is felt deeply in wider society across the UK”.

The Brethren’s interest in business has led to a relaxation of some rules. Televisions – once described by Bruce Hales as an “instrument of hell” – remain banned (though the pandemic necessitated that families buy screens to watch remote services), but mobile phones and computers are now allowed. Former members tell me that they must be purchased from UBT, and come with filtering software. (Thompson remembered, aged 18, attempting to buy underwear from Marks & Spencer and finding the website blocked.) The PBCC told the NS that members are free to choose whether they purchase such devices. Nor, a spokesperson said, does it control use of social media – though former members tell me it is permitted only for business purposes, which explains why you will find so many Brethren on LinkedIn.

Illustration by Matthieu Bourel

Towards the end of 2011 Jacky Hart received a call from her eldest brother. It was the first time she had heard from him since she left the Brethren in 1984. “I thought: hang on, what is so important that he would ask me a favour?”

Until 2009, religious organisations automatically enjoyed the benefits of charitable status, but a new Charities Act removed this presumption and required them to prove their public benefit. That year, the Brethren’s Preston Down Trust (PDT), which runs three gospel halls, applied for charitable status, and it was this that later led Hart’s brother to reach out: “He wanted to know whether I’d be prepared to write a letter to the Charity Commission supporting the Brethren.” In 2012 the commission referred the case to tribunal, saying it could not be sure that the PBCC met the new public benefit requirement.

In a parliamentary debate on 13 November 2012, Conservative MPs including Alok Sharma, Caroline Nokes and Fiona Bruce voiced support for the PBCC, praising at length its “good public works” and raising concerns about threats to religious freedoms. Robert Halfon MP bemoaned that the Brethren were “having to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds [fighting the tribunal case] that they could otherwise use for charitable activities”.

In the Lords a week later, however, the Conservative peer Baroness Berridge (who has family in the Brethren) supported the Charity Commission, arguing that the practices of shutting up and barring young people from university outweighed any public benefit; she called for a Church of England-led inquiry into what she described as a “sect”.

The Brethren continued to campaign, hosting a Westminster reception in January 2013, at which members sang hymns and Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend”, and where Conservative MPs Halfon, Owen Paterson and Michael Ellis spoke in their support.

In January 2014 the case was settled out of tribunal by the Charity Commission, which finally granted the PDT charitable status. In its decision, the commission noted it had “received a considerable body of evidence” from the PDT supporting its claim to meet the public benefit requirement, but also “unsolicited evidence from many concerned individuals, including former Brethren, who assert that the doctrines and practices of the PBCC are inimical to charity”.

The PDT was given charitable status on the condition that it “address issues of detriment and harm” by adopting a deed of variation (including “Faith in Practice”), detailing the key tenets of the Brethren lifestyle and committing it to public works such as street preaching. In the following years, other Brethren gospel hall trusts were granted charitable status. In 2015 the Times estimated that the resulting tax reliefs were worth £13m a year.

[See also: Is the future of Christianity African?]

Jacky Hart, now 57, was born fourth-generation Brethren in Bedfordshire, but left when she was 18. Her parents were shut up twice. The first time, she was sent to live with an aunt and uncle. A gospel hall had been built at the end of the family garden, so every time she went to a meeting she walked past her home. “I didn’t know what was happening to my parents,” Hart told me when we met at a cinema in central London. “I didn’t know if I’d ever go home again.”

The second time, Hart was again expected to leave home. She recalled asking an elder for time to think, and being told: “Don’t let the devil in over this.” Soon after, Hart, her parents and her younger brother left the community. In a way, she considers herself fortunate: her husband, also ex-Brethren, did not see his parents for 27 years.

Until that call from her brother, Hart said, she “was not interested. I’ve left: the chapter’s closed.” Now she helps others who want to leave. A website called WikiPeebia hosts a panic button; if a member presses it, they are connected with a network of people like Hart.

For 15 months she and her husband hosted a teenage girl, Emma. They had arranged, over email, a time Emma would be alone. “She came out of the house with her two bags and got in my car and we drove off,” said Hart. (Emma’s parents subsequently left too.) Emma’s story was the subject of a 2015 Sky documentary, Escape from the Secret Sect. One of the women speaking to camera is, Hart told me, a cousin of my mother. I searched her face for any likeness, but she seemed a perfect stranger.

Few of the members Hart hears from end up leaving. How well those who do adjust to life among the worldlies depends on the manner of their leaving, she said, and on their personality. Some, like Anne Hamilton, cope by being open. “Others go inward. And some people don’t cope at all and go back.” It can be hard to set up a life from scratch: to apply for a job at a non-Brethren company, even to find a hobby. “You’ve never had an opportunity to find out what you like doing.”

When Hart first left, she abided by the core Brethren principles. “I wasn’t going to eat and drink with anybody. I think that lasted two or three weeks.” She remembers the strangeness of her first visit to a pub, attending her first non-Brethren wedding (“I didn’t know what a toast was. I had to copy what people were doing”). How does she think her upbringing shaped her? “You’re told as a child you’re ‘born in sin, shapen in iniquity’. And if you have any issues, particularly mental health issues, it’s not the environment: it’s you. You’re not right with the Lord.”

Her early experiences of the world were marked by fear rather than excitement. Before leaving, she would never have visited a cinema such as the one where we spoke. “You’ve been taught there’s this big man in the sky watching you, but there’s this devil man down there” – Hart gestured at our feet – “and the devil man’s thinking, I’ve got them in the cinema, so he’ll make the ceiling fall in. The fear goes when you walk out and the ceiling’s still intact.”

I think of how my grandmother described looking both ways before slipping into a screening for the very first time. The film was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

There were many things that surprised Abi Thompson about the outside world when she returned to it late last year. Friendships had been more intense inside. “Out here, you’ve spoken once or twice and then you’re a friend. I said to my husband the other day, ‘I feel so lonely, yet I’ve got these people around me that say they’re my friends.’” She found it odd that none knew the Brethren existed. “When I’ve said to people in our village, ‘Did you know about us?’ they’re, like, ‘We have never even heard of it.’”

Thompson has kept her faith. She and her family now attend a local evangelical church, which she described as “a lot more positive. In the Brethren it’s all: you made Jesus die on the cross, it’s blame, blame, blame. The new church is more gentle.” Sometimes she and her husband look around the congregation and nudge each other: it is so different. “There are people with tattoos, men with ponytails… Sometimes we just can’t help but laugh. And yet they are beautiful, true Christian people.”

There is no doubt that there are good Brethren people who lead happy lives both more financially secure and less lonely than those of many worldlies. (I cannot tell their stories because the PBCC did not respond to the NS’s request to interview a current member.) But for those, such as my grandmother, who had no desire to leave the sect but were forced from it, it is cruel. For those, such as Thompson, who had an inchoate sense that there was more to life, it became anathema.

What began in 1828 as an attempt to protect followers from perceived evil has evolved into something that seems to me more opportunistic, taking from the world what suits its purposes, and vilifying the rest. Under Hales, this has led to a modernisation of sorts, but the institutionalisation of Brethren life has grown more complete. The structure of the Brethren world – its meeting halls, schools and businesses individually registered; its absence of a formal hierarchy or paid clergy – gives the appearance of autonomy.

The subtleties of control are insidious, and hard to legislate against. In the UK there is no legal definition of what constitutes a cult, nor is there any law against coercive control outside intimate partner relationships (a charity called the Family Survival Trust is campaigning to change this). Freedom of religion is a pillar of modern, liberal society, and rightly protected – and yet, it allows for the existence of groups in which other freedoms are lost.

The PBCC argues that its values are misrepresented by former members. A spokesperson told the NS: “We are a Christian church and our members have lived and worked in communities across the UK for nearly 200 years. We fully embrace British values of tolerance and mutual respect, and strive to live a community-minded life, underpinned by our core values of care, charity and compassion.” They rejected the accounts of the women I spoke to, saying: “While we are saddened that a very small number of former members continue to spread falsehoods about our values and way of life, we wish them well.”

Writing this story, I was often reminded of the risks former members felt they took in talking to me. Some wrote from encrypted email addresses; others warned me that the Facebook group is watched, that “they” will already have my name. Yet the unimaginable choice that my grandmother had to make, between her husband and everything else she had ever known, will not leave me. What might my life have been had she chosen differently? My grandmother has never shown any interest in finding out what became of the sect that swallowed her family. After all, she says, it’s all part of the Lord’s plan, and He does not test us more than we can bear.

Listen to Pippa Bailey read her story on our Audio Long Reads podcast, from Saturday 26 August

[See also: From aardvark to woke: inside the Oxford English Dictionary]

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This article appears in the 23 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Britain’s Exclusive Sect