30 Mar 2008

Inside Britain's strictest sect

Telegraph - March 30, 2008

by Alex Hannaford

As 'Son of Rambow' prepares to wow cinema audiences, Alex Hannaford examines the Plymouth Brethren, the movement whose stringent rules shape the life of the hero.

Most of us can recall the thrill of seeing our first action-packed film. For Will Proudlock, the boy hero of the new Garth Jennings movie Son of Rambow, the effect is intensified, as his illicit viewing of a Sylvester Stallone film is his first sight of a moving picture.

Will belongs to a Plymouth Brethren family, and listening to music, watching television or seeing films are all forbidden to members of the reclusive religious sect. Seeing Rambo is therefore a life-changing experience for Will.

Exclusive Brethren shun everything that could be a distraction from serving God: Jessica Hynes in Son of Rambow

The Brethren were not in Jennings's original script for the film, set in the 1980s and based on the director's own Essex childhood, and which proved a smash hit at the Sundance Film Festival. But both Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith knew something was missing.

"It's really hard to show the impact that movies can have on a kid," Jennings says, "but I lived next door to a Plymouth Brethren family for 25 years, and by moving the story next door it captured the qualities we were looking for."

Jennings has not set out to paint a bad picture of the Brethren. "No one is evil in the film, but religion is one of the things that holds this character back.

"Although we'd found our plot, it also opened up a can of worms because the Plymouth Brethren is a very secret society. Although I lived next door to them, they kept to themselves and it took a lot of investigation to find out more."

The Plymouth Brethren was started by law student John Nelson Darby in the early 1800s after he broke away from the Anglican Church in Ireland. A gathering in Plymouth, Devon, in 1832, gave the sect its name, but 10 years later, the group itself split into 'Exclusive Brethren' and 'Open Brethren' - the former being much stricter.

A relative of Jennings's taught at an Exclusive Brethren school and the director used him to build a clearer picture of life behind closed Brethren doors.

"I found out loads of little details," Jennings says. "The Exclusive Brethren shun pretty much everything that could be a distraction from serving God, including television, film, literature and pop music. They are not whacky, but they do take their beliefs very seriously and follow a strict moral code.

"When I was growing up in the 1980s, video and computers hadn't saturated our lives like they have now. It must be much harder to 'opt out' these days. You'd be constantly battling against the evils the rest of us indulge in.

"There are quite a lot of ex-Brethren, casualties I suppose, families that have been pulled apart. Once you've left that's it: if your family are still in the Brethren you're not allowed contact with them."

One example is David (not his real name), 56, who left the Exclusive Brethren in the early 1970s after a new leader began introducing stricter rules. The leader's behaviour also raised alarm bells.

"In my first 10 years the Brethren were a happy group," David says. "Friends and relatives who were non-Brethren were allowed to stay with us and we could eat with them, but in the early 1960s an American named Jim Taylor forced his way to the top and began 'separation'."

Separation meant sect members must keep away from anyone who didn't follow the Exclusive teaching. They weren't allowed to make friends or eat ("break bread") with anyone outside the church.

"Suddenly, we had to cut off any contact with our cousins," David continues. "They were dead to us. There was no cinema, no joining in with prayers at regular schools, no going round to friends' houses. It was all to do with the orders of Jim Taylor.

"In 1970, Taylor started sleeping with another sect wife. He claimed he was a pure man, but there was an Exclusive Brethren gathering in Aberdeen and he appeared on stage obviously drunk. After that there was a split in the group."

In the following two years, about 8,000 Exclusives left, but a large number remained.

"My wife and I left, but my eldest brother and some uncles and aunts stayed and cut off contact with us," says David. "Taylor effectively radicalised the Brethren. It was always strict, but he made it worse.

"My eldest brother rarely talks to me, though we live in the same town. At my father's funeral, last year, he stood 100 yards away from everyone else. If I see him in the street and he's on his own, he'll raise his hand. If his wife is with him, he'll ignore me. I'm just sad for them. They're missing out on so much."

Today, the leader of the Exclusive Brethren is an Australian, Bruce Hales, who inherited the job from his father, John. There are now about 46,000 Exclusive members worldwide.

In the early 1990s, questionnaires were sent to 300 former Exclusives around the world, 200 of which were returned completed. Of these, 76 per cent felt a sense of loss in leaving close friends behind. Half were plagued by upsetting memories of their days in the Exclusives.

A spokesperson for Peebs.net - an information website set up to 'investigate and report the truth behind the Exclusive Brethren' - says: "We've been following Son of Rambow since it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival?… shame no active Exclusive Brethren will be allowed to see the movie."

That's one of the reasons why Jennings isn't worried about a potential Brethren backlash. "I don't feel conniving about it, but it is a point. They'll never see it.

"Besides, you could see our film as a statement on the corrupting power of television. I see it as something completely different - that by shutting people off from certain things, you're not really educating them.

"While it may be right for some people, it can't be right for everyone and it certainly isn't right for the boy in the film."

This article was found at:



Totalitarian control of Exclusive Brethren members means children have no true intellectual or religious freedom

Exclusive Brethren schools funded by Australian government allow parents to evade taxes when paying school fees

Intellectual abuse in Exclusive Brethren's government funded schools prevents kids from thinking too much 

Exclusive Brethren demands apology for discrimination, survivor says cult should apologize for breaking up families

Exclusive Brethren claim to uphold family values but completely shun any family member who disobeys cruel dogma

Interview with psychologist Jill Mytton about religious abuse [VIDEO]

Cult researcher reveals emotional cost of separation

Family care 'tied to Exclusive Brethren sect gag order'

Exclusive Bretheren children abused

Court finds Exclusive Brethren's use of children as weapons in custody disputes is "psychologically cruel, unacceptable and abusive", but father still loses access

Brethren mother flouts court order

Ex-Brethren father loses battle for children

Trauma claim in sect custody battle for two children

Sect 'brainwashed boy against dad'

Breakout - How I Escaped From The Exclusive Bretheren 


  1. Evangelical woman wants CBC to stop reporting about messy divorce and husband's excommunication

    By SUE MONTGOMERY, The Gazette September 30, 2011

    A West Island woman belonging to an evangelical church that forbids radio, television and the Internet is seeking an injunction to stop CBC from reporting on the woman's messy divorce from her husband and his excommunication from the closed religious community.

    The motion, which is to be heard in Quebec Superior Court on Friday, says the couple was married in New York in 1996 and vowed to raise their children according to the followings of the exclusive Plymouth Brethren, of which there are about 106 members in Montreal.

    The airing of the program would be prejudicial to the children, who "dress somewhat differently than other children," the motion says. Members of the group, including children, don't socialize or eat with people outside the community.

    The woman, who can't be identified to protect the identity of the couple's five children, says the marriage fell apart when her husband "became obsessed with porn, strip bars and prostitutes."

    "The last straw was when he throttled me to the point I thought I was a goner," she wrote in a letter to Hubert Lacroix, president and CEO of CBC.

    The mother asked the court this year to order that the children follow the Brethren's code of conduct when they were with their father, but a Superior Court judge refused.

    In her June judgment, Justice Hélène Le Bel called the husband a good parent who "will not behave in such a way as to offend the religious beliefs or sensitivities of the children."

    The father is seeking sole custody of the children. A trial is scheduled for two weeks in November.

    During his visits with the children after the 2007 marital breakup, the father exposed the children to television and radio as well as "violent age-16-and-up videos," says the mother's letter attached to the motion. "His aim is to alienate and turn them against their friends within the Christian Fellowship."

    According to their website, the Plymouth Brethren have 40,000 members worldwide. They don't vote, but "hold government in the highest respect as God's ministers, used by Him to restrain evil and provide conditions for the promotion of the glad tidings."

    They have their own government-recognized schools for children ages 11-17.


  2. Evangelical group focus of child custody fight

    Ex-communicated father seeks sole custody of five children

    CBC News Oct 3, 2011

    A father who used to belong to a little-known Evangelical Christian group is fighting for sole custody of his five children, who remain in the closed community with their mother.

    The father, who cannot be identified, was ex-communicated from The Exclusive Brethren, also known as the Plymouth Brethren, a religious group that bans contact with the outside world.

    He currently sees his children every other weekend and every Wednesday, but he told CBC News that he's seeking sole custody because he wants them to be free.

    "I want them to have the opportunity to choose their lifestyle rather than having it forced on them," the father said.

    The Exclusive Brethren has 40,000 followers worldwide and about 100 in the Montreal region. They have two churches and a government-recognized school in Baie d'Urfé, on Montreal's West Island.

    The group believes women belong at home and does not allow its members to be educated beyond a high school diploma. It also forbids socializing outside the community, using the Internet, and going to the cinema.

    The 35-year-old father grew up in Winnipeg within the Exclusive Brethren community, but moved to Montreal in 1994 to help build the group's presence in the city. Two years later, he met and married his ex-wife and they had five children. The father said he became increasingly dissatisfied with the religious group, and the control it exerted over its members. He said he worries for his children, saying their lives are decided for them if they stay in the community.

    "The court will judge which parent can offer these children the best possible development in their lives," said Marie Annik Walsh, the lawyer representing the father in the custody battle. She added that the question of education will also be a factor.

    Earlier this year, the mother requested a court order that the children follow the Brethren's code of conduct when they were with their father, but a Superior Court judge refused.

    That same judge, Justice Hélène Le Bel, said the custody trial will look at the role religion should play in the lives of the children.

    The case will go before a Quebec Superior Court on Nov. 10.

    The Exclusive Brethren have hired three lawyers to argue the mother's case. The community and the mother refused to speak to CBC News, and filed a failed injunction to stop the story from going to air.




    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.

    By: Bill Redekop, Winnipeg Free Press May 10, 2014

    STONEWALL — Quietly, and out of earshot of Winnipeg, Stonewall had its own mini "British Invasion" a decade ago.

    Newcomers from England started to descend on this town just north of Winnipeg that has historically been a limestone quarry and agricultural service centre.

    They bought homes, started businesses, built a church — all the usual stuff.

    Stonewall councillors were pleased their town was chosen by the English-speaking immigrants. Local residents were charmed, as North Americans tend to be, by how the newcomers snapped off their words with British accents.

    But residents soon found there was something different about the newcomers. They didn’t want much to do with the townsfolk. They wouldn’t socialize with them, other than a few words on the street or in a store. It wasn’t long before local people started to regard them as "standoffish," as one Stonewall resident put it.

    In time, the community learned the newcomers were from the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church (PBCC), a religious sect that practises "separateness" from the rest of society. The two-metre-high rod-iron fence around their church attests to that.

    It’s one of the few physical barriers. Most Plymouth Brethren barriers are social. They won’t eat in the same room as non-members, including in restaurants.
    Brethren are not even allowed to visit the homes of non-Brethren, or "worldly people." They don’t go to the cinema, the theatre or sporting events.

    Plymouth Brethren are sometimes thought of as a British version of Hutterites, without the colonies. Both are conscientious objectors to military service; neither group votes; both forbid television and radio in their homes. The Brethren forbid computers with anything other than email functions and some business software, and all their computers and programs are purchased from a Brethren-owned company.

    Plymouth Brethren also maintain a dress code, but not one as rustic or obvious as that of Hutterites.

    Brethren women are required to wear ankle-length skirts, long hair and some kind of head covering — it used to be a kerchief but now is often a ribbon. The attire is urban, individualized, and becoming less strict to the point where women are now seen wearing designer clothes with hem lines climbing to knee level.

    Men dress business casual. They keep their hair short and are clean-shaven — not even sideburns are allowed. While that doesn’t sound like it would set the men apart, it does.

    "They are conspicuously well-scrubbed," said a Stonewall resident who has had dealings with the Brethren.

    This "new" Christian sect has actually been in Manitoba since the 1880s. The Stonewall group was only the most recent wave. Plymouth Brethren are also in Winnipeg (Charleswood) and the village of Woodlands, not far from Stonewall in the Interlake.

    It’s a group that shows quite remarkable business acumen. The Plymouth Brethren bought up half of Stonewall’s industrial park upon arrival, and immediately set up a cluster of companies.

    But attempts to learn more about the sect and interview its members showed how it has managed to stay under the radar.

    continue reading this in-depth article at:


  4. Talking to ex members of sect chilling

    Exclusion of family members striking

    By Bill Redekop Winnipeg Free Press

    No question the biggest story for me in 2014 was the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church.

    It was a story I expected to knock off in short order. This group of Plymouth Brethren was made up of immigrants from England who had settled in Stonewall and nearby Woodlands. As a province with a serious out-migration problem, we're always interested in new groups that choose Manitoba.

    There had been talk of unusual practices by the religious sect -- not wanting to socialize with others, refusing to eat in the same building as non-Brethren -- but I was confident there were reasonable explanations if I could only talk to them. After all, tolerance toward other religions marked the dawn of human rights. In Manitoba, we respect the rights of other closed sects, such as Hutterites and Orthodox Mennonites near Plumas.

    But I couldn't get the Brethren to talk. A couple of people agreed to meet with me, but first one, then the other, cancelled. One man twice postponed a meeting, in negotiations that took place over three weeks, before finally backing out.

    It's hard to explain what happens to a reporter when someone refuses to talk to you. It's like a chemistry set explodes and you walk out with soot all over your face. Your cheeks fill up, steam shoots out your ears, and you start making train-whistle sounds.

    That's not enough reason to do a story, of course, and I questioned my motives throughout. What right had I to intrude on a sect that clearly wanted no part of the rest of the world? Yet there was enough innuendo to warrant setting the record straight.

    It should be noted there are other divisions of Plymouth Brethren that don't practise exclusion to the same degree as the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, or PBCC, but the PBCC appears to be the dominant group locally. Their history in Manitoba dates from long before the recent wave of immigrants. They maintain a strict interpretation of the biblical text: "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers."

    I phoned so many people. I talked to several people with the local chamber and got nowhere. The Brethren don't believe in joining a chamber, even though Brethren members owned 20 or so businesses locally. I talked to several religion professors across Canada. They'd heard of the PBCC, but knew little about them. Locally, everyone said they were nice people, but that was it.

    Then someone said he knew of a former Brethren who might tell me more.

    continued below

  5. I would end up talking to at least a dozen ex-Brethren. They had either left, or been "withdrawn from" by the PBCC. That means they lost their jobs with firms owned by Brethren members and were cut off from all contact with friends and family. If you were a son or daughter, you lost contact with your parents and siblings. Your parents would start to say they had only five children, not six, or whatever number, excluding the non-Brethren child.

    If you were a parent, your children would no longer acknowledge you. Your grandchildren would be told you're a bad person. I know of one elderly man who lives alone and is never visited by his Brethren children.

    I heard stories of parents who would walk past their grown-up children on the street and not acknowledge them. That's not a unique experience for ex-Brethren.
    Try imagining that when you've gathered with family over Christmas. Try to imagine glassing yourself off from your child, or your parent, or your sibling. What would it take to make you do that?

    It always reminded me of that British TV show, The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan. You could live in a suffocating world where everything was planned for you and taken care of for you and explained for you. But if you questioned it, if you challenged it, you would lose everything, every relationship you ever had. You would become the most alone person on Earth. I looked upon these ex-Brethren as McGoohans, as No. 6s, as heroes.

    But they did it at tremendous cost. I will tell one story I didn't put in the paper. I was interviewing a former member of the Brethren. It was going fine. The man seemed in control. He had been cut off from all contact with his family, but that was long ago.

    I had been looking down at my notebook, taking notes. When I next looked up, he had shattered. Tears were flying off his face like rain off windshield wipers. The table in front of him was sprayed with tears, like shards of glass. Most people, when they break down, will look away, but he was staring at me. We were just staring at each other. I think he was as baffled as I was.

    "It's OK, it's OK," I repeated, not knowing what else to say. I don't recall what happened next, but one of us suggested we needed some water or something stronger to drink. Then we carried on as if nothing had happened.

    Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 27, 2014 B3


  6. Charity Commission chair calls for evidence about Plymouth Brethren congregations

    by Sam Burne James, Third Sector March 19, 2015

    In a letter to The Times, William Shawcross says the regulator's decision on the Preston Down Trust was independent and robust, and urges people to contact the commission with evidence about the activities of Brethren congregations

    The chair of the Charity Commission has invited anyone with evidence about Plymouth Brethren congregations to present it to the regulator as part of its ongoing monitoring of Brethren charities.

    In a letter to The Times published today, William Shawcross says that the regulator’s 2014 decision to register as a charity the Preston Down Trust, a Devon-based congregation of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, had been "independent and robust".

    His letter comes in response to an article in the Tuesday edition of the newspaper that documented the campaigning efforts of the church in the five-year legal battle that led to the PDT being registered.

    In response to the article, the commission confirmed that its officials had been followed by members of the church, which adheres to a doctrine of separation and has been accused of breaking up families and using harsh disciplinary practices. The commission said it was sent letters by more than 3,000 of the church’s members and 200 MPs after initially refusing to register the PDT.

    Shawcross’s Times letter says: "Anyone reading our published decision will see it was independent and robust. We were the first public authority to put on record the ‘detriment and harm’ caused by the doctrines and practices of the brethren.

    "We recognised the Preston Down Trust as charitable only after it satisfied us that it met the public benefit requirement by accepting a new deed setting out its core religious doctrines and practices, acknowledged past mistakes and agreed to greater engagement with the wider public.

    "We will make public the conclusions of our monitoring of those Brethren halls that we registered as charities. If any member of the public has evidence relating to these charities, we would be glad to receive it."

    Since the registration of the PDT, a further 69 Plymouth Brethren congregations have been granted charitable status by the commission. When it registered the PDT, the commission said it would monitor the new charity’s compliance with its governing documents and that the commission "regularly monitors charities that were the subject of a complex or high-risk registration process to ensure that they are operating in line with their trusts and charity law".

    Two further letters on the subject of the Brethren are also published in The Times today. Harry Adam of Atworth in Wiltshire says that the church’s practices "do not reflect any generally accepted view of ‘Christian’ behaviour". Another, from Jake Whiteside, a spokesman for the PBCC, says that the PDT decision "was taken after extensive examination of evidence, lasting more than 12 months". He responds to criticism of Brethren schools made in Tuesday’s Times story by saying: "They are unusual in one area: they are particularly successful."