A secretive Christian sect secured tax breaks worth millions of pounds despite the charity regulator finding that its practices caused harm and broke up families.
Last year, after an extensive lobbying campaign, the Exclusive Brethren struck a deal with the Charity Commission to overturn an earlier decision to refuse the group charitable status in a test case.
The sect, whose members are subject to strict disciplinary practices, enjoys tax reliefs and rebates worth as much as £11 million a year. It is also known as the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church.
A separate existence
An evangelical subset of the Protestant Christian church, the Exclusive Brethren has called itself the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church since 2012.
For decades the brethren have lived in secretive communities, isolating themselves from the rest of society. Their history is both fractured and marked by occasional scandal and yet many people have never heard their name.
Followers of the movement live by a strict code of “separation” that centres around a tight family unit and is based on their interpretation of the Bible. With limited exceptions, they do not eat, drink or socialise with non-brethren, and believe the wider world to be a place of evil. Popular recorded music, television and films are all banned.
Their exclusivity - which has led them to set up their own private schools and to avoid marriages with those outside the group - is seen as the only way to keep out evil influences.
The Exclusive Brethren are different from the Open Brethren, from whom they separated in 1848 following ideological differences and who do not practice the doctrine of separation or have a universal leader.
An investigation by The Times found that members of the Brethren have attempted and, in some cases, succeeded in influencing British politics through extensive lobbying and election support.
Tap on the silhouettes below to discover the extent of Brethren involvement with the political figures exposed.
Members of the Exclusive Brethren do not - on matters of principle - vote. Yet investigations have revealed that the secretive church continues to place itself, and its money, at the heart of political campaigns.
Explore the map below to discover decades of the Brethren's backdoor political influence, carried out on a global scale.
The brethren in the UK
Due to the considerable number of splinter groups and offshoot belief systems from the main Brethren church, it is impossible to accurately determine how many members the sect has amassed. However, there are thought to be roughly 45,000 worldwide followers of the Raven/Taylor/Hales movement, who gather in 19 countries.
Click on the map below to see the distribution of Brethren meeting halls and schools in the UK and Ireland.
Members speak out
Brethren members have revealed to the The Times for the first time their experiences of alleged mistreatment at the hands of the Christian sect.
Scared by the consequences when others have spoken out, many of the Brethren members in contact with our reporters wish to remain anonymous. But some, like Emma Hewitt, have chosen to go on the record. Scroll down to read their stories.
Emma Hewitt. Paul Rogers for The Times
Emma Hewitt, a quiet and determined 25-year-old, escaped from the Brethren in February 2014. After weeks of secretly communicating with an ex-Brethren couple using an “unauthorised” mobile phone, Emma snuck out of her house to meet them while her mother and sister were at church and her father was in the shower.
Running down the drive, she bundled herself into the back of the couple’s car, put her head down, and was driven away to hide at the couple’s home hundreds of miles away.
When she shut the door, Emma knew that under the Brethren’s strict regime she might never speak to her parents again. But she'd reached a point where it was a sacrifice she was willing to make.
“You’re just prepared to be alone,” she says today. “Anything’s better than having a Brethren life. I didn’t care. It was the only way out.”
The sect dominated every part of Emma’s life, with a church elder running the fixings business she worked in alongside her father, sister and brother. Business and religion were closely mixed. When her father was given a “priestly” by the Brethren leadership - the lowest level of disciplinary admonishment - it took place in the business’s conference room.
Although Brethren members worked alongside non-Brethren employees, the latter are normally confined to warehouse roles, she says. “You don’t engage in conversation with them unless it’s to do with work. They haven’t been given the light. We call them worldly. It’s as if you’re a level above.”
The sect claims its practices have softened since the 1970s and 1980s, when families were permanently separated for minor infringements. But three years ago, Emma says, her parents were “shut up” for admitting to owning an “unauthorised” computer.
Brethren members are expected to buy mobile phones and laptops only from a Brethren-controlled company called UBT which restricts internet access. Even though Emma’s father confessed and got rid of his non-UBT laptop, he and Emma’s mother were immediately “shut up”. Their children, who were aged between 20 and 24, went to live with another Brethren family who were neither relatives nor, according to Emma, close family friends.
“It went on week after week. We kept saying ‘when are we going home’. But the only communication we could get [with] our parents would be through the priests.” Eventually, after six weeks, the family was reunited without explanation.
Now Emma is working as an accounts assistant and has a partner she met at work.
A Brethren spokesman accepted that Emma’s parents had been shut up but denied that it was because of an unauthorised laptop. They say she lived with close family friends with the consent of her parents.
Mark and Heather Elliot
Mark Elliott, 57, who left in 1989, described how the Brethren did not tell his wife that her sister, who had remained a member, had died. When Mr Elliott’s own father died in 1994, more than 40 Brethren attended the funeral, removed the coffin from the hearse, and conducted their own service. When his father’s partner tried to leave flowers she was shouted at and chased away. The Elliotts are now seeking compensation from the Brethren, who have characterised it as an attempt to embarrass the church.
The key question for the Charity Commission, which is reviewing its 2014 decision to grant charitable status to Brethren meeting halls, is whether anything has changed.
One current member, who has been shut up but remained in the sect, argues that it has not and that even now the Brethren leaders sometimes behaved in a way that “is clearly not remotely Christian”.
“There’s so much I could say but everyone I spoke to has advised me to be extraordinarily cautious,” the member said. “I’ve lost everything. Income, everything.”
Mark Ghinn, 50, who was withdrawn from in 1984, was made to stand in the garden as a young child while his father, who was also kicked out, came into the family home to fetch cutlery and blankets. On another occasion, his whole family were shut up for going to see fireworks in Hyde Park.
When he was 19, Mr Ghinn’s mother was separated from her family in the night and his father subsequently attempted suicide. He did not see his mother for close to 20 years after he was withdrawn from, with letters and gifts returned unopened. The Brethren accepted that Mr Ghinn was treated poorly but denied he was prevented from seeing his mother.
Craig Hoyle, a 25-year-old former Brethren member from New Zealand who was withdrawn from in 2009, was told by Bruce Hales in 2007 to “never accept” his homosexuality, he says today.
Craig says he was subsequently sent to live in Australia and claims he was instructed to seek help from Mark Craddock, a doctor who was also a Brethren member.
Dr Craddock improperly prescribed him Cyprostat, a hormonal suppressant more commonly used for sex offenders or people with advanced prostate cancer. Dr Craddock gave Craig a year’s subscription, which would have had the effect of “chemically castrating” him if he had taken it for that period. Thankfully, he stopped after a few weeks. Dr Craddock was later severely reprimanded and found guilty of unsatisfactory professional conduct by the New South Wales Medical professional standards committee.
A Brethren spokesman said that neither the church nor Bruce Hales “condoned or requested the action taken by Dr Craddock.”
While in Sydney, Craig claims he had several meetings with Mr Hales, who takes a particular interest in members who shows dissent. “He was a very ordinary, flawed person,” Craig says today. “There were just so many contradictions it made it impossible to understand or know what to do. Hales famously said that we shouldn’t sing any music by Elton John or the Beatles. Yet when I went out for a meal with him he sung Candle in the Wind standing by a piano.” The Brethren deny this.
When he returned to New Zealand, Craig claims that Brethren elders shut him up for the “defilement of young people” after he had told his brothers and sisters he was gay.
On the day before he was “shut up”, he drove around saying goodbye to people he knew he would never see again. “I knew that it would be my last chance to see some of these people,” he says. “I went to see my Grandma and she’d already heard what had happened. I was very close to her growing up. She was standing on her doorstep and she broke down and cried and said she couldn’t let me into her house because she knew what was coming.
“She was already enforcing the church rule. I said that I hadn’t been shut up yet and could we at least hug one more time. She agreed. I knew that I’d never see her again.”
The emotional effect of leaving the Brethren was devastating to Craig. “I’d never eaten at a restaurant. I’d never watch TV before. You’re dealing with thousands of small changes that everyone else takes for granted. It can seem like an insurmountable challenge.”
Even after he left, Craig continued to be harassed. Lionel Laming, a Brethren member, was found guilty of intimidation in 2010 after trailing a television crew working with Craig. Even though he had committed a criminal offence, Mr Laming was neither shut up or withdrawn from. ''Mr Laming's conviction is a private matter for him,” the Brethren said at the time. “He will remain a valued, loved and active member of the Exclusive Brethren community.”
An investigation by Billy Kenber and Alexi Mostrous – words and graphics by Katie Gibbons and Sam Joiner