As MPs and peers mingled with members of a small Christian sect in a packed marquee on the terrace of the House of Commons, the wine flowed freely and the voices of a young choir rose over the gathered crowd.
It was a busy Tuesday in the House, but that afternoon in January 2013 as many as 150 parliamentarians, including the communities secretary Eric Pickles and environment secretary Owen Paterson, found time to join a “musical interaction” event hosted by the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church.
To many of those present, the hosts were an unobtrusive Christian group fighting against the decision of a secular left-wing quango to deny them charitable status.
But a meeting held a short walk away 24 hours later cast a different light on the Brethren’s activities.
In a drafty committee room about 15 former members, some of them visibly upset, told other parliamentarians about the damage wrought by the sect’s unforgiving disciplinary policies and highly restrictive lifestyle.
One couple described how they had been excommunicated for purchasing an “unauthorised” laptop in 2012. Another former member who had been thrown out in the 1990s started crying as he described how his father had been forbidden from seeing him.
The former members speaking out were wary about protecting their identities, and with good reason.
Six weeks earlier, the Brethren’s universal leader, Sydney businessman Bruce Hales, had instructed members to infiltrate the meeting, to “take a tape recorder and dress up as an out [an ex-member],” according to a leaked internal document. The Brethren dispute the accuracy of the minutes and said no-one tried to enter the meeting.
For several years, the Brethren had been engaged in a high-stakes battle with the Charity Commission, which had ruled in June 2012 test case that its meeting halls did not provide sufficient “public benefit” to enjoy charitable status.
The sect filed a legal appeal against the regulator’s decision in July 2012 and hired Michael Beloff QC, one of Britain’s most expensive barristers. A few months later it changed its name from the more controversial “Exclusive Brethren”. Although members do not vote, they also launched a huge lobbying campaign in Parliament to persuade MPs that religious freedom itself was at risk.
Their pursuit of this goal was ruthless. A draft version of a 76-slide presentation prepared in October 2012 by an unidentified Brethren member depicted the regulator being buried in a grave and included a video of a tank crushing a car with the explanation that it “represents the power of the law under the control of an atheist”.
The presentation included a photograph of a car being crushed by a brick wall accompanied with the words “This must be our aim. No mercy. Nothing else will do.”
Another slide depicted a third car, representing the Brethren, driving through floodwater. A confident message read: “Whilst under pressure, the vehicle is likely undamaged and driver will continue on his course undeterred once the temporary flood is over.”
The Brethren survived this “temporary flood” by holding on to influential political allies who heaped pressure on the regulator to change its mind.
The Brethren said the presentation had not been approved by elders and did not represent the group's views.