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16 January 2014

Charitable status: a sensible outcome

The Charity Commission finally announced on 9 January its decision to grant charitable status to the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church (PBCC) after initially refusing the specific application of its member meeting hall, the Preston Downs Trust, made in February 2009. An amicable agreement has now finally been reached after both sides were persuaded to suspend a costly legal process in favour of concessionary talks.

The Alliance's involvement in the case was not about being for or against the PBCC. The Alliance closely follows all developments relating to religious charitable status and since before the 2006 Charity Act has frequently acted in an advisory role to the Charity Commission. There are important implications for many churches from this decision and the circumstances and deliberations leading up to it.

Overall it is a very sensible outcome for which the Alliance and others, including many MPs, contended. However, this represents something of a climb down by the Charity Commission following a high profile campaign, including debates in Parliament and the intervention of the Attorney General. This followed the Commission's initial unwillingness to engage in constructive discussions to find a satisfactory way forward, whilst preferring to leave matters to the expensive legal processes of the Charity Tribunal. This led to the incurring of legal costs to the PBCC of over £1m. What a shame that the Commission did not adopt their later helpful approach earlier.

It seems likely that the PBCC were to some extent the unfortunate beneficiaries of what appears to have been a revised policy at the Commission in the wake of serious government cost-cutting. This probably led to some weakening of previous longstanding commitments by the Commission to working constructively alongside applicants to explore ways of resolving complex differences rather than leaving it to the Charity Tribunal.

This campaign has significant implications for religious charities across the board and all sides in the process have learnt important lessons. Even the government has been required to take note. Churches and those concerned with religious charitable status should take the time to read the full judgement of the Charity Commission, though it should be noted that unsurprisingly both the Charity Commission and the PBCC take somewhat defensive approaches.

The Charity Commission rejected the application for charitable status from the PBCC because of questions relating to whether the organisation was properly established for the advancement of religion and if so whether it demonstrated sufficient beneficial impact on the wider community to meet public benefit requirements. Initially, the fundamental issue was one relating to access by the public to worship and other meetings of the church. Later, once the case had become prominent in the media and certain disaffected individuals had made public their concern not to grant it charitable status, the Commission was obliged to treat the consequent allegations of 'detriment and harm' seriously.

Nevertheless, charitable status has finally been confirmed as a result of the PBCC agreeing to a legal Deed of Variation which it has been happy to enter into to make publicly plain its practical core faith and doctrine. This is binding on the church's trustees and provides assurance to the Charity Commission that the church satisfies public benefit requirements.

Key elements arising from the Charity Commission's findings with regard to satisfying requirements for charitable status that churches will wish to note include:

  • Demonstrating more clearly with evidence the PBCC's beneficial impact on society through providing public access to worship, engaging in preaching the gospel and distributing religious publications in the street and engagement with the wider community, including encouraging charitable giving and providing disaster relief assistance.
  • Regarding the crucial aspect of public access, services should be genuinely open to non-members, though customary restrictions relating to holy communion services are permissible. Requiring attendees at public services to be 'appropriately dressed' and 'well-disposed' is also not a stumbling block to evidencing public access.
  • Demonstrating clear levels of good communication for engagement with the public. The PBCC has developed its traditional practices in recent years by clearly advertising its services on meeting hall notice boards and on PBCC and individual meeting place websites. The use of local websites to inform the public about the church's activities is a welcome recent development. The holding of open days accompanied by the distribution of food and Bibles has also been instituted.
  • Demonstrating that disciplinary practices will be reviewed to ensure a more 'compassionate' and 'forgiving' approach. The Charity Commission is rightly concerned about damaging cultish practices especially when they relate to the freedom of individuals especially in connection with leaving an organisation and regarding treatment of children. The PBCC has commendably acknowledged some 'past mistakes' in this area. Undertakings to change unacceptable practices such as socially isolating certain individuals, including refusing them permission, for example, to attend funerals, have been given. This is to ensure that perceived 'elements of detriment and harm' may not outweigh evidence of public benefit.
  • Demonstrating that the PBCC confers benefits on a sufficient section of the public. Despite the Charity Commission considering that the PBCC tends to be inwardly focussed, on balance it concluded that it operates 'predominantly' rather than 'exclusively' for its members and that its engagement with the wider community outweighed any doubts concerning this.

Whilst allegations of detriment and harm related to treatment of former members may continue, many charitable organisations contain disaffected members. The task of the Charity Commission to weigh and balance the various, often subjective, elements relating to public benefit is not always an easy one. However, it would be of concern if the Commission began to interfere with the internal doctrinal beliefs of religious groups and adjudicate on religious practice. By requiring the PBCC to adopt certain practices – albeit the PBCC has been happy to adopt them in line with their teachings – there would be strong misgivings if the Commission came close to deciding which beliefs are right and which are wrong. In this regard it is reassuring to note that the Commission publicly re-emphasised that its role "is not to pass moral or ethical judgement on religious groups". However, this case shows that it may mean treading a very fine line in practice.

In conclusion, there have been clear lessons to be learnt from this long drawn out and costly exercise. For the PBCC, there has been the need to recognise that the privilege of charitable status in turn demands that facilities are available to and accessible by the public and that the treatment of members must be humanly acceptable. They have rightly made several significant concessions. For the Charity Commission, there has been the salutary experience of recognising that constructive working together with charitable bodies is infinitely preferable to leaving disputed matters to the Charity Tribunal. It is to be hoped that a return to its previous good relations role will characterise the Commission once again and reaffirm its professional reputation.

Don Horrocks, head of public affairs, Evangelical Alliance.