British MPs defend Brethren church’s charitable status in important test case

November 19, 2012 by  
Filed under newsletter-world

There are over 370 Brethren Gospel Halls throughout the UK

There are over 370 Brethren Gospel Halls throughout the UK

United Kindgdom, November 16, 2012: MPs have made a robust defence of the Brethren church that has been denied charitable status by the Charity Commission in an important test case for churches and Christian organisations throughout the country.

In a well-attended debate led by Fiona Bruce, Conservative MP for Congleton, in Westminster Hall on Tuesday (13 November), members discussed the implications of the decision against Preston Downs Trust, which owns gospel halls in Torquay, Paignton and Newton Abbot.

The Brethren church was denied charitable status over concerns that it does not satisfy the “public benefit” requirement; the lack of public access to the communion services held in gospel halls was specifically mentioned.

Ms Bruce and numerous other MPs highlighted the extensive work carried out by the Brethren in their communities, including support for families, care for young people, disaster relief, visits to prisons, hospitals, and donations of substantial funds to many charities. She said, “Surely no one can argue that they do not provide public benefit” and also defended the “openness” of the Brethren; they actively share their faith and make information about their services available to non-Brethren.

Ms Bruce said, “Restricting access to Holy Communion should not be a reason for refusing charitable status.”

Other MPs raised concerns about the wider implications of the Charity Commission’s decision for churches and Christian groups.

Charlie Elphicke, Conservative MP for Dover, said:

This is a test case on religion and the thin end of the wedge, particularly given that the Charity Commission’s letter says that even the Church of England would have to prove public benefit.

Saint Michael and All Angels Church

All churches now have to prove their "public benefit"

Amendments under the Charities Act 2006 removed the presumption of “public benefit” for organisations that advance religion and required charities that had been registered under the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855 to seek registration with the Charity Commission. Churches therefore now have to demonstrate how they are of benefit to the public, whereas before it was taken as a given that they were.

“Public benefit” is not clearly defined in the Act, but the Charity Commission states that it must be identifiable, balanced against any harm, appropriate to the charity’s aims, and not “unreasonably restricted” in a way that might prevent some people from benefiting from the charity’s work.

The Brethren, which has over 370 gospel halls throughout the UK, has enjoyed charitable status for over 50 years. Following the changes to the law under the 2006 Act, they had to re-apply. Brethren representatives met with the Charity Commission in 2008 to discuss a programme for registering all their gospel halls, and it was agreed that a sample application would be submitted by one of their trusts, Preston Downs. This was made on 18 February 2009.

Several further meetings took place during which the trust’s benefit to the public was considered. In June 2012, the trustees received a letter from the Charity Commission informing them that their application for charitable status had been refused.

– barnabas edit


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