I have just read The Days of Rain: A Daughter, A Father, A Cult (4th Estate, London 2017) by Rebecca Stott, a book that was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards.
The Days of Rain makes for shocking and sad reading. It tells the story of how one family was destroyed through belonging to the ‘Exclusive Brethren’ – and how the author and her family lost their Christian faith.
I found the book interesting because my mother’s grandparents belonged to the Kelly Brethren, one of the more exclusive branches of the Plymouth Brethren. I have vivid memories of attending ‘Wildfell Hall’, a ‘Gospel Hall’ in South London which my grandmother owned. Every Sunday morning there was the solemn ‘Breaking of Bread’: we sat around a small table, the men in the inner circle, and the women and children in the outer circles; and after a short opening hymn one ‘brother’ after another (never a sister, of course) gave ‘a word’. For the evening ‘Gospel’ service the chairs were re-arranged and we all sat faced at the far end of the hall – unless he was on holiday or on a speaking tour of Brethren assemblies elsewhere in Europe, my grandfather was always the preacher. Even as a child the Brethren assembly seemed quite old-fashioned – an image confirmed by the sight of my grandfather, who always wore a winged collar and a bow-tie.
However, unlike some of the other Kelly Brethren, my grandfather was never a true ‘Exclusive’. He happily associated with other evangelical Christians. He belonged to the Advent Testimony and Prophetic League, he was chairman of the interdenominational Poona and India Village Mission. I saw a photo of him standing with a group of Keswick speakers – indeed, I believe on one occasion he spoke at the Keswick convention. He certainly had no difficulty in accepting my father, even though my father was an ordained minister with very different views about the Second Coming. Significantly, too, my grandfather was not fussed about the length of women’s hair: true, my grandmother always wore her long hair in a bun, but as teenagers both my mother and her sister were allowed to have their hair cropped. There was a gentleness about my grandparents: they would have agreed with the statement popularised by Richard Baxter but which may go back to Augustine – “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”
But when ‘Big Jim Taylor’ came to power everything changed in the Exclusive Brethren. Initially the changes were gradual, but around 1960 there was a distinct toughening up. Separation from the world became the watchword. I had a friend at school, ‘Bunce’, who was the cleverest boy in our class – but he was forbidden to apply for a university place, for that was ‘worldly’. A key text on separation were so verses from the Old Testament quoted by Paul: “Come out from them and be separate from them, says the Lord” (2 Cor 6.17). Now only the Exclusives were the true believers – all other so-called ‘Christians’ were of the Devil. Taylor only allowed members of the Exclusive Brethren to eat with one another – family members who did not share their faith were to be regarded as ‘beyond the pale’. The following decades were marked by massive abuse in power by Brethren leaders which resulted in many members having nervous breakdowns which often led to suicide. It is a terrible story which Rebecca Storr tells well.
However, the misuse of power is not restricted to the Exclusive Brethren. Indeed, when Lord Acton said “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” , he had the Roman Catholics in mind. Some of the charismatic community churches have also been prone to authoritarian leadership, manipulation, excessive discipline and spiritual intimidation: for instance, at one stage the ‘Harvesttime’ Restoration church put submission to church leaders on the same level as submission to God. Then there was Chris Brain, a Sheffield vicar, who set up the rave-style ‘Nine o’clock service’ until after revelations of wide-ranging abuse he was removed from his post. Abuse comes in different forms – sometimes, as in the Exclusive Brethren, the church leaders are the abusers; however, I have known a good number of Baptist churches where the members have abused their minister. Not surprisingly, as a result of these power games, many have given up not just on the church, but also on God altogether. It has been said that ‘Those who make it hardest to be a Christian in this world are often the other Christians’.
Instead of looking at ‘proof texts’ of one kind or another we need to look to Jesus the servant. Jesus reversed all human ideas of greatness and rank, and in so doing unleashed in an unparalleled way the power of God into our world. As I concluded in Power for God’s sake: the use and abuse of power in the local church: “Power for God’s sake is power surrendered in the service of others”.