My family’s experience of the Plymouth Brethren

Many years ago relatives of mine were in the Plymouth Brethren, gradually moving from the ‘open’ section to the ‘exclusives’. It was not a happy time for my otherwise close family who failed to see the public benefit behind the organisation, experiencing instead separatism and fundamentalism.

My great aunt and uncle were part of their local Brethren church and their three children, my father’s cousins, were brought up in the tenets and rules of that faith. My father observed that their upbringing in the 1950s and 1960s was very different to his – restrictive and almost Victorian in values and attitudes.

Although they attended mainstream school, their friends and acquaintances were closely monitored. They weren’t allowed to watch TV, go to the cinema, play out on a Sunday, listen to pop music or dance. The girls were forbidden to wear make-up or trousers and couldn’t cut their hair. The meeting room was ruled by male elders and seating at services was segregated by gender. Women had to wear hats at services or devotional meetings even if they were taking place in private houses, much to the mirth of my gran who had to wear a hat to attend her niece’s christening, which took place in the family bath.

That’s where things stop being funny. The Brethren was becoming increasingly extremist and members started to remove themselves from any prospect of being corrupted by ‘outsiders’. Meetings were held at outlandish times so that they would not be worshipping at the same time as non-members. Food became an issue in regards to contamination by ‘unclean’ people. Lists of acceptable shops were issued (those owned by Brethren) and instructions were given on washing and peeling all fruit to avoid contamination by the ‘unclean’.

My gran regularly helped her sister with the cleaning. It was announced that, while they were happy for her to continue doing the housework for them, she was not allowed to sit with her sister to share lunch.

The children gradually withdrew from the Brethren and a lifestyle where they were chaperoned. Thankfully they were not excommunicated, but were alienated and not permitted to eat with their parents. Faith was driving a wedge between the family and eventually this became too much for my great aunt and uncle. They left too. Soon after their leaving the idea of self-sufficient Brethren communities started to be mooted.

My great uncle, who has since died, continued to have some allegiance with the Brethren throughout his life. He had decided to leave because he was unable to lead a life that mixed secular and sacred, but I wonder what he would think now that the church’s administration has agreed to bow to a secular regulator?