Tiny church we should support

By Jon Benjamin, December 21, 2012
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A recent decision regarding the charitable status of a small church in Devon might not, at first sight, appear to have major consequences for the Jewish community, but the fallout has already led to a front-page headline in the Sunday Times and questions in Parliament.

The Charity Commission’s adjudication has been cast by some as a significant policy shift in the application of the Public Benefit test introduced by the Charities Act 2006.

At the time, the Act was described as ushering in the most profound changes in charity law in 400 years. No longer would charities be presumed to bestow a public benefit simply by being charities.

Henceforth, every charity would have an ongoing obligation to show that the work it does is not only charitable, but actually benefits an identifiable portion of the public in some discernible way.

The Commission’s objection in the Devon case was that the Plymouth Brethren, who made the application, were too insular for their activities to be regarded as having sufficient public benefit. An elder of the church, which nationally has some 16,000 adherents, described the decision to deny charitable status as “a bolt from the blue”, given that hundreds of existing Brethren churches already have this status.

Back in 2006, assurances were given by those backing the legislation, including the now Labour leader Ed Miliband, that no existing faith-based charities would lose their charitable status as a result of the act. The new Chairman of the Commission, William Shawcross, has recently sought to provide further reassurance, but concerns remain.

Even as these changes were first being mooted, the Board of Deputies was engaged in detailed discussions concerning how the term “public” would be construed in law.

That the overall Jewish community would comprise a sufficiently sizeable and identifiable section of the general public was fairly clear, but what about elderly Jews, or Jews with learning disabilities in Leeds? Would they comprise a sufficiently large class of people to constitute “the public”.

And what was meant by “benefit”? If prayer counted, what about visiting the sick, learning Torah or providing Jewish burial services? As a community, it was essential that our charities should continue to be able to offer specific services like these to targeted groups.

Another concern raised during those discussions six years ago was in relation to proselytising — seeking converts. Evangelising to non-believers is central to Christian tradition but is not a feature of Judaism. While accepting that Christians want to spread the Gospel, aggressively targeted proselytising we argued, would not be of benefit to society.

Which is why the reasons for refusing the Brethren’s application make uncomfortable reading and are now being challenged on appeal. As a community, they are deeply devout, very traditional and detached in many ways from what they would regard as pernicious influences in modern society — features not unknown in parts of the Jewish community.

But they still live in the real world, work alongside colleagues of all faiths and none, interacting with society in the ways that we all do. They even do a little street-corner preaching.

And yet the Commission determined that they are too withdrawn from society and don’t engage enough in proselytising to spread their religious views. Apparently being moral, law-abiding, upstanding citizens guided by their faith is not of sufficient public benefit.

The decision has not endeared the Commission to a group of some 50 MPs, who have slated it for denying the Brethren’s application. Harlow’s MP Robert Halfon has also noted that the Brethren were persecuted by the Nazis, and the attack on them now has unfortunate, if unintended, echoes.

The concern must be that parts of the Jewish community may now be vulnerable to censure or even de-registration by the Commission. For this reason, we have met representatives of the Plymouth Brethren, discussed the matter with charity lawyers, other faith groups and with Cabinet figures to start to make some noise of our own — preaching to the unconverted.

Jon Benjamin is the Board of Deputies chief executive

Last updated: 11:28am, December 21 2012