Darren Cartwright, The Courier-Mail, August 15, 2019 5:13pm

It has 5000 Brisbane members and just received the green light for a new church in the city’s east, but criticism from well-known Australians has created a series of negative headlines. Now a spokesman and long-time member has hit back.

AN immensely private religious group says it’s misunderstood and is not an extremist sect and its members could be your neighbour, workmate or even your boss.

The Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, which has more than 5000 Brisbane members, have just been given the green light to build a new place of worship at Tingalpa.

The approval follows a lengthy and yet unsuccessful development application in Manly West that met fierce resistance from Manly West residents who claimed they did want the sect’s church in their neighbourhood.

The Brethren’s spokesman and longtime member Lloyd Grimshaw said there were many myths circulating about the faith, including that it was secretive, and they were simply not true.

The religious group was formed in the UK mid-1800s when it broke away from the Anglican Church.

Nationally they have more than 15,000 members and 83 churches including more than a dozen in Brisbane.

They are more commonly known as the ‘Exclusive Brethren’ and tend to make the news for all the wrong reasons.

Nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton detailed her life growing up in the ‘Exclusive Brethren’ and being prohibited from attending concerts and forced to hear the confessions of adults which were at times were of a sexual nature.

During the 2016 interview with A Current Affair, she said when her family was excommunicated their ‘friends’ ignored them and that “it’s really wrong to subject children to that”.

One of the church’s harshest critics has been former prime minister Kevin Rudd, who in 2007 while in opposition, said they “split families”.

A few years later as PM, he endorsed a bushfire book produced by the Brethren’s Glenvale School in Victoria.

“Being disliked by Mr Rudd doesn’t put you in an exclusive group, but he did say it in the heat of an election,” Mr Grimshaw said.

“There’s been a few loud people with big megaphones and we’ve been on the wrong end of the stick. A lot of it comes from misunderstanding and misinformation, to be honest.

“We are Christians following fundamental Christian beliefs and if people want to call us that because they have a beef or are a disaffected member or a nasty comment … it’s unfortunate but it could not be further from the truth.”

He said children were not prevented from enjoying and playing music, at home or at school, and performed in school plays, but were not made to hear adult confessions.

“It’s true children do not attend concerts or music festivals outside of school, but they do enjoy music and playing music,” he said.

“I’m certainly not going to comment on her (Ms Stanton’s) individual experiences … but it is certainly not church practice or policy (children attending adult confession) and I’m fifty-plus years old and I’ve never heard of that happening.”

Although they are still referred to as the Exclusive Brethren in public circles, Mr Grimshaw said they have referred to the faith by their founding name “for the past 15 years.”

They also operate four independent Queensland schools under the brand name Agnew at Toowoomba, Nambour, Maryborough and Wakerley with a combined total of more than 290 enrolled students.

He said schools were as technologically advanced as any Queensland educational facility and suggestions they lived in the dark ages was another untruth that needed to be dispelled.

“Our schools are built around technologically smart classrooms … and employ 50 local teachers that are non-Brethren,” he said.

“We try and reach out into some of the more remote areas and for the quality of education for our students we have to rely on technology and have access to the same technology.”

The Church’s ‘Doctrine of Separation’ on its website states they “eat and drink only with those with whom we would celebrate the Lord’s Supper — that is the basis of our fellowship”.

Mr Grimshaw said that reading the doctrine in isolation contributed to the belief that they were secretive and did not mingle with the rest of society.

“We travel on public transport, planes and trains and we eat meals sitting next to people and it’s a minor point that people make a big deal about,” he said.

“It’s something people often talk about and our core beliefs are fundamental Christian beliefs … but we do have one tradition that we follow, if you want to call it that, is that we reserve eating and drinking as fellowship with persons we have Holy Communions with.”

What’s not commonly known, is that many of the congregation run a variety of businesses who freely employ people outside the faith, he said.

“We live in the community across Brisbane like anyone else and we have 500 plus members and many of them run small business and employ thousands of non-Brethren,” Mr Grimshaw said.

“We work, live and shop there and are among the community and many people would live next to a Brethren and don’t even realise it. We don’t make ourselves out to be secretive.”

Over the past decade the Brethren has tried to gain approval to build a new Brisbane church but has come under fire from local residents.

A 2010 development application for a church to cater for 1200 worshippers at Manly West, the largest meeting room in Queensland, was rejected while a meeting hall at Wakerley was approved.

The local opposition to both proposals included Facebook groups and dozens of objections being logged with the Brisbane City Council.

Last week the Brethren was given the green light to build a new church in Tingalpa to add to more than a dozen places of worship that are “dotted around Brisbane”.

The Tingalpa location sits directly opposite the Wakerley campus, a coeducational facility for Years 3-12, under the OneSchool Global brand.

He said they were an apolitical religion and don’t vote as a matter of conscience, although he said it wasn’t rigorously policed.

“Whether people vote or not is up to them but we certainly don’t go checking up on them,” he said.

What is overlooked by the general public was the work the Brethren has done to help farmers across Queensland, he said.

Their Rapid Response Team delivered more than 5000 hay bales to more than 260 farming families in Cunnamulla, Charleville and Felton earlier this year.

“Anyone who has taken the time to see who we are and what we do and the charity work we do,” he said.

“People don’t even know us and act as experts and make comments and there are a lot of people in that bucket.”

Originally published as Brethren: Secretive church hits out at claims