Churches and charity law: where do things stand after the Preston Down Trust ruling?

The Plymouth Brethren said the outcome was a relief(Photo: Plymouth Brethren)

I often meet leaders from churches and Christian charities who are wary of the Charity Commission, viewing it as an unsympathetic and perhaps secularist regulator. Since charity law requires that charities must be established for the public benefit, many church and charity leaders are anxious that they need to show they are doing 'good works' in the community to justify their charitable status, and that teaching and sharing the Christian faith in itself is not enough.

However, the law is clear that sharing the Christian faith is charitable in its own right, and the Charity Commission has worked hard to understand churches, particularly since changes in charity law mean that many more have been required to register with the Commission since 2006.

For those who remain doubtful about the Commission's approach, its recent decision to register Preston Down Trust, a gospel hall part of the movement formerly known as 'exclusive Brethren', at least partly on the basis of its evangelistic practices should provide comfort.

"Spreading the gospel is clearly charitable"

The Preston Down Trust's efforts to become a registered charity date back to 2009. It was initially rejected on the basis that it hadn't demonstrated sufficient benefit to the wider community. This was due both to its exclusivity and unusual disciplinary practices – explained in the decision to involve "shrinking" (formerly known as "shutting up") and "excommunication". The Commission questioned whether the Church was established for public benefit or only for the benefit of its own members. In January however, the Commission reversed its decision, registering the Trust, finding that it was established for the advancement of religion and crucially for the public benefit.

Within the Commission's 10,000-word decision are a number of insights into how the body perceives church activity, most notably a paragraph detailing how the Preston Down Trust serves the public benefit through its evangelistic practices.

"[The Trust] engages in street preaching to spread the word of God rather than as a means of proselytising. The distribution of religious publications and spreading the gospel is clearly charitable."

It is ironic that scrutiny from a secular regulator seems to have nudged the Church into increasing its evangelistic outreach. And it is puzzling that Charity Commission apparently sees 'proselytising' and 'spreading the word of God' as two distinct activities. But the encouragement for churches and mission organisations shouldn't be missed. The secular regulator has formally acknowledged that a church is established for the public benefit, thanks in part to its work of 'spreading the gospel'. Charity law already recognised this, but it is helpful to have such a clear statement in a formal published Charity Commission decision, which has precedent value for other churches and charities.

A note of caution – the Charity Commission has become an arbiter of church practice

The Charity Commission has always claimed not to be interested in churches' doctrines or practices. But in registering the Preston Down Trust the Commission has, perhaps unwittingly, become an arbiter of church practice. To be registered as a charity, the church was required to formalise its theology into a statement of its core doctrines and set out its approach to discipline in a legally binding document called 'faith in practice', agreeing to ensure it acts with more compassion than it has historically been.

If the Preston Down Trust doesn't follow through on these commitments and operate consistently with these new statements of its doctrines and practices, the Charity Commission can – in theory – determine that the church is not a charity and direct that its property should be given to another similar charity. This would cover all the church's assets, including property it acquired before it was registered as a charity. The great irony is that a separatist group like the Trust is now accountable to a secular regulator body for its Christian practices. The authoritative position the secular regulator has taken in this albeit unusual case may well cause unease amongst other churches.

Stephanie Biden is a partner at Bates Wells Braithwaite. She advises charities, Christian organisations and social enterprises.