Editor’s note: After the Exclusive Brethren split in 1960 and 1970 into Taylorites and non-Taylorites, the non-Taylorites then underwent several further schisms, as shown in the following dendrogram. There are, of course, many other branches derived from earlier schisms. This Section contains Roger’s comments on some of the non-Taylorite sects, particularly the fellowship often referred to as the Renton Group.
Thu, 9 Aug 2001
Subject: Upsetting the Brethren
Back in May -in an exchange with Peter French in Dick Wyman's Guest Book- I described the brethren teaching on separation as 'blasphemous nonsense'. A 'Ted Fry' wrote to ask whether I was talking about the JTJr onward era or the whole of brethren history. I replied:
Date & Comments: May 24, 2001
This is in animated response to Ted Fry (on whom be peace).
No, not just the Jims, the principle of separation from the world as it is taught and practised by exclusive brethren in all their sectarian varieties is arrogant, simplistic and subversive of Christian teaching. My 'Frost' mother lives with my 'Renton' sister. They love each other (and I dearly love both of them) yet because of some foolish pharasaical difference (straining out the gnat and swallowing down the camel) between the two tiny fellowships they can't break bread together. If it wasn't so sad it would be worthy of a comic novel. Evelyn Waugh would have loved it as source material. So would Nancy Mitford and Stella Gibbons. (But you'll have to wait for my (lesser but OK) novel on the subject - which is three quarters finished.)
The model for Christian life (which EBs have always subverted and denied) is the life of Jesus. The apostle Peter says we should 'follow in his steps'. Brethren have gone into paroxysms of specious argument to deny this and to set an agenda which suits their masochistic, dull, sterile, life-denying tunnel vision. They seem to have been determined to be the Pharisees of the present age. And everyone knows what Jesus said to the Pharisees about their attitudes and their prim arrogance.
Transcendence is a part of the Christian life but it has to be matched by the equal truth of immanence. And THAT is something that brethren have totally ignored. The saddest thing to me is EBs who leave the Hales sect but learn no lessons and carry on with a pale imitation of all that damp-handed, pathetically silly posturing. And still (in their innermost being) believe that they are the ONLY ONES WHO ARE RIGHT. It's enough to drive you to drink. There was no 'recovery', no 'light of the assembly' - just a sterile, boring, sad little cul-de-sac. Which, in the end, blew up. And ruined many lives in the process. I am grateful that my five wonderful children were too young to be tainted before 1970.
With blessings upon all of you, however prim and hide-bound you may be, My friends we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age, But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth, And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death: For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen, Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.
Roger (I used to be a 'ministering brother' before I discovered Shakespeare and Yeats and Mozart and Rembrandt) Stott
Now that letter is fairly sweeping and it has a touch of irascibility about it, I admit. But there is a tongue-in-cheek element in it as well, esp. in the 'drive you to drink', the Chesterton quote and the sign-off. I wouldn't want to change it, even 11 weeks later. But it has aroused widespread fury among Rentons and Frosts. I am being pilloried all over the country (and probably all over the rentonfrostite world) as a malicious mocker of the holy truths of brethrendom. Which I suppose -on the basis of that letter- I am. I really seem to have touched a nerve.
But this is the group (or a fragment of it) which has sweepingly condemned and blackened the whole of christendom (and the rest of the world) as evil and wicked and to-be-separated-from. Darby spent nearly seven hundred pages castigating the Roman Catholic Church and used a great deal of sarcasm and mockery in doing so. It seems a little strange that they should 'cry foul' when they get a bit of their own treatment.
I really think that they believe that those of us who have left ebism have done so entirely out of lust for the world and in a spirit of self-indulgent hedonism. That deep down we all KNOW REALLY that brethren teaching is right.
To those who have contacted me I have said, quite simply, that the whole brethren phenomenon has been a dark blight on my life (and on my family) and that I am perfectly entitled to say so. That they have been robust enough in handing out condemnation and criticism and that they should therefore be able to take it. I've advised them to go back to my letter and read it again and tell me where I have been unfair.
Incidentally, no one seems to have a clue what I am talking about when I refer to 'transcendence and immanence'. It's perfectly straightforward. Transcendence refers to the side of Christian teaching which is devotional and ruminative and related to heaven -the idea of God and his realm being 'out there'. Immanence (which is given equal space in the bible but has been TOTALLY ignored by brethren and some other fundamentalists) is the involvement of God in his own creation, the sense of us all being part of (and responsible for) each other, whatever we may (or may not) believe. It's the organic side of Christian belief (which Paul refers to when he speaks of 'the whole creation groaning together' (Romans 8:22)) Gerard Manley Hopkins is a poet of immanence (read 'The world is charged with the glory of God') and Wordsworth is another. When immanence is overstressed it becomes pantheism. When transecendance is overstressed (as in all brethren teachings) it becomes gnosticism - a claim to have esoteric spiritual insight which brings with it a hatred of the body and of material things in general.
Darby was, I believe, a genuine gnostic, who punished and denied his body and had no regard for material pleasures. His way of life was very austere. Paradoxically, his legacy has been a middle class hypocrisy, living comfortable, self- indulgent lives while still regarding themselves as some kind of ascetics because they don't have TVs or go to the cinema. They're like a bunch of kids dressing up in costume but not really understanding its significance. I've known some real ascetics and there is a kind of grace and sanctity about them which I have never seen in brethren. (I speak, of course, as one who no longer believes.)
Sorry about the length of this.
Love to all
I was very sad to hear of the death of Cloudy's daughter.
Thu, 9 Aug 2001
Subject: Upsetting the Brethren
Dear Warren and Sandy
Many thanks for your warm responses. I was a bit nervous about airing all this on the main forum but I did want to share it with my friends. (The exebs have been giving me quite a hard time over it - by stirring up my relatives who are brethren-lite.)
Warren: I had a bit of correspondence with Gordon Rainbow after Aberdeen. (I've still got the letters somewhere.) He does go on a bit. (But then, sometimes, so do I.)
No Sandy, Kensal Green is a famous cemetery in London! Wilkie Collins, William Makepeace Thackeray and Anthony Trollope are buried there. My son and I lived near there for a few years when we both worked for the BBC.
Love to all
Sun, 9 Sep 2001
Subject: 'Happy memories' (another one for JB to delete)
Welcome back. I hope you had a good trip.
I'm sorry you felt saddened by your feeb intray. You asked before you went away if anyone had any positive memories of their lives in the brethren and most people said they didn't.
This is actually quite a complex question to ask. I can look back on a great deal of 'happiness' even in the JT Jr days (I remember particularly enjoying 3 day meetings at Andover with your father) but I couldn't say that these were good memories. Why?
Because I now see that my whole outlook was skewed and unreal. I was in the grip of something that I still don't fully understand (I'm writing a book about it) but which I now know to have been damaging and toxic. I was participating in a mad, apocalyptic cult that was frequently cruel and oppressive to innocent people who had grown up in it when it was quite different and later (because of family/ financial/business ties) found it impossible to leave. So even those bits that felt warm and enjoyable at the time are tainted. (Take a much more extreme case. A Nazi guard at Auschwitz might have had a very good social life with the other guards playing cards etc, but if later he came to realize what an obscenity he was involved in, he would hardly look back affectionately on that period of his life.)
There are other factors that affect the way we look back. In the JT Jr years there were those who led and those who followed, those who did things and those to whom things were done. If you were among (or on the fringes of) the ruling classes (usually called 'the approved') it was possible to feel safe and enjoy yourself. I certainly did, although there were times of anxiety and stress. Your father was a prominent brother (as mine was) and you and I grew up as part of the ruling elite. (If I remember right you were 11 at the time of Aberdeen? I was 32.) For others who were on the receiving end and not really convinced of what was going on, life could be very tough indeed most of the time. Many of the people on this forum had that experience.
Another factor is: how far one moves away from the brethren outlook afterwards. By being with the Rentons (as some of my relatives are) you have clearly retained much of the original (ie pre-JT Jr ) outlook of exclusive brethren. Most of the folk on this forum have moved much further away than that. They see the seeds of Jt Jrism in the whole principle of separation and believe that the brethren movement was wrong-headed and arrogant from the start. Some of the forum members left brethren before JT Jr arrived and others left in the very early 60s. These never saw the developed repressions and cruelties of the middle and late 60s yet they still look back on their brethren years as wasted and oppressive.
You and I probably represent the extreme wings of the feeb membership. For all James Bell's merry little quips at my expense, I am not an atheist - as anyone who has read my emails will have realized. But I am certainly not a practising Christian. I see all religions as metaphorical attempts to explain the ineffable and I'm perfectly happy that they should try. Myths and literature and painting and the whole field of the arts are trying to do the same things, and I find them of more value. But when religions start shouting about being the ONLY TRUTH and putting everyone else in the wrong and breathing out threatening and slaughter (and eternal torture) to anyone who doesn't accept their dogmas, I shrug and move on. Truth should be able to stand on its own two feet and not need barbed wire and machine gun posts round it.
I hope you will be able to stay with us. The whole point of this forum is that it is a resource for any who have a brethren background, whatever their present outlook. You say that I have a number of things wrong about the 'Renton' fellowship and that may well be true. I have found that their outlook varies quite a bit from place to place. In their meetings around London there is still quite a bit of brethrenistic emphasis on 'separation' but much of this is contravened in practice. But the basic 'religious apartheid' idea is still in place and that I think is what screws everything up. It always contains within it something of that stupid old graceless idea that 'we are right and everyone else is wrong'.
Love and best wishes Roger
Tue, 25 Sep 2001 Subject: I love the world
This is going to be another of those 'Dear Michael, I have nothing but goodwill towards you but . . .' letters.
'Whining' was the word that made me feel that I had to respond. Whining? -the exclusive brethren outlook (much of which you retain by being in the Renton fellowship) is founded on whining. It's a run-away-from-reality, don't- let-the-bogies-get-me escapism which hides behind a dishonest and hypocritical interpretation of the bible so as to create an apparently safe little enclave of comfortable people who all share the same mythical distortion of reality. And whine, whine whine, about the wickedness of the world and the errors and wrong practices of other christians but still manage to live comfortable unselfdenying bourgeois lives in the world.
This world is a wilderness wide,
We have nothing to seek nor to choose whine whine whine whine.
(Imagine a very strong, very rude, dissenting word here. In bold and underlined.) Now I'm going to quote a passage written by a member of the forum on this subject. I don't have the author's permission so I will quote it anonymously. (I have made two small changes so that the author can remain anonymous if he/she wants to. I hope I am forgiven.)
I love the world. I am crazy for the world around me and the people in it. I love mountains and rivers and politics and computers and Tibetan Buddhist monks and liturgical prayers and Beethoven and travel and good wine and my cat and my partner and the way sunlight filters through the eucalyptus trees in the morning outside the patio doors and the ravings of William Blake and the films of Jean Renoir and laughter and the City of London and the entire Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art even the front steps and the west coast of Vancouver Island and Christiane Amanpour reporting from anywhere. I can't get enough of the world. I want to live in it, love it, care for it, savor it, write about it, celebrate it, heal it, enjoy it.
That is so beautiful that it deserves to be enshrined as 'the forum hymn' or 'the forum declaration of liberty'. I salute the writer. Like us he/she was shrivelled and stunted by the meanness and small-mindedness of brethren thinking, its pettiness and its ruthless suppression of individuality (especially of girls and women), its constant whining derogation of beauty and creativity and true (as opposed to bogus) spirituality, its complacent dismissal of 'the human mind' as dark and irredeemable. (Which resulted in the elevation of fourth rate minds to oracular authority.)
But the writer escaped from all that dark and dreary mediocrity to an infinitely more creative and fulfilling way of living and many of us have and we look back on our brethren imprisonment quite differently to you because you were only eleven when Aberdeen happened and you were protected by the eminence of your father in the movement. And you now belong to a watered down version of this 'religious apartheid' movement (which still shares many of its arrogances as I have pointed out previously). That's OK, but don't accuse people on this forum of whining if they have an utterly different mindset to you about brethrenism. They were oppressed and damaged (some irretrievably, some still recovering) and they are entitled to talk about their experiences if it is therapeutic to do so. That is what this forum is for.
Love to all
(Incidentally, talking about Rentonism, I was recently shown the notes of a Renton fellowship meeting circa 1972 in which one of their prominent leaders insisted that it was 'wrong in principle' for anyone to have left the exclusives before Aberdeen happened. I was told that that statement has never been repudiated. Very interesting if true.)
Wed, 26 Sep 2001 Subject: I love the world
My 'flash of irritation' was genuine and I don't regret it. I am in weekly touch with relatives in fellowship with you and see the characteristics I referred to all the time. And as I have said to you - my mother is 96 next month and we all know that when she dies, my Renton sister (with whom my Frost mother lives) will not be able to attend her own mother's funeral because it will conducted by Frosts and my sister's Renton locals would not allow her to go. That -if an uncredible unbeliever may humbly point it out- is iniquitous and unscriptural (as well as a lot of other things) and means that you personally are, in the time-honoured brethren phrase, 'going on with evil'.
Then there is my earlier allegation (which you didn't comment on) that Rentons laid down a fiat early in their existence that it was 'wrong in principle for anyone to have left the eb fellowship before the events of Aberdeen' (which is as big a piece of arrogant silliness as I have ever heard). I am told that this has never been repudiated. Put those two idiotic things together and I marvel at the understatement in my previous posting!
Forgive this rumbustiousness on this forum Gordon but I haven't seen Michael in the Kitchen for several weeks and I'm not sure whether he still has a presence there.
Love to all
[excerpt from a later letter written 4 July 2002:]
The signs for the funeral don't look good. Christine and Michael (who have had mother living in their house for the last years of her life) have had it indicated to them by their local branch of the Rentons that they mustn't attend a Frost funeral meeting and they are (I think) going to absent themselves and just be at the grave. This edict can only be based on a rather more than vestigial idea that 'there is only one right position and we are it, so every other collective Christian act is sinful and schismatic'. For me this outlook is ignorant, arrogant and also, in a simple Christian sense, heretical. At the same time it is cruel and stupid. I wish that my lovely sister and her husband could get this cancer out of their systems.
Sat, 7 Jun 2003
Subject: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
I agree with most of what Alistair says but will give my own account. I was in the 8000 who left the Taylor fellowship after Aberdeen and stayed with them until the end of 1971 (18 months). The split came some months after that. (I'm not sure exactly when, I was too busy going to the theatre.)
My father was one of the most prominent brothers in the Frost side of the split (I always guessed that he was mildly irritated that the company became known as 'Frosts' rather than 'Stotts' -he was vastly more influential than Dr Frost, and Jim Renton -who gave his name to t'other side- was my father's first cousin, but my father never actually said so.) So Frosts and Rentons spent about two years as a single fellowship but tensions grew about how much of JTJr's teaching was correct. Jim Renton took the line that the tightening up of separation from 1959 onwards (leaving professional associations etc) was authentic and right and that SOME of the later stuff (including some of the 'not eating with people not in your fellowship' issue was still to be observed. My father and John Welch (AJEW) were the two surviving trustees of the Stow Hill Depot and they went different ways on the split. So the poor old publishing depot had to be cut in half again.
In general terms it was the most brethrenistic and 'legal' who formed the Rentons - they were more at ease with a tighter regime. But they were still way more liberal than the Taylor fellowship that we had all left. I had a close up on this because my mother and brother remained with the Frosts after my father died in 1976 and my sister stayed with the Rentons (and in fact married John Welch's son Michael after her first husband, Ben Bodman of Bristol, died tragically young in the same year as my father). A few years later my mother moved in to live with my sister and her husband but continued to attend Frost meetings while my sister had Renton breakings of bread and prayer meetings in their house. (My mother would be picked up and taken off to a Frost meeting while Rentons were arriving at the house.) This was seriously farcical because theologically they were only a whisker apart.
Frosts (I used to take my mother to their meetings sometimes so I saw quite a bit of them) were still quite brethrenistic but they had a much stronger sense of the ridiculousness of the JT Jr years and they were quite relaxed about relations with other christians and even got involved in some charity work. Someone from my mother's local meeting actually drove a minibus full of clothes and food out to Bosnia!
If I had to sum up the main difference between the two I would say that Frosts are quite content to take their place amongst other Christian groups, believing that they have 'more light' but also accepting that a great deal of this is being at ease with 'what you are used to.' They have a keen sense that exclusive brethren have made serious fools of themselves. My mother (who died 11 months ago) said that if she had her time over again she would not choose brethren - this shocked me because she has spent her life reading brethren ministry and had a big reputation as a 'pious and well-taught sister'. Frosts on the other hand (although they will deny it) are still haunted by the dreadfully silly idea of 'there being only one right position'. They will squirm all round this and use expressions like 'we have to be true to the light that we have' but they are actually crippled and distorted by the exclusive idea. They are deeply hypocritical - my sister can quite happily go to a business dinner with the company where she works but was unable to enter the Frost meeting room for her mother's funeral meeting. (But did come to the grave where a Frost brother 'committed the body'.) They still don't have radio or television but many of them have videos with screens and hire videos.
The Frosts did split a few years ago into what are called 'hard' and 'soft' Frosts but I don't know all the details. It was sparked off in Croydon by (I think) an elderly brother raising some pertinent questions about JT Sr's ministry. (My mother shook her head in despair and told me that if she were not in her nineties she would have turned her back on brethren altogether at that point.)
I see the whole brethren thing as a kind of viral infection and the soft Frosts have a very mild version of it. They are kind and nice people but somewhat hidebound and stultified. The Rentons - most of them - are lovely too but they are more messed up and out-of-sync. My sister, whom I love dearly, is WASTED in that silly arrogant little fellowship. She paints exquisite watercolours and plays Chopin very well indeed but her major energy is being poured down the brethren drain. (I want to take her to Stratford and Glyndebourne and the National Theatre.)
Sorry this is such a personal account. I can't really avoid that.
Love to all