Banned Church Cult Springs Up In Brum
Black Country Evening Mail (Birmingham), 17 November 1994.
By Martin Banks, Bulletin Correspondent
A Cult church which has been banned from university campuses throughout Britain has established itself in Birmingham. The Birmingham Church of Christ has overtaken the notorious Moonies as the fastest-growing cult church, and claims to have 350 members in Birmingham, making it the largest centre outside London. An Evening Mail investigation has shown that, although Birmingham and Aston Universities have banned it, the church is actively seeking recruits from the University of Central England at Perry Barr.
Mick Duncan, deputy president of the UCE’s Student’s Union, said: “We’re very concerned about this group as there have been problems with its members trying to recruit students.”
And while it asks hard-up students to give 10 per cent of their already meagre income, its leader in the Midlands, Tim Dannett, lives in a 120,000 pound house in Handsworth Wood, Birmingham, complete with its own gymnasium snooker room. The International Church of Christ, whose activities are being investigated by the Charity Commission, has been accused of:
- Using mind-control techniques
- Splitting and alienating families
- Persuading members to associate only with fellow believers, and
- Mis-using members’ money
The church denies all these allegations.
“We’re just a Bible group”
John Partington, Administrator for the Church of Christ in Britain, described the organisation as “basically a Bible-based Christian fellowship” that was growing both numerically and closer to the Bible. “We’re not that disturbed by being called a cult,” he said. “That is an emotive term, but what does it mean? Jesus was called a cult by the religious people of his day.”
He admitted that they asked for large amount of both time and money from members, but denied they split recruits from friends or families.
“We call for a high level of commitment and expect people to ‘tithe,’ but only to the level of their ability. Obviously, we wouldn’t expect a single parent to give as much as a solicitor or accountant. The money we collect is given to the poor and to help meet the cost of the employing full-time staff, the hire of buildings and other administrative costs. I totally refute the allegation that we use mind-control. That would hardly be possible with such a socially mixed membership. It is correct we are being investigated by the Charity Commission. I understand they are nearing conclusion of their inquiries and I am confident they will conclude that the church is run in a proper way.”
The Church of Christ is the fastest-growing cult in Britain, and claims to have 350 members in Birmingham, despite being banned at two city universities.
Mail reporter Martin Banks went undercover to see how the cult operates.
Sheltering from the rain. I was stopped by a polite young man in Paradise Forum, a Birmingham shopping precinct, on a wet Saturday afternoon. He asked me if I was interested in some meetings they were having. I took a leaflet.
Later, in the Edwardian Tea Rooms in Birmingham Art Gallery, I sat with Brian Davis, the young man I’d encountered at Paradise Forum. I introduced myself as Paul, a mature university student new to the Midlands. I told him I was a lapsed Catholic and was seeking new friends and companionship to help me cope with a failed relationship. I was friendless in a big city. Brian comforted me with reassuring words about the Church. I would meet new friends, my social life would improve and most important of all, I would become a “true Christian”.
He told me I had nothing to lose, and much to gain by joining. I soon discovered Brian was to be my “discipler” – my very own personal spritual shepherd. I was told later that I should obey him in all things even if I were to strongly disagree with his advice.
Brian is 29, single, a draughtsman with an aviation company. He hardly knew me, but already was inviting me to Bible-reading sessions, social events church services and meetings.
Despite my reservations, I accepted Brian’s invitation to their Sunday morning service where, he said, I would see for myself how wonderful I would find the church.
He was right. It was 10.15 a.m. and already a crowd was gathering outside the Library Lecture Theatre in the city centre, even though the service didn’t start for another hour. As a newcomer I was overwhelmed with displays of warmth and affection from other members. Black-suited “ushers” shepherded us into the 350 seat auditorium. People – teenagers and the middle aged, black and white, male and female – piled in. Children, some as young as five, were taken away to the “children’s ministry”.
The service was loud and intense. There was much shouting and chanting, particularly to greet a young man who took the stage to deliver a sermon. He was Steve Sharples, a university student from Wigan. He whipped his congregation into a state of near-hysteria with his ramblings about the “evils” of society. Several new members were baptised by being fully immersed in water tanks on the stage. That, I was told, made them fully-fledged Christians.
I was introduced to Tim Dannett, leader of the Birmingham Church. He was very well-spoken, obviously intelligent. I was told I must show total obedience to him. He invited me to his home to “read the Scripture”. Already, I found myself being referred to as “brother”. I felt like I’d become a member of “the family”.
The church held one of their twice-weekly meetings at Holte Secondary School, Hockley. On a cold, Wednesday evening there were not quite so many people, but still enough to fill most of the seats. On a giant screen we were shown an hour-long video. The message was delivered by the leader of he International Church of Christ in Japan. We were obviously meant to be impressed.
I fell into conversation with other members. I was introduced to Roger Spence, 42, who joined the church five years ago. He told me their members come from a cros-section of society. “We have university students, people from the CBSO, professionals, and a member of the Birmingham Conservatoire. But there are also single mothers and unskilled people.”
It was clear, though, that they were in the main middle-class, intelligent and idealistic, including students, businessman, accountants and engineers. Nicholla Eborall, aged 19, told me: “Joining the church is the best thing I’ve ever done. You’ll love it.”
After a rallying call from Tim Dannett, the meeting broke up into smaller groups. It was time for the weekly “tithe” – where members donated a minimum 10 per cent of their gross income. When asked about my income, I said I was a student with no other earnings except a grant. No matter, I was told, I could still manage 10 per cent. But that wasn’t all. I was informed there were “special contributions” – twice-yearly levies for the poor plus collections.
The church met everywhere – schools, libraries, cafes, even on buses. To them, they’re evangelising – “reaching out to convert lost souls.”
I sat in a McDonald’s with one member during a break from recruiting in Birmingham High street. He asked me about my personal life. What were my sexual habits: How many partners had I had in the last 12 months?
I said I was single. “In that case, you’d be strongly advised to find a partner,” he said. “But make sure it’s another member of the church, otherwise the leaders won’t approve. And it doesn’t pay to upset one of the leaders.”
New members, I was told, were strongly urged to move in with other members in order to help spritual growth. There was a communal house in Handsworth where I could live with other brothers and sisters. I said I had my own family and friends, too, but was told the church was my “family” now.
I was asked if I was ready to be baptised, to become a “true Christian.” I’d been told that anyone who left the church would be damned and condemned to a life of misery. Despite that, I knew the time had arrived to leave the Church of Christ and I simply stopped attending meetings and services.
Tim Dannett is the smooth-talking, all-powerful head of the Birmingham church. He is proud that six years ago the Birmingham branch had just 14 members – now there are 350.
“We are the biggest and fastest-growing church in the city,” he says. But his “success” has come at a high personal price. He confided that his wife’s family had dissassociated themselves from them because of her involvement with the church. “They are strict Irish Catholics and don’t approve of the church,” he said. He speaks and looks like a salesman, but what he is selling is total commitment to what he calls “the family.”
Mr. Dannett, aged 31, comes from the village of Little Leighs in Essex, but moved to London in his late teens and trained to be a vet. After a year in practice, he started to become dissatisfied with his life. “I realised how my whole life revolved round my career and my desire to have a steady future. But I wanted something more from life and I’ve found it in the Church of Christ.”
He entered the church as a trainee evangelist. In 1987, he married another Church member, Siohban, also 31, and together they moved to Birmingham because they felt the city was a place where their organisation would be appreciated. The mother of one of his former school friends said: “He comes from a highly-respected family.” He replaced former leader Mike DeSouza, who was sent to London for re-training.
The couple who have an eight-month-old baby son, Ben, live in a 120,000pound house in Handsworth Wood Road, Handsworth Wood. The rambling, four-storey house in a tree-lined street, has a fully-equipped gymnasium and snooker room. It is the unofficial headquarters for the Birmingham branch. When I visited it, I was despatched to a room with a member called Wayne for Scripture reading. He told me he had a well-paid job as an accountant, but gave it up to devote his life to the Church of Christ.
He told me of the group’s “ONE-step” project whereby disciples were sent out on to the streets of Birmingham specifically to target homeless people. “We offer them temporary accommodation in our homes. It’s a great way of recruiting new members.”
I was asked if I would be prepared to approach up to 10 people and provide at least three names and phone numbers of visitors – potential converts – every day. “Sometimes, I’ve been sent back on to the streets until I’ve met my quota. I’ve known disciples who’ve been out until past midnight,” said a member. I felt physically – and mentally drained.
The cult faces possible expulsion from the council-run premises it uses for meetings and services. For the past 12 months, the group has paid Birmingham city council 10,000pound to hold weekly Sunday services in the Central Library Lecture Theatre. It also hires the main hall at Holte Secondary School, Hockley, for Wednesday evening meetings.
Dawn Wise, promotions officer at the city council’s department of leisure and community services, said: “Unless a group is outlawed or contravenes council policy, we cannot refuse to book a public room to them. However, this does not mean we condone or support the aims of this particular group.”
She added: “We’ve not had a formal approach from the group to renegotiate the hire of the two venues when our agreement with them expires next month. But we are concerned about what we’ve heard about this group and currently seeking legal advice as to the possible grounds on which we could refuse to hire out our premises.
John Partington, Administrator for the Church of Christ in Britain, today defended its activities. He said he wanted to dispel some of the “myths” surrounding the organisation. But he did accept that some of the accusations levelled at the Church were correct. He admitted, for instance, that the church made heavy financial demands on its members. He also accepted that, in some cases, ex-members had been harassed and recruits were also encouraged to date only other believers.
Mr Partington, a long-time elder in the London Church of Christ, described the church as “basically a simply Bible-based Christian fellowship” that was growing both numerically and closer to the Bible. “We’re learning all the time. We’re not that disturbed by being called a cult. That is an emotive term, but what does it mean? Jesus was called a cult by the religious people of his day. We speak out very clearly, not publicly but in our fellowship against lukewarm Christianity, against tradition, against people who do not follow the Bible. We believe that a great percentage of the traditional Churches have gone off the rails.”
He recognised there had been instances where members had been harrassed when they left. “Members who’ve done this have acted out of desire to keep them in the church.”
Mr. Partington said the church did not target specific groups, although members “reach out to peoply they meet and share their faith”. He denied they encouraged student members to drop out of courses to devote more time to the church. “We don’t demand anything that Jesus doesn’t demand. Commitment to Jesus is everything,” he said.
“Nobody has anything to fear from us. We have hundreds of student members across Britain and their academic performance is well above the national average. I readily accept that we have active recruitment drives because, naturally, we want to share our faith with people we meet. It is unfortunate that this has been misrepresented so negatively by many people. We spread the message whenever possible. We talk to people on the streets, on the bus, on the tram. We want to spread the word. There is no way we brainwash people into joining us or would prevent them from trying to leave.”
He admitted that they asked for large amounts of both time and money from members but denied they split recruits from friends or families.
“We call for a high level of commitment and expect people to tithe, but only to the level of their ability. Obviously, we wouldn’t expect a single parent to give as much as a solicitor or accountant. The money we collect is given to the poor and to help meet the cost of employing full-time staff, the hire of buildings and other administrative costs.
“It is correct we are being investigated by the Charity Commission. I understand they are nearing conclusion of their inquiries and I am confident they will conclude the church is run in a proper way.”
He added: “We urge members to date only other believers, but only because that is what the Bible says Christians should do. However, it is untrue to say we discriminate against blacks. We have more black members than white and several of our leaders are black. I totally refute the allegation that we use mind-control. That would hardly be possible with such a socially mixed membership.”
Birmingham student, Alison West-Eaott, aged 22, who was a member for 18 months, warned others of getting involved. “I know from first-hand that this church uses mind-control techniques. They operate throughout Birmingham, and I would warn anyone approached by them what they are getting involved with,” she said.
“They appear perfectly respectable but it isn’t until you’re in there up to your neck that you realise all is not normal. I was humiliated by the church leaders for a minor indiscretion. They hauled me in front of the entire congregation to admonish me. It’s a very dangerous sect.”
Alison is a fourth-year music student at Birmingham Conservatoire, one of the most popular recruiting grounds for the church. She said a sinister side to the organisation emerged after she was baptised by the church. She met cult exit counsellors after her parents, Michael and Jill West-Eacott, of Haywards Heath, West Sussex, feared the group had “taken her over”.
Mrs. West-Eacott said: “Obviously, it was a great shock to us when we discovered she’d got involved with this organisation. Alison is our only child, and the 18 months she was involvd with them was the most tense and anxious period of our lives. She attended many meetings and went on week-end trips with other members.”
She added: “Fortunately, we were able to get her to see a counsellor who helped her see sense. It came as a great relief when she left. Since she left, she’s happier and has re-adjusted to normal life.
Builder Robin Perry, aged 28, from Walsall, blamed the sect for the break-up of a relationship with his girlfriend. “I was going out with a non-member and I was told I’d have to end the relationship and date a fellow believer. I also had to pack in my job because of the church’s demands on my time. You had no freedom. Leaving was the best thing I’ve ever done.” He left when he was asked to be baptised and he refused.
Ayman Akshar, of Triumphing Over London Cults, claimed that a church member had been shunned after she told its leaders she had Aids. The 38-year old woman, from Birmingham, had been a member for 10 years, but was treated like an outcast when she revealed her illness. She was kicked out of the church to which she had devoted her life, and died shortly afterwards. Mr. Akshar said it revealed a “cruel and heartless” side of the church new recruits never saw.
“The group leaders accused this woman of bringing shame on the church even though she’d been a long-standing member and was one of its most respected ‘sisters'”, he said “But far from showing her the compassion and love she might have expected from them, she was rejected.”