All are Brethren, but not the same
FROM GERMANY to England and America the Brethren Church evolved. In England and America the Church was fragmented into various branches. Jamaica was one of the places where the Brethren from Bristol and Plymouth, England set up assemblies. They were referred to as the Plymouth Brethren, and operated in what was regarded a ‘closed’ context.
Starting about 1920, the Plymouth Brethren themselves in Jamaica were further divided. Now, according to religion historian/researcher, Lloyd A. Cooke, there are four divisions, independent of one another, of the original Plymouth Brethren active in Jamaica. All of this gave rise to the concept of the ‘Closed/exclusive Brethren’ versus the ‘Open Brethren’ (the newer branches).
They are the original Plymouth/Exclusive Brethren, who have since dwindled to about only three active assemblies, one outside Mandeville, Red Hills another in Stony Hill, St Andrew; the ‘Closed Brethren’, who have about 29 assemblies mostly in Westmoreland and St Elizabeth, with one each in Manchester, St James and St Andrew; the United Brethren; and the Christian Brethren Association of Jamaica (Open Brethren) with their headquarters located in Hagley Park Plaza, in St Andrew, and of which Cooke is a member since 1962 when he was 20.
With 88 assemblies all over Jamaica, the Christian Brethren Association of Jamaica (CBAJ) is the most extensive and structured of the Brethren branches in Jamaica. It is run by a board of elders, of which Germaine Williams is the current chief executive officer, and is segmented into five regions – southeastern, western, central, midland, northeastern – each of which has a leadership board. Two representatives from the region sit on the national board, which comprise also of experts in areas such as law and finance.
Invariably, the word Brethren is not a part of the name of the congregations. You might see ‘gospel chapel/hall’, ‘assembly hall’ or ‘fellowship’. And while they are guided by the national and regional boards, each assembly/congregation is run autonomously by a pastor or a group of elders, who are part of that congregation’s board. Plurality of leadership is allowed. For instance, Williams is one of three elders who preside over his congregation at Harbour View Gospel Chapel in St Andrew.
Leaders therefore have the latitude to run and manage their congregation free of direct control from the regional and national boards. But, is this not dangerous? Leaders can do anything at their own whim and fancy? They are guided doctrinally, and otherwise, Williams said, and that “there are pros and cons to both modules”, autonomous and non-autonomous. Shared cert but cannot go too far
“What we are trying to get to is where there is a partnership. Autonomy does not mean absence of accountability. There is autonomy, but there is also accountability … You have latitude, but you cannot always do your own things,” Williams told The Gleaner. And while there are no set disciplinary policies, there are meetings to discuss issues arising from the regions and the individual congregations.
Yet, the CBAJ is the legal representative of all the assemblies, which are legally registered, and the titles are held in trust by the CBAJ. Williams is the administrator responsible for the operational affairs of the CBAJ, which facilitates the growth of local churches, and pay the salaries of some pastors, among other roles. It was started about 50 years ago by an independent group of church people who were mainly businessmen and professionals to meet certain technical needs, according to Cooke.
And in response to the belief by some people that the Brethren Church is shrouded in mystery, suspicion, and preconceived notions, it is understood that all of that is coming from a place of ignorance. In the first place, many people do not know that there is no one Brethren church in Jamaica. They might have been inspired by the original Plymouth Brethren, share similar beliefs and practices, but they are not the same. Some have absolutely nothing to do with the others. A June 2006 unpublished document says, “But contact between the Open and Closed Brethren remains distant, almost non-existent.”
Not all Brethren are friends, it seems.
“We are not closed, we are open. I do not think there is any mystery or mystique among us at all, in the way which we operate,” Williams said of the CBAJ. It is a people-centred organisation of congregants from all walks of Jamaican life. The CBAJ assemblies are mainly community churches with nothing to hide.
He cannot speak for the other branches.