Inside radical UK Christian sect where members need permission to begin dating

The radical Darvell Bruderhof community has quietly existed in East Sussex for almost 50 years

Mirror, UK/July 21, 2019

Tucked away inside a quiet part of East Sussex is a radical Christian sect that has shunned modern life and even rejected TV, computers and mobile phones.

Leaders of the private community say there is no debt, no crime and no homelessness, and everyone has a job but none of them earn a salary.

Outsiders in modern day Britain may find it baffling that none of the children watch television or play video games, no-one logs on to Facebook or any other social media sites to see what their neighbours are up to, and residents don't carry mobile phones.

Members of the 300-strong Darvell Bruderhof community must ask permission to begin ‘courting’ a person of the opposite sex, divorces are banned, their jobs are chosen for them and they have no possessions.

A new documentary has been given extraordinary access to the community, which has quietly existed in Britain for almost 50 years and allowed TV cameras for the first time.

The programme follows a number of members, including a young woman who has left the settlement and is questioning her future in the sect which refuses to join mainstream society.

Located ten miles north of Hastings since 1971, the near self-sufficient community (Bruderhof is German for "place of brothers") is in a converted tuberculosis sanatorium near the village of Robertsbridge.

The Bruderhof Christian movement is based around common ownership and was founded in Germany in 1920 by protestant theologian Eberhard Arnold.

The community was forced to flee in 1937 after refusing to join the Nazi Party, and many members moved to England.

But they left for Paraguay and then North America when members were threatened with internment in 1941, only to later return.

Living as disciples of Jesus, members give up all possessions, money and status when they take their vow of commitment.

Everything is provided for them - from groceries to clothing - and members run a farm, orchard, schools and a multi-million-pound business which makes children’s toys and furniture.

It's a simple way of life, based on early biblical text, which is similar to the lifestyles of the Amish.

There is a personal cost and sacrifice for residents, with strict rules and restrictions around same-sex relationships, divorce and what members wear.

Women avoid fashions of any sort, wearing modest clothing including headscarves, long plaid dresses and loose shirts. The uniform looks like traditional peasant dress.

Many decisions about the residents' lives are made for them, including where they live and the jobs they do.

Family live in shared houses with several other families, and most meals are taken with other residents in a large communal dining room.

Members are frequently moved between the other 23 Bruderhof settlements in the world.

There are just 3,000 members worldwide, and the other communities in the UK are in Nonington, Kent, and Peckham, south London.

Bernard Hibbs, 38, the community’s outreach director, is featured in the programme with his wife Rachel.

He said: We have a different vision for our society.

"We don’t proselytise, it’s unwholesome to try to make people become members.

"But we thought, 'Why not show people how we live?' When I go outside the community, people are interested in it. 

"They worry about their kids and technology, and like the idea of sharing.

"So we’re showing what we’ve learnt. It’s not perfect, but if we can encourage people to think about how they live, that’s great."

Bernard, whose parents joined the community when he was nine, added: "This is about people living according to the New Testament.

"People loving each other, sharing possessions and supporting each other."

He rejected any notion that the Bruderhof is a cult, adding: "People who have never visited us sometimes imagine that we might be a cult.

"But when they come, they find we are far too normal to qualify - there are no UFOs, no weird rituals, no secret handshakes.

"People are free to come and go and nobody is compelled to think a certain way; we disagree amongst each other on almost everything, from Brexit to how often we should mow the grass.

"We are of course occasionally accused of being a cult, but that is to be expected.

"In our experience, if people visit and see for themselves those concerns are easily answered."

The programme also follows a young woman called Hannah, who wanted an experience outside Darvell and is now living at a Bruderhof site in New York after living in London.

The 18-year-old will soon begin her university studies to become a teacher before making a lifelong commitment.

She lived on her own, got her first paid job, played video games while working with youth at a Christian charity and wore "whatever was practical".

She said: "I was never really into watching a screen all day long - personal preference - I find it unproductive and unhealthy."

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