Jun 16, 2024

Plymouth Brethren: Man who grew up in church ‘cult’ attempted suicide three times upon leaving due to trauma

May 24, 2024

A man born into a church he described as a “cult”, where he claims he was sexually abused by a member and was not allowed to listen to CDs, go to restaurants or date women before proposing, attempted suicide three times upon leaving because of the trauma.

John “Gilli” Gilliland, 35, a commercial director who now lives in Northallerton in North Yorkshire, was born into the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church (PBCC), a subset of the Christian evangelical movement, in a different part of the country.

The PBCC is commonly referred to as a “cult” by ex-members – although the group denies being a cult, and instead refers to itself as a “mainstream Christian Church”.

Because of his traumatic experiences while in the PBCC, he now goes by “Gilli” instead of John, as he associates his birth name with his “past life”.

The dad of three, while in a Brethren specific school, claims the staff glued pages of books together which they thought went against the church’s teachings, which the church has denied, and when mobile phones were introduced, he believes the church “monitored” all correspondence.

From around the age of 14 to 20, Gilli claimed he was sexually abused by a member of the church – it took him around 10 years to accept the abuse had happened because of the “stigma”, and he has not reported it to police.

Gilli left the church in 2012, aged 24, to be with a non-church member and now has no contact with his family but has adjusted to life in the “outside world”, now identifying as having no faith.

Gilli told PA Real Life: “It’s not something I’m exactly proud of, but at the same time I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve had three suicide attempts just because you hit rock bottom… and (from) the trauma.

“A lot of that is related to thinking you’re not good enough because you’re going against the (church’s) rules and the impact of losing everything you’ve ever known – your life is so, so structured, and so strict, when you leave, and that structure just goes.”

Gilli was born into the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, which he and many other ex-members refer to as a “cult”, a claim which the Church denies.

Gilli claims the teachings were based on “biblical teachings but twisted to suit their own agenda” – for example, he said he was not allowed to learn about sex education in school nor attend public places such as cinemas and restaurants.

He attended a mainstream school up until Year Six where he says he was bullied by his peers for being in the church and always had to turn down invitations from friends to play after school because of his religion.

Gilli was homeschooled in Years Eight and Nine by an ex-teacher who was a Brethren member and then attended a Brethren specific school until he finished Year 12.

He remembers it being very restrictive, claiming the staff at his school glued together pages of books that they deemed inappropriate or that went against the church’s teachings.

At home, his upbringing was very strict, and Gilli recalls every element was controlled by the church.

He explained: “There isn’t one area of your life where you’re not given either some instruction or advice on what to do, from the time that you’re told that you should wake up in the morning, how much of the Bible you should read in the day, what time you should be at work, what time you should be home from work.

“You have a church service every day in the evening Monday to Friday, as well as Saturday morning and four times on a Sunday…there was no freedom of choice.”

From around the age of 14 to 20, he alleged he was sexually abused by a member of the church, and that the alleged abuser is protected by the church – a claim the church has denied.

“Obviously, it’s a horrific thing to go through but I think the thing that’s probably the hardest part is the fact that the abuser is still protected, and still is protected and probably will be for the rest of our lives,” he said.

“I didn’t know what sexual abuse was for a long time, even after I left.

“I didn’t want to let myself believe that I had been (abused) because of the stigma that was attached to it.

“There was some part of me that was guilty for having had it done to me… my reason for not telling the police is that it’s not something that anybody else has ever witnessed apart from the abuser and myself.”

Throughout the years, Gilli barely went against the rules – he claims the “most rebellious” thing he ever did was buying a copy of the Abba Gold CD.

He claims all pre-recorded music was banned in the church, which is something the church has denied, and he even remembers people removing the radio from their cars to avoid hearing it.

“Sometimes you might not even necessarily get discovered, it will just be that your conscience will break you and you’ll get rid of it (the CD) because you think you’re not supposed to have it,” he explained.

“I think maybe one or two other times I brought a mobile phone (when I was 20) and again, I wasn’t supposed to have it and I was made to smash it up.

“Eventually they did start introducing mobiles, but it was all through the church’s central business, you’d pay extortionate rates, and everything was monitored.”

He also remembers being taught that cohabiting and sex before marriage was sinful, and he was not allowed to date people – he had to instead meet someone and almost instantly propose to them.

He said: “So it was difficult to form relationships… you can’t exactly blame anyone for turning down your proposal.

“I was rejected by a couple of people but it wasn’t rejection as the outside world knows it.”

But, at the age of 24, when working for a business owned by members of the church, Gilli began developing romantic feelings for a colleague, who was not a member of the church, and the pair began dating in secret – after three months, he decided to leave the church to be with his girlfriend.

“I basically had a choice to make – I could either end the relationship or I would have to leave and I chose to follow my heart,” he explained.

“I wasn’t going to end a relationship just because of rules and I wasn’t going to be told I shouldn’t fall in love.”

Gilli officially left the church on December 27 2012, and to begin with he was “scared (he) would be struck down” by doing things that were prohibited by the church, but eventually adjusted to a life where he could watch television and attend concerts.

He vividly recalls going to his first “big gig” to see Gary Barlow and being overwhelmed with the atmosphere, and being “so confused” when watching programmes such as The Jeremy Kyle Show for the first time.

Gilli has since gone on to have three children, who he has not “pushed religion on”, and identifies as having no faith.

He also continues to have no contact with his family who are still members of the church.

He said: “They’re always going to be your parents but genuinely, I would say I don’t know my parents any more, I don’t know what goes on in their daily lives or how they are in terms of their health.

“I guess there’s an element of it where you have to compartmentalise that section of your life because if you didn’t, you’d just end up sitting in a corner rocking.”

Gilli now helps host a podcast, Get A Life, speaking to other ex-members of the church, which he said has helped him process the trauma.

For more information, visit: www.youtube.com/@getalifepodcast.

A spokesperson from the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church said: “Mr Gilliland chose to leave our Church many years ago, a decision that we fully respect. As Christians, we are sad to learn of the challenges he has experienced and wish him only happiness and contentment for the future. However, his description of life as a member of our Church does not in any way reflect our beliefs, practices or the common experiences of our members.

“Our Church is driven by care and compassion. This is exemplified by the many thousands of independent members of our Church who are significant contributors to the local communities where they live, work and worship. We are committed to putting compassion into action, and many of our members actively support charitable activities both within their communities and to support those impacted by international crises.

“In line with our Christian beliefs, we treat the safety and wellbeing of our members with the utmost importance and have robust safeguarding policies and practices in place to keep our community safe. We see any form of abuse as utterly abhorrent and strongly encourage anyone, including Mr Gilliland, to report any criminal activity to the police.

“Our commitment to protecting the wellbeing of our members also extends to helping those who are facing issues with their mental health to access professional help and guidance. Indicative of this commitment, the charitable arm of our Church also runs initiatives and campaigns dedicated to combating harmful social stigmas around mental ill health.

“At the end of the day, our members are Christian and will seek to act with kindness and compassion. We wish Mr Gilliland well and our offer of care and support for Mr Gilliland remains enduring.”

For support visit: www.samaritans.org.


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