A former Jesus Army member who claims to have been molested as a child in the 1980s believes a full public inquiry must be held to give voice to damaged ex-members.
Philippa Muller, who has agreed to waive her right to anonymity to tell her story, spent her early life in Woking, Surrey,with her parents and three siblings, but sold up everything they owned to join Noel Stanton’s Jesus Army movement in the 1980s.
The firebrand preacher formed the evangelist movement in 1969 at Bugbrooke Chapel, before expanding it to a series of communal houses, a farm, and later a network of businesses ranging from a bakery to a solicitors’ firm.
Philippa’s family used to go to a free church in their area and her brother was baptised there. But sometime in the mid-1980s her mother and father befriended a couple who were part of a growing Baptist movement in Northamptonshire. They were Jesus Army members seeking out new recruits for the sect and Philppa’s parents, inspired by the idea of a rural community devoted to Christianity, settled to join them. Her father, who worked for the Ministry of Defence, dropped everything and within months they had moved north to live at Bugbrooke.
The family took up residence in a communal house, Shalom, shared by around 15 other people when Philippa was just five.
Her childhood was “idyllic” in a lot of ways at the time, she said, filled with long walks and picnics, a sense of belonging.
“It was free in many senses,” she said. “I remember being allowed to help in lambing season, we had a big a garden that we enjoyed.
“My parents were really good at maintaining a sense of normality as well.”
But the regime operated by head pastor Stanton was strict – and breaking the rules often led to consequences.
She remembers, as a child, drawing underneath the chairs in Bugbrooke chapel during worship and scribbling crude nude drawings on the paper.
When the doodles were discovered, she was hauled into a quiet room with a fireplace – so a community elder could cast demons from her.
“You couldn’t talk about anything to do with your body, it would be seen as indecent to do so, she said. “All the women wore skirts and you weren’t supposed to show your ears, it was seen as sinful.”
Members were also expected to renounce all material possessions under Stanton’s teachings.
Clothing was communal, birthdays were replaced with ‘honouring days’, households were judged in league table type format with the worst performers being ‘visited’ by a ‘fire’ team who would renew zeal for the cause.
Gradually Philippa remembers separating from the outside world and took on the lingo that had developed in the community.
Outsiders were known as ‘worldlings’, those not towing the line were known as ‘backsliders’.
Soon her older sister and brother were moved into different households as the natural family was seen as secondary to the spiritual family, she said.
Her parents were convinced to sell up their home and plough their wealth into a common fund. Discipline made life tough for children, she said - but even tougher for girls. Then, as she moved into her teenage years, the restrictive regime began to take its toll.
“I remember having to ask permission to revise for my GCSE exams, because of the continuous routine of meetings throughout the week. Education was not encouraged, it was seen as the way to material wealth, which was evil.”
Later she went on to study business at Northampton College while trying to fit her revision exam around a seven-day roster of meetings and activities that included a three-hour Sunday worship held by Stanton.
A recording sent to the Chronicle & Echo from a 1990s ITV broadcast saw Stanton preaching about inherent “sin” in the “genitals” at Cornhill Manor, a regular topic of his firebrand sermons.
She believes the leader - who called on members to take a vow of celibacy and has since been the speculation of sexual abuse claims – saw women as a threat to the Godly path of the males in the community. “You could never talk about anything to do with your body with anyone, it would be seen as indecent to do so”, she said. “Women and girls were there to serve only, serve the elders and the men in the community.
“Women had to wear ankle length skirts for modesty and you weren’t even supposed to show your ears, it was seen as sinful.”
“I grew up assuming there was something wrong with me, I could never attain redemption because I was born of Eve, and I cast sin into the world by making Adam eat the apple from the tree of life.
“Where can you go from such a negative starting point?”
It meant that when two teenage boys molested her at a young age, she never reported it. Philippa felt no one would believe her.
“We didn’t have a voice to question,” she added.
When Philippa was still a teenager, she saw something that would change the course of her life.
She saw a fellow Jesus Army being molested by an elder, who was later jailed for the sexual abuse.
During the trial she was ostracised from the community to the extent she had to sit through a sermon by Stanton in which he talked about ridding the sect of ‘liars’.
She knew the sermon was about her.
The ordeal left her with little choice to leave the Jesus Army aged 18 and without a penny to her name.
Philippa, now 38, says her time in the religious sect has left her scarred.
She said: “We helped the needy - bringing the homeless alcoholics and drug addicts back into our homes, with no regard for the safeguarding of our own.
“I remember lying in bed at night and worrying about the drug addicts who were sharing my dormitory bedroom. I was 10 years old.”
“Bad things were done there in an environment that was meant to be Christian and Godly,” she added.
“But those things were allowed to happen because there was no safeguarding in place.
“We operated outside of society.
“We were drawing in people, then encouraging them to behave in a way that was so ungodly.
“There are a lot of damaged people out there that need to be acknowledged.”
Philippa believes an independent public inquiry is the only recourse for others left scarred from their ordeals.
In 2015 a safeguarding report into Jesus Army by the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS) looked only at the sect’s current safeguarding practices and did not consider allegations of past abuse.
But Philippa believes that inquiry must be held by an entirely independent body, not a Christian organisation.
“The abuse wasn’t just sexual, it was physical, it was financial, it was spiritual” she said. “I spent my entire upbringing based on one man’s interpretation of the bible.”