Summary: The Fellowship aims for spiritual perfection, but its critics say it’s distorting the Gospel.
Investigated by the Presbyterian Church of Victoria in the late 1990s, it is now the subject of a book by journalist Morag Zwartz titled Fractured Families. Two former members speak of their experience with The Fellowship.
CHOIR SINGING – When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
Rachael Kohn: Is it possible to live free of sin? And is that the purpose of being Christian?
Hello, Iím Rachael Kohn, and this is The Spirit of Things on ABC Radio National.
Christian history is full of breakaway Protestant sects that seek to live by strict rules of purity. Itís a rarity when such a group actually exists within a mainstream church as an exclusive enclave. Thatís the story of The Fellowship, which began over 50 years ago within the Anglican and Presbyterian communities of Victoria.
They looked like everyone else, but they lived by a different rule, because they believed they walked in the light. About ten years ago, The Fellowship came to dominate selected Presbyterian congregations in Melbourne, which alarmed sections of the church. There were allegations of exclusivism, hurtful practices like shunning, as well as an overbearing doctrine of personal sin.
So a report, called Fractured Fellowship, was prepared by a number of ministers and published in 1999. Itís available online.
Today weíll hear from long-time members of The Fellowship who have since left, and from Morag Zwartz, whose investigative book, Fractured Families echoes the alarm of the church report, and in particular, warns that the beliefs and practices of The Fellowship are contrary to mainstream Protestant Christianity.
Morag Zwartz, welcome to The Spirit of Things.
Morag Zwartz: Thank you.
Rachael Kohn: Morag, when did you become interested in the activities of the controversial group The Fellowship?
Morag Zwartz: I guess I first heard about them during the 1980s through the Presbyterian Theological College. Some of the students – my husband was studying there and occasionally weíd hear about a student who was in sort of hushed tones, Ďone of themí, or Ďin the groupí. It certainly fascinated us. And then I met people from time to time through church circles, who would just mention things in very worried tones, about this group and these strange things that are going on, and yes, so it certainly aroused my interest.
Rachael Kohn: What was the nature of the stories that you first heard about them?
Morag Zwartz: The sort of things I was hearing was its divisive effect in the churches, the influence on the young people, a lot of people concerned about that because there was one minister in particular who was having a lot of influence on the young people in the church. I heard constantly that they have to marry within the group, and I also heard that there was this connection with another group in Sydney and they were all inter-related. There were these two groups, but the same families, and everyone married within the circle.
Mostly I guess the troubling nature of its exclusivity, and just that they were so superior, that was the other thing that people always commented on.
Rachael Kohn: And this is interesting because itís occurring within a church.
Morag Zwartz: Itís a little bit different I suppose from a number of other groups I know, similar cultish groups in the church context, inasmuch as itís not an external entity, itís a church within a church, as many people described it.
Rachael Kohn: How much of whatís going on in The Fellowship (because it still exists) has to do with a distinctive theology that sets it apart from what is the norm in the Protestant church?
Morag Zwartz: It does differ from the Presbyterian norm, which is the mainstream norm. The Presbyterian church holds to something called the Westminster Confession of Faith, and along with the Anglican churchís 39 Articles. Thatís whatís called a reformed position. This emphasises the sovereignty of God particularly, probably the most central thing, the centrality of Jesus, and emphatically the notion of justification by faith alone.
Rachael Kohn: Can you explain that?
Morag Zwartz: This is perhaps the most significant aspect of my concern with this group, and other similar groups, because although they very often will claim that they believe in justification by faith alone, which is the evangelical standard, in practice they add on this notion of works, that youíve really got to earn favour with God. And I think thatís probably why very early on in the book, I quoted this wonderful quotation from Professor Douglas Newell at the Theological College in Melbourne which just sets this out so clearly and reminds us all that this is the most profoundly significant thing about Christianity, itís what distinguishes it from every other world religion.
He concludes in the quote after saying in this justification of our faith alone God declares us forever free from blame for all our personal lapses and moral faults, because he has brought us into a perfect right relation with himself, as our Lord and judge. And then he says, ĎJustification and the liberty it brings into our lives is unknown and unwanted by other religious groups and by cults outside and inside the churches.í Thatís because justification humbles our spiritual pride as nothing else can, and sets our conscience free from the control of other people. This is a significant point.
Rachael Kohn: Now what youíre really saying there is that in believing in Christ, you receive Godís love and that is essentially all you need to do: to have faith in God, to believe in the saving death of Jesus Christ, that is it. Is that what justification by faith means?
Morag Zwartz: Yes, and it doesnít mean that there wonít be evidence of that, it means that in an emphatically legal sense, this transaction has taken place whereby you are now seen as justified, saved, redeemed, whatever you want to call it, and you bring nothing of yourself to the transaction.
The problem with groups like The Fellowship, is that although they would claim that, they would nearly always claim that, in actual fact thereís an overbearing emphasis on your need to prove yourself, your need to show that youíre worthy of God, you need to earn. And how do you do these things? You do these by the external manifestations of being good and right, and of course that usually amounts to what in menís eyes is deemed to be good and right. It leads to judgmentalism, an obsession with outward manifestations, as I said. Itís subverts the freedom that we have in Christ, because you now have this external standard that youíre continually having to live up to. The term Ďsinless perfectioní was often around in the earlier days.
Rachael Kohn: Sinless perfection?
Morag Zwartz: Yes, you donít hear it very much now. The notion that you can live a Ďvictorious Christian lifeí, you can attain a state of total victory over sin while in the flesh, which the Bible is quite clear is not possible in this life. So if you have it there as a standard and an expectation, then you have created this huge burden for people to try and live up to, and that they carry around with them, because itís obvious, every day of your life, every single one of us, that weíre not reaching that standard.
Rachael Kohn: So there were people who belonged to The Fellowship that demanded from others that they prove they were living a sinless life; how was that done? Was confession an important part of The Fellowship activities?
Morag Zwartz: Very much. Confession was a huge requirement, and it would be confessing to an Elder a lot of the time. Your outward actions become the standard whereby youíre judged for your inward state, and so when you have that, you end up with very much menís sort of sense of whatís right and whatís wrong, and it can become very external and very trivial.
As I said, the joke-things about churches like that are concerned with whether you smoke and whether you drink. So when you get a legalistic emphasis, everyone becomes obsessed with looking at the outward demonstration of how holy this person is, and whether or not theyíre measuring up to this, that and the next thing that the church or the church leadership has established as what they demand.
Rachael Kohn: Morag, youíve referred to The Fellowship on a couple of occasions as a cult. Now that makes one think of a particular group. How were they actually existing within the Presbyterian church? Was it a network across churches? Or did it exist in just one particular church?
Morag Zwartz: They initially were a group of families and related people. These people were not exclusively in the Presbyterian and Anglican churches, but became largely in the Presbyterian and Anglican churches in Melbourne. They would say that they were just initially a spontaneous group of people who met together, of friends who met together to further their faith and explore their Christian lives. And I must say that this would seem initially to be very benign and innocuous, but I think Iíve tried to show that although it may seem to have been spontaneous initially in the early days, nevertheless I think there were always seeds of extremism there, the fruit of which perhaps is evident now.
Rachael Kohn: How did The Fellowship ensure its survival over generations? Because I gather itís been going for quite a few decades now.
Morag Zwartz: I have to preface that by saying they werenít motivated, as far as I understand, by a sense of trying to do this. This would seem to be spontaneous, but it certainly happened that they were highly exclusive. About the only way that people would have joined the group was by marrying into it. People married within the group.
There were very few marriages that were sustained as Ďmixed marriagesí if you like, and very few other people who came into the group. They were remarkably cohesive, bound together by the strength of the leaders, the two leaders, and by their sense of their own grand vision I suppose.
In my experience all groups like The Fellowship have, you could actually argue, quite an esoteric notion of their own teaching and their own place in the scheme of things within the Christian church, and tend to think that at some dramatic moment in the future, others will be brought into them. So they tend not to be evangelically minded or outreach minded.
They also work together. A number of the doctors work together, had practices together, and employed Fellowship people for staff. There was a factory which employed a number of Fellowship people. Many of them worked together in other settings; there was a group of stockbrokers. They worshipped together, they lived in close proximity, they met together regularly; they would attend their own local church, but then they would have their own meetings, and as a number of people expressed it to me, it was in their own meetings that they listened, this is what they needed to hear, and they kind of switched off when they were in their churches that they were members of. Well, thatís what some people have said anyway, that they were taught that it was really only what Ronald and Alan said that they must heed.
Rachael Kohn: Who were the leaders?
Morag Zwartz: Initially, Ronald Grant and his wife Nancy, and Alan Neale and his wife Frances were the two couples around whom the group developed, and a few other families who were close to them and in some cases related to them. But particularly Ronald Grant and Alan Neale were the leaders in the early days.
Rachael Kohn: And who are the leaders today?
Morag Zwartz: I think it would be better if I didnít try and answer that, because I hear things from people whoíve come out, thatís something which theyíre very, very sensitive about, and certainly deny. Mind you, they deny that they exist.
Rachael Kohn: Well thatís pretty interesting, because some of the Presbyterian ministers whoíve felt their presence in I think it was the church at Mt Evelyn, banded together and wanted to oust a particular minister who was a member of The Fellowship, and I think they were successful, actually. And out of that, a pamphlet was written up about The Fellowship. How can they deny their existence?
Morag Zwartz: Itís perhaps comical if itís not so tragic. Even when Fellowship behaviour was at its worst, most bizarre, in the late Ď90s, and there was eventually a petition written by Professor Graham Clark and signed by more than 300 people, to one of the presbyteries of the Presbyterian church complaining about this bizarre behaviour, perhaps I should tell you what it was: They mentioned things like people not coming to family celebrations, funerals, weddings, people returning gifts, people being shunned, family members being shunned and friends being shunned if they werenít members or werenít deemed to be Ďwalking in the lightí. Even when it was sufficiently observable for this petition to be presented, they were still denying their existence. Yes, thatís true.
Rachael Kohn: Morag, itís pretty clear there that there was a lot of division that was caused by The Fellowship, not only within the congregation but also within families. But you also make a point in your book that theology and belief can easily tip over into extremism, into what youíve called heresy. It can just be a matter of degree, of intensity of faith perhaps. What would you say about that sort of assessment of whatís going on? Is it just that some people have more intense faith than others and take their faith more seriously?
Morag Zwartz: No, I donít think so. Weíre talking about balance, and it gets back over and over again, to the presuppositions that one has about grace, about faith. I think one of the young men I wrote about said ĎYouíre just wallowing around in dirty water all the time; you never ever have a sense of having got anywhere, because there is no way out, thereís no point at which you are free from this burden of sinningí, and this is not the evangelical position at all. Itís one in which you go on from there in faith. Yes, weíve all got baggage; you donít need to be reminded continually of your baggage, which is the sort of thing that happens in groups like The Fellowship, and made to feel unworthy.
A point that a lot of people made was that this connects to the superiority and the self-righteousness. You know, weíre talking about people who from an outward perspective, have very together lives, successful lives, often wealthy. These people canít be faulted, as people often said to me. You would look from the outside into this group, this wonderful group of people, theyíre so perfect, a lot of people would use that word, and so it creates this absolutely unachievable standard for others to try and aspire to, and of course know that theyíre not going to aspire to.
Many people fell by the wayside, and as Iíve quoted people as saying, no-one bothered about them, that was just too bad, they just got left. It was their problem if they couldnít measure up, that was just proof that they werenít good enough anyway, I guess. But itís interesting looking back on those who have come out. Thereís nearly always a shred of independence that you can see in their personality. You know, you spend a lot of time with some of those people and eventually they were going to come up against the authority, and eventually they were going to get squashed or get out, because there was a part of them that just wouldnít quite surrender all the way, if you like.
The Presbyterian church has been working for many decades to expunge The Fellowship from its midst. I guess like everything, there are two arguments on this. Thereís the one position that says theyíve done absolutely everything they can, theyíve spent hours and hours in meetings, and itís taken up hours at General Assemblies, theyíve done all they can by their codebook to deal with The Fellowship problem. Thatís one position.
The other is they havenít really been sufficiently committed across the board, and that if the church was of one mind, if they really had the will, they could effectively act against The Fellowship. But of course, there are plenty of sympathisers in the church and there are plenty of people who think this group of people are lovely people, which is the phrase which I probably heard more than any other, and canít see that thereís any problem. Thatís the main reason why the church published the booklet that you referred to called Fractured Fellowship in 1999, to try and advise and instruct others in the church of the seriousness of this issue, The Fellowship within the heart of the church, and to alert people to the ongoing problems of the tension that existed between this group and the mainstream church around it within which it existed, or within which it hid actually.
I think Ďhidí is a better word. The church is still working on ways in which to get rid of The Fellowship, I think that its influence is being diminished in more recent times.
Rachael Kohn: Morag, thank you so much for shining a light on this troubling area of the church. Itís been great talking to you.
Morag Zwartz: Thank you.
Rachael Kohn: Morag Zwartzís book, called Fractured Fellowship was warmly reviewed by the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, in The Melbourne Anglican. Members and supporters of The Fellowship, were invited, but refused to come on to the program to answer the allegations.
Rachael Kohn: My next guest, who is a medical doctor, was a member of The Fellowship from the time she got married in 1980. She enjoyed the groupís Bible Study meetings, and her husband was also deeply involved in the group.
But about eight or nine years ago, she became concerned about the direction of The Fellowship, and became disenchanted when the leaders, who she calls Elders, became more demanding. We havenít named her, to protect the anonymity of her children.
Guest:It was clearly wrong when some of the Elders were telling me what school my kids should go to. There came a time when The Fellowship boys were withdrawn from Scots College, which was the school my kids were attending.
Rachael Kohn: Why was that?
Guest:The Fellowship argument was that the Scots Old Boys had a Masonic lodge, Old Scotch Masons, Freemasons. By association, that meant the school was unclean so the kids shouldnít be in an environment where staff members condoned – some of the staff were Freemasons, so some of the kids shouldnít be in that environment. Amongst the other things happening in the background, some of the school community had been critical of The Fellowship.
Rachael Kohn: Were you resistant to having your children pulled out of Scotch College?
Guest:Yes, I was. The change of school was happening at the end of third term. I had boys who were in senior secondary school, who were settled and happy in that school, and the school that was proposed for their change was not as good a school, and it was a school that I didnít believe suited my kids.
Rachael Kohn: So were you successful in being able to keep them there?
Guest:Yes, my kids stayed at the same school.
Rachael Kohn: Was that hard on your relationship to your husband?
Guest:Yes. One of the things thatís important in The Fellowship is that the man is the head of the household, and for the husband not to have his word obeyed, was quite a significant thing, and I knew that it was really a very significant step in our relationship, to not do as he wished, both for the way others saw us, for the way others saw him, and for our relationship between the two of us. But it was also really important for the kids not to change schools.
Rachael Kohn: Well you eventually went through a divorce and a custody battle. How was that resolved?
Guest:It was very difficult. My children were older children, and in the Family Court the main thing taken into account is what the children want. I left the family home, my children didnít come with me initially. Then they later still didnít come. We had regular contact, but the kids didnít sleep over at my new house, which was very close by. I actually agreed to a settlement, where the kids were predominantly with their Dad, because thatís what they stated they wanted.
Rachael Kohn: And you have three boys?
Guest:Yes, I have three sons, yes.
Rachael Kohn: And theyíre all members of The Fellowship?
Guest:Yes, they are.
Rachael Kohn: What has your experience in The Fellowship done to your faith? Do you still go to church?
Guest:I still go to church, and Iíve got a lot of faith in God. The Fellowship has got a frightening God. They live in fear and only God can save them but there are always enemies theyíve got to fight against. But they have a God who they have to reach through other people, they canít personally have the relationship with God where theyíve got a right to go before God. Theyíve got no sense of a God who will give forgiveness.
Rachael Kohn: Are you saying that in The Fellowship, the elders are very prominent, or dominant?
Guest:Yes, thereís a strong teaching that itís more powerful, almost to the point where itís only effective to pray with somebody else. And the father and the family and the Elder in other settings, joins people in their prayers. So the Elders become very involved in the private lives of members of The Fellowship.
Rachael Kohn: Is it hard to leave The Fellowship, or do people walk out of the door quite regularly? I mean, is it an open door policy?
Guest:No. A lot of people have got very complex relationships. My relationship was not just one level, there was my husbandís employment was involved.
Rachael Kohn: How was that?
Guest:His boss, he was personal assistant to a man who was a Fellowship leader. So this man had a lot of influence over his work environment.
Rachael Kohn: Didnít The Fellowship also own a business?
Guest:Yes. there are a number of businesses that were Fellowship businesses. A tile factory, a medical practice, and accounting firm. The businesses were controlled by The Fellowship. Itís probably a more useful way of saying what happened rather than they were just owned by The Fellowship. A number of peopleís working career, their boss or their employer or their supervisor, was a Fellowship person.
Rachael Kohn: Were you urged to become part of the medical practice of The Fellowship?
Guest:Yes, I had worked in that practice in the interval between babies. Later I was very much urged to go back and work at that practice again.
Rachael Kohn: Why did you resist?
Guest:At that stage I was in another practice, which I was enjoying, and I had reservations about working with the people from The Fellowship. I think itís a very complex relationship doctor-patient, itís almost too many boundary issues for someone to be the doctor plus the Elder of a patient. I think thereís just too many issues related to boundaries and obligations, responsibilities, duties and sharing.
Rachael Kohn: You mention the word Ďcontrolí, and I want to ask you overall, how would you describe The Fellowship?
Guest:It had influence over all parts of your life. You were never ordered to do anything. Youíd be told, ĎDo you agree that the most important thing in life is following God?í OK, well if you spend time with people who arenít following God, theyíll distract you from the important thing. ĎDo you think you should spend time with people who arenít following God?í And the answer is, ĎNo, I shouldnítí, when youíve got that sequence of reasoning.
Rachael Kohn: So thereís a sort of overwhelming logic for you to remain affiliated only with Fellowship members?
Guest: Yes, and itís subtle because itís never given as an instruction. Itís usually given as a sequence like that example. So that people will say ĎIíve never been told I have to do somethingí, but theyíve been given a no-choice option.
Rachael Kohn: Well I guess people belong to exclusive clubs, they want to belong for one reason or another. Could this just be considered one kind of exclusive religious club?
Guest:Yes. And thereís a lot of cult-like groups around in lots of different churches. But another question is, Do I think this group is harmful? And yes, I do. Belonging to the groupís got conditions, and the conditions are that you conform. And some of those conditions are that you curtail outside relationships, including families. The group is also not very respectful Ė theyíre very much into male control, and I think that the Christian family is of two parents, you know, the two partners are counterbalancing each other, and itís appropriate for them both to have some influence. So I think that itís harmful because it changes the balance in relationships.
But itís clear that some of the people were held back professionally. You know, some of the people working at the tile factory had much greater potential than that, but the logic was it was more important to follow God and be in a community following God, than to maximise your potential and use all your talents.
Rachael Kohn: How do you think the group squares up, in terms of your understanding of Christianity?
Guest:I think that it doesnít practice a lot of the Christian things: it isnít warm and friendly, it doesnít trust God, theyíre quite frightened and they control their environment to stay safe, but without really trusting God, and thereís not outreach. The group is very, very limited in who it welcomes to join its group. Itís very hard to get understanding of what itís like and why itís wrong. You have a sense that itís wrong, but itís really hard to put your finger on why itís wrong.
Rachael Kohn: Why is it so hard to get people to understand?
Guest:Well I think because people have a stereotype of what a cultís like, and that stereotype is of a usually dominating male whoís got a group of weird people following behind. In The Fellowship the leaders are gentle people who give you lots of time, whoíll talk to you for a long time, whoíll be kinder to you than your birth father, but they also have a lot more control than your birth father. And the members of the group are not weird people, theyíre ordinary people, and there are different degrees of involvement; not everybodyís equally involved, and those who are fairly loosely involved, and there are people who are loosely involved, are pretty normal and donít have much interference with their life from the leader.
Rachael Kohn: So was it always an option to be just loosely involved?
Guest:Not for me because my spouse was deeply involved. Because my spouse was deeply involved, our family was going to have to be deeply involved.
Rachael Kohn: A medical doctor who was a former member of The Fellowship, which it seems, doesnít go by that name any more. But pinning them down has always been difficult.
The 1999 Church Report, Fractured Fellowship says:
ĎThere has been and continues to be a general refusal to acknowledge the existence of The Fellowship and an equal refusal to put into print what they believeí.
And as Iíve mentioned before, no active member or supporter of The Fellowship whom we contacted, would come on to the program.
Heather Mills was an active member of The Fellowship for over 40 years. It was a family tradition, as indeed it is for all members. But thatís the problem, because leaving the group usually means severing ties with your loved ones. Hereís Heatherís story about the group that she once held to be the only true Christianity.
Heather, you grew up in The Fellowship. Were you aware of being part of a special group?
Heather Mills: Oh yes, of course, that was made very clear. We were told we were a special stream called apart for the Holy Spirit to bless.
Rachael Kohn: What sort of activities? What was the atmosphere in the group?
Heather Mills: On the whole, a very happy, friendly atmosphere. This was when I was a young person, a very, very caring atmosphere. A caring, loving atmosphere, Rachael.
Rachael Kohn: And what sort of activities were you involved in? How often did you meet?
Heather Mills: There was a big meeting one Sunday afternoon every month in one of the homes of one of the families, and I would think at least 100 people came, probably more. There were little, small groups which met every fortnight, and I belonged to one in particular for 17 years. I belonged to another one earlier than that, but I canít remember now long I belonged to that. And then we would have picnics, go down to the sea; a couple of the families had homes down by the sea, so we would have holidays together.
Rachael Kohn: What ways did you exhibit living this spiritual life that was different from others?
Heather Mills: I donít know that anyone would have really noticed a great difference. We were very regular with church attendance, we were office bearers in our churches, we were loving and kind. I donít know that other people would have noticed a great difference, except that we wanted to go to meetings that they didnít know much about.
Rachael Kohn: Was it kept secret?
Heather Mills: I would say yes. We werenít encouraged to discuss The Fellowship, never encouraged to discuss it and we didnít really feel free to invite other people to those meetings.
Rachael Kohn: Why is that? Were they somehow inferior?
Heather Mills: I guess the leaders would have thought that other Christians werenít seeking to follow Godís will as closely as we were.
Rachael Kohn: Well you married, and had children.
Heather Mills: Yes.
Rachael Kohn: Were they all part of The Fellowship, your husband and your children?
Heather Mills: Yes.
Rachael Kohn: And did your children marry other Fellowship members?
Heather Mills: One did. The others havenít, no.
Rachael Kohn: Was that hard for them?
Heather Mills: No, I donít think so, because at the time that my children married, there wasnít quite the exclusivity that became very apparent later on.
Rachael Kohn: When did you start to have doubts about this Fellowship?
Heather Mills: 1988, most definitely. Iíd been overseas and I came home and within a little while I was in a Fellowship meeting and it just struck me. It struck me it was so strong, this feeling of superiority. And Iíd been with other Christians actually in Scotland, and felt very close to them, theyíd been wonderful. And I came back to the group in Melbourne and it shattered me. It shattered me; it was like the difference between night and day.
Rachael Kohn: Did you say something about it then?
Heather Mills: Yes, I did. I spoke up in 1988. Well the meeting was thrown open. After youíd been taught the particular teaching for that afternoon, it was often thrown open, and people were asked did they have anything they wanted to say. I stood up and said, ĎThereís something that bothers me about this Fellowship and itís bothered me for a long time, and itís arrogance.í And you could have cut the air with a knife.
Rachael Kohn: Did anyone react?
Heather Mills: Yes. One of the leaders, one of the founders of The Fellowship stood up and said something to this effect: ĎI have never felt convicted, or God has never convicted me of arrogance.í And that I thought in itself was perhaps a fairly arrogant statement. From then on, I was persona non grata, and I was severely reprimanded for daring to say that The Fellowship was arrogant and I was told to apologise, and I was at that stage, so overwhelmed by the condemnation, I did apologise.
Rachael Kohn: You had been a member really for how many years, up to that point?
Heather Mills: Forty-two or three.
Rachael Kohn: Gosh, thatís a pretty severe reaction to someone whoís been in a group so long.
Heather Mills: Yes, but I wasnít regarded as being a super spiritual person. I was probably regarded as being on the periphery. You know, and not very important.
Rachael Kohn: What would you have had to have done to be on the inside?
Heather Mills: Oh, I guess I would have had to go and see the leaders constantly, and talk to them about spiritual matters, and ask for forgiveness about things. Or ask for extra teaching, or prove myself to be deeply seeking the will of God.
Rachael Kohn: Heather, can you elaborate a bit about how you thought The Fellowship was behaving in an arrogant manner?
Heather Mills: Well I guess what concerned me most was their way of criticising other Christians, always criticising other Christians, criticising Ministers, saying that certain people werenít walking in the light. That was one of their catchphrases.
Rachael Kohn: What does that actually mean?
Heather Mills: You tell me, Rachael. So I think it means that the person being criticised didnít have the same understanding of Christianity as The Fellowship had. And I think The Fellowshipís understanding of Christianity was very severely flawed.
Rachael Kohn: What sort of things didnít they like?
Heather Mills: They were terribly critical of Freemasonry. Freemasonry was of the devil, absolutely, and we were prayed over because both my grandfathers had been Freemasons.
Rachael Kohn: Ah, so thatís the skeleton in the closet!
Heather Mills: Well the funny thing is that The Fellowship seemed to me to behave a lot like Freemasons, so I think it was the pot calling the kettle black.
Rachael Kohn: Well your mother became ill in the early Ď90s.
Heather Mills: Yes, she did.
Rachael Kohn: Were you free to see her?
Heather Mills: We were free to see her, but there was a lot of pressure put on us that my mother was becoming manipulative. That she wasnít really as ill as we may have thought, and we werenít to bow and scrape to her requests.
Rachael Kohn: Was she a member of The Fellowship?
Heather Mills: She had been, yes, but she was beginning I think to doubt a lot of the teaching. She was a most godly, gracious, loving Christian woman, and the last year or perhaps 18 months of her life, were blighted by their awful behaviour towards her. My sister and I were told not to fuss over her, not to give in to her requests, and this woman was desperately ill with Lupus, which is a most horrible disease.
Rachael Kohn: Well, she died in 1993.
Heather Mills: She did, yes.
Rachael Kohn: And after that, you went overseas.
Heather Mills: Yes, we were given the option of going to one of my husbandís family in Oxford actually, in England, and my husband was offered a position, and we were given a home that belongs to the family to live in. So we decided we would love to go, and there was quite a bit of subtle pressure put on us that this wasnít Godís will for us, but we prayed about it a lot, we felt that we should go, and we left. We left at the very end of 1993, and we didnít come back till March í95.
Rachael Kohn: What did the trip do to your outlook?
Heather Mills: Well it changed it totally. I met beautiful Christians all over the world.We met beautiful Christians all over the world, loving, gracious people who followed Jesus Christ.
Rachael Kohn: Was that a surprise to you?
Heather Mills: Yes. It was. Because all my life, other Christians had been criticised, and Iíd been told certain people werenít walking in the light, and we were the people who were a special stream called apart. So it was a surprise to find such wonderful Christian people all over the world.
Rachael Kohn: So what did you do with your new-found outlook about good Christians outside The Fellowship when you returned to Melbourne?
Heather Mills: Well Rachael, I guess it just made me a happier person in my Christian walk. I became very involved in our church in Melbourne. We had a wonderful Bible Study at our home. I just became a freer person, and I learned how terrible criticism is, how awful it is.
Rachael Kohn: How did The Fellowship members react to you? You must have had many friends within that group.
Heather Mills: Yes, and I can say they shunned me totally. If they saw me walking along a footpath, they would cross to the other side of the road. We werenít invited to weddings within our family, we werenít invited to 21st birthday parties, we were totally shunned. And it took us a little while to realise that other folk had left The Fellowship, not a lot, but other folk had left The Fellowship, including my sister and her husband, and they had been appallingly treated, even not invited to their own sonís wedding.
Rachael Kohn: When did you decide to actually leave The Fellowship?
Heather Mills: My husband would say November 1993. We went to a meeting where some people were made to stand up and confess all sorts of things, and it was, we felt, shameful the way these people were treated, and from then on, I think my husband made up his mind we are not having anything to do with this group.
Rachael Kohn: Was this a change in the way in which The Fellowship operated?
Heather Mills: It had been happening Rachael, ever since the founders of The Fellowship stopped being the main leaders, and other younger men, not young men, but younger men, were vying for the leadership of this group, and they became incredibly controlling, to the extent of saying ĎYou must confess every sin; if you wonít confess sin to an Elder, itís the same as not confessing to God.í
Rachael Kohn: Were you aware of the Presbyterian churchís investigation into The Fellowship, which resulted in the report ĎFractured Fellowshipí?
Heather Mills: Oh yes.
Rachael Kohn: That was gaining ground in the Ď90s?
Heather Mills: Yes, it was.
Rachael Kohn: Mid-Ď90s.
Heather Mills: Yes, it was.
Rachael Kohn: Were you part of that groundswell of concern?
Heather Mills: Oh my word. I was terribly concerned that the church couldnít step in and discipline these people who were shunning all their families. They were shunning everyone who was not actually an active member of The Fellowship. Everyone who had pulled away from The Fellowship was being shunned.
Rachael Kohn: Heather, I know that you have spoken out about your experience and your son has, Alistair, but others have been too afraid to speak out.
Heather Mills: Rachael, itís understandable. Some of them still have children in The Fellowship, and precious grandchildren, and if they speak out too much, any fragile contact they have with their children and their grandchildren will be broken off. I donít think many people realise just how powerful this Fellowship is.
Rachael Kohn: Well weíve invited some Fellowship leader and supporters to come on to the program, but they declined. Do you have any idea as to why?
Heather Mills: That doesnít surprise me at all. Theyíve never written down a mission statement, they have nothing written about their existence, and then the Presbyterian church has asked them to co-operate, they wonít. And even when they were approached to see if they wanted to have anything to do with the book, ĎFractured Fellowshipí, they declined, and then had the temerity to deny that theyíd even been approached.
Rachael Kohn: Yes, I think the report actually says that they claim they donít exist, which was quite perplexing for the investigators.
Heather Mills: Itís perplexing for everybody because they certainly do exist. I canít verify now, but within the last year, I have seen all the men outside one of The Fellowship homes, leaving after a meeting.
Rachael Kohn: Heather Mills is a former member of The Fellowship, which remains an exclusive society within the Presbyterian church of Melbourne. What was it that Jesus said? ĎA house divided cannot standí? Well itís managed to, but at the cost of many families who claim to have been hurt by the beliefs and practices of The Fellowship.
Rachael Kohn: And thatís been The Spirit of Things for this week, which you can hear again by going to our website.
The program today was produced by Geoff Wood and me, and our technical producer was Michelle Goldsworthy.
Next week, a woman whoís conquered cancer, and helps others live a rich and meaningful life, even as they face one of the most shattering diagnoses. Sheís Patria King, and youíll understand why people keep coming back for her unique blend of spirituality, science and good sense. Thatís Taking Stock with Patria King, next week on The Spirit of Things, with me, Rachael Kohn.
Fractured Families: The Story of a Melbourne Church Cult
Author: Morag Zwartz
Publisher: Paranesis Publishing, 2004
Presenter: Rachael Kohn
Producer: Geoff Wood and Rachael Kohn
The Spirit of Things homepage