It is almost 20 years since Robert Humphreys’ life began to descend into daily torment.
In January 1985 the Presbyterian minister at Drouin was called by the congregation at Trinity Presbyterian Church, in Camberwell. When he left at the end of 1990 Humphreys was a broken man whose experience with a group of congregants called The Fellowship had cost him his ministry, his marriage and his mental health.
Humphreys, now a Uniting Church minister, says his battle against the stranglehold he perceived Fellowship members had over affairs at Trinity began almost immediately. He came to understand that his initiatives would be stymied because the majority of church elders were aligned with The Fellowship.
Humphreys says Fellowship members had a view on church life and teachings that was somewhat incompatible with Presbyterian doctrine. Worse, they pressured him to conform to their vision, an intolerable position for a theologically qualified and ordained minister. In his second year at Trinity, Humphreys instituted Saturday morning prayer meetings for the elders. He calls these episodes of psychological crucifixion in which Fellowship members tried to wear him down. He believes they placed an unhealthy emphasis on public confession. Around the end of 1987, he decided to stop the prayer meetings “because they were unhelpful to me”.
“The session meetings (of elders) became more of a trial,” he says. We had a totally different understanding of what church was meant to be, and my attempts to look outwards were met with.. . resistance.”
Humphreys says his relationship with the controlling influences at Trinity was irretrievably wounded when he selected a hymn from the new Rejoice hymn book. “Immediately after the service, (a church leader) came rushing up to me and declared that if I wouldn’t do what I was told, I could bugger off,” he says. In late 1989, Humphreys asked the Presbytery of Melbourne North to investigate what he called The Fellowship’s undue and negative influence at Trinity.
“After the investigation, the cold war became a hot war,” he says. Humphreys says one elder called him an evil spirit; that he was controlled by the devil.
He left Trinity in 1990, but his marriage was effectively over and he had become clinically depressed.
Today, Humphreys feels sad for the families driven apart by The Fellowship – but also for Fellowship adherents. He thinks their view of the Scriptures and insular behaviour has meant narrow lives for many of them.
“The overwhelming evidence is that The Fellowship is imbued with a spirit that’s totally un-Christian and (members) have no understanding of the Christian gospel as understood by the Presbyterian Church and 2000 years of mainstream Christianity.”
Traditional Christian teaching holds that believers are saved by grace. Works are a sign of their commitment. Contrary to The Fellowship, theologians say the New Testament does not portray prosperity as a sign of God’s favour. Fractured Families says The Fellowship’s emphasis on works and public confession leads to crippling introspection, and elitism. Leaders use this to control members.