Breaking the Fellowship: a bitter-sweet crusade

An elitist cult has successfully operated as a church within a church – until now.

As a young man, Grant Lawry was invited to join the Fellowship, the secretive cult centred at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Camberwell. He spent 15 years on the fringes — then the past decade trying to root them out of the Presbyterian Church.

Last Sunday provided a bitter-sweet moment of vindication. Lawry, now minister at the Canterbury church, stood beside the clerk of Melbourne East Presbytery, Kevin Childs, while Childs read a notice excommunicating Trinity’s 15 elders, all members of the cult.

“It’s been a constant part of my life for 10 years. The hardest part has been speaking to people whose lives have been torn apart by the Fellowship. Some weeks I was really knocked about by it,” Lawry said yesterday.

“It’s a breakthrough. At last there’s some real progress. But as I looked out at all those families, I felt really sad.”

Sunday’s statement was read in every church in the presbytery — the group of churches that takes responsibility for member churches under the Presbyterian system. It was also sent to every presbytery in Australia and the Anglican diocese of Melbourne, advising them not to receive these men.

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Like many church cults, the Fellowship had a benign beginning in the desire to live holy lives, to “walk in the light”. But it quickly became elitist and secretive. Composed mostly of professional people — stockbrokers, doctors, professors and the like — it has always hidden itself within the Anglican and Presbyterian churches for the respectability these establishment denominations offer.

Over time, some ministers became concerned about a secretive group within the church whose first allegiance was to itself, but things became much worse in 1996 after the death of co-founder Ronald Grant. All the Fellowship people were simultaneously “told by God” to leave their Anglican and Presbyterian churches — where many had taken vows as elders — and go to Trinity, or to the Mount Evelyn or Clayton churches, all of which became Fellowship strongholds. (The Maroondah presbytery forced the Fellowship out of Mount Evelyn in 2002.)

The Fellowship had always been intrusive in the life of members; now it became much more controlling, authoritarian and male-dominated, former members say. People were told to shun family members who did not belong, for fear of being defiled. Hostility to Freemasons became obsessive, with the elders teaching a theory of “generational curses”, which meant people had to repent if family members, even long-dead ancestors, had been Masons.

The reputed leader for the past decade has been a pillar of the financial establishment, Bruce Teele, 68, the former head of leading stockbroker JB Were and now chief of Australian Foundation Investment Co.

According to business people, Teele is a “heavyweight”, a man of real influence, and known to be a devout Christian. Under his leadership, Were was “a puritan shop, a moral place with far fewer cowboys and risk-takers”. Teele and other Fellowship leaders did not return calls from The Age — Teele has never spoken publicly about the group.

According to victims of the cult, Teele is a “control freak”. Sue Barker, who married into the cult, says she did not meet her fiance’s parents when the time came but Teele. “When I buy a washing machine I get an instruction manual. When we had children, it was Bruce who got the manual. If it’s between what God says to Bruce and to you, Bruce’s version wins.”

Another former member says the leaders always spoke about unity. “What that meant was that Bruce had spoken.” They were manipulative, sometimes broke confidences and exerted enormous, if subtle, pressure. They would suggest who members could marry and where they should work. The worst damage came from “shunning”. Some family members who did not belong to the Fellowship were entirely cut off. They were not invited to family events, Christmas presents were returned unopened, grandparents never saw grandchildren.

Morag Zwartz identified the fellowship leaders and recounted many victims’ stories in her 2004 book, Fractured Families: the Story of a Melbourne Church Cult. According to Lawry, this book changed the climate within the church and put the Fellowship on the defensive.

Zwartz (who is married to the writer of this article) wrote of the “passive demolition” of individuals and churches and of the subtlety of its subversions of orthodoxy. “Other cults may appear more immediately bizarre or evil, but ultimately the Fellowship is no less damaging,” she says.

Lawry’s presbytery has had many complaints over the years. The presbytery persuaded state assembly to declare the group “inimical” and write a booklet warning against its teachings, but the Fellowship’s use of procedural detail to protect itself has been masterly, Lawry says. And they have appealed against the latest measures.

One of the Fellowship’s most common tactics is to deny that it exists.

At other times leaders admit it exists, but say its errors are behind it. This week both claims were operating side by side.

Trinity minister Philip Mercer told The Age the Fellowship had not existed since it last met in 1996. (Opponents say that is because meetings simply changed name to become official Trinity Church meetings.) Mercer, who is not himself a Fellowship member, also said Fellowship leaders had made some mistakes but these had been solved.

“There’s an enormous amount of ill-will towards the Fellowship and Trinity, and it’s very hard to overcome that. The analysis that it’s a cult that needs to be purged and rooted out is entirely false in present circumstances,” he said.

“Given the intense and sustained hostility to Trinity Church, we’ve come to realise that we belong to an organisation that doesn’t want us. Even if we succeed in an appeal, we are still faced with that reality.”

He said that unless the church was reassured that it would be “given relief from constant interference and harassment” it would consider its options. But leaving the denomination would be a last resort.

Mercer says there has been healing and restoration, but victims ridicule that claim. “That’s a load of hogwash,” says Heather Mills, a victim who stays in touch with other divided families.

“Most certainly there is not reconciliation. There is a superficial layer of friendship, but under no circumstances do you discuss anything deep or spiritual. People are polite as long as the conversation is about the garden.”

Lawry says the presbytery tried reconciliation unsuccessfully for years. “It didn’t work because they’re not sorry. Even now they are deflecting the blame.”

What happens next is uncertain. The excommunicated elders — all of whom will keep going to Trinity, according to Mercer — may keep their influence over the congregation, most of whom are Fellowship members and who may reject the new elders appointed by presbytery. If that happens, the clock will be turned back: the Fellowship will revert to its pre-1996 role as a church inside a church, holding secret and unofficial meetings.

Lawry acknowledges it won’t be easy, but he is used to progress that comes in slow and small steps. And this time, he says, the presbytery is resolute.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Age, Australia
Mar. 4, 2006
Barney Zwartz

Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday March 4, 2006.
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