In the minds of the 40,000 or so worldwide devotees of Bruce Hales, the world is divided into “us”, the Exclusive Brethren, who live in the light of God’s love, and “them”, the rest of the community. Only through this, the doctrine of separation, can the Brethren be understood. “You come in touch with worldly people; if you get a little close to them, you’ll have some sense of defilement,” says Hales in one of his regular sermons.
In this singular scripture, Hales, a tangle-tongued Sydney office equipment supplier, is the direct spiritual descendant of the sect‘s biblical hero, St Paul; he is God’s representative on Earth, the only route to salvation. The Exclusive Brethren’s God is judgemental and interventionist, particularly in politics. “We do not mix in politics; we are not of the world; we do not vote,” said church founder John Nelson Darby in 1878.
But that has not stopped the Brethren from lobbying hard, and successfully, over decades on issues that affect them or offend them: industrial relations, family law, gay rights and abortion. In many cases these attempts to bend politicians to their will have been successful, under the implied threat that to deny them would be a sign of religious intolerance. This week the Brethren again came to public attention after Victorian National Party leader Peter Ryan confirmed that four members of the group had met him in his Sale electoral office in recent weeks to discuss policies on gay rights and abortion. There is a strong element of self-interest in their lobbying. For example, when CityLink was being established, the Brethren argued unsuccessfully to then Kennett government minister Rob Maclellan that they should be exempted from paying tolls because, in the words of one witness, “the e-TAGs or perhaps the toll gantries were instruments of the devil”.
This kind of lobbying has been a feature of Brethren activity for decades. The group banned Brethren members from eating with “worldlies”, and started enforcing a much stricter doctrine of separation. A massive upheaval ensued, and thousands left. The Exclusive Brethren is still said to have 18,000 members in Australia. But now, under the leadership of Hales since 2002, the Brethren’s political activity has changed in character and style.
In the 2004 federal election, in the US presidential election of the same year, and in the Tasmanian and New Zealand elections, individual, cashed-up Brethren members funded advertisements vilifying the Greens and Labor and lauding conservative parties or candidates. Only later, usually after the election, have these contributors been identified as Brethren members.
This week The Age revealed that the sect also intends to be active in the Victorian campaign, probably on behalf of Peter Ryan, because they agree with his conservative social views. Any intervention could be highly significant in an election in which the Nationals will be battling it out with the Greens for the balance of power in the upper house. So, who are these people who seek to have more influence over how the rest of us vote, while not voting themselves?
by fear of excommunication…
An Age investigation has shown that, far from being the slightly eccentric religious sect it is often seen as, it is a phenomenally wealthy, ruthless cult whose adherents are ruled by fear of excommunication, and which, according to former sect members, creates untold damage to the people whose lives it touches. “I see it as so wicked. They say that their leader (Bruce Hales) is ‘the Lord’s Representative’, I say he’s the Deceiver’s representative,” says Alison Alderton, 83. “So many lives have been ruined, and it’s so heartless and callous. I can’t tell you how awful it is.”
In 1980, Alderton’s husband, Bob, was a senior man in the Brethren, and both had been brought up in the sect, but that was not enough to protect the family from the human tragedies that swept through it.
First their daughter, Priscilla, ran away in 1971, at 17, no longer able to handle the strictures enforced on her. Then another daughter, Glenys, was excommunicated, or “withdrawn from”. Under the strict doctrine of separation, they were never allowed to see their parents again.
But for Alison Alderton, the worst aspect of it is that she herself became the perpetrator of sins. She rigidly enforced separation, despite her daughters’ attempts to keep in touch.
“I’d been to so many sessions where someone was withdrawn from and it broke up a family, and nobody shed a tear, or cared about what it was doing to people,” Alderton says. “We were so brainwashed we didn’t have any right feelings about it. The girls used to ring up and we’d say, ‘We can’t talk to you.’ I feel absolutely ashamed about that. It’s so wicked it makes you cold and hard and godless.”
And then it happened to her. In 1980, in one of the sudden political upheavals that characterise this sect, an ambitious Brisbane-based member dug up allegations about some meetings 16 years earlier, in which the world leader at the time, James Symington, had allegedly not been shown due respect. “On the 11th of February, 1980 €¦ there was a ring on the doorbell and it was two brothers saying Mr Symington had ordered that Bob be withdrawn from and Alison shut up (sequestered indefinitely),” Alderton says. Suddenly their other two children, Gavin, 20, and Grace, 15, were required to leave home to live with other families. Almost without exception since then those two, who remain “in”, have not seen their parents.
Alison Alderton says she is still learning how to live a life outside the Brethren, and has remained a Christian. “I thank God every day that He delivered me from that cult, and now I have a life I can enjoy.”
Mark Humber is a musician, a trombone player and schoolteacher in Tasmania. He left in March 2000 after begging his wife, also raised in the Brethren, to come with him, and bring their six children. She refused. His father, his ex-wife and his children have since written letters to him and to a Tasmanian newspaper accusing him of abandoning them. One daughter, Clara, then 12, wrote: “Obviously his trombone meant more to him than Mum and us kids.”
After walking out, but before he was finally excommunicated, he went back for weeks to beg his wife to follow him: “When I saw her I said, ‘Is there any chance you’ll trust me that people are not evil out there, they’re good and they’ll help us?’ ”
But his wife, Ruth, was a true female product of the Brethren: “She didn’t know anybody. They keep them cut off through school, they work for Brethren businesses, then they are married quite young and that’s the end of it. It is a narrow life.”
He used to see the children for a few hours every two months until they turned 16, but he rarely saw them after that. On the last occasion, he hardly recognised Clara. “I’d be so delighted if one day there was a knock on the door and it was one of my kids. Maybe in five or 10 years, or when I am an old man, my kids would come back.”
Ron Fawkes, once the Brethren’s Australian leader, was excommunicated 22 years ago because someone saw him as a political threat to Symington, the then world leader. He lost his wife and six children “whom I haven’t seen from that day to this”. “I was physically, emotionally, mentally totally devastated because it was so unexpected. I lived like a hermit virtually for seven years. I begged to be reconciled because at that stage I knew nothing different. It was my life, I loved my wife and children. I ached for them, I begged for them.”
Gradually, though, he realised “the un-Christian nature of the whole Brethren movement”, and reached a point where he could not go back. He continued writing to them until each of his children wrote back saying they never wanted to see him again unless he was with the Brethren.
“I ring from time to time, my youngest daughter is warmer than some, though recently she won’t answer the phone. One of my sons just hangs up and calls me a bastard, says I’m an enemy of Christ.”
Dr Marion Maddox, a reader in religious studies at Victoria University in New Zealand, says the Exclusive Brethren is not the only sect that practises separation and excommunication, “but it’s harder to imagine a sharper, more hardline way of doing it. By any count,” she says, “they are among the most sect-like in the sense of wanting the least to do with mainstream society.”
In a long history of bitter splits, political in-fighting and recriminations, excommunication has affected almost everyone at one time or another. Hales’ father, John Hales, himself was “out” for three years in the 1980s over an internal power struggle; John Gadsden, the Victorian supremo, was out for 18 years or more, “withdrawn from” for allegedly telling lies. He brought up most of his children outside the church, and then, in 2003, left them behind and went back to a senior position inside it. Dorothy Kidd, grandmother of Richard Garrett, another senior Victorian man, was kidnapped by the Brethren in 1962 with two of her sisters, 18 months after their parents left the group.
Fawkes says the Brethren has become a different beast to the historical entity, established in the 1820s. The Brethren used to be a strict, but relatively ordinary, fundamentalist sect, but in 1960, world leader James Taylor took a radical new tack, “aided and abetted very much by the Hales in Australia”, Fawkes says.
They banned Brethren members from eating with “worldlies”, and started enforcing a much stricter doctrine of separation. A massive upheaval ensued and thousands left. Under Bruce D. Hales, John’s son, the current elect vessel, the doctrine has become ironclad.
From his own words, it appears Hales may have developed a Messiah complex: “We’ve been in the presence of the greatest service that you could ever measure, and you’re never going to be in the presence of anything greater. I can tell you that much, even when you’re in heaven you’re not going to get any closer to Christ than you’ve been this last 20 years,” he said recently of the ministry of himself and his father.
(These regular scriptural outpourings are bound weekly and sold, under compulsory subscription, to all his followers, in what one former member described as a “lucrative business”.)
The Exclusive Brethren enforces strict codes. It is fearful of technology. Mobile phones are “instruments of hell”, according to Hales, and even cordless phones are to be treated with suspicion. Televisions and radios are out of bounds, and “we particularly recoil from novels and cinemas” — they cause “soul damage”. Hales’ lectures are not just required reading, they are pretty much all there is to read. Computers are banned. One former member, Rob Hornsey, was excommunicated for using one, losing his eight children, his business, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in a nine-year Family Court battle.
He could be excused for being bitter, because Hales has recently announced computers can be used if they are leased from a company, National Office Assist, that is beneficially owned by John Kenneth Anderson, a Brethren businessman. Fax machines also now appear to be allowed.
Brethren cannot share a common wall or a common driveway with “worldlies”. Unions are banned, as are employer organisations. University is out of bounds. Hales says his father, John, slept through his lectures in the 1960s, and Hales believes higher education to be “narrowing”.
In business, Hales recommends spending minimal time in conversation with “worldly people”. Women are second-class citizens, contraception is banned. Hales is also responsible for the Brethren’s recent move into politics, according to Fawkes.
“I think it’s a lust for power, for political clout. Money and power are a pretty volatile cocktail when it comes to religion. And that’s the kind of person Bruce Hales is. This wouldn’t have happened under his father’s regime, and certainly not previously,” Fawkes says.
This month John Howard said of Muslims that they needed to embrace Australian values, saying, “they have to integrate”. “Fully integrating means accepting Australian values €¦ And it means understanding that in certain areas, such as the equality of men and women €¦ people who come from societies where women are treated in an inferior fashion have got to learn very quickly that that is not the case in Australia.” In the small corner of this country that is Exclusive Brethren, mainstream values are an entirely alien concept. But Howard still gleefully accepts their coin, and their influence is growing fast.
Michael Bachelard is an Age investigative reporter.