The Exclusive Brethren, fundamentalist Christians who shun the world as we know it, have recently been found trying to influence the political process when they don’t even vote themselves.
And this week, after revelations that the religious sect had hired a private detective to spy on Prime Minister Helen Clark, New Zealand First MP Ron Marks claimed they had lobbied him to support a National-led government.
Sunday reporter Ian Sinclair has met with a former member – an outcast – who lifts the veil on a closed community which he describes as a well-off sect plagued by alcohol abuse, blind faith and secrecy.
“I would call them a very, very rich club awash with alcohol,” says Neville McCallum.
He says many families are separated and “butchered emotionally”.
McCallum lives for God, but he speaks of cruelty in the name of God and tells of being excommunicated by religious elders he likens to the gestapo who rule through fear.
The Exclusive Brethren hates being in the headlines but revelations about the hiring of private eyes to spy on Labour ministers and a strong backing for the National Party has put them there. McCallum believes the National Party came to be involved with the sect because of money.
Their leader, Bruce Hales, hates the “pipelines of media filth” and McCallum says media people are deemed people in darkness.
McCallum accuses Exclusive Brethren elders of pressuring wives and children into rejecting men who dare question their authority. He says they are ordered to put their faith before their family.
“The fear is very, very deeply bedded and it’s fear that actually controls the members of the Brethren who are not in a leadership role,” says McCallum.
He says that fear is around being taken away from family and fear of being persecuted.
There are about 8,000 Exclusive Brethren in scattered communities around New Zealand. Their halls are concealed behind high walls and the buildings are usually without windows with the aim of blocking the outside world from penetrating.
The secretive religion has even created its own jargon. Followers are called ins, those expelled from the community are called outs and the rest of us are simply known as the worldies.
“We were taught over and over again that these worldly people who didn’t belong to the Exclusive Brethren were all wicked, they were filthy. They had lots of problems and…there weren’t any real Christians out there,” says McCallum.
The scriptures are used as justification to exclude a wide range of things such as eating in a restaurant, television, cellphones or computers.
Brethren rules say women must wear headscarves and not cut their hair and must not practise artificial birth control. Men are not allowed to wear shorts or ties. Members are not allowed to marry outside the Brethren and they are not allowed to vote.
“It takes people into bondage, because in many cases they don’t even know why they’re not allowed these things. It’s just an order that comes from somewhere else,” says McCallum whose roots in the religion run back generations.
McCallum describes the younger years as very good.
“There was a lot of gospel preachings, which is where I became saved and became a Christian.”
“Outsiders were definitely welcome. We used to bring our neighbours along to the gospel preachings at times and anybody, anybody was welcome to come along.”
That changed in 1959 when then world leader James Taylor, or JT, decided it was time to shut out the evil and any unbeliever was to be cut adrift.
McCallum says JT could do no wrong, even if that included hitting the bottle.
“When you have an infallible world leader called the man of God and he drinks plenty you don’t question it,” says McCallum who says Taylor would drink to “the point of intoxication”.
“The drinking goes on all the time, even children arriving at the Brethren schools intoxicated at just 15 and 16 years of age in the morning.”
He says nobody minds if people attend church drunk “because the leaders have done it”.
McCallum says the controls and restrictions were too much to take and almost cost him his marriage.
“I was ordered out, which we did. We got up as a family and we walked out and have never been back.”
He says he made sure his wife followed but she says it took a few days to come to the decision to stay with him – “mainly because I loved him”.
Philippa McCallum says they tried to stop her and rang a couple of times to say it would be in her interests to separate from Neville or live separately in the house.
She says what hurt most was being cut off from her parents. Philippa says she would get the children to write to them and sometimes she would get a short note back which would have a note at the bottom asking her to burn it.
Her parents were still in the sect when they died and as an outsider Pip was forbidden to attend their funeral.
“We would have been allowed to stand back at the graveside, but I chose not to do that because of the stress it would have been.”
When Sunday approached one of the elders of the church in Blenheim about the claims, Richard Beatson would not be interviewed but he conceded a “very small percentage” of some families did pay a price.
Beatson was not prepared to comment on other allegations and said the Exclusive Brethren’s way of life speaks for itself.
McCallum believes the Exclusive Brethren are in danger of going the way of other religious bodies which were taken too far by their leaders in a cult-like fashion.
“He gives an order to do something that’s irrational, maybe dangerous to humanity, would these people do it? I believe there’s some that would.”
And although the fellowship has been demonised, to McCallum many members are victims themselves – born into a life they didn’t choose.
“I really appeal to anybody who is a neighbour of an Exclusive Brethren. If you see anything, maybe you could offer just five minutes of your time to put out your hand and offer some assistance. Because I know for a fact there’s people in there with very deep concerns, who don’t know where to turn, or who to talk to.”