Top-level tensions in the Presbyterian church over a cult inside its Camberwell church have deteriorated after the state authority defied a move that would end its attempts to excise the cult.
Members of the Victorian assembly on Tuesday expressed outrage at a report from the national church group that in practice exonerates the cult, known as the Fellowship.
The incoming Victorian leader, Douglas Robertson, minister of Scots Church in the city, told the assembly the national church had acted unconstitutionally, exceeded its authority and tried to impose censorship.
One senior Victorian Presbyterian, who did not want to be named, said the report was a huge setback. “We almost got them, but in one day the General Assembly of Australia has managed to undo years of to-and-froing in church courts.”
The Victorian church has been trying for a decade to remove the cult, which has been described as manipulative, authoritarian and controlling and has instructed members to shun family members who do not belong — a practice that the Fellowship has claimed no longer occurs.
The group, headed by multimillionaire stockbroker Bruce Teele, has had the determination and resources to resist.
Its leaders have “suggested” who members should marry, where they should work, how they should raise their children and — most painfully — who they should avoid, which led to family members being entirely cut off.
In 2006, the Victorian church expelled 15 elders from Trinity Presbyterian, but last year the national church reinstated them. It set up a committee to investigate the Fellowship, whose recommendations were rejected on Tuesday.
For the first time, the Victorian assembly debated the Fellowship in open session, despite an attempt by Fellowship supporters to keep discussion private.
The assembly rejected requests by the national committee to move Trinity from the jurisdiction of the Presbytery of Melbourne East to Melbourne West, and to stop distributing Fractured Fellowship, the booklet Victoria published against the cult a decade ago.
In a conclusion Victorian Presbyterians found particularly insulting, the committee equated the presbytery of Melbourne East with the cult, saying both were guilty of shunning. It suggested both Trinity and the Victorian church should “express regret” and start afresh.
The Victorian assembly set up its own committee to investigate jurisdiction over Trinity. Mr Robertson, a member of Melbourne West, said his presbytery had not been consulted in any way, and that such a move would risk the “time, energies, peace, stability and reputation of that presbytery”.
The assembly voted to ask the national committee to demonstrate any errors in Fractured Fellowship, to explain why it was not necessary for the Fellowship to disavow its past beliefs and behaviour, and outline how it planned to help Fellowship victims “who have suffered for many years as a result of these unbalanced views”.
Brian Bayston, the Victorian law agent, told the assembly he did not believe the Trinity elders had changed.
Trinity minister Philip Mercer said he was not prepared to talk to The Age, about anything under any circumstances, while the Reverend Chris Balzer, chairman of the national inquiry, also declined to comment.
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