It would be a mistake to believe Gloriavale is a sanctuary from injustice. Instead, it is a sanctuary of injustice where the most sinister precepts of an archaic religion are paraded as a solution to the ills of the world.
The hermetic community, led by convicted sex offender Neville Cooper, has existed in varying forms since the 1960s. Preaching a strict and literal interpretation of the New Testament, their version of Christianity seeks to provide answers not just to the spiritual questions of the day, but to every facet and intricacy of life. It is the embodiment of many common evangelical precepts, borrowing from Aquinas here, Tynsdale there, a good dose of rigid Calvinism mixed with the hellfire preachments of Billy Graham.
This theology is not resigned to the backwaters and hills. It is modern and thoroughly de rigueur. It is the doctrine of a number of private and partially-integrated schools in New Zealand. I attended one of those schools for part of my education, and my resistance to its teaching gave me something of a glimpse at the justifications provided by the Gloriavale leadership. Whenever those men appear on camera, I feel an instant pang of recognition.
The Gloriavale community manages to achieve what my school headmasters and pastors did their best to attain. A bubble is formed by the leaders and imposed on their subjects. Edicts on every facet of life are handed down: from literature to sex, diet to the discipline of children. The church is no longer a spiritual house in the context of a lawful society, but becomes the society too.
I can still remember the incredible acrobatic exercises that had to be performed to do this. Virgil’s Aeneid was taught in Classics as Biblical parable. Biology classes were doctored and toyed with until Ockham’s scientific Razor was rendered blunt. Sex education was sanitised as if sensuality and pleasure were alien things (there was a six-inch no contact rule in the student handbook). NCEA lessons were cut to make way for tutorials on ‘intelligent design’. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series was heretical and worthy of burning, while praise was heaped on the dire CS Lewis. My entrance interview was prefaced by a teacher claiming the Catholicism of my upbringing was “man-made, but Christianity is God-made.”
From the classrooms and the newsletters to the playground and locker room. Lord knows how many times I was told by an innocent student that I’d be going to Hell for my unbelief. Any child raised outside the small cluster of churches affiliated with the school was considered suspicious, therefore an outsider. There were quiet nods in agreement when the vice-principal appeared in the media to defend a prominent paedophile.
Perhaps most frightening of all, when I look back, is the young women who would gleefully maintain their subjugation at the hands of men.
My school’s opinions, and the opinions of its parents, were the mainstream. Is it really all that difficult to understand how a community like Gloriavale can grow from these tenets?
The very first consequence of this world view is separation: from wider society’s laws and morals, from fellow Christians and other co-religionists. When taking this example to its logical conclusion, isolation is inevitable. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, goes the old dogma: Outside the church there is no salvation.
Gloriavale’s isolation is not quiet and polite. It emerges from a perceived disgust and abhorrence of everything the wider world represents. For Gloriavale’s leaders “non-Christian peers, non-Christian teachers and the media” are to blame for “carnal desires” and “a pressure to do evil”. In a screed called 10 Marks of the Church, it viciously attacks Babylon – the symbolic city where faiths intertwine and cultures mesh - as "that great harlot, drunk with the blood of the saints”.
One tends to pay attention when pedestrian teachings suddenly invoke the sword. In one of Gloriavale’s pamphlets, it intones that “Western society now excuses many things that the Bible says are worthy of death.” Allegations of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse do not seem so surprising with this kind of language in use.
Speaking of death, it’s worthwhile to note the undeniably creepy emphasis placed on Heaven and Hell, on human sacrifice, and on condemnation.
Under the heading ‘Judgement in the Church’, a Gloriavale scribe writes that “The greatest punishment the church can inflict on an unrepentant person is to put them out of the church and have nothing to do with them.” Excommunication may seem harmless, but the ruling is followed up with an indictment. “By doing so they are handing them over to the devil to punish them.”
This is more like it. Jesus’ concept of unconditional love goes straight out the window. If anyone rejects the Word of the One True Church, they are condemned to burn over and over again in the excruciating fires of Hell. This might give some clue as to how brave and courageous Julia, in an incredible segment on Campbell Live, was told by her father that it’s “not my problem if you want to take yourself right to hell.”
“The only reason I’d love you, and I’ve told you this before, is to see your soul saved. I don’t love you for any other reason.”
All of this culminates in Revelation (or Apocalypse, rather). Christ will return, they say, to snatch up the faithful before the Earth is destroyed along with its sinful inhabitants. This should be seen for what it is: Nihilism, and the wish for everything to be ruined.
During my schooling, this death-wish was commonplace. It is especially chilling now to remember fellow students from a very young age desiring the end of all things without truly understanding its consequences.
There is an antidote to all this. Inculcation and indoctrination can be undone. Those families brave enough to leave have not been met with fornication and sin, but with the basic human and humane qualities of compassion, charity, aid, and altruism. Clothing and food, furniture and children’s toys are handed over with a welcoming smile that says “It’ll be alright” after so much has gone wrong.
The kind-hearted people who maintain a network of support across the South Island have proved there is salvation of a kind outside the church. Just not the sort Gloriavale’s devotees are looking for.