The Exclusive Brethren were agitated by their hatred for the Labour government led by Helen Clark. She presided over a programme of progressive social change that included the legalisation of sex work and the introduction of civil unions for same-sex couples. I heard Brethren privately expressing death wishes against Clark and other socially liberal politicians; when the prime minister was left bruised and shaken after an aeroplane door blew open on a chartered flight, the Brethren said that if we’d been praying harder, Clark would have fallen out. Later that year, a group of a dozen or so teenagers burned an effigy of the prime minister atop a bonfire at a Saturday evening gathering of Brethren families.
Civil unions were a particular sore point for the Brethren. Ironically, Church protests and prayers against the legislation were what allowed me to learn that the gay community existed. Until then I hadn’t known there was a label for men who were attracted to men, although it was unthinkable that such a label might apply to me. Who were these men living in such sin? How were they able to ignore God’s rules about finding a wife and starting a family? Didn’t they know they were all going to burn in hell? We prayed their souls would be saved – we also begged God to stop the bill from passing through Parliament. When civil unions became law in 2004, local priests told us it was because we hadn’t been showing enough faith.
By 2005, when New Zealand went to the polls, Brethren fury had become organised political action around the country. Members donated time and money to centre-right candidates for the National Party in a bid to boot Labour from power – a bizarre move, considering that Brethren had banned themselves from voting for more than a century. Even though we still weren’t allowed to cast a vote, it was suddenly OK for us to actively campaign for a change of government. Brethren ran leaflet drops to support National candidates, organised telephone push-polling, and drove a concerted attack campaign against the Labour and Greens parties.
It all went badly wrong when the Brethren’s secretive association with the National Party came to light just a few weeks before election day. National plummeted in the polls and lost the election; newspapers were filled with speculation about why a fringe religious group had been trying to sway New Zealand politics.
I followed the story with curiosity, sifting through hundreds of clippings and painstakingly saving them into folders. We were told repeatedly that the press was wicked and that we shouldn’t be reading the news. The Sunday newspapers in particular were reviled, but I snuck home copies of the Sunday Star-Times and combed through them for reports that analysed the Brethren’s political endeavours. These reports were too fascinating for me to ignore.
A teacher noted in a report when I was 15, “Craig is an extremely capable student, but must not rest on his laurels,”. What was the point of trying when I knew I’d never go to university? I wouldn’t even need to find a job, because I had guaranteed employment at Dad’s tyre shop. The Brethren took care of their own.
Brethren students had no choice in what subjects we studied during our final two years of school. Already well ahead with the required credits to pass Year 11, I pleaded with the principal and trustees that I be allowed to drop out of architecture, which I hated with a passion. I would have much rather taken up sewing or cooking, but those classes were reserved for the girls.
I figured the only way I could get out of architecture was to behave so badly that the teacher refused to have me in the classroom. This led to my first official priestly visit. Known as ‘priestlies’, these experiences were feared by young Brethren: two or more church elders would shut themselves in a room with you and grill you about your sins. I’ve never worked out who called in the priests – it could have been my parents, distraught at my rebellion, or the teachers escalating to the Brethren trustees.
I found myself trapped in the spare bedroom. Three chairs had been pulled in and set up awkwardly beside the bed; I was beside the window, with two priests sitting opposite, interview-style. They were between me and the door, so I had no chance of making a run for it. These were familiar faces: I took communion with them every week, and they were both distant relatives.
I squirmed awkwardly as the men reprimanded me: “Why are you acting like this? This isn’t how Brethren should behave. You’d better submit to authority and accept what you’re being told to do.” They asked if I had any sins I wanted to confess. I stonewalled. Eventually the exchange came to an awkward finish. It didn’t feel like they’d achieved anything, and I was confident they weren’t going to shut me up. I went back to school after writing a mealy-mouthed letter acknowledging I had been rude to the teacher without actually apologising.
The trustees themselves were struggling to fit their version of education into New Zealand’s national curriculum so that the schools qualified for government funding. Some Brethren restrictions had to be eased; for instance, the English curriculum included a module on film studies, meaning we had to watch a movie or fail that module. I’d never seen a movie, so it was hugely exciting when our teacher rolled out a video player and TV.
We watched Rabbit-Proof Fence, an acclaimed Australian film about Aboriginal girls torn from their families by racist government policy. My classmates and I were much too naive to comprehend the themes and had no clue how movies worked. During a closing scene, a student asked our teacher if the filmmakers had waited for the characters to grow old.
A mildly abbreviated chapter taken with kind permission from the new memoir Excommunicated: A multigenerational story of leaving the Exclusive Brethren by Craig Hoyle (HarperCollins, $40), which tells the story of how he was excommunicated after coming out as gay.