Early Memories and the Great Dream
Author: Liz Gregory
In my nine years involved with Gloriavale Leavers I have had the privilege of meeting and connecting with hundreds of people who are connected to this 50-year story of Gloriavale. For some, they were involved in the early ministry circles and watched from the side-lines as Neville Cooper arrived in NZ with his tent meetings, while others have spoken more personally about the church in Rangiora, the beginnings of the Springbank to the relocation to Gloriavale. Others have shared their stories of living in and leaving the community over time.
One thing that continues to strike me is the difference in people’s reflections about the beginnings of the movement.
How can it be that one person can describe it as a nightmare from the start, while others present a more utopian and glossy view of the vision?
Not only do we have reflections from people who have left over the decades, but I have also been sent written histories from loyal Gloriavale members who want to share the beginnings with me, to help me understand things better. They believe that I am not sharing the true story, and they want to enlighten me. I am grateful to those people, because it adds another perspective and a complexity that I think we all need to recognise in this Gloriavale story.
I have also been privy to conversations between some older members and their children. One question the younger generation often want answered is, “Was Gloriavale what you thought you were building at the beginning?” The answer is usually “No”.
It appears than an honest analysis shows the Springbank days weren’t glory days at all. People who have left say that there is a huge gap in the oral history told inside Gloriavale about the Springbank days. They suspect their parents aren’t proud of things that happened, and they have decided to never talk about those days. However with more people leaving, the stories are being told.
I’ve had to analyse and study these historical reports to see which parts line up together (of which there is much). In fact there is not much of a dispute about the practical beginnings of the start of the community. But what I have noticed is the difference of opinion about the “why”. What were the motives of the people involved? Was the vision a true and pure Christian vision, or was it a little more sinister?
These are often questions that are studied by experts who deal with cult groups. Did the charismatic leader deliberately set out to draw in vulnerable people, sell them a vision of a better life, and then take control off them bit by bit until they were trapped and enslaved? Or was it a personality strength, (or defect?), where they had the ability to gather people and manoeuvre situations and they really believed that people were willing participants in the process? I expect we will never be able to truly answer that.
From what I understand, someone can actually be fully convinced of their own pure motives, and yet be utterly deceived. Someone can believe in their own rightness, to the point of violence and crime, and feel justified in their behaviour because they are protecting something they love – in this case “The Church”.
Many people who joined the early part of the movement will tell you they really believed in the vision being sold. And yet on reflection they will tell you they were affected by typical thought-control tactics.
Early Years Warning Bells
My father was a minister in a Timaru church in the 1990’s, and he stumbled on magazines that were in the church archives related to Neville’s visits to that church to preach in the mid-1960’s. It’s always interesting to read material from back then, and now look ahead and see where things have gone wrong. In reading those articles there were warning bells ringing in my head. But that’s easy in retrospect. At the time, did other ministers and Christians pick up the warning signs? Were they overlooked? I expect there was a naivety that something like Gloriavale could ever exist and so no one would have possibly believed what would become of it. And yet there are many reports of ministers and Christians who warned the leader and also its members of the dangers of their beliefs and activities. So very early on there were question marks over the group and the leadership.
What is the fruit?
I have decided the motives and the dream don’t necessarily matter for this conversation. No one would be happy with anyone’s analysis, because no matter what you say, you are upsetting someone’s memory of what was good or bad. What we can do is analyse the fruit of the motives and the dream. What is the outcome of these ways of thinking and being and doing? What has Gloriavale become? I think anyone who is honest can say that there is a trail of heartbreak following in the wake of this community.
When someone says to me “Springbank days were wonderful, and then things went bad at Gloriavale” I catch myself wanting to correct them. From what we have heard, Springbank days were not wonderful. There might have been excitement and fervour which many got caught up in, but all the elements of abuse and control were already well in place. There was violence, sexual assaults and interference, humiliation, bullying, exploitation, theft, tears, arguments, and a raft of broken promises.
Present Time – selling the old vision back to the people
Gloriavale is in a lot of trouble and strife at present. I don’t think it will be very pleasant living in there as they have to face the truth of what they have become. In that way I feel sorry for them. They have become trapped in their own mire. But instead of being honest, and apologising and repenting and seeking reconciliation with the hundreds of people they have hurt, they are instead backing themselves into a corner, and are maintaining they need to get back to the good old days of Springbank where they had unity and a shared vision and where people did as they were told and everyone submitted to the leaders or left…
People are now testifying in the meetings of the “good old days” where they willingly gave themselves to the community, and worked for the good of others. They are trying to pass the vision on to the younger ones. They are also talking regularly about submission and obedience. Somehow the leaders think that if they get the people under control again, things will come right for Gloriavale’s future.
Instead of looking outwards from themselves in humility, they are just looking inwards at their old ways of being and doing. Instead they are going to use their well-used methods of humiliation, and ostracisation and control.
Someone close to the group said,
“You know you’re in trouble when the only way to move forward and change, is to look back and try to recreate the past.”
Surely it’s problematic when you are trying to sell an old vision to adults and children who were born into the system and don’t have any memory of the “good old days”? Surely it gets harder to sell a vision to the third and fourth generation?
However, that appears to not be the case. Leavers say that the call to unity and to rally against the persecution of the outside world is very compelling when you’re living in there. It’s what they have grown up on. Deep in their psyche they want the utopian vision they have been working towards, and every day is a day closer to it being realised. They just need to do this next step. They just need to put their heads down and comply.
But from an outsider’s view, I still believe the original vision was problematic. The idea to sell all, and willingly live a sharing life in submission to each other and the leaders assumes people are perfect. It forgets the effects of a sinful and fallen nature. Perhaps people who live in the belief of utopia need to realise that you can’t get heaven on earth. Not this side of eternity.
The dream was initially driven by Neville Cooper’s vision, and he is not here anymore. Neville had the ability to sell the vision with his charisma and charm and other appealing qualities. Others took the vision to heart, and to this day people still want to hold onto that. But they can’t go back to that.
So the challenge is to look at the vision, and then look at the fruit. What has become of Gloriavale? Are there people who are willing to be honest and face it? That is the only hope for a better future.
Can Gloriavale Change?
In my opinion, they can’t go back and they can’t move forwards in a healthy way either. I see them as being entirely stuck in a system of their own making. They simply don’t have the quality of leadership that can make a healthy transition. They have lost many of the people who wanted to help them. They booted them out. The younger ones who will soon be rising up into leadership positions were born into the system. The ways of doing and being are ingrained and imprinted on them. It’s written into their DNA. They can’t see past themselves to get wisdom from others who are offering it.
Gloriavale has become its own culture, with a serious dose of unhealthy traits, which don’t just wash away. It’s a whole system which every member keeps afloat – using the tried and true techniques of bullying, intimidation, humiliation, judgement and criticism. Everyone does it – not just the leaders. They all keep each other in line. It’s splintered and fractured and people don’t trust one another. Meanwhile, they advertise a false unity – which is conformity at best. And then they call it a Christian Community and claim everything they are doing is according to the Bible. As a person of faith, I personally struggle with this. I can not see a way forward for them.
Some leavers would say it’s a failed experiment.
The consequences of holding onto a wishful image
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book “Life Together” sums up what I see as a big issue at Gloriavale:
“On innumerable occasions a whole Christian community has been shattered because it has lived on the basis of a wishful image.
The sooner this moment of disillusionment comes over the individual and the community the better for both.
However, a community that can’t bear and cannot survive such disillusionment, clinging instead to its idealised image, when that should be done away with, loses at the same time the promise of a durable Christian community. Sooner or later it is bound to collapse.
Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself, become destroyers of that Christian community, even though their personal intentions may ever be so honest, earnest and sacrificial.
God hates this wishful thinking because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idealised community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly. They act as if they have to create the Christian community, as if their visionary ideal blinds the people together. Whatever does not go their way, they call a failure. When their idealised image is shattered, they see the community breaking into pieces, so they first become accusers of other Christians in the community, then accusers of God, and finally the desperate accusers of themselves.”
Is this happening in Gloriavale?
I think it’s fair to say that Gloriavale is already accusing others in the community – namely those whom they suspect are speaking up and talking to outsiders. Their way of dealing with them is to move them on. They think their problems will vanish when people stop spilling their secrets. But I suspect they are going to be very careful how they expel people while the Government, courts and media are watching. The most obvious tactic would be to make people’s lives so miserable that they hope people will move on willingly. They will push church discipline and internal shunning. They will forbid people to talk to those who are “out of fellowship” and perhaps even move them to a separate area where they don’t live among the righteous. I’ve even heard different coloured clothes are an option!
But if they want people to leave willingly they are going about it the wrong way. Not many leave Gloriavale willingly, because they have been taught for so long that to leave puts their soul at risk. Most would prefer to be thrown out, so the decision is made for them. They don’t feel as guilty if someone else tells them to go. And I know how much they are prepared to suffer to remain safe in the community and in their salvation. It’s enough to send people to brink of mental breakdowns. And yet they remain.
If they want people to go willingly, simply tell them that they can go and live elsewhere, and that their salvation will be secure, and that their families will be allowed to visit and talk to them, and they will be welcome back at any time to visit without judgement and criticism. Tell them lies will not be told about them and why they left, and they will be treated with love, dignity and respect. Do that, and I think they’d find there would be a long queue of people lining up. Then offer them a generous financial gift, to compensate them for their years of loyal service.
Yes, I’m dealing in the realms of fantasy here. This is not how cult groups operate.
And so the trapped remain trapped, until something drastic happens to them or someone they love, and they finally find their way out to receive help. It’s a sad cycle.
The leadership has also made people so very dependent on the community, that it takes a special kind of courage to get up and go. They have actually taught their people that to suffer is the sign of true faith, and so people who might like to leave, actually come to believe they need to stay in order to prove their faith.
Likewise, there are those who will stay because they want to help bring about change. Then there are others who will stay until their family members leave. The people and the leaders are all trapped in a system of their own making. I get the feeling the community would like to have a good clean out and just keep the loyal ones. But they have actually trapped them there. It’s ironic.
Back to Bonhoffer’s ideas, people in Gloriavale are not just accusing each other, they have moved on to accusing God – particularly those who have been harshly treated or abused (Where is God in this mess? Why hasn’t he intervened?).
And finally I do believe the leaders are well on their way to becoming accusers of themselves.
They are caught in between a rock and a hard place. To admit wrong is to say Hopeful was wrong. He is their idol and there are many who are not yet ready to have their idol shattered. So they will truck on, and put their heads down and hope that the persecution ends or that the Lord will come back soon.
So it’s easier not to think too much about the past. History revisionism is not uncommon as people get older. The harsh things that happened get forgotten, and the mind prefers to drift to the “good old days”. Testosterone fades for men, and the anger that used to well up in them when recalling incidents fades into a more mellow tone.
However, revising Gloriavale’s history to see it through the view of a glossy lens is really unhelpful for those people who are still bearing the scars of deep levels of trauma.
(The personal thoughts expressed in this blog post belong to Liz Gregory, Manager of the Gloriavale Leavers’ Support Trust. Not all thoughts and ideas will be representative of all members of the Trust, staff or all ex-members.)