A new book is lifting the lid on The Fellowship, which some clergy want expelled from their church, writes Steve Waldon.
"One Sunday evening, close on 65 years ago, in the genteel suburb of Canterbury, an earnest bunch of church men and women gathered in the home of Alan and Frances Neil to share their faith, encourage one another, and learn more about the deeper Christian walk.
Without doubt, they were a sincere and eager group, representing most of the big mainline churches, whose motives were 100 per cent commendable. They could not know they were laying the foundation for a parachurch organisation, which would live on for many decades to come, outlive most of those present, and acquire a reputation as cruelly elitist and sectarian."
The organisation referred to is The Fellowship. According to a new book, Fractured Families: The Story of a Melbourne Church Cult, up to 400 people are still connected to the group, which is described as elitist, pious and controlling.
Author Morag Zwartz says The Fellowship has two strongholds - at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Camberwell and St Andrew's in Clayton.
Its members, she writes, mostly refuse to discuss The Fellowship with outsiders and, when approached, generally deny the cult exists.
The Fellowship also existed in the Anglican church, Ms Zwartz says, until co-founder Ronald Grant died in 1996. Anglican members of The Fellowship left parishes en masse to join congregations at Camberwell, Clayton and Mount Evelyn.
The Fellowship first received unwelcome publicity in 1998 when the church's general assembly voted to declare it out of step with Presbyterian doctrine. The Presbyterian Church of Victoria then produced a booklet, Fractured Fellowship, which stated that the cult was sustaining what amounted to a church within a church.
Other than doctrinal disputes, the most telling damage caused by Fellowship beliefs has been the destruction of families and friendships, Ms Zwartz says.
"I contacted nine moderators of the PCV over recent years. With one exception, they frankly acknowledged that The Fellowship was a serious and divisive problem for their church," she writes.
The book includes interviews with former Fellowship members who claim residual bitterness and incredulity, family members who say the cult has damaged relationships, and with clergy who fought to have The Fellowship expelled from the church.
Their stories, Ms Zwartz says, had a consistent theme: that Fellowship members thought themselves more closely aligned to God than other congregants. She says this manifested itself in ways that have since been acknowledged by the church as unhealthy, including a severe emphasis on public confession that bordered on mental harassment.
Fellowship members, Ms Zwartz writes, accuse critics of being "not right with God."
A minister at the Mount Evelyn church, Mark Crabb, is quoted saying the Fellowship component of that congregation was disruptive.
"Various Fellowship people mouthed words like 'submission', but whenever their will was crossed we regularly saw a different story," Mr Crabb says.
"Instructions to actively seek reconciliation with a Christian relative, or to stop being disrespectful to the minister, or to stop disrupting church services - various instructions from the eldership - were ignored or rejected or opposed."
Ms Zwartz, the wife of Age religion editor Barney Zwartz, says she was encouraged by a group of Presbyterian ministers to write about The Fellowship, and the book is the result of almost three years' research.
She says Fellowship members were moneyed and influential eastern suburbs professionals and their offspring. Among their identifiable traits, she writes, are exclusivity, insularity, denial of their existence as a cohesive body, a patriarchal hierarchy that fosters submissive women and a strong emphasis on almost superhuman holiness.
Ms Zwartz says she hopes the book's revelations will encourage the Presbyterian Church to renew action against The Fellowship's "skewed" teachings.
"There are children, too, who are owed this documentation," she says. "There may be some who will one day seek an explanation for why grandma and grandpa were no longer part of their lives, why there was an embarrassing scene at school when grandma came on grandparents' day, why gifts were returned unopened, and why cousins no longer came to play.
"These things are not generally associated with Christian behaviour," she says.