Cult elders back in church fold

The Age, Australia/August 3, 2007
By Barney Zwartz

The elders of a secretive cult who were expelled from the Presbyterian Church last year have been reinstated by a special meeting of the church's general assembly.

But members of the Victorian assembly, which excommunicated the 15 elders of Trinity Camberwell, were not too downhearted, saying the Fellowship had won the battle but lost the war.

The General Assembly of Australia last week reinstated the elders on a legal technicality, but set up a committee to investigate claims of doctrinal and behavioural irregularities and promised to re-hear complaints about the group. The committee will report by June 30 next year.

The Presbytery of Melbourne East, to which Trinity belongs, expelled the elders last year for failing to carry out their duties. The elders appealed first to the Victorian Assembly, which rejected them, then to the national assembly.

Canterbury Presbyterian Church minister Grant Lawry, one of the leaders in the decade-long battle to oust the Fellowship, said the appeals succeeded on a jurisdictional issue, that discipline had been carried out under the Victorian code rather than the national code.

The Fellowship, headed by stockbroking establishment legend Bruce Teele, has hidden itself in Anglican and Presbyterian churches for decades, but is now found only at Trinity and Clayton Presbyterian Church.

People who have left the Fellowship complain that it is manipulative, authoritarian and controlling, and has instructed members to shun family who don't belong for fear of being "defiled".

Mr Lawry said that at first the Victorians were bitterly disappointed at the assembly's decision, but at least the national church had recognised there was a problem with the group, he said. "A lot has to be redone that was done before. I hope and pray that people who put a lot of time in are prepared to keep working at it," he said.

Mr Lawry said the assembly set up a committee to investigate "public rumour" about the group: newspaper reports, radio, a booklet Fractured Fellowship produced for the Victorian assembly, and a book, Fractured Families, by author Morag Zwartz.

The moderator of Melbourne East, Dr Bob Thomas (who is also Moderator-General of the national church) said he would contact victims of the group.

The clerk of the general assembly, Dr Paul Logan, said many at the assembly felt that natural justice had been denied the elders because of the way the presbytery acted. He said the special assembly, involving 150 delegates from around Australia, and the follow-up would cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Trinity minister Phil Mercer yesterday said it would be inappropriate to comment publicly on private church court matters.

A group of nuns, priests and Catholic activists have revived the thorny issue of married and women priests, circulating a petition calling on Australian bishops to reverse the church's opposition to a more inclusive priesthood and warning there are not enough priests to run local churches.

The petition, which aims to gather grassroots support to put pressure on the Catholic hierarchy, said there was "a major crisis of ministry and leadership" in Australian Catholicism limiting the church's capacity to provide Mass and the sacraments for the country's 5 million Catholics.

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