Impolite Dinner Conversation – the Exclusive Brethren

It’s that time again. Put your elbows on the table, talk with your mouth full, and join me for a little discussion of those two forbidden topics – politics and religion.

Today, let’s talk about the Exclusive Brethren.

They’re an interesting lot – a schism of the Plymouth Brethren. Formed in the 1820s, their exact beginnings are subject to dispute by church members. The majority of the Plymouth Brethren believe that the movement began simultaneously in several places including Plymouth, England and Dublin, Ireland, spurred on by a desire to move away from the rituals and schisms of other Christian worship and embrace instead an idea of “coming together in the name of Christ”, with no regard for denominational difference. Becoming formally established in Plymouth in 1830, the name “brethren” was adopted (from the adherents’ habit of addressing each other as ‘brother’). Interestingly, the movement, at least in the early days, was sometimes referred to as the Assembly Movement – which raises some very prickly questions about the coincidence of names with the Assemblies of God.

The PB are characterised by the idea that the believer should separate himself from the world. This covers the social, economic, military and political arenas – especially the electoral process. Engagement with the outside world is kept to a necessary minimum, in order for the believer to be focused on their relationship with Christ.

(As a side note, the title “Assembly Movement” is maddeningly vague. A quick search pulls up hundreds of irrelevant sites. What little I could find out just here at the ‘pooter suggests a connection – at least in Canada – between the Assembly Movement/Brethren and something called the ‘Seed Sower’ movement.)

The point at which the Exclusive Brethren formally broke away is somewhat obscure, but it appears to have begun under the leadership of F.E. Raven, who led the PB during the second half of the 19th century. The fragmentation and schism continued for the next hundred years, until in 1959 the leader (at that point, James Taylor Jr.) excommunicated a vocal dissenter and set about radically reforming the church. He called for extreme separatism – for example, extending the idea of non-engagement to the point of forbidding a member to eat with those outside the sect. The term ‘exclusive’ began to be appended to this group, to distinguish from dissenters (who adopted the term ‘open’).

In 1987, leadership of the Exclusive Brethren passed into Australian hands, to businessman John Hales. He was succeeded in 2002 by his son, Bruce, who is the current leader. In the EB, the leader is referred to as the “Elect Vessel”, signifying his divinely chosen status.

2002 was the year when everything changed for the EB. Business prosperity and an increased demand for members to make cash donations was emphasised. Previously, members had been forbidden to have televisions, radios, or access to the internet. Under Hales, these rules were gradually relaxed, but only for those higher-up in the church (which, despite its protestations of non-hierarchy, shows a clear distinction between ordinary members and those who are direct subordinates of Hales). It was also about that time that the EB began to take an interest in politics, another about-face. Here’s a quote from the Exclusive Brethren website on the subject of government :

Exclusive Brethren believe in Government and are subject to it as outlined by Paul in Romans 13:1. They do not live in countries that do not have a Christian Government. Their approach is non-political. They do not vote, but hold Government in the highest respect as God’s ministers, used by Him to restrain evil and provide conditions for the promotion of the glad tidings. Exclusive Brethren hold formal prayer meetings every week and include prayers for the support and guidance of right Government which is clearly of God , and also for divine resistance to the devil’s efforts to influence it. Contact with members of parliament or congress is encouraged to express a moral viewpoint of legislation in relation to the rights of God and this ongoing communication is found to be acceptable and productive. (my emphasis)

Here’s how this “communication” has worked out in practice. For much of this information I am indebted to a terrific article written by David Marr.

2004 Australian federal election : unnamed people turned up in force at a Gladesville RSL to heckle Greens candidate Andrew Wilkie (who some may remember as a whistleblower on the appalling state of Australia’s intelligence operations) about issues of sexuality, including the homosexuality of Greens leader Bob Brown. Some were recognised as being EB members. At the same time, “Liberal look-alike” advertisements attacking the Greens appeared in newspapers in New South Wales and South Australia, and leaflets appeared throughout Tasmania. The names of those who placed the ads were also traced back to the EB. By not disclosing their expenditures, the EB are in violation of the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

In the same election, $377,000 was donated for pro-Howard advertising by Mark McKenzie of the Willmac company. McKenzie is EB. The Australian Electoral Commission investigated this and has handed the matter to the Australian Federal Police for further investigation.

2004 US Presidential election : within weeks of the Howard Government’s victory, a group calling itself the “Thanksgiving 2004 Committee” registered with the IRS and started advertising in Florida. They threw their support behind George Bush, and a local anti-gay candidate, Mel Martinez. The company registration came too late for voters to easily discover who was behind this, but in January ’06 the US Federal Elections Commission published the committee’s financial returns. Of the $US 600,000 raised in support of the Bush campaign, over half was contributed by Bruce Hazell, a UK national and EB member. According to the FEC, this is a violation of a 1966 law limiting foreign intervention in US elections. The advertising agent, Ron Heggie, also confirmed that the committee was EB.

2005, Canada : while the Parliament debated a bill on same-sex marriage, leaflets opposing the idea appeared all over the country, signed by “Concerned Canadian Parents”. The address was a post office box in Toronto. The leaflets were carefully worded to avoid Canada’s hate propaganda laws. Later, an ex-member admitted that the “Parents” were, in fact, EB.

2005, New Zealand federal elections : a massive anti-Greens campaign (to the tune of $NZ1.2 million) was undertaken. Pamphlets that were distributed were recognised as being identical to the ones used in 2004 against Greens Senator Christine Milne. A Greens party member who was ex-EB had taken with him a list of EB members, and many of the names matched up.

2006, Tasmanian State elections : yet more pamphlets, with the emphasis squarely on gay and transgender issues. Bob Brown, on discovering the EB connection, called for a Senate inquiry. He was promptly shouted down by Liberal Senator Eric Abetz, who defended the EB’s right of freedom of speech and compared Brown to a Nazi persecuting Jews.

2007, Australian non-election campaign : Prime Minister John Howard held a private meeting with EB leaders including Elect Vessel Bruce Hales and Mark McKenzie in August. This meeting, according to the EB spokesman, was “last-minute”, and did not discuss either the investigation against Mark McKenzie or the possibility of EB endorsement for the Howard re-election campaign. For his part, Mr Howard considered it part of his job to meet with representatives of religious groups.

Treasurer Peter Costello has, apparently, also held many meetings with the EB. He justified these meetings on the grounds that it would be “a crime” not to meet with someone on the basis of their religious convictions.

All very laudable, but let’s look at a few facts here.

The EB forbid their members to take part in the electoral process. In fact, they are legally exempt from voting. Their own doctrines suggest that they must trust in God to provide “right government” through earthly representatives. Why, then, do both Howard and Costello feel the need to have multiple meetings with such a group, particularly on short notice?

Between 2003-06, Mr Howard repeatedly refused to meet with Dr. Dean Drayton, head of the Uniting Church in Australia. The members of the Uniting Church do vote and are legally compelled to do so. Why, then, would Mr Howard refuse to meet with a representative from a politically active group (which is much, much larger in terms of membership), yet arrange a “last-minute” meeting with an exclusive, non-voting sect just to be told they’re praying for him?

It gets dirtier.

The EB operate many businesses. Under an exemption granted in 2000, the EB are not required to grant access by union representatives to their workplaces. This extraordinary exemption was granted (and, ironically, supported by the Greens) in line with the allegedly “detached” stance of the sect. This exemption remains, despite clear evidence to the contrary.

Bennelong (the Prime Minister’s electorate) is home to a large number of EB, including the son of the Elect Vessel, Gareth Hales. In the 2005-06 financial year, an EB school in Bennelong received $70,000 in federal funding, an amount acknowledged to be “disproportionate” in relation to the school’s size and comparative funding for public schools. (I’m still tracking the source for this.)

We’re firmly mired in a “non-election campaign” right now. Already, we’re seeing overt EB involvement. The real problem, however, may be nowhere near that easy to spot. The EB have been incredibly covert in their operations, hiding behind innocuous company names registered at the last minute, and vanishing after the elections. When EB members are found to be behind these initiatives, the leadership inevitably claims that it is the work of “individuals exercising their right to free speech”. In fact, after the New Zealand debacle, 7 members fell on their own swords in a television press conference and claimed it had nothing to do with the church. Even if you grant the possibility – and it’s a real stretch of the imagination, given the amount of money, time, organisation and manpower involved, to think this is one guy with a printer and an agenda – the visit by the EB leader to the Prime Minister pretty much gives the lie to that.

The questions have to be asked.

Why did Mr Howard think it was necessary to drop everything for a ‘social chat’ with a group who have broken electoral laws in FOUR countries and a man personally under investigation by the Australian Federal Police for his support of the Liberal-National coalition?

Why hasn’t the EB had its exemptions revoked, given their clear shift in doctrine?

Can Mr Howard really claim that he is unaware of the EB’s mud-slinging, illegal activities? Does he expect the Australian people to believe that he does not expect the same kind of tactics to be used this time around?

Most damningly … what has Mr Howard promised the EB in return for their support?

Mr Rudd refused point-blank to meet with the EB. He labelled them anextremist cult and sect, and repeated his 2006 call for a review of federal funding to EB schools, based on the EB’s deceptive and mud-slinging behaviour in politics.

(Amusingly, in a letter to the EB school in Norman Park dated 31/5/07, Mr. Rudd informed the institution that they had won a grant of computer equipment. The letter praises the school’s “dedication to providing the highest quality of education”. The full text of the letter is quoted in the Courier-Mail story cited above. Apparently, it’s a form letter. Mr Rudd should, perhaps, read what’s put in front of him before endorsing it.)

A final word : way back in February, Mr Howard sent Sen Bill Heffernan around to Coalition MPs, warning them not to accept offers of help or money from the EB. Back then (during series of newspaper reports on their political interference, and attempts to influence the Family Court), the EB were, apparently, “too hot to handle”.

What’s changed?

EDIT : (Thanks to redwolfoz for the info.)

It appears that the EB are going back to the tried-and-true political strategy of hiding behind leaflets allegedly written by “ordinary” people. The Sydney Star Observer published an article yesterday suggesting that the EB were responsible for some leaflets making the rounds in Wentworth (home electorate of Malcolm Turnbull, the “Environment” Minister currently under fire over a proposed pulp mill in Tasmania). The SSO helpfully provided a scan of the leaflet.

Although it doesn’t say it’s the EB, the similarities with the Tasmanian leaflet from last year’s State election are very suspicious.

Wentworth = authored by “concerned Australian Christians”.
Tasmania = authored by “concerned Tasmanian families”.

Wentworth = “Don’t vote Labor/Green Coalition!”
Tasmania = the Greens are “pushing for a coalition with Labor”.

Wentworth = strong language about Labor/Greens apparently “turning a blind eye” on illegal drugs, supporting “the destruction of the Family Unit” through same-sex marriages
Tasmania = same topics, but milder language (“legalise same-sex marriage”, “decriminalise illegal drugs”)

Et cetera.

Some things I personally find very alarming about the Wentworth leaflet (and that I’m sure will worry the Dominionist-watchers among us) : the language (which is hysterical and aggressive) is specifically aimed at painting the Liberal/National coalition as the only hope for “Christian” Australia … and the rather curious accusation that a Rudd Labor government would “subordinate Australia to the United Nations”.

The latter idea is straight out of fundamentalist end-times doctrine. According to these groups (and popularised by Tim LaHaye), the UN is, in fact, the Great Beast of Revelation 13 – sometimes referred to as the Antichrist. End-time prophecy is not normally associated with the EB, but with the similarities between the Wentworth leaflet and the one that weknow to be EB, I think it’s time to start worrying.

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