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Review: Fractured Families: The Story of a Melbourne Church Cult


Fractured Families:  The story of a Melbourne Church Cult

by Morag Zwartz $19.95  ISBN 09587955 1 7
Distributed by Openbook Publishers, Adelaide


From The Presbyterian Banner,  March 2005
Rowland S. Ward

Back in June 1991 I reviewed David Millikan’s book Imperfect Company, which primarily referred to the perfectionist cult founded about 1940 by Lindsay Grant in Sydney.

The current work by Morag Zwartz, a competent writer, gives attention to the somewhat similar group associated with Lindsay’s older brother, Ronald, who was based in the large Camberwell Presbyterian Church in Melbourne and who died in 1996. Eighteen years ago I obliquely referred to them in this magazine (2/1987) under the code term ‘doctrineless pietism’. The members are generally well-connected establishment families moving in important business and social circles.

While the Presbyterian Church of Victoria has since sought to deal with this influential group, and published its assessment entitled Fractured Fellowship in 1999, Zwartz’s book is independent of the church, and critical of it, and is based on extensive interviews with about 100 people who had experience of the group, as well as audio and written records. The Camberwell and Clayton churches are centres of the group. Although the Rev. Philip Mercer of Camberwell, an able man, is confessedly not a member, he is more or less an apologist for the group, and suggests around half his 350 strong congregation are members.

The issue is ultimately a theological one, and the strength of the book is its thorough theological assessment. It is worth the price for this alone. There are abiding lessons for all conservative evangelicals, particularly is these days of hazy subjectivism. Indeed the influence of Roy Hessions’ The Calvary Road (p.77) struck me, since this was also influential in Tasmania 50 years ago in some of the aberrations prior to the renewal of Reformed teaching there about 1960. Zwartz summarises: ‘Fellowship teaching is a strange mix of Wesleyan holiness, Keswick experientialism, Andrew Murray intensity, and Derek Prince Pentecostal style authoritarianism’ (p.97), although Allan Harman is quoted as stating quite correctly, ‘There is no formalised or written doctrinal statement – it’s very difficult to pin them down. But they claim to adhere to the Westminster Confession.’ (p.185).

The bad theology produces bad practices such as – intrusive and heavy shepherding (including shunning of dissidents), secrecy creating/reflecting a church within a church approach, and undue emphasis on wifely submission. Many families have been affected and the PCV continues to provide counselling for some of these. The author is critical of the church leadership, and perhaps this has contributed to the College Bookstore declining to stock the title.

The book has its weaknesses. The author deliberately did not seek comment from group members. However, I don’t think this failure would have made a significant difference to the author’s conclusions from her interviews and other sources. Indeed, the testimony of such large numbers to their horrific experiences should impel the church to more effective action. It’s not a debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

There are some errors of fact – for example, Geoff Drummond is not Session Clerk at Clayton (p.129), nor does a majority of the Clayton Session belong to the group.

Some extra information might have been useful. Thus, it could have been mentioned that group monthly meetings apparently ceased at the end of 1996. This, of course, does not mean the group itself does not exist.

Some of the nine respondents in Part IV may be a bit selective in their recollections, or they have been reported in a manner that could give an imbalanced impression. For example, to refer to the group wanting to ‘dump’ a fellow Trinity elder over ‘a misdemeanour’ (p.164) might appear a little differently when it is realised the man in question was also a minister, virtual assistant to the then inducted minister, and had confessed to a longstanding adulterous relationship.

Still, none of these blemishes affect the substance and should not be allowed to detract from it. Brian Bayston’s comments on page 186 are very much to the point, and of weight not only because he is the Law Agent of the church but was formerly a member of the Camberwell Session.

My experience of the Group has been through involvement in St Andrew’s School 20 years ago and in PLC of more recent times. It was interesting. Latterly I had some pastoral interest in one young couple impacted by the group. I was glad to see them make their peace with the PCV. Still, having talked about it to people on different sides, I am not persuaded that all is now rosy. There may have been a drawing-back from the theological extremes of the late 1990s under Rev. Graeme Nicholls, but the cult-like mentality still exists and membership may even be increasing. No church should be content with this kind of teaching/emphasis so destructive of the lives of those enmeshed.
This book is therefore important.

Our brothers need prayer for conviction about the issues and courage to face them. A fully pure church is not to be aimed at, but office-bearers contradicting the law of love should not be allowed to hide behind legalistic procedures. Those in the group, particularly its leaders, also need to turn right round in repentance. That will mean seeking to rectify the consequences of many broken relationships, walking in future in love and humility according to the grace of God.

A complaint against actions very like that of the “Exclusive Brethren” to the Presbytery of Melbourne East by a young man Kingsley Davidson gave rise to the suspension and excommunication of the 15 ruling elders of the Camberwell Church. See http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2006/s1587231.htm

From The Presbyterian Banner, April 2006
In the last issue a brief notice appeared about the action taken against the Session of Trinity Presbyterian Church at Camberwell by the Presbyterian Church of Victoria Presbytery of Melbourne East on 23/2/2006, an action which made headlines throughout Australia. Since writing that report the appeal of the Rev Phil Mercer against the action has been noted in the pages of Australian Presbyterian, March issue, p. 23. Mr Mercer believes the action to be unprescribed and contrary to the laws of the church. He is of the view ‘that procedural fairness and substantial justice have been denied the elders who were dismissed in absentia, without a charge being brought against them, and having been denied all opportunity to appear before Presbytery in order to defend their innocence.’

Three other persons, including Rev Graham Nicholson of Hawthorn – no slouch on procedure – also appealed, but all appeals were declared frivolous, thus they did not stop implementation. Yet surely it is contrary to Scripture and natural justice to condemn a person without giving him the opportunity to state his side of the story, whilst in removing an entire Session not only from office but from church membership, a radical step has been taken indeed. It removes the men from the jurisdiction of the Church, when another procedure might have wrought the repentance the Presbytery should desire.
There have always been lapses from sound judgment by Presbyterian courts. We’re imperfect humans. However, this case seems rather different. Our Presbyterian polity (system of government) is not our invention to enable us to achieve our will. Rather, it s God’s provision to ensure that the grace of God is maximised in the edification of his people. This is often lost sight of, especially if people are not familiar with Presbyterian principles or lack leadership in this area.

As we have seen in the PCEA too, it is very difficult to acknowledge one has acted wrongly. It’s not just Asians who don’t like to lose face! In the present instance I suppose the Presbytery was so fed up with the Fellowship that they wanted rid of them. I’m not a Fellowship fan either, but one must still seek to edify and restore. One thing can lead to another. Following its decision the Presbytery made all the Presbytery members assessors to Camberwell Session, an act which, perhaps unintentionally, eliminated Presbytery as a court of appeal for Camberwell. One supposes ultimately the General Assembly of Australia will have the matter before it in 2007. One hopes some lessons will be learned before then that will preserve the concern for careful deliberation and fairness in Presbyterianism whichm with due respect to our brothers in Melbourne East Presbytery, at least appears to have been lost.

Postscript: A special GAA in 2007 upheld appeal against the Victorian Assembly and established a procedure to deal with the issues. The Victorian Assembly was not happy to agree with the solution proposed. On 30/9/2008 the finding of the Commission of the GAA was reported in The Age.  The  six teachings the Commission rejected are accepting “feelings” as revelation from God equal to the Bible, that contact with non-Fellowship members leads to defilement, that the Fellowship claims higher loyalty than members’ families, that Christians can be controlled by “generational curses” or evil spirits, and that God’s forgiveness depends on confessing to other people or on personal holiness. It is not entirely clear what the decision means, as it seems to have some ambiguity. I assume the Victorian Assembly will endorse this finding, which is to be read in every PCA congregation by 31/10/2008. Action against the elders of Camberwell will depend on provable evidence that such views are held. One doubts that much has been achieved.