Church excommunicates 15 for cult membership

Melbourne, Australia - THE Presbyterian Church has excommunicated all 15 elders of one of its largest Melbourne congregations because of their conduct as members of a cult known as the Fellowship.

At 2.15am on Thursday, the Presbytery of Melbourne East dismissed the session (group of elders) of Trinity, Camberwell, and removed them from membership of the Presbyterian Church in Australia.

The Fellowship is a secretive cult operating inside the church, whose members usually deny it exists. Victims say it maintains strong control over members.

A letter will be read to the Trinity congregation at the 10am service tomorrow explaining the action of the presbytery — representatives from 15 regional churches and other leaders who have oversight of member churches.

The letter is also being sent to every church in the presbytery, every other presbytery in Australia, and to Melbourne's Anglican Vicar-General, Bishop John Wilson, warning them about receiving the former elders.

The Presbyterian Church's Australian head, Moderator-General Bob Thomas, said yesterday the presbytery removed the elders because it considered they discharged their duties unsatisfactorily and not in accord with the code of behaviour expected of elders.

"For many years, a group known as the Fellowship has used the Presbyterian Church, particularly in Camberwell, as a cover for their activities," said Mr Thomas who is also a member of the presbytery.

"These activities have affected the spiritual and emotional wellbeing of many people."

He said the church regretted that this group had been able to operate for so long from inside the church, but church processes were lengthy and sub-Christian belief and practice was often difficult to detect and deal with.

Trinity minister Philip Mercer, who is not a member of the Fellowship, said yesterday he was not at liberty to comment because the matter was private, but confirmed that he and others would appeal against the rulings.

Church leaders have tried to tackle the Fellowship for years. Former Trinity minister Robert Humphreys first complained to the presbytery in 1989. In 1998 the state assembly produced a booklet, Fractured Fellowship, attacking Fellowship teachings. In 2002 it dislodged the group from the Mount Evelyn Church.

Mr Humphreys' story and that of other victims was described in a book — Fractured Families, the Story of a Melbourne Church Cult — by Morag Zwartz in November 2004, which first exposed the Fellowship as a cult and named the leaders.

Mr Humphreys told The Age then that the Fellowship cost him his ministry, marriage and mental health. Yesterday Mr Humphreys, now a minister in the Uniting Church, said the action would not solve the hurt and pain, but would give the Presbyterian Church a measure of credibility.

"There have been hundreds of people whose lives have been permanently damaged. I'm one of the lucky ones who came through it. Some people committed suicide," he said.