Gloriavale – sex, secrets and salvation
What is it that makes regular folks so fascinated by Gloriavale, the Christian sect of about 500 people based in godforsaken Haupiri, on the West Coast?
The death of the community’s overseeing shepherd and convicted sex offender, Hopeful Christian (aka Neville Cooper), was as extravagantly covered, and followed, as the death of a very notable New Zealander.
One of the country’s most successful books last year was an account by Lilia Tarawa of her time in the Christian sect. The community has been the subject of breathless undercover exposes, serious documentaries and countless news stories and features. And here we go again.
Gloriavale is a backward, fundamentalist community where individuality is stifled and fripperies like the internet, books and television are strictly controlled.
People eat together in a big cafeteria and women are required to wear frumpy uniforms, marry young, be submissive and have lots of children.
Although music plays a large role in the community, creativity is channelled into making money and celebrating its religion.
So why don’t we dismiss these reactionary mavericks as boring misfits who couldn’t make it in ordinary society and let them get on with it?
It boils down to four things: secrets, success, sex and salvation.
Looking at secrets to begin with, it’s clear that part of the attraction of Gloriavale is its isolation and insularity.
It plays by its own rules and those rules represent a rejection of much of what we take for granted in normal, secular society.
The rules aren’t advertised. It operates like a secret club and therefore piques our curiosity.
The second factor revolves around its success.
Although it will eventually implode, the cult has staying power. Cults (including hippie communes) in New Zealand don’t tend to last long but Gloriavale has been through various iterations over 50 years and gone from strength to strength.
Without question the community has had its problems, not least of which are persistent allegations of sexual and physical abuse within the community.
Ex-members, of which there are now plenty, have also told of a rigid regime at the sect, with a small group of men calling the shots.
But somehow Gloriavale carries on, defying predictions of failure and collapse.
Then we have the sex thing, which is ironic given the fact that in most ways Gloriavale is run along lines that would draw praise from an Islamic State mullah.
Given the birth rate, Gloriavale residents appear to give full rein to their sex drives and, unusually for a fundamentalist Christian cult, appear to have no hang-ups about enjoying a robust sex life.
Although adultery, fornication, homosexuality, and the remarriage of divorcees are not tolerated, the pleasures of the flesh do not seem to be discouraged or hidden.
Considerations of privacy are given scant attention and young children attend their siblings’ births.
Newlyweds are given lessons on lovemaking, which adds a whole new dimension to community education.
Lastly, Gloriavale’s fascination lies in the sneaky feeling it just may be on to something. We are all suckers for utopian visions as we can’t believe life has to be the way it is. Gloriavale, where everything is owned collectively, is like a sort of god-fearing socialist state. The organisation provides for all its members’ needs and no money changes hands. Men work in the fields and factories and women in the home, the office and the kitchen. For people who hanker after a society with traditional roles, Gloriavale holds much appeal.
TV producer Amanda Evans made a documentary about the community in 2014 and found many of its practices commendable. She discovered a community where everyone pitched in and where the sick, disabled, or elderly were well looked after.
‘‘No one gets left out,’’ she said. ‘‘If you had any stress, it would be a calming place to live.’’
What Gloriavale promises is harmony and salvation and in a society which is increasingly fractured, unequal and angry, that has a strong pull.
Not that people are flocking to Gloriavale. It doesn’t have that sort of attraction. Gloriavale is like a fairy tale steeped in human flaws. We don’t have to believe it to be fascinated by the plot.