Gloriavale patriarch has left his community a troubling legacy
Few leaders meant as much to their cause as Hopeful Christian. So it was that, when the founder and spiritual leader of the reclusive Gloriavale Christian Community died this week, aged 91, the very future of the West Coast settlement was questioned.
This was a man, after all, who had spent two years in prison for sex offences against young members of Gloriavale’s forerunner, the Springbank Christian Community in Cust, north Canterbury, and was still viewed as its vital and undisputed spiritual head. His jail time is just one of countless contradictions, scandals and hypocrisies that, to the outside world at least, will dominate his legacy, and that of the community he leaves behind.
That community has been an endless source of fascination for the public since it relocated from Cust to Lake Haupiri, near Greymouth, on the West Coast in 1991. It was secretive, singleminded and seemingly prosperous, built on Christian and his followers’ reading of the New Testament that promoted the principles of sharing and communal living.
The men wore conservative shirts and trousers, the women long, modest dresses and headscarves. They adopted tautological-sounding names, based on their faith: Fervent Stedfast, Willing Disciple, Justice Faithful. Marriages were in-house and informally arranged. To leave was to be excommunicated. Business, by publicly available accounts, was booming – $17.2 million made in the year to July 2017, with a surplus of about $1.2m. It listed more than $40m in assets and included dairy farms, deer farms, honey manufacturing, engineering firms and an airline among its controlled entities.
Christian was born in Australia and moved to New Zealand in 1967 under the name Neville Cooper. An evangelist, he butted heads with mainstream religious groups because of his fundamentalist beliefs. He founded the Christian community at Cust in 1969 and later named it Gloriavale for his first wife, Gloria. Around this time he changed his own name to Hopeful Christian.
So insular has the community been since that Christian’s only public profile has tended to emerge through unfavourable media coverage such as stories documenting forced marriages, sexual and physical abuse, Christian’s own sexual offending, or the tribulations of those who chose to leave (usually with nothing – Gloriavale’s communal beliefs extends to shared finances. Its latest annual return as a charity listed 13 business interests and ‘‘0’’ paid employees). ‘‘If the people of Gloriavale knew the truth about the allegations, the place would fall apart,’’ one escapee said in 2016.
Christian’s convictions related to offending in Cust in 1985. Four years later, his eldest son Phil, increasingly worried by his father’s controlling ways, left the community with his children. He wrote a book with his own son Israel, Sins of the Father, about Christian in 2009. ‘‘Most people in that community are good, wholesome people, but it’s just unfortunate there are bad elements,’’ Israel Cooper told Stuff at the time.
All up, nine of Christian’s children – he is believed to have fathered at least 19 to three wives – have chosen to leave Gloriavale. In a rare interview with TVNZ, he barely acknowledged them.
‘‘I don’t talk about that,’’ he said. ‘‘They’re our biological children. What they do is their business.’’
No-one was forced to stay in the community against their will, he said. ‘‘The hold on the people here is their love for God. That’s the hold. They give up themselves. Self. It’s like emptying your pocketful of dirt and getting a pocketful of diamonds.’’
Christian retired as the sect’s leader in 2010, but retained the position of ‘‘Overseeing Shepherd’’. It is in the time since that he has attracted the most controversy. Defections from Gloriavale increased and the community faced greater scrutiny.
In 2014, 14-year-old Prayer Ready died choking on a piece of meat in an isolation room. The coroner ruled a disabled door handle preventing entry or exit from the room did not contribute to her death, but former Gloriavale members described community leaders conspiring to give a false impression of the circumstances of Ready’s death.
Last year, Charities Services, part of the Department of Internal Affairs, investigated issues including allegations of sexual and physical assaults, unfair work conditions and forced separation of families that endangered Gloriavale’s charity status. Many of the problems came back to its trust board, over which Charities Services found the retired Christian still held significant influence. He refused to be interviewed for its report.
He had been suffering from prostate cancer. His funeral was held at Gloriavale on Wednesday. ‘‘He is in Heaven now,’’ trust board head Fervent Stedfast said after his death was announced. ‘‘This [community] was the fruits of his labour.’’
It was a view no doubt shared by all those who attended. His wider legacy will be more mixed.
‘‘[He’s] a master manipulator,’’ said Luke Ready, who left Gloriavale in 2016. ‘‘He knew how to control people with fear. I feel no remorse at his passing, or empathy for the ones who’d mourn him.’’ –
Public sightings of Hopeful Christian, who was born Neville Cooper, were rare. This shot was taken on the West Coast in 2015.