Glo­ri­avale pa­tri­arch has left his com­mu­nity a trou­bling legacy

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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.

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