The Elusive Brethren

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Kevin Rudd has rejected calls for an inquiry into the Exclusive Brethren, indicating that the Government will not support a motion by Greens Senator Bob Brown calling for an inquiry into the sect.

Brown’s call was prompted by stories of the sect providing covert donations to the conservative side of politics both here and in New Zealand; by allegations that the sect was flouting Family Court orders by denying contact between parents who had left the sect and children who had remained behind with the other parent; and by questions over whether the Brethren schools — which receive lavish amounts of public funding — were providing children with an adequate level of education, given that the Brethren do not believe in tertiary education.

Last year, Rudd described the Brethren as an "extremist cult", but he now says that a Government inquiry would infringe religious freedom. Nonetheless, concerned former members and others with relevant information are urged to report it to the authorities.

As a former Nambour boy (as I am a former Nambour girl), Rudd would almost certainly have encountered the Brethren in early childhood. The Brethren were a very visible presence around Nambour, the adult women wearing headscarves over their long hair that somehow always looked distinctively "Brethren", never like a jaunty hippie bandana — not even in the 1970s when headscarves were in vogue.

The Brethren children were always identifiable at school, too, because they were not allowed to have meals with non-believers and always went home for lunch. This, in fact, is my own earliest memory of them: calling out to a Brethren girl to come and play, and being told that she never stayed at school at lunchtime. I can remember being puzzled, and a bit hurt.

The Brethren children left the classroom at regular intervals, too, whenever "forbidden" technology such as television or the radio, was in use. It would be much more difficult for a mainstream school to accommodate these prohibitions now that technology is such an integrated part of classroom life. But the tsunami of funding for private education has allowed the Brethren to open their own schools, meaning that the current generation has far less contact with the outside world than their parents did.

So the Brethren today is a much more closed organisation than it was a couple of decades ago, and there certainly seems to be cause for concern across a range of issues.

Yet as much as I believe these concerns should be investigated, I do not think that an inquiry that singles out a particular group is the way to go. The case of the Exclusive Brethren raises questions that go beyond the sect itself. The outsourcing of what were once government services to private and often religiously based organisations has increased the degree of segmentation in our society. The Brethren are an extreme example of this, but the problem goes deeper than that.

My thoughts on this issue are coloured by the fact that although I didn’t know any of the Brethren well, I have affectionate memories of the Brethren children who attended my school. I hope that they are not among those whose families have been fractured and lives have been destroyed.

An inquiry that focuses on the Brethren will stigmatise all those who belong to the group, including those who may struggle with the direction the current leadership has taken. It is likely to make the group close in on itself, rather than let in any fresh air.

To be clear, specific problems like the flouting of family law orders should absolutely not be tolerated, but be treated like any other such abuse. But on a broader level, there needs to be a rethink of the way that government funding has empowered exclusivist religious institutions at the expense of social and religious pluralism.

Religious freedom requires that religious groups are allowed to practice their faith, but it should also provide their members with exit routes. At the moment, the Exclusive Brethren do not provide such exits — and government funding, particularly of the Brethren schools, enables them to maintain this closure.

New Matilda

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