It is
late 1950s North West Coast Tasmania and the meeting in Stowport Gospel Hall has
just commenced. Deep-voiced male reverent holiness announces the hymn,
unaccompanied by music.

The
women sit, heads covered by scarves or plain hats held in place by pins.
Children are deathly silent beside or behind them. There are no ornaments of any
kind in Stowport Gospel Hall. Hard wooden straight backed pews, a wooden floor.
No female voices are heard, only adult males, pray, announce hymns, preach a
gospel, railing against wickedness and the “things of the world”, and of
repentance from sins.

Later,
there is earnest discussion about church member Ernie who has joined the
Exclusives. Stowport Gospel Hall is an “Open” Assembly which demands of its
members strict adherence to a “holy” lifestyle whose restrictions range from a
ban on TV and radios on Sunday, the Lord’s day, to plain, unadorned honest
living and an avoidance of “things of the world”. At school in country Tasmania
we were forbidden to learn to dance, or play sport on
Sundays.

But
the Exclusives, those of the “Closed” Assembly were exponentially more
restrictive – and soul-destroying – with an all-out emphasis on being separate
from the world, including its demand that Exclusives withdraw from political
process and do not vote. The “Open” Assemblies frequently were riven by
dissension as more conservative members joined the “Exclusives”. This happened
at Stowport Gospel Hall. It happened all over the North-West
Coast.

And
here lies the danger of this sect. From my childhood experiences of divisive
religiosity I developed a deep concern for the soul-destroying impact of this
most conservative expression of Christianity. This
is a sect that is all about control of people’s lives and the imprisoning of the
soul, which rails against the evils of modern society and exercises extreme
moral and social authority over its members.

Its
arrogant intrusion into the political world is the height of hypocrisy because
it preaches so fiercely being separate from the world. It’s the height of hypocrisy for a
group which excludes itself from the mainstream to try insidiously to influence
how people vote, as it did in the last Tasmanian election with expensive
newspaper ads
, leafleting and disruptive campaigning.

As a
journo who observed this intrusion into the Tasmanian political process I
would have loved to have learnt more through an inquiry into its links with
mainstream parties.

Peter Fray

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