Gloriavale and the Mormons: What New Zealand’s latest religious drama has to teach us

Gloriavale and the Mormons: What New Zealand’s latest religious drama has to teach us May 3, 2015

Nestled against the Western range of the Southern Alps in New Zealand is a Christian commune known as Gloriavale. It has always attracted attention largely due to its inauspicious beginnings surrounding the aberrant sexual ideologies espoused and at one time practiced by the central figure Neville Cooper who was jailed in 1994 for 10 counts of sexual assault.   After being paroled Cooper set about reestablishing his community in Haupiri.  Cooper adopted a new name ‘Hopeful Christian’ and regularized, managed and shepherded a closed, high demand, Christian fundamentalist society.


Some of my LDS friends have visited Gloriavale. Every two years the community hosts a month of free performances that are open to the public who are fed, housed and entertained. On the surface this private community looks to be thriving.   Industrious, happy and  engaged the Gloriavale community seeks to model contentment and peace in their commitment to God as they prosper, flourish and reproduce in their mountain home.   It was difficult for my LDS friends not to ‘enjoy’ the polished, if not lengthy festivities and the hospitality of this odd group of devoted communitarians. But it was in some ways unsettling. Probably because for Mormons, it’s all a bit close too home.


As luck would have it, my friend Nicola’s  father sold the Gloriavale Community a stock lot of navy blue material some time back and since then the women who wear scarves while girls wear  pioneer bonnets  to cover their long hair, are obligated to don floor length blue uniform dresses while the men and boys sport dark blue pants, pale blue shirts and ties.


Upon entering the community adherents contract to pass over their worldly goods and make covenants that their labour will from thence forth be used for the good of the society and no financial claims against the organization will be made. Furthermore they are required to refrain from making any statement about the community to the outside world who are understood as the enemy. The community’s labour contributes to several international corporations and businesses and currently boasts assets worth over $36m all held in Charitable Trust (earning the community tax exempt status).


Marriage is contracted young (through arrangement) and families breed large in an environment where reproduction is enthusiastically encouraged and contraception is banned. Women and girls are expected to undertake domestic and child care responsibilities and are trained to accept their subservience to the community patriarchy – citing it a privilege to hand over the heavy responsibility of decision making to men. It functions in a gender order that honors the male proximity to God.  Gloriavale members are wholly accountable to a quorum of select male leaders who dictate all community policies, guidelines and policies including ecclesiastical and business operations.


In return the community’s needs are met through the provision of food, housing and schooling. No family financial decisions are required. The community provides for all of the social and personal necessities from underwear to pillows to afternoon tea.


However, try as they may Gloriavale cannot shake off the sexual impropriety of its founder who has shown his  sexual proclivity for young girls. His ideas on sex are controversial. As far as Cooper is concerned once a girl is sexually developed she is ready for marriage and motherhood and it is only the government’s arbitrary marital laws that prevent earlier unions. That said,   he has tried to shuck off the muck with punitive chastity rules that include a strict social separation between the genders.


Information too is strictly controlled and censored. Access to media and technology is largely forbidden and the children are socialized in a strict order that admits no opposing views even in their on site school. As one would expect all of this closeted, highly managed communitarianism seems to produce respectful, nice kids, and assiduous adults in a bustling environment of religious devotion.


But there is a price to pay for all of this bubbling social cohesion. Freedom, agency, questioning, doubt and independent thought are largely quashed in an context where the means justifies the end. Docility and subservience to the leaders makes for easier population management and a biddable work force means higher profits, and as it happens, happier prophets. Those pressing the community with doubt, questions or an intransigence to the leaders’ dictates are institutionally and physically shunned. Should you wish to leave the community you are excluded and excised from family  association for ever. In order achieve this ‘happy’ state therefore bullying is fundamental and the price one pays to be wrapped up in the cozy embrace of a secluded group is fear.


Fear of God; fear of hell; fear of heavenly retribution; fear of the wiles of Satan; fear of the outside world; fear of the loss of family; fear of sin; fear of social rejection;   fear of conscience;   fear of difference; fear of change; fear of shunning; fear of independence; fear of knowing; fear of learning; fear of experience; fear of anything that might punctuate a delicate faith based on a rarified and select suite of ideas; fear of thought; fear of doubt; fear of leaders; fear of transparency, and fear of self.


I know this because I am a Mormon. While we currently live without the excessively heavy social constraints that Gloriavale exhibits, the threads of exclusivity, charismatic leadership, historical sexual scandal, profiteering, social consensus, tight institutional control of religious thought, and fear of the collapse of patriarchy run thick and strong through the history and culture of Mormonism.


Unlike Gloriavale however Mormonism has tolerated, to varying degrees and at different times, an intellectual strain. It was fiscal pragmatics that fostered this. Realistically, the higher the education level, the higher the income level and the higher the tithing contribution. But as much as I remain cynical about capitalism I will take this as a happy bonus to an otherwise grim raison d’etre. I feel convinced that the health and the vitality of Mormonism, and its ability to respond with relevance will come because of the expansive theological work, and cultural challenges raised by insider Mormon intellectuals, thinkers and doubters, not in spite of it.   If Mormonism is to move with confidence into future generations who wish to stay attached to the community out of their own volition rather than their own ignorance or fear it will have to cease and desist excising the very people who are its promise. If this restoration movement is avoid the extremities of the Gloriavale like exclusions that would see it retrench into a fear based culture of bullying subservience, it has to stretch its strings of both heart and soul and find wisdom.


As I’ve watched the Gloriavale drama play out in the New Zealand media as former members of the community tell their stories, I’ve been struck by the similarities in our cultural narratives, and the heart breaking stories of those who have had to risk so much in order to give expression to their authentic selves. If Mormons are to learn any lesson from Gloriavale it is that exclusivity has its price, and that price is spiritually too high.  There is too much that is glorious and promising in Mormonism for it to be caught in the snare of oppressive fundamentalism, mind numbing conservatism and oppressive orthodoxy.











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