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Exclusive Brethren:
How I Escaped From A Cult
Woman's Day (NZ)
December, 2009

She spent most of her life in a closed, secretive world. Now Kiwi mum Philippa tells KATHRYN POWLEY how great it feels to be free at last...

Imagine growing up in a society without movies, radio, television, recorded music, make-up, pets, hobbies or even Woman’s Day magazine because they’re considered evil!

Philippa Murray – a former Exclusive Brethren member who lost all her friends and everyday contact with her family when she left the church – reveals you don’t have to travel to the ends of the earth to find people living such closeted lives; they’re right here in NZ.

Philippa, 49, who spent much of her life in the secretive church which she calls a “cruel cult”, is in a rare position to shed light on its extremely strict rules.

“We weren’t supposed to cut our hair. We were always supposed to wear a headscarf symbolising our submission to God. There was no plucking of eyebrows, no make-up, no jewellery. We weren’t allowed magazines or to read novels,” says the mum of seven boys – Stafford, 24, Bergen, 22, Wilbur, 19, Radcliffe, 17, Chelton, 15, Luther, 10, and Manfred, eight.

But for Philippa, who grew up in a large Exclusive Brethren family, the church’s toughest and cruellest rule of all is its unshakeable policy that former members must be ostracised from family and friends still in the church.

“We only ate and drank and socialised with people in our church,” she says. “It was basically life in a goldfish bowl. We were told that the world was evil and ex-Exclusive Brethren were out to attack us.”

Although the church isn’t opposed to modern medical treatment, it was Philippa’s determination nine years ago to seek outside help for a family member’s personal health issues that drew instant condemnation.

Her family was “shut up”, meaning they were banned from contact with other members until they had proven their worthiness to return.

“The church leaders would come and see us and we’d do everything we could to get back in, but they’d say, ‘No, you’re not ready’.”

At first Philippa was desperate to return to the fold, but after months of thinking she was “going mad” trying to meet their approval, she and her husband – whom she married at age 23 having spent just four hours together – were suspended.

“They kicked us out, but in the end I said I didn’t want to come back. I felt I was treated more like a criminal than a Christian.”

Suddenly Philippa and her family were on their own. She lost all contact with her lifelong friends and, sadly, forfeited the close bonds she had with her Exclusive Brethren parents, six siblings and 40 nieces and nephews.

It was a bittersweet time as she adjusted to life not having to look over her shoulder constantly to see who was watching her, and became used to not having to attend church meetings seven days a week and four times on Sunday.

“I lived like an Exclusive Brethren in my mind for another three years. I would think every day, ‘Now, what meeting am I supposed to be getting ready for?’”

She quickly stopped wearing headscarves and before long wore trousers instead of skirts. A year later she saw her first movie (The Godfather), after three years she got her first TV, and after four years had her ears pierced.

Now Philippa – who has split from her husband – and five of her boys live in rural Canterbury, where she works in real estate. Of Exclusive Brethren, she says, “The husband is the breadwinner, and the wife stays home and brings up the children, sews, cooks, cleans and produces more children.”

So making her own way in the world was a huge step. Two of her sons, Bergen and Wilbur, live together and work for their dad, who decided to return to the church, but she says there’s no risk her boys will go back to the church as they feel sorry for Brethren kids.

Meeting Philippa today, a lively, fun mum who’s easy to talk to and enjoys a good laugh, there’s little to give away her unusual past governed by “guilt and fear” – words she says back up her claim the church is a cult. Back in her scarf-wearing days Philippa gained some insight into what was going on in the outside world – through this very magazine!

“My husband would go off to church and I would rush down to the dairy and buy a Woman’s Day magazine and a chocolate bar! I liked it because it took me away from my situation. I used to love reading about the royal family, I still do. And I liked the real-life reads.”

Now Philippa’s free to read her favourite magazine any time she likes, to socialise with whomever she chooses and to wear whatever she wants. “I was living in a goldfish bowl when I was tipped out into the ocean of life,” she says. “The world’s my oyster now. I’ve learned so much, I’ve got freedom, and that’s what they don’t have.” WD

Brethren’s response ...

The Exclusive Brethren strongly refute that their church is a cult.

Spokesman Andrew Smith says they are devout Christians with a caring and supportive outlook who seek a simple lifestyle avoiding the “excesses” of popular culture.

They permit some movies, DVDs, radio, TV, recorded music and magazines for educational purposes.

“Brethren women can and do wear modest make-up if they wish,” he says. “Other than wedding rings, jewellery is not generally worn.”

Novels are read as part of school education, but generally not for recreation, he says.

Brethren live and work within the wider community, although they do prohibit eating and drinking with non-Brethren.

“Separation is seen to be the righteous way to testify loyalty to Christ and to be the basis for real Christian unity,” he says.

• Philippa tells her story in Inside New Zealand: How to Spot a Cult, TV3, Wednesday at 9.30pm.



Disclaimer:This news page is about groups, organizations or movements, which may have been called "cults" and/or "cult-like" in some way, shape or form. But not all groups called either "cults" or "cult-like" are harmful. Instead, they may be benign and generally defined as simply people intensely devoted to a person, place or thing. Therefore, the discussion or mention of a group, organization or person on this page, is not necessarily meant pejoratively. Readers are encouraged to read widely on a topic before forming an opinion. Never accept information from a single source at face value. This website only holds a small amount of information and should not be relied on as a complete source. For example, if you find older information, this should be weighed up against newer information as circumstances can change.
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