The 1970 Schism in retrospect

Back to informal chat and reminiscences

Mon, 5 Aug 2002

Subject: Fellowship

It may sound strange of me to say so but I can see both sides in this little Eric/Gordon debate.

When I was a teenager I was totally out of sorts with the Brethren - my real life was in my school, in the discovery of academic disciplines, in literature, in worldly friends and on the sportsfield. And I went to the theatre and the cinema secretly as often as I dared. My Brethren life was constricting and boring, utterly irrelevant and to be escaped from as soon as possible. I saw the Brethren as small-minded and ignorant - quite pathetically bigoted and arrogant about their 'message' and their way of life.

Later, when I got sucked back in under the influence of the Hales brothers, I became committed to the new Brethren revolution for about seven years (from 1963 to the pricking of the bubble in Aberdeen in 1970). During that time I certainly enjoyed 'the fellowship' and felt that I was part of a warm, caring and 'uniquely enlightened' community. I gained a certain status and although life was (as we would have said at the time) 'full of difficulties and exercises' I had many friends and I felt good about the Brethren and their 'possession of the truth'.

I was three-quarters mad of course. A few years after I left the Brethren I joined BBC Television and one of my first research tasks was to look at the experience of those who had been in cults. (I had a wise and perceptive boss.) I interviewed ex-Moonies and several who had been in the 'children of God' and the Scientologists and several other cults. With a growing sense of horror I began to see clearly how my own mind had been manipulated and my sense of 'reality' cruelly distorted.

But of course it is possible to enjoy being in a cult. It adds drama and focus to your life and -if you believe the precepts- a sense of being part of something special. If I had been in a 'converted state' when I was in my teens I would have found the Brethren life perfectly congenial.

But looking back I see the 50s as just as dangerous and distorting as the 60s and 70s. There was the same anti-intellectual arrogance, the same feeling that the Brethren were the 'only clean place in christendom', the same breathtakingly ignorant assumption to have the answers to every question, and the same paranoid fear of 'the world' which still governs the 'brethrenlites' who escaped after Aberdeen but actually learned very little. It was gentler and fuzzier but just as stupid and deranged.

Fundamentalism is based on fear. It runs away from the glorious complexity of real human experience and establishes a Mickey Mouse theme park of its own where everything is simplistic and escapist and judgmental. It stunts and paralyses everything it touches. It has no ambiguities, no nuances and no shades of grey. Everything is literal, in harsh black and white, one thing or the other. Meanwhile, out in the real world, things remain as they have always been - dappled and deceptive and complex, with no person and no situation quite the same as any other. That is the grown up world. Almost all absolutes are childish and lazy and distorting.

Love to all


Mon, 5 Aug 2002

Subject: Fellowship

I don't think you and I disagree about any of this Gordon. But I AM interested in the ambivalence of our memories and the feelings that go with them.

I can still catch myself feeling nostalgic about particular friendships (even particular three day meetings) when I was in the 'warm and fearful bosom of the EBs' as you felicitously call it. I lost most of my closest friends when Aberdeen happened. (George Gibbon, Nevill Long, Denys Leflaive, Philip Spink, Gordon Marsh and others.) I still miss them.

In just the same way when I did a very long taped interview (11 hours) with an ex-Moonie (a young woman of 21) on which we based a TV drama, she alternated by telling me how terrible she thought it all was now, while at the same time saying how thrilling it felt at the time. There is a phenomenon in cult studies which is sometimes called 'snapping': it refers to the ability (under pressure and manipulation, such as the Moonie's 'love-bombing') of the human mind to suddenly take on a whole new view of reality, rejecting all previous norms and reference points. And this 'snap' over to a completely different range of perceptions can remain remarkably stable for a long time. It's almost like being under hypnosis. Jane (the Moonie) was eventually kidnapped by expert 'de-programmers' in the company of her parents and her closest school friend from the past (this was in South Carolina and they had flown over from England). It still took three days to get her to listen to what they had to say. And she took months to recover. Her main problem was that she could never make decisions for herself. Faced with the choice of colour, eg. for a pair of gloves, she would burst into tears. The capacity to think for herself had been taken away from her in the Moonies. Robert Lifton calls this 'the surrender of sovereignty'. I know that many ex-EBs have suffered from the same problem. But this is more Jill's territory than mine!

Love to all


Wed, 11 Dec 2002

Subject: A response to Richard Grace's sincerity

Dear Richard

Your email struck a chord and I felt I had to reply. Most of the members of feeb seem by their accounts to have been not very committed, not at all inspired by the 'Brethren renaissance' of the Sixties - that trumpet call to a fresh and powerful commitment to the re-invention of Darbyism (or Christianity as we then thought) that was signalled by JT Jnr's address at Park Street London in Spring 1960 called 'The King and His Men'. It seemed like a new dawn to many although for me it did not really come into focus until Bruce Hales took 3 day meetings in Croydon in 1963. After that I was up and running - totally committed until about 6 or 7 months before Aberdeen in July 1970 (when I began to have grave doubts).

Having been unwilling (coerced) members with no say in matters is undoubtedly the more honourable course. That is the case with the great majority of feeb. But for you and I - who BELIEVED and ran with the prevailing reformation (comparable in many ways and as mad as the Chinese 'Cultural Revolution' which was happening around the same time) there is an additional sadness. And humiliation. We thought that something special, and cleansing and purifying - some great new revelation - was happening. And it turned out to be a huge con, a dirty, bullying exploitation of the rank & file Brethren that (for most of us) came to a crashing end in the sewers of Aberdeen in July 1970. The renaissance ended in the grubby pornographic fumblings of an alcoholic-crazed old man and a stupid amoral groupie called Madelaine Ker. How can we look at ourselves in the mirror without blushing again?

Eleven years after I left the Brethren I spent three months carrying out a detailed piece of research for BBC Television (the Everyman Series) on the nature of cults. It was a huge relief to me to find out that huge numbers of people had been manipulated in the same way as I had. I looked at the Scientologists, the 'Children of God', the Moonies, and many others. In the end we focussed on the Moonies and I spent 13 hours recording interviews with a young woman who had spent a year in the Moonies and who had escaped with the help of her parents. All this resulted in a drama (called 'Camp X') which was written from my research by Bill Nicholson (who later created the drama Shadowlands about C.S.Lewis -on which I was also one of the researchers - Lewis was one of my weekly lecturers at Cambridge in the late 1950s.) The script of Camp X was written (I still have a copy of the final draft) but unfortunately a Hollywood film on the Moonies (of a very inferior quality) was released and this dried up the necessary funding for our production. And so it was never made. But it was a turning point for me. I saw very clearly how easy it is to manipulate men and women into belief and obsessional commitment.

I have now turned away from religion in its entirety. But I still have an intense interest in spiritual power and truth. For me these days this comes through the arts rather than through 'belief'. The metaphysical for me is every bit as real as the physical. T.S.Eliot said that a powerful new poem could provide for him a 'new dwelling place' for several weeks. I understand that. When Ted Hughes published his Birthday Letters 3 or 4 years ago (an event which Seamus Heaney compared to the publication of Keats' Odes) I felt that I had to put everything aside to concentrate on them. 3 years ago I went to a unique exhibition of Rembrandt self portraits at the National Gallery. They are still reverberating in my mind and memory. The wisdom and compassion and 'understanding of the human condition' in the late self-portraits are among the 2 or 3 most profound experiences of my life. (They reminded me of the huge depth and insight of the 1971 Peter Brook film of King Lear and took their place alongside it. I had the privilege 10 years ago of spending some time with Paul Scofield, who played Brook's Lear, and discussing the film with him. This enhanced the film instead of diminishing it as sometimes happens.)

Why am I saying all this? Really I suppose just to assert the truth that turning away from formal religion does not mean a turning away from spiritual insight and power. For me it has been the reverse. My strictly 'religious' experiences now seem to have a 'pantomime', 'Walt Disney' quality which does not have any weight for me at all. Which does not mean that I dismiss all 'strictly religious' experience in that way. I have a huge respect for the religious expressions of Verdi, Mozart, Herbert, Donne, Michelangelo, Vaughan, Fra Angelico, Hopkins, R.S.Thomas and Eliot. And many others. Including of course Dante. But fundamentalism (that absolute grinding literalisation of what are obviously metaphorical and allegorical texts) seems to me the great error of the age. Dangerous and often wicked and cruel. In the USA the fundamentalist lobby is a sinister political threat. In Iran and several other places it is an insanity. Islam can be relatively sane and enlightening but in its fundamentalist form it is the most horrific force on the planet.

Just a few thoughts strung together at the close of a snowy Devon Tuesday.

With warm love to all


Wed, 9 Apr 2003

Subject: The low quality of Brighton EB leadership

Dear Warren,

I grew up with John Railton and his family in Brighton. He was the 'young thug leader' of Brighton when Aberdeen happened in July 1970. When I told the assembled 700 Brethren the facts about Aberdeen John withdrew from me as 'not fit for the fellowship of God's son'. I was the first to be kicked out. After I had left the room John said that if Mr Taylor wanted to take HIS wife Eunice to bed he would feel honoured. About 350 walked out. Not very bright, very ruthless, no real human warmth at all. Had an exceptionally stupid father, Willie. John was married to Eunice Congden, sister to 'only by grace' Victor Congden, who was part of feeb for a while. I've no idea of John's current address - he was John H. Railton if that helps.

I was stunned to learn from the Everyman programme that the current leader in Brighton is Stewart McIntyre. Stewart was one of the crudest, stupidest, clumsiest, most egotistical young men I ever met. John was pretty ordinary but Stewart made him look like Leonardo da Vinci.

Very glad to hear that your operation was a success.

Love to all


Fri Oct 8

Subject: Escape (warning long)

My strongest single memory is that when I had given the facts about Aberdeen in Brighton and been withdrawn from as 'not fit for the fellowship of God's Son' I drove home feeling as if I was going to be hit my a mighty bolt from the sky at any moment. It was a genuine physical dread. Even though I had known rationally for two or three weeks that the whole thing was a preposterous farce. Such is the (temporary) power of mumbo-jumbo.

20 minutes later 350 walked out (from a total of 700) and quite a lot of them arrived at our house. Then the feeling of 'divine retribution' eased.

We're off to Scotland and Australia in an hour or so.


Sun Feb 27, 2005

Subject: The Aberdeen Thing (mostly about gullibility)

Dear 'Freedom'
It's kind of you to say that I could make what you say more clear but I think your own account is very clear and coherent in itself. It's hard to describe delusional ideas but you make a very good stab at it.

But convincing fearful members of a closed and brainwashed sect is one thing - what I would like to see very much indeed is the Exclusives' perverted and foolish interpretation of the events in Aberdeen tested in a court of law. It is a notable thing that they have not threatened anyone with litigation for remarks about events in James Alec Gardner's house in Aberdeen in July 1970. Even in their delusional (and usually whisky-sodden) state they know that a judge and a jury would be hard to convince. Their fairy story about this 'saintly man' pretending to be drunk and pretending to be fondling another man's undressed wife in his own bed in order to root out disloyal members of the sect he dominated would crack into little pieces under even moderately competent cross-examination. They know that.

But religion does have this unfortunate tendency to perpetuate fairy stories. As you infer, those who believe that the earth is only 6000 years old are in their own way just as guilty of perverse and dishonest thinking as the eb apologists for Aberdeen. The earth they are standing (or sitting on) completely contradicts what they are saying. They are enemies of truth. And the history of Christianity has been beset by so many other dishonesties - the concept of 'transubstantiation', the idea that the wafer and the wine turn into the actual flesh and blood of Jesus (although they continue to have the outward appearance of a wafer and wine) is one of the daftest ideas humans have ever had. And so many theologians have wasted so much paper and ink and time arguing about it. Scripture itself is simple and clear. It is all to do with symbols and metaphors and the clunking literality (which leads to so many misconceptions) of the transubstantiation idea demonstrates for all time how unspiritual and materialistic we tend to be. And over against that is the key verse in John 3 where Jesus tried to help a hopelessly literal Nicodemus: 'the wind blows where it wants to and you don't know where it comes from or where it is going to'. It was something like that that the wonderful Welsh poet R.S.Thomas had in mind when he wrote

he is such a fast God,
always before us
and leaving as we arrive

Remember the ‘System Days’?

Thu Mar 10, 2005 5:52 pm

Thanks Charles, some very interesting detail there. My father was one of the trustees of the Stow Hill Depot during the time you describe. And we were very much involved in the Hales campaign to sort out all the Brethren businesses. We were starting a business in Brighton and Hove and it was first surveyed in detail and then placed under the weekly supervision of Dudley Clayson (Clayton?) of Manchester. We had to fill in forms showing budgets and actual for every aspect of the business. And I was whisked off at short notice to business seminars in the basement of Alan Price's house in Barnet (taken by the Hales brothers wearing collar mikes). I agree with you, they genuinely knew their stuff about business organisation and method and I learned a lot of useful things which I still remember. Then in the evening we would sweep into Park Street to a meeting that WBH was taking and feel like we had inside knowledge because we had been with him all day. A sort of embryonic mafia.

But I had also known Bruce Hales earlier. At the time you speak of in the 50s he was working for (I think) PA and he was rejigging the Vosper (later Vosper-Thorneycroft) shipyard at either Portsmouth or Southampton, I forget which. In June 1953 my grandfather, Hugh Wasson from Adelaide came to live with us in Brighton and in the next year or so Bruce came to see him several times. I was 15 then and Bruce was just a pleasant and friendly young Australian who seemed to have a lot of respect for my grandfather. During that time we also went on two weeks' holiday to St Ives in Cornwall and Bruce came down and spent a couple of days with us on the beach. After Vosper he was moved up to Scotland to sort out a glass factory.

I was a big fan of the Hales and I was devastated when JTJr pulled the rug out from under their campaign. The irony is that they seem to have all that 'commerce in the assembly' back in greater force than ever now. How they reconcile that with 'their Beloved's' strictures in 1965 is anybody's guess.

Thu Mar 10, 2005

I understand your feelings Peter and what you say applies to many who lorded it over the EBs. But you are wrong about the Hales brothers. Bruce had a distinguished career with a huge international company and was an exceptionally able man. The reverse is probably true - if he had not been in the EBs he would probably have ended up as chairman of a vast international corporation. I've met (and worked with) a lot of exceptionally able people (at 3M Co, Schweppes and the BBC) and Bruce stood comparison with the very best. (I'm talking here about his secular abilities. He was also an exceptional orator.)

I don't know so much about John, but I had first hand experience of his intelligence and ability in the early 60s. I know that at one time he had a great deal to do with the re-organisation of the rail system in Australia. Anyone else know more on this?

Fri Mar 11, 2005

But Peter, we weren't talking about 'humility, compassion and care for others' admirable as those qualities are. We were talking about business ability. You said they had none. I disagreed.

You're moving the goalposts. I understand your anger and disapproval. To a large extent I share it. But we have to try to be accurate when we go over EB history.

Fri Mar 11, 2005

You move quickly from one thing to another Mr Fisherman. I wasn't arguing the ultimate philosophical or moral worth of mental and fiscal ability. That's an altogether bigger subject. It was much simpler than that - you said that the Hales had no business ability. I disagreed. It was as simple as that.

I regret not being with you for the rainbow trout. Over in this very cold winter in Devon, I had to make do with a couple of lemon sole and a bottle of deliciously dry chablis.

You made some mildly disparaging remarks about the UK earlier. If you were to come and spend a week with us I am quite certain I could surprise and entrance you. All things taken into account, this is absolutely the best country in the world. As even the enigmatic William Blake said

'All things begin and end on Albions druid rocky shore'.

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