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.

Brethren and the bearpit