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Wednesday 14 April 2010

My life in the Exclusive Brethren

Posted in: True Stories
By Craig Hoyle, as told to Matt Akersten - 24th November 2009

20-year-old Craig Hoyle, like generations of his family, was brought up in the Exclusive Brethren Church.

Craig Hoyle
Notoriously isolationist and conservative, the Brethren started in the UK in the 1820s but it only arrived in Invercargill in December 1992. It now has around 160 members in NZ's southern-most city.

The eldest in a family of seven children ranging down to nine years old, Craig until recently worked in his dad's Invercargill tyre shop. His whole life, from his day to day work and leisure through to his lifetime prospects, were mapped out inflexibly, and enforced, by the church.

Perhaps it might have been a bearably conformist life if Craig wasn't gay.

In his own words Craig, comfortable with being identified by his real name and background, tells his remarkable and inspirational story to's Matt Akersten.


I was born into it. My parents were born into it, my grandparents and great-grandparents were all born into it.

I had a good childhood. So long as you're happy in the church, it's a good place to be. Cradle to the grave, they look after everything. But in saying that, if you step outside of their very narrow boundaries, that's when things go pear-shaped.

You're trained to function in the outside world, but to keep a distance from it. If I came into a shop as a Brethren, I would be polite and relatively friendly to people, but there'd always be this wall around me. People would only come so far before you'd push them away.

They are in their own community and they keep to themselves. There's no socialising, no eating, no drinking, or anything with anyone outside the church. You go to a church school, you work for a church business. There's no TV, no radio, no DVDs, no CDs. You're not supposed to go skiing, you're not supposed to go to the beach...

There's no internet. All technology is controlled by the church. You're taken issue with if you have a non-church computer or a non-church phone. All the computers are linked back to a central network, so you can only get onto pre-approved websites that have been screened for content. It's ridiculous. You can only install programmes that have been pre-approved by the church, and you have to have a church officer come in and put in the password for you to install programmes. It's all controlled.

From when you're a baby you're brought up being told that it's the only place to be. They describe the outside world as cold and say it's evil, and that if you ever leave the Church you are damning yourself to go to Hell. That the world will curse you and abuse you and spit you out and you'll eventually come crawling back to the church asking to be let back in.


Growing up in the church, you don't even get the idea that gay people exist. In broader society you're exposed to it. But when you're brought up in the Brethren Church, you don't actually know why you're different. All you know is that when all the other boys start talking about girls, you realise they're not really doing anything for you.

Later, I knew that there were gay people in the world, like George Michael or Elton John, but we were told they were evil and that they were going to hell. And since I was brought up believing that everything the priests say was the gospel truth, it took ages before I would question them on it.

So it took me years to actually come out. I guess I knew I was gay when I was about eleven or twelve.

I hadn't had any sexual experiences with guys inside the church, only with a guy outside the church. And due to the guilt thing you're brought up with, the first thing I had done was confess to one of the priests, when I was eighteen. The first thing he said was "I'm not surprised," which looking back is kinda funny. He didn't really know what to say though. It's something that's so shoved under the carpet that half of them don't know anything about it.

A few months later there were special church meetings in Invercargill. All the international leaders were there so they arranged for me to have interviews with all the leaders. I talked to 'the' world leader. In the church what he says goes. He told me to "never accept myself for who I was, and to always fight against myself".

He then referred me on to one of the other international leaders there, one of his cousins who is a doctor, and I had an interview with him. He sat me down and asked me all sorts of questions, which I thought were unbelievable. Along the lines of "what have you done?", "who have you done it with?" and "where did you do it?" and "how many times?" and "was there penetration?" and "who penetrated who?" and "what are you sexually attracted to?" and "do you prefer a penis soft or hard?" I also got asked if I was sexually attracted to my priests. He told me that homosexuality is 'constitutional' anyway, and there was nothing I could do to change it. "You just have to keep fighting against it and hope that one day God might change it for you."

Along the way others told me various things about gay people. I was told they were 'fags' who would 'all die of AIDS'. That they were evil.

It wasn't just him asking me these questions, it was some of the other priests too.

I couldn't handle it, so a week later I packed my suitcase and ran off.


I was only gone for a week. They put out feelers everywhere they could, they had people watching airports and ferry terminals... and they actually found me in Christchurch. Some of my cousins saw me there and persuaded me to come back.

My escape was a spur of the moment thing. I hadn't planned what I was going to do. I'd never gotten any help from the church, but then all of a sudden people were coming up to me and I felt appreciated for the first time in a long time.

I then got sent to Palmerston North to stay with my uncle and auntie before being sent to Sydney, which is where the church is run from and where the international leader lives. I got given the special treatment in a big way. I had several interviews with him and we had lunch in his office at work. We even went out to dinner.

At his recommendation I got put onto a Brethren doctor who asked the same questions again, and put me on the drug Cyprostat which is a hormonal suppressant sometimes given to rapists. It works. It's like the opposite of Viagra. The doctor admitted that there's nothing they could do to change a gay person, so the logic was that they could just get rid of the person's sexuality altogether. They told me it would 'help' me and that I had to go along with what they told me to do. I wasn't told about any of the side-effects or anything... apparently there can be pretty nasty side-effects.


I got sent home from Sydney at the beginning of April last year. I had one last interview with the world leader and he told me that I had to "submit myself to my father" and "never give in to myself". He said that if I ever followed my natural tendencies, the only people I'd get on with would be 'wicked people'.

He told me enough scary things to actually make me be 'good' for a while. I managed to follow all their rules for four months before I cracked up again, saying that I couldn't handle it again. So they sent me back to Sydney. I was over there for six weeks, and got back in September last year.

I decided then that being a Brethren was never going to work.

I started phasing myself out, going to fewer and fewer church meetings. Letting all my friendships die. I starting making new ones outside of the church.

The first thing I did was contact Southland Gay and Lesbian Support and I met a few people through that. I was nervous. I felt like by ringing them I might be going to Hell. But they were very helpful. It was interesting talking to them. I now know the Rainbow Youth crew quite well too.

In March this year I called a meeting with the priests and told them I wasn't interested in belonging to the church anymore. I said I was leaving, and didn't want any more meetings, and didn't want to talk to any members of the church about it. That threw them into panic mode.

People were coming to talk to me every day. Members of the church were also ringing me, writing to me, knocking on my bedroom door, all hounding me and harassing me, telling me I was wrong, that I was going to Hell, that I needed to change my mind.

I was still living with my parents and only had the furniture that was in the house. I was working for my dad and was a shareholder in the company. If I'd suddenly left, there would have been a hell of a lot of loose ends I would have had to have gone back and clean up, and I didn't want to do that. I'd rather tidy things up before I left.

So I went into the first stage of excommunication.



On Thursday: Escaping the Exclusive Brethren

In Part 2 of this feature Craig risks personal damnation in order to follow his own path. He is progressively cut off from everything he knows, and everyone he loves.

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Craig Hoyle, as told to Matt Akersten - 24th November 2009