Brethren leader visits in secrecy

THE WORLD leader of the Exclusive Brethren made an unpublicised visit to New Zealand last week, arriving on Wednesday, amid strict security, to a large meeting of faithful in Wellington. The secretive Bruce Hales, known to Exclusive Brethren as the Elect Vessel or Mr Bruce, travelled in a black, tinted-window SUV and was screened from media by hired security guards and Brethren volunteers.

Hales’ visit, only three or four months before this year’s election, is a reminder of the Exclusive Brethren’s controversial involvement in the 2005 election. It is unclear yet whether they intend to repeat that in the coming election.

The visit might have remained secret except that a resident near the Brethren’s large Churchill Rd Gospel Hall in Crofton Downs, Wellington, became curious. He noticed a large congregation gathering on Wednesday morning and an unusual “clandestine” atmosphere. Security guards patrolled the fences and lookouts watched from nearby houses.

Well over 1000 Exclusive Brethren members, arriving in a fleet of large buses, on foot and by car, gathered in the windowless hall to see Hales. A marquee had been erected next to the hall so that Hales could be driven inside and the doors zipped closed behind him to avoid photographers. He has reportedly avoided being photographed by media for the past 20 years.

Since becoming the Brethren leader in 2002, Hales has directed his followers to be politically active, reversing a previous rule against political involvement. Brethren communities in the US, UK, Australia, Canada and Sweden have run expensive, anonymous campaigns aimed at promoting preferred candidates and parties and smearing others. In New Zealand’s 2005 election, they spent more than a million dollars on advertising promoting National and attacking the Labour, Green and Progressive parties.

Questioned about the visit, local Brethren would not confirm Hales’ presence. Wellington spokesman Mark Champion read a statement saying “the meetings had the purpose of discussing and inquiring into the holy scriptures . . . No discussions whatsoever have been held on the subject of politics or any political party.”

Following the Churchill Rd Gospel Hall meeting, Hales was taken to the home of senior Wellington Brethren member, Geoff Wallace. He was joined by senior Brethren men from around the country. The church used to frown on material extravagance but they arrived in a collection of new, $100,000-plus cars. On Thursday, Hales and the local Brethren leaders travelled to other North Island meetings.

The security firm employed for the visit is called Provision, which is wholly owned by private detectives Thompson and Clark, whose spying on community groups for corporate clients came to light last year.