Christian sect takes over Tories

'Nothing sinister' says a constituency agent. But, reports Mark Rowe, others wonder why 119 fundamentalists have taken over Pilgrim's Hatch Conservatives
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A FUNDAMENTALIST Christian sect, whose leader is known as Bishop and claims to perform faith healing miracles, has taken over a branch of a Conservative constituency association.

More than 100 members of the Peniel Pentecostal Church have joined the local Tory Party branch in Brentwood and Ongar in Essex. Now one grass roots Conservative has written to the party chairman, Lord Parkinson, expressing his disquiet about the events.

In January, 119 new members joined the Brentwood and Ongar Conservative Association and the local Pilgrim's Hatch constituency branch of the Conservative Party has swollen from 20 to 140. The following month, members of the Peniel Church secured all the key positions of the branch leadership.

At last week's Association AGM a member of the church was appointed vice- chairman when, in what must have been an extraordinary sight, more than 250 people turned up, compared with the traditional 90. Two members of the Peniel Church will stand as Conservative candidates in May's elections for the local borough council.

There is no suggestion that matters were conducted by anything other than perfectly legal means. And the local MP, Eric Pickles, and the constituency agent, Andrew Varney, welcome the new members. "I am quite sure there is no hidden agenda. There is nothing sinister about this," stated Mr Varney, who said the membership had been swollen by a politician who had moved into the area and was also a member of the Peniel Church.

However, a number of local Conservative members and politicians feel uneasy. "Some people are very concerned," said Essex County Councillor Judy Gray. "Why have they all become so interested in Brentwood all of a sudden? Where were all these people when we were up against it last May?

"Religion and politics should be kept absolutely separate," she added.

It is a point echoed by Tony Donnelly, who was heavily defeated when he stood for election as chairman at the constituency AGM. "I am concerned they are going to take over our party and fly under our flag. The implications are quite serious if you have a sect with what I believe are weird views influencing local politics. That affects people's lives. These are decent people who are being misled."

The head of the church, Bishop Michael Reid, said that although he was not involved in the political developments, he welcomed the move. "There is no agenda. The Conservative Party needed new life breathed into it."

Many of the church's beliefs could be described as deeply conservative: it encourages the sanctity of marriage, pre-marital sex is taboo and discipline is "taught as a Biblical principle", according to the Bishop.

It is also intolerant of dissent and several people who have left the church are considering legal action over allegations made about them.

The Peniel Church was set up in the Pilgrim's Hatch area of Brentwood 22 years ago. Today, it is called the Peniel Academy, comprising a church and school. An anti-aircraft gun stands on the front lawn. The Mercedes- driving Bishop is involved in seven businesses and insurance companies.

A double decker bus, emblazoned with the slogan "A church where healing and miracles can happen today. Come and see what God can do for you!", travels around the county on Sundays. Bishop Reid said: "The reason people come is they see the miracles of healing."

Members are encouraged to hand over one tenth of their gross salary to the church and the school's parent handbook endorses corporal punishment. The Bishop sent his own children to the school because he said he was fed up with "amoral" teachers and did not want his kids to grow up to be pink-haired left wingers".

But Catalyst, an anti-cult counselling service that has dealt with a number of people who have left the Peniel Church, has expressed anxiety about the organisation.

"We are concerned about the control and influence they have on people's lives, their finances and how they bring up their children," said Graham Baldwin. "We are worried about what the actual motive is of a church that gets involved in local politics."

Several people who have left the church have told the Independent on Sunday that they endured "horrific experiences".

"Leaving the church was an horrendous ordeal," said one woman, who did not want to be named. "I was vomiting in the sink and the feeling of edge was unbelievable."

One woman says she took out 13 insurance policies with companies run by people involved in the church and was "crippled by debt", a claim Bishop Reid denies. He denied that anyone at the church was pressured to take out insurance policies with any of the companies.

Bishop Reid believes in a strong promotion of his interpretation of Christianity. "I believe in the full Gospel," he said. "We're not outside the normal church. We have nothing to hide and we are not some weird organisation. People do not fall at my feet."