Gloriavale, the closed Christian community on the South Island's West Coast holds a strange fascination for many of us. Amanda Evans, the producer of previous television documentaries on the community, and another that will screen this week, is no exception. She tells us in a feature today she is both appalled and charmed at different times by the life she has observed there.
"Charmed" may be too strong a word for viewers who have not got to know the people there as Evans has, but she is to be congratulated for her approach to the subject. It would be easy to take an unequivocally disapproving view of a place such as Gloriavale. It offends just about all the precepts of modern life. Men and women have rigidly defined roles, marriages are informally arranged, wives undertake to be "submissive" to their husbands, pre-marital meetings must be chaperoned and kissing, let alone sex, is not permitted.
Access to the internet and other media is heavily restricted, a strict code of dress and diet is observed, jobs such as cooking and washing clothes are women's work, men do building or factory work. Contact with the wider community is minimal.
Appalled or simply fascinated, the wider community has only one legitimate question to ask of Gloriavale. Are its 500-odd residents all there by choice? Obviously the children have little choice, and that raises the issue of how much their upbringing and education influences their decision to remain there as adults. "Brainwashing" is an easy charge but hard to define. Everyone is heavily influenced by their upbringing and education.
Gloriavale appears to have just one sanction against leaving, automatic "ex-communication". In the context of a closed community, ex-communication can mean more than exclusion from religious activities, it can mean a loss of contact with family and friends inside. We need to know whether that risk is high enough to keep people at Gloriavale who would prefer to leave.
If all the adults are there by choice, we can only watch Evans' documentaries and wonder at the life they lead. We may also wonder why Gloriavale admits camera and film crews so often. These are intrusive to have around. By letting us see inside their walls, they reduce suspicion of those who have a right to be different.