15 Nov 2023

Craig Hoyle: life after excommunication

From Nine To Noon, 9:57 am on 15 November 2023

After coming out as a teenager, Craig Hoyle was excommunicated from the Christian "sect" he'd been raised in and was separated from everyone he knew.

The Auckland-based journalist tells Kathryn Ryan about the "painstaking process" of leaving behind the only life he knew to save himself.

New Zealand writer and journalist Craig Hoyle

New Zealand writer and journalist Craig Hoyle Photo: Supplied

Craig Hoyle is the Chief News Director at Sunday Star Times and the author of Excommunicated.

Photo: Harpercollins.co.nz

At 18, knowing that he was gay and feeling increasingly desperate, Hoyle began to realise that he could not remain a member of the Exclusive Brethren church he'd grown up in.

"The only way I was going to be able to live any kind of a life being true to myself was by leaving the church. And that was a catastrophic realisation because it was my friends, it was my family, my home my job, it was literally every part of my life was involved in this community."

Hoyle first "confessed" his sexuality to local Brethren leaders in Invercargill and eventually was flown to Sydney to meet Bruce Hales, the world leader of the church. Hales directed him to two doctors – one whose "highly inappropriate" questions left him feeling dirty and ashamed and another who prescribed hormonal suppressants.

Believing that these men had his best interests at heart, at first Hoyle did exactly what they told him to do.

"We believed that Bruce Hales was God's voice on Earth, that literally everything that came out of his mouth was God speaking to us through a man … It was unthinkable for me that I would refuse even what they would call a 'suggestion' from the man of God.

"When you genuinely believe that the person who's talking to you is God talking to you, there's not a chance that you would say no."

After about a year and a half, though, "with an element of horror", Hoyle gradually realised he had to leave the church completely.

"It became clear to me with this dawning realisation that it wasn't going to be possible to change and that I was who I was and that the logical endpoint of that was that there was no future for me in the Exclusive Brethren. Which wasn't a conclusion that I wanted to reach. I wanted nothing more than to stay with my friends and family."

The "crunch point" for the church (now known as the Plymouth Brethren Church), came when on the day that Hoyle came out to his brothers and sisters.

"Up until that point, they had been able to keep [my sexuality] quite tightly contained secret. When I came out to my siblings, it was clear that I was no longer complying with the secrecy.

"I woke up the next morning, and my brothers and sisters had been removed from the family home, they'd all disappeared in the dark of night and they wouldn't tell me where they'd gone."

Realising the church had begun the process of excommunication, Hoyle knew he had one last chance to say goodbye to family and friends.

It's difficult to describe in words how traumatic that experience was, he tells Kathryn Ryan.

"I spent that afternoon driving around Invercargill, saying goodbye to people for the last time. That was definitely the worst day of my life, [saying goodbye to] friends and relatives and my grandmother. You turn up on someone's doorstep and say that you're there to say goodbye and that's the last time you'll ever see them."

Although he'd been warned that the world outside was a "cold, hard place" and the Brethren community was where to find love and acceptance, Hoyle says he soon realised the reverse was true.

"There were other churches around New Zealand that heard about what was happening to me and the experiences I was having with the Brethren who sent me letters or cards.

"I remember getting a beautiful card from the Auckland Community Church, basically saying 'God loves you the way you are, there's nothing wrong with you. If you want a new faith community, we're here for you'. And it was signed by dozens of members of the congregation."

Although Hoyle was keen to connect with other people who'd left the church, he says it took him a while to find the courage to reach out.

"Part of that is because the Brethren had sort of instilled in me so deeply that churches or Christians more generally weren't going to be accepting of who I was as an openly gay person."

As a child, family members had mentioned his likeness to a man called George, who he later realised was a grandfather who had also left the church.

"When I was a kid I remember If I was badly behaved or strong-willed or something, comments would be made - isn't he just like George? And I had no idea who this George was.

"It wasn't until I got older and started sort of joining the dots together that I realised that George was my grandpa and that he had been married to my grandma … he was [regarded as] a bad person and this was why she no longer had a husband."

Hoyle discovered his grandfather's phone number and called him with "fear and trepidation".

"He knew who I was and was very friendly … When I said 'Well, I'm gay' I could just about hear him shrug over the phone, and he said, 'Oh, I can live with that'. And then we just moved on immediately.

"The first time we met in person, it was at the McDonald's in downtown Wellington ... It was like looking into a mirror – the same mannerisms and the same sort of laugh.

"The strangest thing of all was right at the end of the meal… I don't know where it started but I always cram all the [packaging] together and jam it into the cup so the rubbish takes up as little surface area as possible. I was doing this at McDonald's and I looked across and there was my grandpa doing exactly the same thing. And we just looked at each other and laughed."

As a young man who'd removed himself from a tightly prescribed life path, Hoyle says he felt "untethered" after leaving the church and had no idea what he was going to do with his life.

A lucky break came Hoyle's way in the form of a 60 Minutes documentary about his story, released in 2009.

"The producer and reporter took a lot of interest in my situation and asked what I was passionate about, what I wanted to do with my life, what my strengths were and recommended no uncertain terms that I've become a journalist."

The 60 Minutes producers helped Hoyle complete a communications degree at AUT and he started working at TV Three as a first-year student.

Fourteen years on, and despite his career success, Hoyle says a part of him will always be broken by his excommunication experience.

In Excommunicated, he compares himself to a plant that's grown up around and been formed by a pile of rocks.

"It doesn't stop the plant from becoming tall and beautiful but at its heart [the plant is] still been crushed by those rocks. And even if you managed to pick those rocks off one by one, the damage is still there."

Since leaving the Plymouth Brethren Church, Hoyle says he's been contacted by many others who did the same and had similar experiences. While the church is now "a lot more careful" about their practices, members who are gay or diverse in any way are still being systematically oppressed, he says.

Although many members are good people who mean well, the Plymouth Brethren Church remains "an extremely damaging patriarchal system of control and abuse", Hoyle says.

While he has now rebuilt a relationship with one brother who left the church seven years after he did, he has no contact with the rest of his siblings or his parents.

"I called my mum last year to let her know that I was going to be back in Invercargill and she didn't recognise my voice, so that's where the relationship is at. And that's their choice, that's not my choice.

"It is what it is. And I may live the rest of my life never seeing them again. Or some of them may reappear, as my brother did. The door's always open from my side."