The Church of Scientology opened a new $16 million headquarters in Auckland on Saturday. Hayden Donnell glides excitedly into the ceremony.
Guy Williams had just been kicked out of Auckland’s new Scientology Centre when I walked in. He’d turned up with his brother Paul, who’d dressed up as the beautiful and talented Scientologist, Tom Cruise. Tickling chronicler David Farrier had also been ejected, despite being one of New Zealand’s leading disciples of Scientology. There was an unofficial media ban, and he’d tried to avoid it by wearing contacts and normal clothes. Williams had blown his cover by immediately yelling “David” when he turned up. It probably hadn’t made a difference. They’d both made the stupid mistake of appearing on TV. Luckily for me, I’ve never achieved any level of fame or success. I filled in a couple of routine forms. The bouncers let me in with barely a suspicious glance.
Security was tight inside the $16 million headquarters. Smartly dressed men and women talked into pop star-style headsets in every corner. Suit-clad church officials kept an eye on the scruffy T shirt-wearing locals in the crowd. Cameras moved on jibs, filming the speakers and the audience. Everyone was gathered in front of the stage, which was nestled below a huge red bow that some compared to a giant anus.
I stole a salmon crostini off a tray someone had discarded in a shrubbery and found a place in a bark garden near the back. From there I could squint up at the proceedings, away from the prying eyes of the faithful. There was a reason for the devotees’ vigilance. We were in the presence of religious royalty. The Chairman of the Board of the Religious Technology Center, David Miscavige, was in town for the opening.
Getting him here was a big deal. Only Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard has had more influence on the global ascent of the religion. Few religious leaders are more influential or more controversial. Miscavige has built beautiful churches, or Ideal Orgs, across the globe and, through the church’s Drug-Free World programme, claims to have helped thousands kick substance abuse. He’s also been accused of regularly beating employees who displease him. His wife hasn’t made any public appearances since 2007, and was once reported missing by former Scientologist Leah Remini. His own dad, a former Scientologist, wrote a book about how Miscavige is going overboard with the Scientology thing. The church has denied all accusations.
Miscavige bounded on stage just before 3pm. His teeth were gleaming. They shone like glow worms trapped inside his face. The ecclesiastical leader of the Scientology religion was trim for 56, his 1m 55cm frame snug inside in a perfectly fitted suit. He looked like a more menacing Joel Osteen; the kind of man a robot would design if it was given only 1980s magazine images of a perfect American nuclear family. In normal New Zealand society, he’d probably be lambasted for not wearing enough jandals. But here he was in his element. He was setting off standing ovations and rapturous applause with every sentence. He was invoking what seemed to be deeply moving truths for many people. And he was talking complete gibberish.
“When you touch down your timeframes are all but transcendent with an ETA from new OT 1, to OT2, OT3, new OT4 and OT5 until you enter a skyway from the purif to the new OT7 Solo Naught in less than a year and so become gods of the South Pacific,” he said to wild cheers.
I grew up in a Baptist church, and have a high tolerance for indecipherable religious jargon. But this was intense even for me. I asked Farrier to review this section of the transcript.
“Jesus. This is very dense,” he said. “OT 1 through OT 7 are all levels of Operating Thetan. The higher the number, the further up the chain you are. OT 8 is the highest, which is called “The Truth Revealed’.”
Read David Farrier’s brave attempt to interpret more of David Miscavige’s speech here.
Miscavige went on to thank the heroes of the New Zealand Scientology movement. The church has deep ties here. We were the second country to adopt the religion after the US. Some of its top-ranking staff are Kiwis, including Mary Story, who runs the secretive Office of Special Affairs.
On Saturday, Miscavige was most focused on the New Zealanders who’d laboured at home.
“As LRH so evocatively wrote: there are gods above other gods and gods beyond the gods of the universes,” he continued. “Which in this case brings you to your Oceanic gods of ANZO. Those who proved nothing is impossible given pure hearts and number 8 wire mentality.”
To me, it sounded like Miscavige was literally having a stroke. But the crowd stood as one to applaud after those words. He went on to thank many New Zealand church members individually. They stood, tears glistening on their cheeks as their works were read out. Then everyone got on stage, pulled a rope, the ribbons fell, and balloons rose into the sky to officially open the Centre.
All the doors were opened. The crowd shuffled out of the ceremony and into the grounds. I learned, to my deep shame and elation, that salmon crostinis were everywhere. Scientology Auckland had put on a delicious spread for the seekers. There were cucumbers with sauce on, hummus bread things, filo pastries, and assorted cheeses. I ate them all to avoid suspicion and headed upstairs.
Helpful Scientologists were stationed in just about every room. What struck me most was the contrast between the people I found in the corridors and the acronym-spewing man I’d seen on stage earlier. They were helpful and patient when asked to explain the sometimes bewildering rooms. One woman was happy to take photos of my friend Damian and I with the machines in an auditing room, which are used to assess the levels of spiritual distress in the hearts of prospective Scientologists.
She didn’t look like the perfectly coiffed American church members; just a normal woman looking to find hope in a rigorous, expensive process of auditing. I carried on. Many of the rooms were sparsely decorated. The church had tried to liven them up by propping dolls on many of the seats.
Others were unremarkable, with the only notable thing the bizarre nameplates on the desks.
A wing of the building was reserved for purification – a rigorous programme of exercise and sauna sessions meant to cleanse the body of all the drugs it’s exposed to in everyday life. Scientology hates drugs almost as much as it hates psychiatrists, which it believes are poisoning the minds of everyday people. Miscavige had earlier joked about not only refusing to suffer psychiatrists acting above the law, but refusing to suffer “psychiatrists to act above the ground”. Lol.
It all contributed to a vague otherworldly feel. The church was like an office block set up by aliens trying to fit into human society. Without the buttresses of long-standing tradition, most of its religious claims seemed kind of comical and ridiculous. But would some of the claims of our major religions look the same if they only got set up 60 years ago? While many people have looked at the menace lurking underneath its corporate facade, Scientology is valuable if you see at it as a huge piece of performance art aimed at showing how religions form; how people’s deep-seated desire for some kind of hope, structure and spirituality will propel them into expansive intellectual leaps.
Even though many of the things about the church were clearly ludicrous, I could see how people would fall for the place: the feeling of self improvement and belonging that comes with being part of something bigger than yourself.
I exited through the bookshop.
of the Spinoff’s first book!Find Out More
Want to watch something that has nothing to do with Scientology whatsoever? Let us recommend The Path on Lightbox
The Society section is sponsored by AUT. As a contemporary university we’re focused on providing exceptional learning experiences, developing impactful research and forging strong industry partnerships. Start your university journey with us today.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.