By Charlotte Grieve, Nick McKenzie and Clair Weaver
Patrick and Clare McIvor’s wedding in 2012
Clare and Patrick McIvor’s wedding on May 12, 2012, looked like a stock image for the perfect day. The smiling couple arrived in a black car adorned with ribbons to a chapel with stained-glass windows in the Victorian town of Sale.
But there was a secret.
The marriage had been encouraged by Clare’s father, Pentecostal pastor Brian Heath, despite knowing the groom was gay.
Patrick and Clare McIvor’s wedding day in Sale, 2012.
“What sort of father does that to their daughter?” Clare McIvor asks.
Ten years later, she is still asking, even though her marriage to Patrick McIvor ended two years ago in an amicable separation.
Clare and Patrick have spoken publicly for the first time to expose the harmful practices of the institution they grew up in and once idolised – City Builders Church.
Clare’s sister, Renee, a lifelong church member and sometime preacher, was all but guaranteed to win an upper house seat at the state election because she had been preselected at the top of the Liberal Party’s ballot for a safe upper house seat.
However, Opposition Leader Matthew Guy says she will not sit in the Liberal party room if elected on November 26, after a joint investigation by The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes unearthed fresh evidence of disturbing conduct within City Builders and closely affiliated churches in Victoria.
The investigation has revealed this is part of a broader, decade-long campaign by ultra-conservative church groups to sign up followers to the Victorian Coalition and win control of safe seats.
Patrick and Clare McIvor have spoken out about their time inside the City Builders Church.
Renee has studiously refused to say whether she espouses the views of her church, part of a global religious network that equates homosexuality with the work of the devil and abortion with murder, nor has she said if she would push those views in parliament.
For its part, the Liberal Party has asked few questions about Renee Heath’s views. This week, Guy said he had not asked the candidate whether she supported or disavowed the City Builders’ views on abortion and gay rights.
City Builders follows a branch of Pentecostal Christianity that believes in physical displays of spirituality, such as exorcisms and speaking in tongues, which some ex-members say were weaponised and left them traumatised.
It also teaches dominionism, a Christian theology which seeks to “take over” and “conquer” the seven “mountains” of society: the family, religion, arts and entertainment, news, education, business and government – language the church insists is metaphorical.
Renee, her father, Pastor Brian, and the church declined multiple requests for interviews. But in a letter sent on Friday, lawyers for Brian and the church “categorically denied” any support for gay conversion therapy, discrimination against non-heterosexual people, or any role in arranging marriages or branch stacking.
Renee has said she finds it “insulting” to be equated with her father. But Clare and Patrick are confident her political campaign is part of a church-guided mission to thrust the Coalition to the right.
City Builders’ desire to influence politics also has religious experts urging scrutiny.
“Everyone should be able to speak within the public sphere,” Uniting Church minister and theology expert John Flett says.
“I’m a bit more worried about disguising your voice for some other purpose.”
A shining example
The Heath household was lively, but chaotic.
The family lived in a middle-class suburb of Sale, three hours east of Melbourne, but they were not rich. The children wore clothes from op shops and were expected to pay rent as soon as they could work.
All five children were home-schooled because of the parents’ scepticism towards the public education system, and Clare says gaining the attention of their parents was difficult. “I felt like I raised myself,” she says.
Renee Heath preaching for City Builders Church.
Renee was a tomboy who was great at sports but hated school. In high school, she dropped out to attend the local TAFE. She built a successful career as a chiropractor, but spirituality always came first.
Where Clare’s gift was music, Renee’s was public speaking. She was one of the few who was given permission to deliver full sermons in church on a Sunday, and those who listened said she was compelling. She had a gift.
The children were the public image of the family but also the church. Brian Heath was building a network of leaders, where members were required to be extroverts striving to spread Christian values to the top of their chosen field.
Heath delivered training sessions for church members, known as the School of Spiritual Advancement, teaching dominionism. The Heath children would attend all sessions, and Renee shone. “She was extraordinarily devout, a shining example of what we should be,” says Clare.
When Renee was a teenager, she travelled to Malaysia in 2007 for a year-long internship with the ISAAC (International Strategic Alliance of Apostolic Churches) Network, a global network of ultra-conservative churches which includes City Builders. It is headed by Jonathan David, a Malaysian preacher the City Builders call “Papa”.
Over the years, Renee has attended a number of ISAAC training courses and leadership conferences. Adverts for these courses use pseudo-Biblical language, claiming to teach participants how to build Christian nations and influence systems of power – language the church insists is metaphorical.
Renee would continue to attend ISAAC training into her adult life. As recently as last year, she was filmed smiling during a two-hour Facebook conference that encouraged attendees to be bold in reforming society towards conservative family values.
When it comes to policy issues, including abortion and gay rights, the views of the ISAAC Network churches, including City Builders, can be found in media interviews with church leaders. Brian Heath railed against the introduction of “radical, left-wing, anti-Christ laws” on a recent podcast, and vowed that he would “pray out” any local member who supported abortion.
“I could be in jail in a month. That’s the fact. I’m not trying to scare you,” Heath said in February last year, the same month gay conversion therapy was outlawed in Victoria.
Jonathan David delivered a sermon at Scott Morrison’s Horizon Church in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire in January 2019, where he called abortion the “spirit of death” and accused a mother who got a late-term abortion of having a “spirit of murder”.
It’s difficult to know what influence City Builders or the ISAAC training has on Renee’s politics because she has refused to speak publicly about it, and declined repeated questions about her position on core social policy issues. Brian Heath has also declined to answer questions about his current views, and what role he has played in Renee’s political career.
Lawyers representing City Builders and Brian Heath denied any discrimination against non-heterosexual people in a letter sent on Friday. “Our clients see their central role as supporting the spiritual life of their congregation. It is our clients’ view that sexuality is irrelevant to a person’s spirituality. Our clients, and the pastors of City Builders, do not involve themselves in the sexuality of their congregation.”
Jonathan and Helen David in Australia in 2014 with Brian Heath and Lynne McIvor.
But Patrick, who personally went through gay conversion practices and attended many of the same ISAAC leadership courses, says he believes the church’s intention is clear: consolidate power, influence policy and “cleverly weave” through questions to not have to reveal your church connections.
“The real question is, what is Renee’s position and why is she unwilling to say it?,” he says.
The inner circle
The church’s inner circle was known as the “covenant group” — between 20 and 30 church members who would meet at the Heaths’ family home for regular meetings. They would sprawl across the living room on cushions and chairs to discuss the church’s agenda and how they could exert influence in politics and business.
Patrick says the church’s work to consolidate power began with the National Party. He was an active branch member and serving local councillor when Brian Heath instructed him to start signing church members to the party.
Clare and Patrick McIvor with former Nationals leader Peter Ryan in Gippsland, November 2014.
Clare was the first Heath family member to seek public office, running as a Family First candidate in 2007. But it wasn’t until 2015 that the church’s political ambitions gained national attention, when it launched an orchestrated campaign to unseat Gippsland MP Darren Chester, the first Nationals MP to openly support same-sex marriage.
Patrick says Brian Heath told church members they would be “complete failures of human beings” if Chester was not disendorsed, and to this day Patrick feels ashamed by the tactics he used. “It was open war and it was personal,” he says.
Group text messages, obtained by this investigation, show the meticulous planning of the campaign – the Gippsland Times was flooded with letters opposing same-sex marriage, pushed by church members who worked at the paper. Quotes were planted in The Australian by disaffected members. But Patrick says it was “all smoke and mirrors” – there was no genuine backlash against Chester.
The planning continued into the church’s backing of the “no” campaign against same-sex marriage. Prominent church member Heidi McIvor became the face of the push to keep marriage “traditional”.
All this time, Brian Heath was in constant contact with ISAAC leader Jonathan David, getting him to approve the church’s campaigns.
In July 2015, David urged Patrick to remain in the National Party, despite the Chester “hiccup”, and use his position to “exert pressure from within to correct the decline of core values in the basic unit of society, the family”.
While the campaigns to unseat Chester and block same-sex marriage were ultimately unsuccessful, it was a turning point for Patrick and Clare, who saw the lengths to which the church leadership would go to achieve its aims.
“Patrick was the figurehead of an anti-gay rights campaign. And he’s gay,” Clare says. “That was a moment for us.”
Separated families, exorcisms
This investigation has interviewed more than 10 former church members, who describe being initially intoxicated by the church’s “love bombing”, but today live with psychological scars they attribute to their time in the church.
The ISAAC Network churches, including City Builders, follow Apostolic Pentecostalism, which centres on the belief that the pastor has special powers to connect the congregation directly to God. This spiritual expression can be harmless or beneficial for many practitioners. But it has the potential to have a devastating impact on some within churches with poor accountability and vulnerable parishioners.
Former church member James Dalton endured several experiences that left him with post-traumatic stress disorder and nightmares. When he first joined the church in the late 1990s, he was a teenager who had recently been drugged and raped by a friend’s father.
James Dalton is another City Builders members who has spoken out about the church’s methods. Credit:Justin McManus
The church has a concept called “the covering” which is believed to protect members from the dangers of society, though only if church members follow a strict set of rules in how they live. Dalton says a senior church figure told him the sexual assault would not have happened if he had been under “the covering” , and criticised him for going through the courts.
Later, church leaders discovered Dalton was in a same-sex relationship and initially subjected him to an exorcism – where he was encircled by church elders, who spoke in tongues to cast out “demons” of his sexuality. Then Dalton says he was encouraged to go to the Living Waters gay conversion therapy – a practice outlawed in Victoria in 2020.
But eventually, when the church discovered that Dalton had looked after one of his friend’s children, he was excommunicated. Today, Dalton does not work, and is “f—ed up on all levels”, but he speaks clearly about the impact of the church.
Another church member, Carrie Maya, also still lives with trauma from her time at the City Builders’ sister church in Morwell. Her family was going through a dark time when they joined the Christian Outreach Centre in 2006, seeking a supportive community.
But instead, she says now-deceased pastor Michelle Worthy prevented her from accessing medical support, turned Maya against her mother and fractured her family.
Siblings Akarna and Aiden Bowers were part of the church for more than a decade. “The church really controlled everything about your life, who you could see, speak to, read, the music you could listen to, how you could behave,” says Akarna, who ran as a Greens candidate for Wellington Shire Council in 2020.
Akarna Bowers says City Builders Church controlled all aspects of her life.Credit:Simon Schluter
Deciding to leave
Shortly after the Chester campaign, Patrick and Clare began discussing how many of the church’s members were depressed, anxious or suffering from psychosis. Eventually, they shared their concerns with Brian Heath about a perceived lack of accountability within the church.
“He exploded in rage at me,” Patrick says. “The idea that I would even question these things was just outrageous to him.”
For the first time, Patrick and Clare believed they were part of a harmful system. Patrick wanted to leave straight away. Clare initially wanted to stay and drive change from within. She is confident her sister won’t be the last church-appointed politician, and says she still holds love for her family, but is adamant the public needs to know what the church is really like. “I’ve witnessed so many young people be mistreated within the youth group, under the guise of discipleship,” Clare says.
Clare and Patrick McIvor are now amicably separated.Credit:Wayne Taylor
Patrick feels compelled to speak out for similar reasons. “A lot of people have been collateral damage for this church,” he says. “I just can’t say nothing.”
Political violence expert Tim Legrand says the danger in such groups inflating their power is they “draw from scripture conveniently” to deflect criticism of their views.
“Then they’ll say you can’t disrespect my beliefs, if you do so you’re insulting Christianity,” he says. “It’s powerful.”
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