Curiosity about changes to a historic building, an interest in a ‘religion’ (cult?) and the “Oh No, Ross & Carrie” podcast led me to a rather strange place. I attended the opening of the Auckland Scientology Real Org on January 22 2017.
I wrote most of this post at the time but withheld publishing to see if there was any follow up from the Scientologists. They have a reputation for their eagerness to attract new members and reluctance to losing existing ones. Well over a year later apart from one rather odd text, and me noticing them campaigning in public places around the Org, there has been nothing.
They went there, so I had to!
Ross & Carrie’s podcast tag line is “We show up so you don't have to” and they attend organisations/groups/religions making extraordinary or paranormal claims to report on what they find. They go in with a sceptical view but I really like their open-minded, gentle and generally fair approach. Given some of the bizarre topics they have looked into that is a pretty difficult standard to maintain. In 2016 they released a series of podcasts (see links in the extended post below) about Scientology which were the result of several years of investigation. They went there and after listening to the series I was curious when Scientology relaunched in Auckland with the opening of a new facility.
New Zealand was the first country to have a Scientology church outside of the United States in the mid 1950s. It does hold a very unique place in the history of Scientology on a global scale and the new National Church of Scientology opening was a significant event for the organisation.
My other reason for attending was just to see what the Scientologists had done to renovate their new, historic, home. It was built in 1844, so ancient for New Zealand!, as a Methodist Theological College but has had multiple occupants over the years. I had been in there several decades ago when the building was being used by a private art college (and was pretty run down) and wondered how well the restoration had turned out.
Attending the opening
I met a couple of Skeptic friends and we went together, safety in numbers?! Mark (then Chairman of NZ Skeptics, now media spokesperson) who co-hosts a regular spot on RadioLive (Skeptical Thoughts part of the Sunday Weekend Variety Wireless) and has a long history of active investigation. Craig (then Secretary of NZ Skeptics, now Chairperson) made more of an effort to fit in than both of us by dressing up in a suit and tie on a hot summer afternoon!
On approaching the building, looking for a carpark on the busy street, we were directed by Scientology ‘staff’ to a nearby Wilson Parking building. It appeared they had reserved the whole place, not inexpensive even on a Saturday!
As we walked back to the venue we passed Guy Williams (of the Jono & Ben Show) and camera crew miking up someone, short statured and wearing a suit, with the instruction ‘You say you’re Tom Cruise, and you are here for the opening’. From what I heard they didn’t get anywhere near getting in!
There was a brief registration process (contact details hand written on a form) before entry was allowed. I gave my mobile and a valid, but not my primary, email details with some trepidation as to how they might be used! Apart from validating you had registered there appeared to be no more security at the entry than you would expect at any private event. Inside was another story with many suited church officials, easily identified by their earbud/mics, monitoring the venue.
We were welcomed into the courtyard behind the main building. It was already pretty full with a large seated area in front of a temporary stage. The AV rig and production suite was impressive. Multiple cameras (towers, booms and fixed/roaming ground) and lots of ‘official’ still photographers. I later heard the media production was all supposed to be run by international Scientology ‘staff’ but locals had to be contracted at short notice due to working visa problems.
Feeling a bit out of place (albeit no more than I would in a cathedral!) I wondered if we had been rumbled when one of the staff immediately approached us. We were asked to stand on some stairs off to one side, quite near the stage (see video screenshot below). Their reason was the white’ish concrete of the stairs was upsetting the cameras but I think they were just trying to fill a blank looking gap. It meant we had to stand for the entire ceremony but also gave a really good vantage point to see the whole production, both on stage and what was going on in the off-stage surroundings.
It began with a Mâori welcome followed by musical performances and a series of speakers. All were enthusiastically received by the audience, strong applause and standing ovations from many/most. I was as interested in the production going on to capture this. Several roving cameras supplemented the fixed and boom cameras. In addition several official roaming still photographers were snapping away.
The local speakers
I only knew of one of the local speakers featured (see the press release following this post) prior to the event. While I have never met Robin Byron, architect advisor with Heritage New Zealand, it was their involvement in the restoration which first caught my attention. She spoke about the Churches work with Heritage NZ bringing a neglected and significant building back to life. It was reported they had invested $16 million in the headquarters which suggests a sizeable international contribution as their numbers in New Zealand are pretty small (a few hundred in the last census). Certainly there were lots of international visitors in the audience from (by those I spoke to and overheard) the USA, Australia and Asia (mostly Japan).
While I had not heard of the other speakers there were some troubling common themes. They spoke of community work, with government and volunteer community organisations, using Church of Scientology sponsored drug education methods and tools. While they were extremely genuine and dedicated to improving their communities I find Scientology being involved in that, presented as ‘treatment’ rather than a faith, concerning and it appears I’m not alone in this.
The highlight of the opening, certainly for the loyal Scientologists, was the appearance of David Miscavige, “the ecclesiastical leader of the Scientology religion”. His arrival was preceded by a noticeable heightening of alertness from the security team, much pressing of ear pieces to ears!
I was impressed to see him, it was far from certain he would be there. From what Ross & Carrie said it is something many Scientologists aspire to but don’t achieve. I was glad to have heard the ONRAC podcasts and have a general idea of how the ‘religion’ works because David’s speech was full of Scientology jargon. I didn’t record it but this is an example via The Spinoff:
“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 looked and sounded like a very charismatic salesman presenting the next great multi-level marketing scheme which would transform your life. Of interest in the passage above is the implication you could reach the heights of achievement, OT7, in less than a year.
A later conversation with a church member would present another, more realistic, view of that. Auckland Journalist David Farrier, who was ‘ejected’ despite or perhaps because was once a Scientologist himself, provided a full ‘interpretation’ of the speech in The Spinoff:
David’s speech met, of course, rapturous applause and yet another standing ovation.
Local Church organisers were thanked for their contribution to the, impressive, facility and opening ceremony before the giant ribbon surrounding the building (anchored by a huge rosette) was ‘cut’.
After the formalities we were invited to look around the building and enjoy their hospitality.
This was really what I had come to see. I think it was the 80s last time I was there and it had the look of a rather tired repurposed institutional building back then. The renovation was superb with high quality materials and an obviously expensive fit-out. Beyond the reception (the building is open to all) there is an Information Centre, Book & Media store, Tuition and Counselling rooms, a Purification Centre (gym and sauna), Training Academy (for Auditors), Chapel, Café, Admin and Ron L. Hubbard’s office. That last one may seem odd, given he died in 1986, but every Org has an office (below) ready and waiting for Ron L. Hubbard’s return.
The rooms were decorated with logos, art and media produced by the church. They use some of the latest technology (including CNC machining, 3D printing) to fit-out their facilities. This is a well resourced operation!
The building is set up to handle lots of people and was packed for the opening. This was a strange contrast to the high quality 66 page booklet, made to celebrate the opening. It features photos of the Auckland Org, and many others around the world, but no people at all! It has a rather other worldly feel of sci-fi movie sets waiting for the actors to arrive.
While looking around the building we took the opportunity to try out one of the E-meters Scientology teaches helps to locate spiritual difficulties. It certainly responded to being held in different grips, or strength of grip, as measures changes to electrical resistance. Beyond that it was apparent these novice users would gain little enlightenment beyond a purely physical response.
The rooms were manned by church members and they were happy to talk. One, who had come from Australia for the opening explained the various levels of enlightenment illustrated in a poster. It was apparent his progression through the levels was far from the linear and rapid one David Miscavige spoke of. Any weakness, emotional or physical illness, meant you dropped down levels and had to invest more time (and money) to regain your former ‘enlightenment’. It seems like a spiritual game of snakes & ladders which takes years, decades, to play. There was one sign in the Org which maybe wasn’t in jest:
The event was covered by national TV News, newspapers and current affairs websites. Scientology has a long history in NZ but is a fairly small organisation. This facility has certainly upped their profile.
- Scientology's multi-million dollar headquarters to open in NZ - www.nzherald.co.nz
- An inside look at Auckland's new Church of Scientology - www.nzherald.co.nz
- Church of Scientology's supreme leader David Miscavige in Auckland for opening of new headquarters – Stuff.co.nz
- Scientology security stalks 'untrustworthy media' at new HQ – Newshub
- See the extended post below for the Churches full press release
One reason this post has taken so long to appear is I wondered what the follow up would be. I provided valid contact details on the registration forms. It wasn’t my primary email address but was one I use for many newsletters, subscriptions etc.
I hadn’t heard at all from the church since the opening, which really has surprised me, until Saturday April 22nd 2017 when a rather odd text arrived:
http://www.dianeticsnz.com/ THIS will change YOURSELF , your CHOOSE and your WORLD !
Other than that I have had nothing more. Craig also had no follow-up but Mark (who is not Auckland based) has kept in touch with the church. He has been studying their material, I think academic rather than spiritual interest!
Just a coincidence!
In mid-May 2017 I was cycling into town, to the Big Bike Film night, and saw this vehicle broken down by the motorway. Seems even Ron’s powers can’t overcome Fix Or Repair Daily reliability!
If nothing else Scientology have contributed a superb restoration of a landmark Auckland building. The event, the speeches and the general feel was as odd as I expected but the people I spoke to were nice. We weren’t the only non-believers there, spoke to several others incredulous about the event, but we were far outnumbered by the faithful. It was amusing that some people standing by us, also non-members, thought we part of the organisation largely thanks to Craig’s suit!
In the year since I haven’t noticed any change in the profile of Scientology. Based on my personal experience they certainly aren’t chasing new members. Perhaps they did some research and decided not to bother, who knows?
More resources follow in the extended post.
“Ross and Carrie Audit Scientology” Podcasts:
Have a listen to the podcasts which led me to the opening. Ross & Carrie went there, in their case the LA Org, I had to too!
Related follow-up episodes”
Ross and Carrie Do It Over (Part 1): Burnt Foot Edition (review includes comment on the Scientology series)
The official material from Scientology
The Auckland opening was mentioned in this official press release posted on their own site and by several news bureaus/feeds. We are in the photo standing in front of the hedge on the left, just under the ribbon hanging off the building!
Press Release - January 22, 2017 11:08AM EST
A Treasured Landmark Reborn—Scientology Opens New Church Atop Auckland
Auckland celebrates grand opening of new National Church of Scientology for New Zealand at landmark site overlooking the city.
Auckland, New Zealand, January 22, 2017 (Newswire.com) - Spirituality. Heritage. Tradition. History. Education. Learning. These are pillars on which rests Scientology’s new Ideal Org of New Zealand, where Scientologists locally and from across the Pacific gathered with friends and supporters on Saturday, January 21, to inaugurate the rebirth of the second oldest Church of Scientology in the world.
Overlooking the city and Auckland’s magnificent Waitemata Harbor, the local historic site and cherished landmark, preserved and restored beautifully by the Church in cooperation with local architects and preservationists, is a resurrection of what was once home to spiritual training for clergy and religious scholars for nearly a half century.
The historic site, originally established in 1844, was later expanded in 1927—90 years ago this year—as Trinity Methodist Theological College to train theologians of the Christian faith, who later carried their missions throughout the Pacific Rim. In its new incarnation, as a spiritual center for Scientologists of all New Zealand, it brings full circle the ideas of faith and spirituality under the tenets of Scientology’s goals of a world free of war and want, and committed to humanitarian aims.
So it was, on Saturday, January 21, the new Church of Scientology opened its doors to their beautiful and meticulously restored facility for what will be not only the Church’s spiritual mission, but its vigorous outreach efforts in anti-drug and humanitarian programs that have already been at work in the nation for decades.
David Miscavige, the ecclesiastical leader of the Scientology religion, led the dedication ceremony to officially open the doors of the new Ideal Org. In his dedication address, Mr. Miscavige spoke to the significance of the opening and the possibilities afforded every Aucklander.
“We do not regard Ideal Org buildings as buildings, per se. Rather, we regard our buildings as ‘vessels for life’ and the living, breathing fabric of their communities. Consequently, when we bring spiritual beings back to life by restoring their own sense of spirituality—so an Ideal Org itself comes to life. And so we thank Auckland for allowing us to serve as custodians of an Ideal Org that’s just as much New Zealand’s as ours.”
The opening of the Church brings together a spirit of community cooperation, and Scientology’s commitment that has already been demonstrated by helping preserve the heritage of Auckland’s Grafton neighborhood, and returning the building to its former grandeur, what local community members describe as honoring an “unbroken heritage as a place of enlightenment and spiritual knowledge.”
Local state and community leaders and individuals involved in a number of Scientology secular humanitarian missions spoke at Saturday’s grand opening, making note of the significance of the Church’s ever-expanding mission within the country.
Robin Byron, architect advisor with Heritage New Zealand, told the several thousand participants at the opening that the melding of past and present offers “a particularly satisfying parallel, that as first conceived for the purpose of religious learning and guidance, this historic landmark is now experiencing a spiritual renaissance as the new home of the Church of Scientology in Auckland.
“Your dedication in taking on the restoration of this heritage jewel has been very memorable,” she said. “The building had seen many years of neglect and so this endeavor represented no small commitment. But you appreciated the richness of the history within these walls, caring for the precious materials and their fine craftsmanship.”
From the red brick and white Oamaru stone fabric used across the façade, to the restoration of delicately finished oak in the entrance hall and library, and preservation of rimu timber paneling and jarrah wood flooring, she noted, the work has set the facility apart as a work of art itself.
But it represents far more to a community that has seen the Church’s human rights, social justice and anti-drug programs make a difference already in the lives of young people and adults in Auckland and which will expand through the combined efforts of hundreds of volunteers and staff working from the Church’s new home base in New Zealand.
Yvonne Galvin, advisor to New Zealand’s Youth Crime Prevention program, said she sees new opportunities from the Church’s expansion. “Today, my cause is taking care of youth at risk,” she told the assembled guests. “When I first joined the system and I saw how youth were being treated, I said to myself: ‘I’ve got to find out something about human rights.’ But I couldn’t find anybody doing anything about it.
“Then I heard of the Church of Scientology and your volunteers,” she said. “So, I drove across town to find you, and when I did, I remember I told you: ‘I want that rights program that you do!’ And that’s how we started a united movement to teach human rights to Auckland youth.”
That work has had parallels for Thomas Henry, an advisor to the New Zealand police and a tireless advocate against the abuse of psychiatric medications and for responsible mental health care in the country. “I deal with families who have been promised the easy ‘solution’ of psychiatric drugs and labels as a quick fix,” he said.
“And ultimately they are left dependent and further in trouble. I’ve seen this my entire life. In my experience, all too often the real reasons behind mental and spiritual issues are ignored. The actual problem is that people don’t know anything about psychiatry and mental health until it affects them personally,” he noted. “But after finding Citizens Commission on Human Rights, we were no longer left in the dark. Because, there is a voice in the dark, it leads to the light, and that voice is CCHR.”
Mereana Peka, chairperson of the prestigious Maori Wardens Charitable Trust, South Auckland, perhaps summed the meaning of the day best. “Every member of the Church of Scientology I have worked with has a focus on healing our world. I believe it is the Scientologists that are the living resource of your movement. It’s not easy to express my gratitude to people who save lives every day. But I personally know every one of you has helped change this part of the world. And together, with this Ideal Org, that change will reach every community of our island nation.”
The spiritual and educational background of these new grounds—the building was also home to New Zealand state educational apparatus in the 1970s, and once housed a design and art school as well—will see in the restored Church facility a revival of opportunities to continue learning, teaching and spiritual outreach.
The first Church of Scientology in New Zealand opened in 1955, and its growth and expansion in the more than 60 years since has been a realization of Founder L. Ron Hubbard’s vision for the Church and its work within the region.
The new Auckland Church provides visitors with an introduction to Dianetics and Scientology, beginning with the Public Information Center. Its displays, containing more than 500 films, present the beliefs and practices of the Scientology religion and the life and legacy of Founder L. Ron Hubbard.
The Information Center also offers a detailed overview of the many Scientology-supported humanitarian programs. These include a worldwide human rights education initiative; a far-reaching drug education, prevention and rehabilitation program; a global network of literacy and learning centers; and the Scientology Volunteer Minister program, now representing the world’s largest independent relief force.
Auckland’s Ideal Organization also features a Chapel that provides for Scientology congregational gatherings, including Sunday services, weddings and naming ceremonies, as well as a host of community-wide events open to members of all denominations. The facility further includes multiple seminar rooms and classrooms, in addition to an entire floor dedicated to Scientology auditing (spiritual counseling).
As the first grand opening of 2017, the Auckland opening continues an explosive growth period for the Church in the past 12 months. And more is on the way, with openings in the coming year planned for cultural epicenters in Africa, Europe, the United Kingdom and North America.
Read the article on the Scientology website.