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Charting destiny

Destiny: The Life and Times of a Self-Made Apostle by Peter Lineham (Penguin, $38)
Reviewed by Judith Nathan

Destiny-001 Massey University’s Peter Lineham was the obvious choice to write a book about the Destiny church. Often sought as a media commentator on religious topics including Destiny Church, Associate Professor Lineham has had a long career as a historian of religion in New Zealand. With an impressive list of publications, he is well qualified to analyse Destiny in a wider social and religious context, and he has done so very competently.

In the publicity surrounding the release of this book, much has been made of the high degree of access the author had to the Tamakis and members of their church, despite Lineham being openly gay. Lineham himself was surprised. Moreover, Brian Tamaki has been quite complimentary about most of the book’s content, though it is no hagiography.

It’s interesting to read about Brian’s and Hannah Tamaki’s careers from an unbiased source that is not seeking to sensationalise. Brian Tamaki was a minister in the Apostolic church from 1985 until 1994, when he broke away. Lineham draws attention to the irony of Tamaki taking his Rotorua congregation out of the Apostolic church – in protest at the lack of local autonomy – and then creating an even more centralised church structure.

Despite its title, the book’s focus is the church (examined largely thematically) more than its bishop, though the two cannot be separated. Several established Pentecostal congregations rapidly shifted allegiance to Destiny. Destiny itself quickly set up brand new congregations, not all of which lasted very long. It is therefore hard to keep track of the range and size of the church over time. A graph showing the number of branches (17 in 2005, including Christchurch, Nelson, Brisbane and Wellington as well as several other North Island centres) and the number of pastors (55 in 2005) and of members (if an estimate was possible) would have been enlightening. The chapter about the branches and the numerous pastors and supporters involved, all carefully footnoted, jumps around in time somewhat. For example we learn about the dismissal of the Wellington pastor before we read of the Wellington branch’s establishment. This chapter begs for a map with dates.

Other chapters describe the wide variety of Destiny initiatives over its short history and topics such as its theology, moralising, Pentecostal context, politics, and relations with the media. A timeline listing, for example, the year of the breakaway (1994), the adoption of the Destiny name (1998), the establishment and decline of Destiny TV, the establishment of the early childhood centre (2002) and Destiny School (2003), the rise and demise of the political party (2003-2005), the infamous “Enough is Enough” march in Wellington (2004), and the assumption of the title of bishop (2005) would have helped readers track the interrelationships and provide an overall perspective.

In a Radio NZ interview, Lineham estimated a peak of about 12,000-13,000 Destiny members. Currently it is about 6000. He attributes this partly to a switch from national to more focussed growth, one of several changes of direction initiated by Tamaki over the years. Its relocation across Auckland from Mt Wellington (where it could draw on both European and Maori communities) to Manukau, South Auckland reflected a conscious shift to becoming more of a Maori church.

The tone of the book varies, with some chapters quite academic in their approach while others are more personal. Lineham is most critical of Destiny in the chapters on finance. He condemns the “Prosperity theology” that underpins the pastors’ high salaries and the generous annual gifts to the Tamakis (the latter being declared as income to IRD so as to avoid risking the church’s charitable status).

Lineham concludes that Tamaki has an unshakable belief in his role as a conduit between God and his church. He finds Destiny troubling in many ways, but sees no evidence of corruption. For all the weaknesses he reveals about the church, Lineham acknowledges that Destiny has turned a lot of lives around.