The 15 elders of a Presbyterian Church cult known as the Fellowship who were excommunicated last year have appealed to the church's highest authority to reinstate them.
The General Assembly of Australia will hold the first special meeting in its 106-year history in Sydney next month to hear the appeals, which could cause deep division in the Australian church.
In February last year, the presbytery of Melbourne East expelled the 15 elders from Trinity Presbyterian Church for failing to carry out their duties. The elders appealed to the Victorian assembly in October, but failed.
That was the culmination of a 10-year battle to rid the church of the cult, which exercises control over members and has cut off contact between people who leave and family members who remain.
Canterbury Presbyterian Church minister Grant Lawry, one of the leaders in the battle to expel the Fellowship, said that if the appeals were upheld it would be a huge affront, not just to the presbytery but to the Victorian assembly.
"It potentially drives a wedge between Victoria and the rest of Australia, all because of a lack of understanding of this cult," he said.
Trinity minister Phil Mercer said he would not discuss the matter with The Age.
Now led by Bruce Teele, former head of stockbroker J. B. Were, the Fellowship hid itself in Anglican and Presbyterian churches for decades. Members left the Anglican church to consolidate in three Presbyterian churches — Trinity, Clayton and Mount Evelyn — but were forced out of Mount Evelyn in 2002.
Mr Lawry said the Victorian assembly strongly upheld the presbytery in excommunicating the elders, and he hoped the national assembly would too. If not, the matters would probably be sent back to the presbytery.
"The great hope of people in the (wider) church is that the cult will leave and set up their own church, but there's no sign of that," Mr Lawry said.