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Tom Tilley grew up in a strict Pentecostal Church. Here's how he got out.

The first time Tom Tilley noticed his family wasn't like other families was when he visited his relatives.

"Mum's family, which are in Wellington, half an hour from Dubbo - they weren't in the church. One of her brothers was and then her three other siblings weren't. So them and their families weren't in the church. They did things like drink alcohol, which we didn't do, or they smoked. And they didn't come to our church," Tilley tells No Filter host Mia Freedman.

"And so they were close, but I could feel a bit of a separation. And then I guess when I got to school [I started realising just how different we were]. Kindergarten, year one, year two joining sporting teams, meeting the other kids, going and staying at their houses... I noticed they weren't on this kind of schedule."

Tilley, who grew up in Mudgee in regional New South Wales, belonged to a fundamentalist Pentecostal church established in Melbourne in the 1950s called Revival Centres. His childhood "schedule" consisted of a full day of Sunday worship - the main service for two hours, followed by a lunch break, then the afternoon service for another hour and a half. Then there were the two house services during the week - mostly Wednesdays and Fridays - which lasted about an hour.

At both the weeknight and Sunday services, there would be preaching by the pastor (who also happened to be Tilley's father), singing church songs, clapping, guitar-playing... and praying in tongues.

Listen to Mia Freedman's full interview with Tom Tilley on the No Filter podcast below. Post continues after audio.


"Our church interpreted this part of the Bible - in the book of Acts, where people speak out in tongues - as the kind of blueprint for salvation; that you had to have almost the same experience as those people did 2000 years ago to prove that you had the Holy Spirit and were therefore saved," Tilley explains.

As can be imagined, the pressure to speak in tongues was high for everyone in the church. Tilley's younger brother had actually started speaking in tongues when he was seven years old, so there was added pressure for Tilley to catch up.

"I was 10 years old when I think I received [the Holy Spirit]," Tilley recalls. "I was praying. It was in this cabin before all us kids went to sleep. In the months leading up to that, I'd had this feeling when I was praying, like there was this warmth in my chest that seemed to correspond with some of the stories I'd heard from other people's experiences. So I'm like, 'Oh, I think it might be coming soon'. 

"And then I felt this change in my tongue. I'm repeating these syllables; we basically were told to repeat hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah. And that would sort of evolve into something that was God given. And so I felt there was a distinct change in my tongue, where it sort of loosened up and became free."

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Then one night, at a prayer meeting, a seed of doubt began to creep in.

"I heard my brother praying in tongues and I'm like, 'Oh, it's so annoying. Sounds so fake'. And I started getting really frustrated. Because if his is fake, maybe mine's fake. And like, what if other people are faking it here? What if we're all faking it? My mind started to spiral to this dark place. I'm tensing up. And I ended up literally seething," Tilley says.

"And my dad stopped the prayer meeting and goes, 'Is everyone okay, is someone crying?' And I just stopped, went silent, kept my head down. The room goes back into prayer. And I just sort of try and calm down. But that was the moment where the doubt started to really twist in my stomach.

"I didn't voice this doubt for 10 years. From the age of 10 to the age of 20."

Amongst the teachings of the church were that gay people would go to hell and women should serve their husbands. Sex could not happen outside of marriage. 

In 1995, when Tilley was 14, the rules became stricter.

"I can almost quote it. It was, 'If couples touch each other's private parts, they are committing themselves to marriage'. And then the heavier rule - it was so intense when they used to read it out - was: 'Couples who fornicate outside of marriage will be permanently banned from the church'," he says.

"So the church split in half over that rule. Because one half stood up to the head pastor and said, 'That's a step too far. What if it happens to our children?' 

"My dad chose loyalty over policy. He stuck with the original leader and also some of the personalities that stuck with the leader. And at the time, it occurred to me that he was taking the tougher route and this might undo us at some point in the future. But I was still like, Plan A was to save myself for marriage... I'm planning to be a devout follower of Christ and follow the rules of the church to have a full life, a beautiful marriage one day, to be a positive, contributing member to this church."

Tom Tilley being baptised by his father. Image: Supplied. 

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After leaving high school, Tilley moved into the city to go to university. It was here that things really began to change.

"In my uni years, I had to join the Sydney Assembly. So I came down to Macquarie Uni and I felt lonely for the first time. I wasn't in a big family anymore," he says.

"In Mudgee, I had my dad as the pastor and he gave me a fair bit of leeway. But the Sydney church had strict rules. The pastor - Pastor Ian - was very black and white about the rules and how much involvement we needed to have in the church. So that's where I started to run into big trouble with the church.

"But just before finishing uni, and starting my first full time job, I got a break and also won some money in an essay competition at uni. Suddenly got it into my head, 'I think I'm meant to travel'. So this trip to Europe, I go on my own, never felt so low or lonely, as sort of just arriving in LA and not knowing what to do.

"But then having to meet people and then these amazing adventures unfold - the classic backpacker story - and end up driving through Europe with these Spanish ravers who squat in London, but are going home to see their family, take me with them. Just staying on people's couches in Paris and the Pyrenees... It's just wild and it's like, 'I like this'."

Even though he felt a bit conflicted, he pushed through it. 

"I'd grown up thinking that God was always above me, watching me. So I sort of changed my thinking on that trip. I thought, 'Alright, if I can answer to myself, and to God, I'm going to feel OK'," Tilley says.

"So I can break the smaller rules but maybe not the big ones. And it was enough to give me a bit more freedom and express a different part of myself. I'd sort of been this careful, conscientious, older brother. I had the wild, funny, younger brother."

Although he had changed intrinsically on the trip, he did not leave the church straightaway.

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"A few days after I got back, it was my 21st birthday. So everyone came to my house in Manly - people had flown in from Melbourne and Brisbane to be there," Tilley tells No Filter.

"And I looked around, and I thought, 'It's not going to be that simple'. You know, these people love me. Yes, they're all kind of stuck in this rules-based order as well. But I walk away and what have I got? I'm starting from scratch, into this sort of dark unknown. And that was pretty scary and paralysing. In the abstract of travelling overseas, you're sort of full of euphoria. But then when you're back, it's real life."

Things escalated when Tilley and his brother Sam decided to go to the Mardi Gras, Sydney's biggest gay and lesbian festival.

"It sounded fun; that was that simple. And we knew it was against the church's rules," he says. "But I had just been in street parties in Barcelona and experienced what that big, wild, public life can be and I was like, 'Wow, that's been happening here in Australia the whole time'. I just hadn't been looking for it or allowed to go.

"It was great. We hit Hyde Park. There's just people everywhere. They're swimming in the pool of remembrance. My brother starts pashing a random. Then we just bolt up Oxford Street. The parade had just finished and people are setting up DJ decks and speakers. There's parties all over the place. We just start dancing with people. Then it starts raining. There's a drumming circle in Taylor square. Then the riot police come in with their horses. They're pushing people around.

"And we're just like, 'This is awesome'. Hands in the air, dancing away. We're meeting people. I'm like, 'This is how I want to live. And it's here in Australia. I don't have to go overseas for it'."

Somehow the brothers got caught out by the church and were immediately suspended.

"I was stoked. I thought, 'Great. This is my ticket out. I don't have to have the front on conversations with my parents'," Tilley says. "It's like, 'These hardline passes. How ridiculous, kicking me out for going to the Mardi Gras. That's it. See you later. I'm out'.

"I was a lot more calculated [than my brother]. I went into it knowing that it was the wrong thing to do in the eyes of the pastors. And that if we were found out, I would happily, very happily in this case, wear the consequences. Whereas he hadn't thought about it. So it came as a shock. He hadn't really processed what it meant. So he was really worried. He burst into tears. When we called mum and dad, he was really worried about disappointing them."

Once out of the church, the brothers started having a good time. They felt more free and easy about meeting people and doing things. They could be themselves, and not feel locked in or embarrassed by rigid schedules.

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"And then they drew Sam back in and I said 'No, I'm not coming back'. But then this intense moment, that I now realise was manipulation, occurred," he says.

"There was this one guy who took it upon himself to really try and rein my brother Sam and I in. And so he'd been talking to us for a year or so. Knowing that we were unhappy with certain elements of the church. He could feel it, he could sense it. And he goes, 'You guys can be part of the positive change. You can be leaders here'.

"He goes, 'I want to meet up and talk with you'. I was like, 'No, I don't want to meet up with you. Like, I'm done with this. I'm out'. He goes, 'Oh, you're not closing off, are you?' And my whole philosophy was about opening up. So he'd kind of pegged me on that I didn't want to close off. I wanted to take things on their merits. So if he had something to say that was of merit, I would hear it. 

"... I still wanted to have a powerful spiritual experience. So I came back in, and I tried to give everything. I tried to bring friends to the church. I did all this stuff. I tried to bring this girl from Europe, Anna, to the church. Then she came out to visit, wasn't allowed to stay in my house, but did, and then that's when it blew up a second time with the church.

"They kicked me out of my own share house. The first time I left after Mardi Gras, it was happy days. This time, it kicked me in the guts and I felt completely lost. And I've never felt stress, dislocation and anxiety like I did at that time."

At that time, Tilley was 21, still a virgin, and still playing by all the rules of the church.

"Basically, I had to just slowly work myself out of that darkness and build my own confidence back and work out what I truly believed in," he says, reflectively. "And that took two years. And that was just the first part of it. That was getting back to zero of working out what I want and where I want to go. Let alone starting the journey of the life I want to lead."

Tilley then took his time to really think about his future. He worked in investment banking in London. He came back to Australia. He went to churches all around Australia, including an Anglican church in Manly, trying to see if any other religious doctrines worked for him.

"So after going through all these churches, and finding one that I felt was a good church, I actually realised, when you boil down all the ridiculous stuff around speaking in tongues, and all the stuff we'd grown up with, that it really was just about believing in Jesus. He's the son of God, you know, the crucifixion, resurrection, all of that. Repent for your sins, believe in Him, and you're a Christian," Tilley says.

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"I was like, 'Oh look, if it's really that simple, I don't know if I believe in it'. And it's like, I don't. I don't. I just don't. I don't believe in the creation story. I don't believe in that sort of literal interpretation that he was the son of God on earth, and that he was crucified and went up to heaven. I just can't buy it. And it was, 'Wow, that means I'm not a Christian'.

"And I checked myself internally, because I was used to this kind of doubt and shame spirals, when I would have these thoughts. I was like, 'I'm not feeling that dissonance with this'. This feels simple, it feels settled. I don't feel tension with this idea. I feel calm and clear about it. So I'd actually completely sorted out what I believed in.

"And I walked out of that church in Manly, knowing I wasn't a Christian. And I'd never truly believed it. And that was a strange, surprising twist, and ultimately, a moment of clarity for me."

He still waited for two years to have sex.

"It wasn't so much about God being in the room. It was about my family. And that because of the rules of the church of permanent excommunication, once I fornicated, there was no way back," Tilley says. "So I wanted to feel really confident in where I was going before I pulled up the drawbridge from my family."

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Luckily, he was able to still keep in touch with his family, despite no longer being part of the church.

"We stayed connected. It was tense, it was awkward, we saw things differently. Dad was telling [Sam and I] that we were spinning our tires in life, and that we weren't, you know, achieving anything," Tilley reveals.

"Sam had also left the church. I left and he stayed in and actually pushed back on me for a while there, which was very awkward, because it wasn't the way our dynamic worked. But he ended up fornicating and getting booted out and that was that was hard for me to watch. I'm super sensitive to his vulnerability because we're so close.

"So Dad's like, 'You're wasting your life, you need to be part of something and building. I'm trying to change things from the inside'. So he criticised us, and there was a distance and an awkwardness, but we were still family."

Tilley, now 41, has a partner and a little baby boy. He is a journalist who has worked at Triple J and interviewed everyone from the Prime Minister to David Attenborough. He has written about his experience of growing up in a strict Pentecostal church in his book Speaking in Tongues.

In his book, he reveals that his entire family has now left the church.

"I went out not expecting anyone else to leave," he tells No Filter. "I went out, accepting that it could be just me. And that's what was so hard about it. And that's what's what's important to keep in mind in hindsight now that the family's united. I didn't necessarily think it would go that way."

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As for his relationship with God?

"I don't believe in God. I think that there is undescribable awesomeness in the world around us and inside of us, something that science could never explain, because it's too magical and too beautiful. But I don't have an explanation for it. And I don't mind that. Don't need one. Don't need to oversimplify things like a lot of religions do," Tilley says.

"I think that's that's where our spirits can soar in a way, in the possibility of why on earth we're here. And it allows you to keep this open mind about how much of our existence we don't understand."

Speaking in Tongues by Tom Tilley is available now.

For more No Filter, go to mamamia.com.au/podcasts/no-filter.

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