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Some broke the rules, sneaking to the neighbours to watch TV, stayed up drinking Saturday nights and showed up at Sunday's 6am prayer meeting with a thick tongue and splitting headache.

Three-day religious conventions were a teen dating ground (that's where Diana, who grew up in Palmerston North, met Cambridge local Adrian).

It's the same in 40 towns around the country, from Gisborne to Cust.

New Zealand's Exclusive Brethren, who number fewer than 2000, operate about 800 small businesses, according to a political pamphlet they released in 2002.

I think there's a little bit of scaremongering going on.

You can only take people as they treat you." So at first pass, hardly the Machiavellian, freakish, hostile weirdos you might expect from all the reports.

Though their businesses bring them into daily contact with non-Brethrens, Brethren rules forbid socialising with "worldly" outsiders. The main gospel hall in Dargaville resembles a converted factory, with narrow frosted windows on one side only.

"There were real pissheads in there: they drink heaps, it's the only thing you're allowed to do." But there were no "worldly" friends over to play, no going to the worldly kids' parties, no overnight school camps, no inter-school sports.

A measure of their influence - and the working tolerance they've won - is the wariness locals show about saying anything bad of them.

Says one happy Anglican employee of a Brethren business: "They've got their beliefs, that's fine.

Says Diana: "To this day my parents are heartbroken, because they can't have anything to do with us. If our kids were to see my husband's parents in the street, they'd say 'Hello', and 30 seconds later it would be 'I best be on my way'." Life as an Exclusive Brethren had its good sides.

My kids don't know their grandparents as grandparents. Diana: "I had a great family life, I loved Mum and Dad and my brothers." With no TV or stereo, most kids learnt to play instruments and played together.

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