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Celebration Church leader accused of hate speech and exploitation breaks silence

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A church leader accused of persistent hate speech and exploiting members for thousands of dollars in tithes and unpaid weekly labor – has told parishioners he has no intention of stepping down.

Celebration Center Church.
Photo: RNZ / Belinda McCammon

Eleven former members of the Christchurch-based Celebration Center Church have now contacted RNZ, backing up the allegations.

Addressing a congregation last night, Pastor Murray Watkinson hit out at this week’s controversy and the fact that church leaders Arise and Gloriavale also accused of exploitation had resigned in recent weeks.

“They’re having a little trouble at Celebration but I’m stepping in, not stepping down, not backing down from this garbage,” he said.

“I’m not laying down my guns, lowering the mic or stepping out…Let’s go, let’s go now. Now is the time, because God is going to give us a real victory.”

He did not respond to repeated requests for comment from RNZ.

Charity Services has confirmed that 203 complaints have been made against Celebration in the last five years, more than any other charity in Aotearoa.

Most of the complaints refer to hate speech.

Pastor Murray Watkinson has been accused of making fun of mixed-race, bisexual and transgender people and te reo Māori in past sermons.

Celebration Center Church.

Charities Services has confirmed that 203 complaints have been filed against Celebration Center Church over the past five years.
Photo: RNZ / Belinda McCammon

Last night transgender people were again insulted while preaching, a video online showed.

Members had been continually told to continue tithing and serving over the past week – the word the church uses for volunteer work.

But former members told RNZ they believe the church should be stripped of its charitable status, which allows its businesses, such as nursery schools and a cafe, to make money by tax free.

In an online sermon, Watkinson spoke to church members about the media interest last Sunday and suggested they should reject it.

“Even they will make fun of that in the papers and that, the reality is that when you have discipline, and you begin to tithe your income and give, and so in the purposes of God, you prosper. They will say ‘oh the church is manipulating saying if you give, you know, you will advance.’ If you give, you will advance. The church does not lie, they lie. Scripture does not lie.

The media that contacted him had “lost hope, they’ve lost sight of God”, he said.

The latest financial reports from Celebration Center Group show the church received more than $1.1 million in tithes and offerings in 2020, and had $10.8 million in equity.

Another online video shows that last Thursday, Watkinson opened a service saying, “The newspapers have been hounding us for a few weeks now.

“They’ve got about 20 charges for us. But I just thought ‘Man, I’m not going to be, you know, swayed by this’.”

“I think the media has lost a lot of influence and society anyway, people are on top of them, you know, they know they’re telling a lot of lies, and you can’t trust to the media anyway.”

Watkinson ended by saying, “They are [media are] giving each other special attention because we are a special church, let’s stick together.”

RNZ again approached the church for comment.