Awkward Christian Soldiers

How a Bay Area sect with an occult tinge went national, transformed itself into an odd brotherhood -- and now is gaining acceptance from the ultratraditional Orthodox Church

But Podmoshensky was also in the process of being defrocked. In 1984, he was suspended from his priestly duties by his archbishop due to a series of "moral indiscretions" that have never been publicly disclosed. By 1988, he was no longer a priest. Regardless, by the mid-'80s, Holy Order of MANS publications were espousing Orthodox doctrine, and Podmoshensky was the Orthodox spiritual leader Rossi felt the order needed. All that was left to be taken care of was finding a bishop, and a diocese that would take in the order and make it truly part of the Orthodox community. The perfect bishop would be one who would give them a sort of canonical authority, and yet allow the order's members to pursue a new spiritual direction, while preserving the group's assets.

The order found Pangratios Vrionis.

Through the 1960s, Vrionis was a priest in the Greek Orthodox Church, serving a parish in Harrisburg, Pa. In 1969, he abruptly left.

Court documents from Dauphin County, Pa., show that in 1969 Vrionis was indicted on two counts of sodomy and one of corrupting the morals of minors. The documents state that in November 1968, Vrionis performed sex acts with two 14-year-old boys. He later pleaded guilty to the charges, and in 1970 paid a $250 fine and served 23 months probation for each charge, sentenced concurrently.

That same year, he was defrocked by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America. And also that same year, Vrionis started his own church, the Archdiocese of Vasiloupolis, in Queens, N.Y. He was consecrated as metropolitan of Vasiloupolis by a trio of bishops from Russia, Albania, and Romania. And Pangratios was now a bishop himself, although his diocese was not recognized as legitimate by canonical Orthodox authorities in America.

From 1986 onward, Rossi, Podmoshensky, and Vrionis were all in discussions about moving the Holy Order of MANS into Orthodoxy. As order services and publications took on a more Orthodox tone, a number of disenchanted members left. Rossi pushed ahead regardless. On May 22, 1988, the Holy Order of MANS officially became Christ the Saviour Brotherhood. That Easter Sunday, Podmoshensky baptized 750 members of the order in one service.

"I always called it 'the unholy disorder,'" says Father Michael Oleska, who was pastor at Santa Rosa's Holy Protection of the Virgin, a mainline Orthodox Church not far from the order's Forestville retreat, during the group's conversion into Christ the Saviour Brotherhood.

"Many of the people in my parish who had left the Holy Order of MANS left it before it had evolved that far [into Christ the Saviour Brotherhood]," he says. "Everything was moving in the order toward Orthodoxy, and there were people saying, 'If we're gonna be Orthodox, why are we messing around? Why do we have this separate community, this separate organization? Let's just be Orthodox.'"

Theological disagreements between churches are nothing new -- after all, the Orthodox Church was born out of disagreement. Theological arguments between the Christian centers in Rome and Constantinople led to the Great Schism of 1054 and left Orthodoxy as what is generally considered the most conservative brand of Christian faith. It keeps an older calendar, preserves its root languages in church services (mainly Greek and Russian), and is more focused on monasticism than many other faiths. Still, many consider the concept of being Orthodox to be a flexible one. Unlike, for example, Roman Catholics, who from clergy to bishops take direct orders from the Vatican, Orthodox Christianity doesn't take specific guidance from a single leader in a single location. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople (Istanbul), which is the historical seat of Orthodoxy, mainly supervises the Greek Orthodox Church in America and is today more a figurehead than head pontiff. Worldwide, there are 15 autocephalous, or self-governing, Orthodox churches that are recognized as canonical; they generally split along ethnic lines. In the United States, the Orthodox Church in America stems from the Orthodox Church of Russia and administers about 700 parishes across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, broken down geographically into 15 dioceses. A ruling body of bishops considers the official status, or canonicity, of a church or diocese within the Orthodox Church in America, which does not recognize Vrionis' Archdiocese of Vasiloupolis.

This current state of affairs within Orthodoxy fuels what has become an ongoing debate over the meaning of being "truly" Orthodox. Christ the Saviour Brotherhood has argued in the past that its claim to Orthodoxy is valid in the face of this international fracture of the religion. Leaders in the Orthodox Church in America, however, adhere to the idea of canonical churches as named by its ruling bodies. In other words, it says the Brotherhood isn't really Orthodox.

It is, as religious scholar Phillip Charles Lucas puts it, "a pretty sticky wicket."

Lucas, a professor of religious studies at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., wrote the defining book on the subject, The Odyssey of a New Religion: The Holy Order of MANS From New Age to Orthodoxy. Published in 1995, it outlines the history of the order from its genesis with Blighton to the later negotiations among Rossi, Vrionis, and Podmoshensky.

"Part of [Podmoshensky's] and Vrionis' perspective on contemporary Orthodoxy in America," he says, "is that there are a number of corrupt archbishops and bishops, or metropolitans and bishops. They have a kind of apocalyptic perspective on this, such as, 'We're in the last days, and in the last days Satan is infecting even the church and the leadership of the church.' So their rationale for not being connected to SCOBA [an Orthodox Church in America ruling body] and in communion with other Orthodox groups is that this is a kind of free-for-all situation that we find ourselves in now. And just because somebody has a quote-unquote legitimate Orthodox bishop does not mean that they are in fact part of the true Orthodox Church."

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