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

Father Nikolai Soraich, chancellor of the Orthodox Church in America's Diocese of the West, states, quite firmly, that "we don't recognize Pangratios as a bishop, and we don't recognize Podmoshensky as a priest. He was deposed by the Russian church abroad, and Pangratios was deposed by the Greek Orthodox archdiocese." And as for Christ the Saviour Brotherhood: "We don't consider that any kind of Orthodox church."

Bishop Tikhon of the Diocese of the West says that the Orthodox Church in America has "no relationships whatsoever" with the Brotherhood. "I believe that the former Abbot Herman and those with him may have developed a prejudice against episcopal authority. ... This prejudice and its fruits are tragedies."

On the other side, Christ the Saviour Brotherhood's Web site provides a sort of mild retort: "Administrative and organizational structures may serve Christ's Church, but do not alone comprise her," it says. "Especially this is true of the Orthodox Church in the New World, which suffers presently from the canonical irregularity of multi-jurisdictionalism and from the strong attack of anti-Christian forces."

The two sides engaged this rhetorical battle more deeply throughout the '90s in Alaska. In 1994, Podmoshensky and his flock -- a ragtag group of young men who came from all over the country to become followers of Podmoshensky in the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood -- began camping on Spruce Island, near Kodiak. Slowly, they integrated into the local community, and in 1997 opened a coffee shop and bookstore, Monk's Rock, in downtown Kodiak. Some of the monks put together a journal called Death to the World, featuring articles on saints interspersed with first-person stories of Orthodox conversion, designed much like a punk rock fanzine, with cut-and-paste pictures of icons and occasionally handwritten text. The contact address for the zine was Christ the Saviour Brotherhood's Forestville retreat.

Death to the World was part of the public face of Podmoshensky's movement, and also functioned as part of its outreach program. "The St. Herman Brotherhood has always been interested in helping converts understand true Orthodoxy," says St. Herman's Web site. "Because of this, the Brotherhood has spent much of its energy trying to reach the so-called 'Lost Generation,' the misfits, the ones no one seems very much interested in." From Monk's Rock, John Marler became St. Herman's spokesperson, and an interesting slice-of-life story topic. A one-time punk rock musician who played around Northern California in the bands Paxton Quiggly and Sleep, he gave up on his previous life for a devotional one. He put out a cassette in 1997 of devotional acoustic songs called Lamentation, thanking "Abbot Herman Podmo" in the liner notes. Everyone from the Utne Reader to CBS News to the Sacramento Bee did stories about Marler's change, and the headline pretty much wrote itself: "Punks to Monks."

Podmoshensky appeared to believe that a prior correspondence with a priest who lived on Spruce Island entitled him to build a monastery there. Monk's Lagoon, the name of the monastery, was under construction when, amid fears that the group was attempting to usurp the island, the owners evicted the monks in 1998.

The incident reinforces the belief in Father Oleska's mind that Podmoshensky's work is "cultic. I'm afraid that his Brotherhood are personally loyal to Mr. Podmoshensky and believes that Orthodoxy is whatever Gleb says it is. Any attempt by church authority, any bishops, any theologians, any people who have been within the tradition for all their lives and who have studied it all their lives, to correct the distortion is opposed as political and politically motivated by the members of the Brotherhood."

While Podmoshensky's flock of young monks appear to continue to act as one -- they host regular retreats for young men and women at the Forestville and Platina seminaries -- there are signs that the Brotherhood may have a problem functioning today as a single group. Phillip Lucas estimates the current membership of the Brotherhood at no more than 350. "It was never that large, but they have lost a lot of members," he says. "There are a lot of die-hard members that will stay with Christ the Saviour Brotherhood down to the last man. But there are also a lot of people who are seriously considering jumping ship into some more accepted Orthodox group."

Not to mention those who already have.

Father Matthew Tate joined the Holy Order of MANS in 1974. Today, he is pastor of Church of the Annunciation in Milwaukie, Oregon, an OCA church.

"I was a typical child of the '60s," Tate says. "There was a lot of seeking going on at that time. I was searching for God in essence, and I felt disappointed with most of the Christianity that I had been exposed to. I was kind of synchratistic at that point in my life; I felt that there was no one religion, but that they were all kind of the same thing, just different flavors. So I was attracted to the Holy Order of MANS because of that."

Tate traveled a great deal while with the order, working in a cancer ward and undergoing chaplaincy training. Those experiences, he says, caused him to start thinking about separating from the Brotherhood and affiliating himself with the larger Orthodox Church in America. Around 1984, he was called by the Holy Order of MANS to work as a minister at the Christian Community of Portland, which would later become Church of the Annunciation, just as the order was making its shift toward Orthodoxy. "If we were going to take the step of entering the Orthodox Church," he says, "we wanted to make sure that we were fully in communion with those around us." He says that the decision to apply to be taken in by the OCA was not inspired by questions about Vrionis and Podmoshensky.

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