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

On Sept. 16, 1995, 150 members of the one-time Christ the Saviour Brotherhood parish community were baptized by Bishop Tikhon of the Diocese of the West. Tate and two others were ordained as priests, even though, at least in Tate's case, he hadn't gone through any formal seminary training before his ordination. Tate says he is doing so now.

In December 1995, the Orthodox Church in America took in another Christ the Saviour Brotherhood parish, the Holy Apostles Mission in Portland.

It was a process that was undertaken carefully, according to Bishop Tikhon and Father Soraich. Bishop Tikhon makes no bones about his perception of Podmoshensky as a church leader. "Who was Abbot Herman?" asks the bishop, responding to questions via e-mail. "A deposed priest, a 'spoiled' priest. In our Orthodox Church, priests are not ordained indelibly. Deposed priests are not priests who have merely had their faculties removed. They are just not priests, period."

Bishop Tikhon agreed to consider the Milwaukie group's request to come into the Orthodox Church in America, though he could not accept any of the ordinations and chrismations performed by Podmoshensky. Taking in the Oregon congregations meant a process of confession and conversion that, in the bishop's words, involved "specifically making renunciation of past wrong doctrine."

Soraich says that the congregations were initially wary about coming into the mainline church, even though it was they who made the request. "I think they needed to be reassured that we weren't some kind of a villain just looking for their property," he says. "This was the biggest issue that came up, that we were looking just for their property to control. ... I think they needed to realize that we weren't an offbeat group, as we were painted by their people -- they were the 'pure orthodox,' you know?"

He also heard criticisms that were laid against the OCA for taking in the communities because "some of those folks come from that Holy Order of MANS, which was some sort of New Age kind of craziness. That, coupled with the fact of the Pangratios situation and the Podmoshensky situation, those kind of questions came up. We looked at every case individually.

"I was criticized pretty harshly in that whole process. It didn't deter me. It wouldn't deter me tomorrow if there were clergy and congregations coming into the OCA."

Both Bishop Tikhon and Father Soraich draw a strict line between their willingness to accept Christ the Saviour Brotherhood members, individually or as a group, into the OCA, and their fervent distaste for the Brotherhood's leadership. "I think their people are pretty much taught Orthodoxy," says Soraich. "It just bewilders me that they want to be in some faraway church, or [take] the anti-episcopal Orthodox stance that they take. It's all because of Podmoshensky, honestly. That's his doing. He's their guru."

So the process seems straightforward enough. A group of people who have a problem with the leadership of Christ the Saviour Brotherhood choose to leave it. The Orthodox Church in America, which has a problem with the Brotherhood leadership as well, happily accepts them. It makes sense -- after all, the whole point of Christianity is that people are allowed to convert.

But then Father Tate says something very strange and difficult to reconcile. In five simple words, he kicks a support beam out from under the intricate rhetorical scaffolding both sides have erected to explain the mass acceptance of Brotherhood members into the Orthodox Church in America.

Asked about his current relationship to Christ the Saviour Brotherhood, Father Tate says, "I am still a member."

"The Christ the Saviour Brotherhood is not a church," he explains. "It's a kind of para-church organization. It is not geared toward any particular jurisdiction."

Still, Soraich, who heads the western diocese for the OCA, is briefly flustered when he is told that one of the priests who were ordained by the Church says he remains a Brotherhood member. "I'm not sure if I want to know who that person is," he says. But he then says, "I don't have a problem with that, necessarily. That has nothing to do with their ties to Pangratios or with Podmoshensky. We didn't receive either of them."

That statement cuts to the heart of the argument between the two sides, which comes down to semantics and spin. Christ the Saviour Brotherhood describes itself and functions as a church -- it has a bishop, parishes, monasteries, and congregations -- except when its members say that it isn't. And the Orthodox Church in America says it has little tolerance for the Brotherhood, its past history, its leadership, and its members -- except when it's accepting them, and, one might say, in a hurry.

Attempts to contact Podmoshensky and Christ the Saviour Brotherhood President Steven Bauman for comment were unsuccessful. Pangratios Vrionis declined comment, except to claim that the Archdiocese of Vasiloupolis has severed all ties with the Brotherhood, which he says was "recently" released to another jurisdiction. In response to Vrionis' statement, Father Nicholas Kime, Christ the Saviour Brotherhood chairman, would say only that the group is "in transition. It's a very delicate time right now."

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