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...

Father David Lowell has a thing about television. He hates it.

It's a point he makes a number of times as he walks through the corridors of the Tenderloin emergency shelter Raphael House, which he has run as executive director for eight years. Tall, bespectacled, sporting a thick gray beard, and wearing a black robe, he possesses a calm air of authority as he peers into the various rooms within the shelter, from the kitchen to the laundry room to the rooftop playground to the storefront that once housed a restaurant, but now operates as a day-care center, to the thrift store operating next door. In the children's playroom he points out the toys available: simple, unpainted wooden blocks stacked neatly. Everything in Raphael House is almost clinically organized and tidy.

The families — approximately 50 of them at any single time, who stay at the shelter for up to six months — observe strict curfews, and the children's schedules are regulated. A library offers

rows of the Great Books, children's literature, books on the lives of the saints, and other religious texts from the Bible to the writings of the famed Trappist monk Thomas Merton. Adjacent to it is a small Orthodox chapel that holds regular services, though Lowell points out that attendance is never mandatory.

Like most charitable organizations, Raphael House depends on the benevolence of people who donate to it, and the list in its 1998 annual report is a long one; it includes many individuals, corporations, funds, and foundations. At the very top of the list for that year is a group called Christ the Saviour Brotherhood, which is listed at the “philanthropist” level, meaning that it contributed $25,000 or more. Raphael House and the Brotherhood, an Orthodox order that grew out of a New Age sect launched in San Francisco in the 1960s, have not had a direct relationship with each other since 1991, and a board of directors now coordinates the shelter. Christ the Saviour Brotherhood does, however, still own the property.

“It's really two separate organizations,” says Father Lowell.

Across town in the Inner Sunset, Muni streetcars routinely squeak and rumble past the Archangel Bookstore, a shop specializing in books, magazines, music, and other materials related to Orthodox Christianity. It's a small place, usually scented with incense and filled with the sounds of devotional hymns and chants playing on the stereo. Magazines like The Orthodox Word fill a shelf, and a room in the rear hosts regular readings by Orthodox monks and scholars. The Archangel Bookstore is operated by the Valaam Society of America, a Brotherhood subsidiary that operates dozens of similar stores across the country.

Both are the local remnants of a strange religious movement that was launched in San Francisco over three decades ago and has, in that time, moved down a complex and controversial path. In the late '60s, San Francisco was the hub of the Holy Order of MANS, a sect with occult tendencies and a belief, among other things, that Jesus Christ was not the only son of God who walked the Earth. Through the years it would find itself transformed, as Christ the Saviour Brotherhood, into a self-described Orthodox group that used punk rock imagery to attract young converts, a practice that earned wide media attention (and the obvious headline, “Punks to Monks”); proselytized through the idea that the world is in its last days; and operated under the guidance of two defrocked priests, one of whom has a sex crime conviction.

The mainstream Orthodox Church in America has routinely criticized — and continues to denounce — the Brotherhood's unusual leadership and beliefs. Even so, the Church, one of the oldest and most tradition-heavy of Christianity's branches, has happily taken Brotherhood congregations into its flock, and made Brotherhood priests its own. And even while the mainstream Church makes strong protestations against the Brotherhood, it is unclear that Brotherhood members taken into the Church have left their past beliefs behind. One of the Christ the Saviour Brotherhood priests ordained by the Orthodox Church says he is still a member of the Brotherhood, launching a rhetorical battle over the very definition of a religious belief that is home to 300 million followers worldwide.

Earl Blighton was a man of ideas.

Born in New York in 1904, Blighton hopped from job to job as an electrical engineer — to look at him, white-haired, balding, and bespectacled, is to think he was little more than an average person. Eventually finding a home in the Bay Area in the 1940s, Blighton studied religion, and he studied it widely: Blighton's explorations took him into Christianity, Buddhism, yoga, reincarnation, Rosicrucianism, tarot cards, and a belief that there had been multiple enlightened “masters” on Earth, and those still living were in possession of strange, esoteric powers. Among those living masters, of course, was Blighton.

In time, Blighton would tell people that he'd lived for 200 years in the same body, that Jesus Christ spoke directly through him, and that he could travel between the physical and spiritual planes. It was the sort of religious mythology that some kind of church could be built around, and by the 1960s he had begun his work. Gathering a handful of like-minded souls, in 1961, he convened the Science of Man Church in San Francisco. By 1968, it would become officially incorporated as the Holy Order of MANS, which kept its headquarters at 20 Steiner St. The order presented itself as a mainly Christian organization, but with a universalist and nondogmatic approach. In a Summer of Love San Francisco that was looking for spiritual revelation without the strict guidelines of formal religion, the Holy Order of MANS had little difficulty gathering members. Its believers proselytized heavily in the residence hotels of the Tenderloin, South of Market, and Haight-Ashbury districts, where the dream of peace and love was being annihilated by drugs and deterioration. In other words, the church went for easy marks. [page]

Clad in a white robe, Blighton acted as director general of the order's “esoteric council,” guiding members at various levels, from those who had known Blighton since the early '60s to whoever had strolled into 20 Steiner that day. Schedules for daily services were kept, sacraments were performed, and priests were ordained. The order had an official symbol: a cross within a triangle within a circle within a square. Even if the order had little or no relation to any mainstream, conventional faith — indeed, if it seemed to operate at times as an occult cabal — it did function as an organized religious group, and found success on that path. By 1969, the Holy Order of MANS had grown from a handful of members to over 200. Three years later, the number had more than doubled.

Timothy Harris first became familiar with the group in 1967. After leaving the Navy, he went to college in Colorado and later moved to San Francisco. In a Sixth Street hotel run by the Science of Man Church, he became a follower of Blighton's teachings and would stay with the order until 1972, leaving because Blighton instituted a policy of separating married couples who joined the order. “When I first met him, he was like a nice old man,” says Harris, who is currently a member of the Gnostic Order of Christ, a San Jose-based church that preserves many of the teachings of the Holy Order of MANS. “Over time, I think he got stressed out and became rather authoritarian. He had a sign on his desk: 'Be Reasonable — Do It My Way.' I think that really hits it on the head.”

Blighton's change from well-meaning follower of esoteric faith to autocratic spiritual leader might be attributed to the rapid growth of the order: By 1970, it had missionaries in 29 cities across the country, from Maui to Massachusetts, focusing on college towns. The order ran as a commune, and members were asked to turn over their earthly possessions and give any money they received from employment to a central fund; by 1972, the group had over $2 million in assets. The order was also performing charitable work, operating a small chain of restaurants called Brother Juniper's, one of which was located at Raphael House, founded in 1977. By the mid-'70s, the Holy Order of MANS reportedly had 3,000 members and missionaries (though others place the figure at no higher than 600), located in every state in America, with a few in Europe.

Blighton wouldn't live to see the success of what he wrought. On April 11, 1974 — the day before Good Friday — Blighton retreated to a Pacifica motel with a handful of followers; he died there of natural causes. According to a 1990 report written by a former Holy Order of MANS member, his disciples were in no hurry to inform the authorities. They waited to see if Blighton would rise from the dead after three days.

The next 14 years would mark a power struggle within the order. By 1978, Vincent Rossi, a longtime member of the order, had begun to take control of a religious group that was dealing with both a dwindling membership and a society that was growing increasingly leery of cults, particularly in the Bay Area. The horrifying Nov. 18, 1978, mass suicide of members of Jim Jones' People's Temple turned eyes to nonsectarian religious groups, and regardless of whether the Holy Order of MANS identified itself as a cult, it fell under hard scrutiny about its activities, what with the “life vows” members were required to take and a leadership board that was called an esoteric council.

“MANS” is an acronym, and under Blighton's rule as director general, its definition was a closely guarded secret. In one move partly designed to improve public relations, Rossi offered a definition in December 1978, writing that it comes from four Greek words: mysterion (divine mystery), agape (divine love), nous (divine mind), and sophia (wisdom). And even while the order kept much of its eccentric, multidenominational character, its public face was one of studied, organized Christianity. In 1979, one San Francisco Examiner reporter enthused that the order “has marvelously adopted the monastic practices of pre-Vatican II Catholicism to the modern world,” and appealed to the Catholic Church to learn from its activities.

By the early '80s, however, Rossi's spiritual pursuits were focused not on Catholicism, but the older Orthodox Church. At that time, when the order was hemorrhaging old members and taking in few new ones, Rossi was reading The Orthodox Word, a journal focused on Russian Orthodoxy published by the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, an order that operated out of a retreat in Platina, Calif., near Redding. One of St. Herman's head monks, Gleb Podmoshensky, also known as Abbot Herman, was an Orthodox priest, and by 1983, Rossi and Podmoshensky were in regular contact. Podmoshensky's approach to Orthodoxy was a severe one — it advocated a separation from the modern world, and took an apocalyptic view of the modern age — but Podmoshensky was sanctioned by a legitimate and official Orthodox Church. His teachings appealed to Rossi, who was slowly beginning to shift the Holy Order of MANS's members toward Orthodox teachings. Podmoshensky would speak often at the order's retreat in Forestville, near Santa Rosa, and he was increasingly taking command of the spiritual direction of the order.

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. [page]

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.”

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.” [page]

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.

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.” [page]

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.”

The Orthodox Church in America still makes a distinction between distaste for the Brotherhood's leadership and willingness to accept its members. Bishop Tikhon says he hopes that Podmoshensky “will be able to come to repenting” to the canonical Orthodox Church from whence he came. Tikhon feels such an action could bring Podmoshensky's followers away from the Brotherhood as well.

“I would hope that all of the clergy and people of that Christ the Saviour Brotherhood would then be able to follow the correct path into the Orthodox Church,” he says. “Moreover, I would hope that this [path] would be the Orthodox Church in America.”

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