Suddenly Orthodox

Author: Don Lattin
Date Published: 05/31/1992

An Eclectic New Age Sect Born In San Francisco, The Holy Order of MANS, Says It Has Embraced Orthodox Christianity, But Mainline Church Leaders See A Case Of Spiritual Fraud

Eclectic in the ’60s, Orthodox in the ’90s, the Holy Order of Mans is the chameleon of new religious movements.

Its story is a parable of San Francisco in the 1960s and America in the 1990s, an examination of cults, Christianity and the search for truth — a story about how religious sects are born, blossom and refuse to die.

Founded in 1961 by Earl Blighton, a retired electrician and mail-order minister, the Holy Order of Mans began with that mix of esoteric wisdom, self-styled mysticism and personal prophecy we now call New Age.

Thirty years later, the order has changed its name, changed its garb and, according to the high priests who now control the sect, changed its religious beliefs.

Gone is the belief in reincarnation. Gone is the belief that Jesus Christ is only one of many enlightened masters to roam the Earth. Gone is the belief that only a chosen few can be initiated into the secret teachings of the ancients.

As the Reverend Phillip Tolbert tells it, the Holy Order of Mans is ”a New Age success story.”

”It’s the story of a journey into authentic Christian Orthodoxy,” said Tolbert, a national leader in the sect, which now calls itself Christ the Savior Brotherhood. ”It’s a shedding of that eclectic mix of teachings called New Age.”

Others tell a different tale. They say the Christ the Savior Brotherhood is doing what it has always done — pretending to be something it is not.

”It is fraudulent, cut-and-dried fraudulent,” said the Reverend George Gray, a priest with the Orthodox Church in America who has followed the sect for the two decades.

”It smells like Orthodoxy. It looks like Orthodoxy. But it is fraudulent,” he says. ”They wear the vestments, but they never seem to fit quite right.”

Christ the Savior Brotherhood dates back to an organization Blighton founded in San Jose in 1961 called the Science of Man Church.

Blighton, who died in 1974, had a number of previous religious associations, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Rosicrucian Order, a secret worldwide brotherhood that claims to possess ancient esoteric wisdom. His new church neatly combined the two.

Reincorporated in San Francisco in 1968 as the Holy Order of Mans, members of Blighton’s church took lifetime vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and dressed like Roman Catholic priests, but followed an esoteric course of study that combined Christianity, astrology, Buddhism, Blighton’s personal ”revelations,” and the belief that the order would soon usher in a ”new age” of spiritual illumination and the unity of all religions. Women could be ordained as priests. Blighton, known as Father Paul by his followers, was thought by some to be the reincarnation of the Apostle Paul.

Despite these unorthodox beliefs, Blighton adhered to the traditional Christian emphasis on social service ministry — sheltering the homeless, helping the poor, feeding the hungry. His legacy is best remembered and most visible through a network of shelters for struggling families, called Raphael House, and a chain of low- cost eateries, called Brother Juniper’s Restaurant, which continue to operate in San Francisco and several other U.S. cities.

By the time of Blighton’s death, the Holy Order of Mans had taken on a life of its own. Fueled by a steady stream of spiritual seekers flocking to San Francisco in the late ’60s and early ’70s, membership peaked in the mid-’70s with some 3,000 members. Missionaries fanned out of San Francisco like an army of New Age Jesuits, setting up brother houses, mission stations, youth hostels and homeless shelters in 48 states and several European cities.

”People were sent off with a few dollars in their pockets and a suitcase full of teaching materials,” said Johann Morse, who came to spend a night in a Holy Order of Mans shelter in San Francisco in 1971 and ended up spending 15 years with the sect. ”You’d go to a city, get a room in the YMCA, find a job, and start doing street missions two or three nights a week.”

”There was really a spirit of something happening,” said Brother Fred Krueger, who joined the order in San Francisco in 1969 and remains a member. ”It was alive. There was a willingness to jump into all kinds of projects without a lot of bureaucracy.”

Paul Brown joined the order in 1971, and within three years was appointed by Blighton as abbot of the Brown Brothers of the Holy Light, a subdivision of the Holy Order of Mans, whose members wore brown robes reminiscent of the Franciscan order. Brown’s main job was to start a chain of Brother Juniper restaurants around the country to raise money for the order.

”Everyone acted like I was mystically advanced, but I wasn’t,” said Brown, who became disillusioned with the sect and left in 1987. ”It was like we were playing a game of religion, pretending to be Franciscan monks. For the most part, we were a bunch of sincere, misguided people who were seeking the truth, but not finding it.”

Brown, who now lives in Denver and runs two shoe repair shops, said the Brown Brothers were set up along with another supposedly celibate order for women called the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Mary. According to Brown, Blighton had sex with the 19-year-old abbess of that order, Sister Marion, who became pregnant with 72-year-old Blighton’s child.

”We all knew it was him, but he just lied,” said Brown. ”He tried to tell us it was an immaculate conception, but we just told him to knock it off.”

Blighton died several months later. His death sparked a four-year leadership struggle, ending in 1978 when Vincent Rossi, one of Blighton’s top lieutenants, emerged as director-general of the order.

Another event that same year — the murder and mass suicide in Guyana of more than 900 followers of the Reverend Jim Jones — had a profound effect on many new religious sects, including the Holy Order of Mans.

After Jonestown, the order began showing up on the lists of ”cult groups” published by organizations devoted to curtailing cult activities. Here was another quasi-Christian religious sect based in San Francisco with a strong social service outreach and members living communally under an authoritarian leadership.

Always concerned with its public image, the Holy Order of Mans began looking for ways to connect with a larger church, to gain legitimacy as a mainstream religious denomination.

”We never looked at ourselves as a cult, but there is no question there were abuses of authority on a sporadic basis,” said the Reverend Jacob Myers, who joined the order in 1971 and is now pastor of a Christ the Savior Brotherhood church in Atlanta.

”After Jonestown, we began to examine ourselves,” Myers said. ”We were looking hard for something more traditional. We were looking for a place to land.”

Over the next 10 years, Rossi gradually led the flock away from Blighton’s potpourri of philosophies toward a more traditional Christian theology. Rossi and his brethren spent years holed up in the sect’s rural Sonoma County retreat hidden in the hills west of Santa Rosa, studying the roots of the Christian faith, reading the church fathers, shopping around for a denomination.

Of the three major branches of Christianity — Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox — they felt most at home with the rich liturgy and deep spiritual tradition of the Orthodox Church, which split off from the Roman Catholic Church, headed by the pope, in the famous schism of 1054.

But Rossi and his members were not easily accepted. Most mainline Orthodox denominations looked askance at the order’s eclectic roots. Individual members were welcome to renounce their past and join established Orthodox churches, but accepting the Holy Order of Mans en masse posed a host of problems for the Orthodox Church.

According to Brown and other former members, Rossi wanted to come under the ”protection” of an Orthodox bishop, but did not want to lose control of the sect and its assets. Although the order had lost many members in the 1980s, it still controlled millions of dollars in real estate and other assets across the country.

”It’s not small potatoes,” said Brown. ”When I left in 1982 the restaurant chain was bringing in $ 1 million a year in profits. One of the last financial statements I saw in 1987 said the order was worth $ 14 million.”

Rossi found a solution in the strange ecclesiastical jurisdiction of His Eminence Metropolitan Pangratios Gerasimos Vrionis, spiritual leader of the Holy Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Vasiloupolis, Queens, New York.

Pangratios founded his own archdiocese in 1970, the same year he was defrocked for ”disobedience” by the mainline Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America.

Bishop Isiah, chancellor of the Greek Orthodox archdiocese, said Demetrios G. Vrionis, which was Pangratios’ original name, was ordained as a deacon in 1962 and a priest in 1963 in the mainline Greek church.

In the late ’60s, Pangratios was leading a now-defunct church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, when he suddenly left that assignment and returned to New York.

Pangratios’ file does not say why he left the Harrisburg church, but states that he was soon called before a church tribunal. Pangratios’ case was then reviewed by the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul, Turkey, which made the decision ”to defrock him from the priesthood.”

”There was a charge of being disobedient to one’s superior,” said Bishop Isiah.

Pangratios, who declined to be interviewed, states in his parish directory that he was consecrated and enthroned in New York by a trio of Orthodox prelates — an exiled Russian, an Orthodox Albanian and a Romanian bishop said to be the confessor to the Romanian royal family.

”None of our bishops consecrated him as a bishop,” said Isiah. ”But we have quite a number of Orthodox bishops like this in New York. It’s like a doctor operating without a license.”

Unlike most Orthodox churches in the United States, Pangratios’ church is not recognized by the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas, nor is it in communion with the vast majority of Orthodox parishes, meaning that parishioners from brotherhood churches cannot take communion in the celebration of Mass of most other Orthodox churches.

Questions have been raised about the validity of Pangratios’ consecration, but because of the myriad of tiny Orthodox churches operating in the United States, and the endless internecine squabbling among them, it’s hard to say who is a ”legitimate” Orthodox bishop and who is not.

”Unfortunately, there are groups started by defrocked clergymen,” said the Reverend John Bacon, an Orthodox Church in America pastor and expert on the ”pseudo- Orthodox.”

”In the United States, you can go out and for 10 bucks incorporate yourself as an ecclesiastical organization,” he said. ”You don’t have the Byzantine Empire standing there with an army to enforce uniformity.”

Myers, the Atlanta pastor and national parish coordinator of the Archdiocese of Vasiloupolis, said members of the brotherhood believe Pangratios is a legitimate Orthodox bishop. ”It’s just that the rest of the church doesn’t agree,” he said.

Metropolitan Pangratios is not the only defrocked priest who helped transform the Holy Order of Mans into Christ the Savior Brotherhood.

Rossi had been introduced to Pangratios by Abbott Herman Podmoshensky, a former monk with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. Often called ”the church-in-exile,” it is one of three established Russian Orthodox denominations operating in California, and the one traditionally known for its uncompromising anti-Communist stance.

According to a November 1989 statement by the church, a ”series of serious moral charges” were brought against Podmoshensky in 1984. Podmoshensky was suspended from the church, the statement said, but continued acting as a priest, ”engaged in slander against his archpastor and in all ways remained disobedient to church authority.”

In 1988, a church court ruled that Podmoshensky had ”ceased to be a vessel of God’s Grace” and was thereby ”defrocked from the Holy Priesthood.”

Repeated attempts to reach Podmoshensky were unsuccessful, but the Reverend Stevan Bauman, the current president of the Christ the Savior Brotherhood, defended the monk.

”I have seen Father Herman in a variety of settings, and have complete confidence in him,” said Bauman, who joined the order in 1970 and now leads one of its parishes in Indianapolis.

Podmoshensky had been running a Russian Orthodox monastery in the Trinity County hamlet of Platina, and since he owned the real estate, was able to continue doing so after he was defrocked.

During this period of the mid-’80s, Podmoshensky and Rossi launched a campaign to exorcise Blighton’s eclectic spiritualism from the Holy Order of Mans and slowly introduce Orthodox prayers and liturgy in its place.

By 1990, both Podmoshensky’s flock and the extensive network of Holy Order of Mans churches were officially listed as part of the Archdiocese of Vasiloupolis. More than 200 priests, brothers and sister were reordained or took new vows under Pangratios.

”It was a soft entry into Orthodoxy, but a genuine break from the past,” said Tolbert, chairman of the board of Christ the Savior Brotherhood. ”Metropolitan Pangratios blesses our ministries and allows us to do what we do as long as Orthodoxy is being reflected.”

Tolbert, pastor of Christ the Savior Cathedral Parish in San Francisco, which holds services in the basement of a battered Victorian on Duboce Street, said the brotherhood pays an archdiocesan tax of $ 30 per baptized adult to Pangratios. Legal ownership of the sect’s property continues to be under the Holy Order of Mans.

Other longtime members of the Holy Order of Mans couldn’t stomach the switch to Orthodoxy. What had begun as an eclectic Christian sect — an order that ordained women as priests and sought to unify all religions — had in their minds become rigid, sectarian and sexist.

”We believed that every religion had its own messiah or teacher who could bring the truth of God, but the Orthodox attitude is that they are the only true religion,” said Mary Anderson, who joined in 1973 and left in protest against the switch to Orthodoxy. ”In the early years of the order, women were ordained as priests and considered equal. The Orthodox view is that women are under the man and not allowed to become ministers and priests.”

Other former members, such as Paul Brown and Johann Morse, embraced Orthodoxy, but decided that Pangratios and the Christ the Savior Brotherhood were bogus.

”It was obviously a marriage of convenience for Pangratios and the order,” said Morse, now a deacon at Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco, part of the mainline Orthodox Church of America.

Brown became a lay member of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

”In the beginning, I was pleased that the order had found the church of the apostles and thought we were getting our feet on the ground,” he said. ”Then all of a sudden we veered off. Rossi wanted to retain control over people’s lives. What they need to do is break up the order and get on with their lives, but there is a powerful lot of money involved here.”

Once again, the religious movement launched three decades ago by Earl Blighton finds itself at a crossroads.

Rossi resigned last year as director-general of the Christ the Savior Brotherhood to pursue a doctoral degree in Orthodox studies at Oxford University. Under a deal struck with the brotherhood, Rossi received up to $ 250,000 to move his family to England and study under Bishop Kallistos Ware, a renowned Orthodox scholar.

Questions about the Orthodox status and personal background of Pangratios and Podmoshensky have prompted some to leave the brotherhood and join more established Orthodox churches. Church leaders say the brotherhood has dwindled to about 500 members.

At Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral in San Francisco, several families left last year in a bitter dispute over how that parish handled a former order member who joined the parish and was later arrested and convicted of child molestation in Marin County.

The Reverend Victor Sokolov, brought in last September to head the church and pick up the pieces, said he was warned by several families when he came that the Holy Order of Mans ”was trying to take over our parish.”

”That has not been my experience. They have severed their ties to the past,” said Sokolov, who acts as pastor to a half- dozen former order members. ”They are very devout people. They have spiritual discipline. When something needs to be done, they are the first to volunteer. You have to slow them down.”

Meanwhile, Pangratios has approached the Orthodox Church in America about bringing his Archdiocese of Vasiloupolis — including some 30 Christ the Savior Brotherhood churches and missions — into that denomination.

”We are proceeding very carefully,” said the Reverend Gregory Havrilak, national spokesman for the denomination. ”Unofficially, a breakfast was held in January with Pangratios and the chancellor of the Orthodox Church.”

No action was taken at last month’s meeting of the bishops of Orthodox Church in America, whose department of external affairs is investigating Pangratios’ background. ”It’s in limbo,” said Havrilak.

Religion researcher Phillip Lucas, who studies new religious movements at the University of California at Santa Barbara, first ran across the Order of Mans in Germany in 1976 and is now completing a Ph.D. dissertation and possible book on its odyssey. Lucas sees the order’s alliance with Pangratios as ”a stopgap measure, the best they could do at the time.”

”This is a group that has lost its way, and is trying to gain legitimacy,” he said. ”They are looking for an anchor, for some kind of center.”

”In many ways, the story of the Holy Order of Mans is the story of the baby boomers and their spiritual search,” said Lucas. ”It emerged from the American youth culture of the ’60s, a generation alienated from the all-American institutions, including religious institutions. It began as an eclectic, mystical sect. As the country became more conservative, and veered to the right during the Reagan era, the order went off in this conservative Orthodox direction.”

Brown, the former abbott of the Brown Brothers, put it this way:

”Most of the people in the order were not the brightest beings on Earth,” he said. ”Many of us came into the order damaged by drugs or with some other emotional needs. We weren’t the cream of the crop, but we were basically decent people trying to get our lives together and, in our own way, serve God.”