Worthy of a Religious Studies Program
Perhaps it was a mistake to take a second look through the Fall-Winter catalogue of the Oxford University Press. A strange book caught my eye: Children of Jesus and Mary: The Order of Christ Sophia. It’s a study in the genre of the sociology of new religious movements. Chapters are written by a combination of scholars, current adherents of the Order, and one former adherent. I picked up a review copy, but in the end I couldn’t bring myself to read the entire book.
Back in 1968, in the heyday of esoterica, a group calling itself the Holy Order of MANS (affectionately acronymed as HOOM) was founded by Earl Blighton (one hesitates to remark the name). It was, for the Age of Aquarius, a rather typical blend of traditional Catholicism and esoteric cosmology, but better organized than most of what came out of the particular kind of smoke-filled rooms which dominated those heady days. Anyway, the movement grew rapidly for, well, for about six years before it began to decline after Blighton died. People do, after all, eventually grow up, and by the late 1980’s, HOOM had shed its more esoteric elements and merged itself into the Eastern Orthodox Tradition. It is now on a more fruitful track, under the unobjectionable name of Christ the Savior Brotherhood.
But a man calling himself Father Peter and a woman calling herself Mother Clare wanted nothing to do with this drift into Eastern Orthodoxy, which they believed was a betrayal of, er, Father Blighton. After some time spent dithering unsuccessfully with their own movements, the Father and the Mother got together in 1999 to form the Order of Christ Sophia. OCS draws its basic teachings from the early HOOM, seeing itself as a “New Age mystery school” in which Mary has become the equal of Jesus (the Trinitarian formula is “In the name of the Creator, the Mediators, and the Holy Spirit”). The OCS assiduously trains initiates into fatherhood and motherhood through the doctrines and practices of esoteric Christianity, going beyond HOOM in its constant involvement with the psychological and emotional “care” of its adherents. A few years ago it opened itself to “lay” participation. One can imagine that Father Peter and Mother Clare manage to get many speaking engagements around the world. Apparently they travel widely.
But in the end, it seems that the OCS is assured a place in history not because of its extraordinary power and success but because contemporary religious studies departments at universities across the country are very interested in it. No, that’s not quite right. What they are very interested in is the study of the OCS, for their bread and butter is literature on new religious movements (they call ‘em NRMs for short). Thus this particular book is exciting to academe because, as one reviewer noted, it takes “us in on the ground floor of a new religious movement”, demonstrating “once again the vitality and innovation of the human search for the divine.”
To get a sense of what this is all about, think of that first-century Gnosticism which was so thoroughly condemned in the epistles of St. John. Then again, maybe the comparison is faulty. As of 2008, the OCS had between 130 and 160 members, depending on how you count, so perhaps St. John wouldn’t have bothered to make a note of its activities. Compare that to the mighty HOOM, which had adherents in more than 20 states. (How many adherents? Six hundred and nineteen.) But let’s be fair. OCS is certainly a movement worthy of today’s religious studies programs.
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