Progressive Church Finds New Age Ties Unsettling

Associated Press, Feb. 22, 2003
By Lisa Leff, Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — The Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist has always prided itself on being a model of inclusiveness and compassion. It welcomed homeless and AIDS-stricken members, hired openly gay priests and adopted the motto “Diverse People, Inquiring Minds, Open Hearts.”

But after some of the congregation’s leaders warmed to New Age spirituality, a big rift opened up in the 145-year-old church that has yet to fully heal.

The problems centered on a church-affiliated dance group, the St. John’s Divine Rhythm Society, and allegations that it condoned — if not promoted — illegal drug use at all-night parties modeled on raves.

The Episcopal bishop for Northern California has intervened, the Rev. Kevin Pearson has been ousted as pastor, and four members of the church’s governing board recently resigned.

“It’s not the drugs that are poisoning our spiritual community,” one parishioner wrote in an appeal to Bishop William Swing. “It is the lies and the secrets.”

The rhythm society was formed in the early 1990s as an exclusive club. The idea was to provide spiritual seekers a way to dance toward enlightenment.

The society began hosting quarterly, invitation-only gatherings at St. John’s — midnight-to-morning celebrations featuring deejays, light shows and New Age themes. The gatherings drew about 350 people, more than three times the number that belonged to the parish. They ranged from children to seniors, but the core group consisted of adults in their twenties and thirties.

The group never pretended it would use the dances to further the Christian gospel. But according to parishioners on both sides of the debate, Pearson’s predecessor, the Rev. David Nogard, saw it as an opportunity to inject new energy into the dwindling ranks of his congregation and the church’s landmark Victorian building.

Although the association seemed to work early on, it took a troubled turn after Pearson’s arrival in August 2001. Some veteran church members became offended by what they saw as the 41-year-old rector’s embrace of the rhythm society at the expense of the rest of his flock.

They also objected to some of the changes he introduced to the established liturgy, such as directing the church choir to chant the Hindu mantra “Om” instead of the Nicene Creed.

“Unlike the previous pastor, Kevin became very interested in what we were doing,” said Michael Lazar, a videographer who has acted as the society’s spokesman. “Frankly, he saw a group of very active, very bright people coming in and making more use of the space.”

Tensions climaxed last summer when a man attending the society’s June function was found unconscious in a church restroom, the victim of an apparent overdose of GHB, the so-called date rape drug. The man survived, but parishioners began calling for a split between the church and the society.

Contributing to the fallout was Pearson’s handling of the situation, church and society members agree. When a church leader wanted to inform fellow governing board members about the overdose, the rector allegedly wrote her an e-mail saying, “I think this is a situation that the fewer people who have to know about it, the better.”

Pearson did not return several calls seeking comment.

Rhythm society members strenuously deny that they tolerated drug use at their events. Guests were required to sign pledges promising to abide by the group’s rule that no illegal activity would be allowed on church grounds, and several people were ejected for appearing to be high, Lazar said.

For the remainder of the summer and through the fall, Pearson, the rhythm society and congregation leaders made several unsuccessful attempts to coexist. The rhythm society argued that it was being made a scapegoat for the parish’s problems with Pearson. Church members felt Pearson was too closely allied with the dance group.

Swing was called in to mediate, but the process failed. In late January, Pearson agreed to resign along with the governing board members whose terms weren’t already expiring the following week.

The rhythm society decided to end its affiliation with the church. What will happen to the dance group is unclear.

“In the western United States, there are groups seeking a path to the divine through New Age spiritual movements,” said Nicholas van Aelstyn, a former St. John’s vestry member who grew disillusioned with the parish’s association with the rhythm society. “A real question for Christian churches is how to relate to them. This is an example of how not to relate.”

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