Leader left Divine Light behind him

Michael Cecil, whose father helped found the 4,000-member religion, walked away when adherents refused to embrace the outside world

Lord Michael Cecil Exeter once led one of the most successful New Age religions in North America. But he walked away from it all.

Michael Cecil, as he prefers to be known, headed the international Emissaries of Divine Light from his ranch in B.C.’s Cariboo for eight years after his father died in 1988.

He tried, he says, to open up the 4,000-member spiritual organization to the wider world. But, he laments, too many adherents didn’t want to leave their spiritual cocoon.

Also known as the Marquess of Exeter, the title of one of the most aristocratic families in Britain, Michael now co-directs a growing spiritual centre in Ashland, Ore., a city he believes has become North America’s newest hub of alternative religion.

Unreachable for an earlier article on the Emissaries of Divine Light, which was part of The Vancouver Sun’s “Road to Utopia” series, Cecil recently agreed to an interview. It marks his first public comments since his controversial decision to step down in 1996 as head of his father’s communal network.

“I feel the organization had become quite introverted. Some people who join such groups are just looking for a safe place to be,” Cecil said in an interview from his new home at Oregon’s Ashland Institute.

“I didn’t want to be part of an enclave separate from the world, which had the view we had the answer to life and nobody else did. But a number of Emissary stalwarts found that very difficult to tolerate. They wanted to stay in a cocoon, close to the way things were in the past. As a result, I felt I needed to move out into the larger sphere myself.”

Through The Ashland Institute (www.ashlandinstitute.org), he now devotes his energies to teaching chanting, meditation, dialogue, “attunement” (an Emissary form of spiritual healing), community building, “aligning the world with the planetary system” and assisting a large men’s organization called The Mankind Project.

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The spiritual movement co-founded by Cecil’s father makes up a large and exotic slice of B.C. history.

Lord Martin Cecil Exeter, the charismatic and patriarchal co-founder of the Emissaries, first moved to the Cariboo in the 1930s to take care of his family’s large ranch.

But Martin soon teamed up with a travelling-salesman-turned-guru named Lloyd Meeker. They started a religion. And after the untimely death of Meeker, Martin reigned over the Emissaries for four decades.

He drew in thousands of young adherents. As well as basically owning the city of 100 Mile House, the Emissaries by the 1980s operated dozens of stylish inter-connected centres around the world.

Before Martin died, he appointed his son to run the Emissaries, which he did for eight years, based out of the Cariboo. However, instead of placing spiritual authority in himself, as his father tended to do, Cecil urged members to become more democratic.

In the years in which Cecil was at the helm, as a result, the Emissaries’ numbers dropped by more than two-thirds.

While those who remain in the Emissaries credit Cecil with helping The Emissaries become less hierarchical than it was under his father, they also see him as a reluctant head who may not have had what what it takes to lead. While Emissaries continue to actively revere Martin, they largely ignore Michael Cecil.

However, Cecil, a soft-spoken 68-year-old, emphasizes: “I haven’t just retreated to the backwoods.”

He is excited about how the small town of Ashland, which draws 400,000 people a year to its Shakespeare Festival, has become the new home of best-selling New Age authors Jean Houston, Neil Donald Walsh and Gary Zukof, whom he counts as friends. Ashland, Cecil maintains, has taken over from Boulder, Col., as North America’s new centre for holistic spirituality.

Cecil says he still holds to most of his father’s mystical teachings, which, in a nutshell, emphasize that humans should try to embody God’s creative power for transformation.

But Cecil is now divorced from Nancy Meeker, the mother of his son, Anthony, 33, who runs the family’s 1,000-hectare Bridge Creek Ranch and land development company. The coupling of Cecil and Nancy had been an arranged “royal” marriage, bringing together the families of the two founders of the Emissaries.

Cecil is currently married to a former member of the Emissary’s South Africa centre, Barbara Cecil, who co-directs The Ashland Institute.

Cecil feels he has to stifle speculation that, unlike many former Emissaries who gave virtually everything they had to the Emissaries, he could afford to leave the communal organization because of his family’s private wealth.

He emphasizes he’s not as rich as some believe.

He acknowledges, however, he has a financial interest in the family’s ranch, which he visits about five times a year and from which he receives revenue.

And even though Cecil inherited the title that goes with England’s 200-room Burghley House, one of the most valuable palaces in England, he says he did not receive the wealth that would normally go with it.

That was because the only reason Cecil received the title was his uncle, David Cecil, an Olympic athlete featured in the movie, Chariots of Fire, didn’t have a son to inherit it. When he died, the honourific went to his brother Martin Cecil, who passed it on to Michael Cecil.

David Cecil’s daughters were given half of the 1,000-hectare property surrounding Burghley House. Michael Cecil says he receives no money from the estate. Because of complex inheritance and tax rules, David Cecil’s daughters decided in the 1980s, to begin operating the palace as a family trust and museum. It currently draws 60,000 visitors a year.

“When I visit Burghley House from time to time,” Cecil says, “the only thing that happens is the flag goes up, showing the marquess is in residence. The title of marquess is still pretty good for getting a decent seat in a restaurant in England. But that’s about it.”

His title means he is a peer of the realm, a lord. However, Cecil says people who inherit titles can no longer sit in the House of Lords, since Prime Minister Tony Blair changed the rules.

Cecil says he doesn’t care at all. He continues to prefer the West Coast, where he grew up. Like his father, who loved the openness of the Canadian wilderness after feeling stifled by upper-class British society, Cecil is firmly committed to what he considers North America’s more free and creative spirit.

“I will,” he says, “make my own contribution, to whatever I can, here.”

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