PBS, Religion & Ethics, Feb. 14, 2003
BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: We have a special report today — on Christian Science, the Church of Christ, Scientist. Its founder, Mary Baker Eddy, claimed to have discovered a science behind the healing miracles of Jesus. But in recent years, the Church has suffered controversy and decline. The Church says it has no membership figures, but observers say its numbers may have fallen below 100,000. The Mother Church, as it is known, has been exploring new ways to reach the public. But some Christian Scientists charge the price of that has been to downplay Christian theology. Deryl Davis reports.
DERYL DAVIS: Christian Science officials say it represents a “new face” for their church — a $50 million library complex dedicated to 21st-century spiritual seekers. Gary Jones is a chief spokesperson for the Church.
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GARY JONES (Manager, Committee on Publication): We’re all seeing an opportunity here to connect with the public, to go more mainstream, to tear down walls.
DAVIS: But some Church members say it’s Christian Science theology that’s being torn down, and that the high-tech library is part of an expensive and misleading scheme to attract new members to a declining church.
ELIZABETH KIDDER (Christian Science Practitioner): We’re not being honest about who we are to the public, and we’re not being honest even to some of our members about what we really believe.
DAVIS: Elizabeth Kidder is one of a number of Christian Science practitioners, or professional healers, who’ve supported a written complaint about the Church leadership. They accuse it of being dictatorial and of mismanaging funds and programs, including a failed television channel in the 1980s, which reportedly cost several hundred million dollars. Worst of all, say critics, many current policies are at odds with the fundamental Christian identity of their faith.
Stephen Simurda has covered the Church for BOSTON magazine.
STEPHEN J. SIMURDA (Professor, University of Massachusetts, Amherst): This crisis right now in the Church is about an approach being taken by the leadership to market Christian Science as a commodity that is palatable to a broad range of people who are not Christian Scientists, but who have an interest in a variety of what some folks might describe as New Age beliefs.
Ms. KIDDER: We are not alternative health care, we are not theosophy, we are not mind-body therapies, we are a religion. And our theology is decidedly Bible-based. It is Christian, and it is monotheistic.
DAVIS: Jones rejects charges that the leadership is misrepresenting the faith or its Christian foundations.
Mr. JONES: The Bible’s not being sidelined at all. Christian Science lectures are freely using the words “God” and “healing” and “prayer” referring to Christ Jesus.
DAVIS: Jones says a small group of people is simply uncomfortable with the current vision for the Church.
Mr. JONES: There are just a few individuals with their own personal opinions about the Church’s direction. Attending conferences like mind-body-spirit conferences and rubbing elbows with people of all kinds of persuasions is just a matter of engaging in conversation, dialoging with others. We’re all spiritual seekers.
DAVIS: Practitioner Cheryl Peterson supports the new ways of presenting Christian Science.
CHERYL PETERSEN (Christian Science Practitioner): We’ve got to move with the times, and when anything is being done, if the motive is pure and it’s for goodwill of mankind, it’s right, and it needs to be supported.
DAVIS: Mary Baker Eddy never set out to found a church. Rather, she believed she had discovered a science behind Jesus’ healing miracles which was available to everyone. She put that discovery into her book, SCIENCE AND HEALTH WITH KEY TO THE SCRIPTURES, first published in 1875. It describes a radical way of viewing reality — that all that exists is God.
Professor RENNIE SCHOEPFLIN (La Sierra University): What one thinks is what is. If one thinks that sin, sickness, and disease exist, then they will. The crucial element, therefore, of the healing process is to come to a clear understanding that we aren’t sick.
DAVIS: Anything can be healed, according to Christian Science — from physical illness to marital problems and financial crises. The job of practitioners like Cheryl Peterson is to help others achieve their own healing — called a “demonstration” — through a deeper understanding of God.
Ms. PETERSEN: A Christian Science practitioner is like a scientist. It’s working through rules that you follow. And it’s not just having faith in, that goodwill happens. It’s an honest conviction that I really actively need to be thinking properly and acting according to that thought and to be able to practice what I know — the end result of which is healing.
DAVIS: Virginia Harris is chair of the Church’s governing body, the Board of Directors.
VIRGINIA HARRIS (Chair, Board of Directors): If it’s a physical illness, one is free to use a doctor or free to use Christian Science treatment. I think you’ll find that most Christian Scientists will first go to a Christian Science practitioner if their own prayers don’t work for them. Christian Science is really about self-care.
DAVIS: Every Sunday, Christian Scientists around the world read the same passages selected from SCIENCE AND HEALTH and the Bible. They don’t have ministers or priests. Instead, members refer to the two texts as their “pastor.”
Many people become familiar with Christian Science through its reading rooms. Every church around the world has a reading room. There are 2,000 worldwide. Each church has a Christian Science reading room.
The Church’s approximately 1,500 full-time practitioners get most of their clients, who pay them, through listings in the journal. Recently, in a document called “Matters of Conscience,” two practitioners charged Church leaders with a decade’s worth of alleged abuses. The authors’ names were removed from the journal and they were stripped of their teaching authority, prompting an outcry from Kidder and others.
Ms. KIDDER: This particular administration in our Church seems intent to silence criticism or just questioning of policies and presentations of Christian Science. The manual of the Mother Church allows for complaining, formal complaints. And “Matters of Conscience” is merely that.
DAVIS: Jones says the Church has listened, but the critics have not followed the manual.
Mr. JONES: A few individuals here have gone way beyond the bounds of that Church document and, in effect, have abandoned the processes provided for by Mrs. Eddy.
Prof. SIMURDA: The Church is correct when it says there’s only a small number of people behind this effort. However, what it doesn’t reflect accurately is that there are a large number of people who are very sympathetic with the message that the “Matter of Conscience” group is putting forth.
Ms. KIDDER: I’m willing to speak out because I teach a Sunday School class of 10-year-olds, and I look into those little faces and I’m not willing to give them a counterfeit. And I think what’s being presented as Christian Science right now is not our true theology.
DAVIS: All sides in the Christian Science debate want their church to be dynamic, forward-looking, and faithful to the founder’s intentions. The question is exactly how to do that.
Mr. JONES: The Church is moving forward with what it’s always stood for. We’re responding to this increased demand for spirituality.
Ms. KIDDER: This is a juncture for us. Will there be a schism and a reform movement? Or will we be able to get together intelligently and discuss this and make reformation?
DAVIS: Schism would be a hard blow for a church which, according to observers, has already experienced significant decline.
In Boston, I’m Deryl Davis reporting.
The Church of Christ, Scientist
The Christian Science Monitor
The Mary Baker Eddy Library
Boston Magazine: “A Leap of Faith” by Stephen Simurda
A CENTURY OF CHRISTIAN SCIENCE HEALING by Christian Science Publishing Society
SCIENCE AND HEALTH WITH KEY TO THE SCRIPTURES by Mary Baker Eddy
MARY BAKER EDDY by Gillian Gill
MARY BAKER EDDY by Robert Peel
HEALTH AND MEDICINE IN THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE TRADITION: PRINCIPLE, PRACTICE AND CHALLENGE by Robert Peel
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE ON TRIAL: RELIGIOUS HEALING IN AMERICA by Rennie Schoepflin
THE EMERGENCE OF CHRISTIAN SCIENCE IN AMERICAN RELIGIOUS LIFE by Stephen Gottschalk
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE IN THE AGE OF MARY BAKER EDDY by Stuart Knee
THE POSITIVE THINKERS by Donald Meyer
MIND CURE IN NEW ENGLAND by Gail Thain Parker
WOMEN’S LEADERSHIP IN MARGINAL RELIGIONS: EXPLORATIONS OUTSIDE THE MAINSTREAM edited by Catherine Wessinger
“Mary Baker Eddy” by Sydney Ahlstrom in NOTABLE AMERICAN WOMEN edited by Edward T. James et al.