Relaymedia

Christian Science and its Discontents

Nov 20, 2002 03:00 AM EST

Who is interested in doctrinal disputes inside the Christian Science Church? I am.

Just as it did in the late 1980s, the Church has launched a bold, expensive outreach initiative intended to broaden the appeal of Christian Science. With great fanfare, the Church is promoting its new $50 million Mary Baker Eddy Library for the Betterment of Humanity and has recently been "positioning" Christian Science as a healing art within the popular new age health movement.

And - exactly as happened when the Church flushed well over $300 million down the drain investing in the Monitor Channel, an ambitious, earnest, radio and television initiative - it is meeting resistance from "the field," which refers to members outside of the Back Bay-based Mother Church. Since the spring, two Christian Science teachers have been circulating a 144-page samizdat critique of Church activities, titled "Matters of Conscience," accompanied by several hundred pages of backup documentation.

In March, the authors met with the Board of Directors, chaired by Virginia Harris. Although they were forbidden from taking notes, they later reported that the board deemed their complaints "not valid." Since then, "Matters" has been sent to all English-speaking branch churches and to all Church practitioners, or healers. This is hardly a religion that needs to weather yet another round of dissent. Membership figures are subject to guesswork; however, the the numbers of practitioners and teachers listed in official Church publications, and the number of churches, have declined significantly during the past 10 years.

In a prepared statement, the Board of Directors said: "The interests of members are always thoughtfully considered. In all matters of decision, there are different perspectives about the issues. We're grateful for the opportunity to participate in an unprecedented public dialogue among the spiritual seekers and thinkers of our times, in faith, medical, scientific, academic, philanthropic, and online communities around the globe."

The dissidents' primary quarrel with the Church's leadership is "misrepresenting Christian Science by identifying it with Mind/Body, New Age, and medical trends." They accuse the mediagenic Harris of de-emphasizing the faith's Christian roots, of diluting the Church's message by promoting the work of celebrity healers such as Marianne Williamson and Deepak Chopra, and - worst of all - being an accommodator on medical issues.

They have closely tracked Harris's ongoing relationship with Dr. Herbert Benson's Mind/Body Medical Institute. "The Institute's basic purpose and programs have nothing spiritually in common with the purpose of Christian Science teaching," the dissidents state. (The irony here is that Benson, the igniter of the "relaxation response" that set off the 1960s meditation vogue, is about the least doctorly doctor in the medical universe.) "I know this has been controversial," Benson admits. "But others might view my involvement as an asset rather than a liability, seeing that the Church is exploring the teachings upon which it is founded."

"Matters of Conscience" also assails the recent portrayal of Eddy as a feminist crusader and a "sister reformer" to her contemporary Susan B. Anthony. Eddy was progressive in encouraging women to become teachers and healers in her new religion, but she reserved certain important posts for men. On the home front, she was a traditionalist: "Man should not be required to participate in all the annoyances and cares of domestic economy," she wrote in "Science and Health, "nor should woman be expected to understand political economy." "The feminist angle offered a new approach to Mary Baker Eddy," says Caroline Fraser, author of "God's Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church." "It's completely spurious and cynical; they're trying to rewrite history."

By Alex Beam