New direction troubling to Christian Scientists

September 30, 1990|By Diane Winston | Diane Winston,Sun Staff Correspondent

BOSTON -- In this proper town of tradition, where churche meet the future by clinging to the past, a tiny band of Christian Scientists is pursuing a bold and costly vision. Jettisoning the old ways, church leaders are spending millions to build up a worldwide radio and television venture that will tackle global issues in secular terms.

Proponents say they are developing innovative strategies to set the spiritual agenda of the next century. But critics contend that church leaders are selling out the Christian Science birthright -- the disciplined practice of spiritual healing -- for secular success.

Moreover, critics say they have been intimidated, with threats of firing or excommunication, from openly criticizing current policies. Frustrated, they circulate unsigned letters questioning church spending priorities and speak to reporters on the condition of anonymity.

"In the name of being forward-looking and progressive, the [church's] board of directors is changing the face of the church," said one disgruntled New Englander. "At a time when Christian Scientists are being persecuted for their belief in spiritual healing, the church is spending time and money in something that has nothing to do with it.

"The media effort is being spearheaded with messianic force as if it alone will save our movement."

Harvey Wood, a hale and hearty Texan who heads the church's five-member board of directors, sits comfortably at the center of the debate. An iconoclast who swapped beads and beard for a somber gray suit, Mr. Wood says the church needs not only a "new story" to tell society, but also new ways to tell that story.

But developing a fresh vision has been difficult for a denomination Mr. Wood describes as too inward-looking to be effective.

"A television camera crew went into the Boston Commons and, right in the shadow of the church, asked who was Mary Baker Eddy. No one knew," said Mr. Wood, referring to the church's founder. "The general public thought we had disappeared.

"Many of us woke up to the realization we were turned inward."

The church began gazing outward during a 1984 teleconference that linked believers worldwide. As Mr. Wood recalled, "we came together to reassess our reason for being." During the global gathering, "Scientists" -- as church members call themselves -- looked into television monitors and saw the future. They saw they could create a multimedia mission based on providing solid broadcast journalism.

Church leaders developed what they dubbed "the Monitor concept," which expanded the national and international coverage of the Christian Science Monitor, the church's celebrated but money-losing newspaper, to radio and television.

"We do exist as a denomination, but our efforts are not to promote the denomination," Mr. Wood said in a recent interview at the church's headquarters. "The story we want to tell has to do with the importance of bettering human experience through values, caring and unselfish concern about our environment."

Is that the story church members want told? Some say no.

The Church of Christ, Scientist was founded by Mary Baker Eddy in 1879. Her teaching was based on her belief that prayer and spiritual discipline could heal physical and emotional ills. Convinced that Jesus' healing ministry could be renewed today, Mrs. Eddy taught her followers to forgo medical treatment for spiritual healing -- the conviction that God created human beings to be well and whole.

In 1908 Mrs. Eddy founded the Christian Science Monitor, a daily newspaper that presented an alternative to the yellow journalism of the day. The newspaper, whose serious reportage and solid analysis won kudos from readers, provided non-Scientists with a sober balance to what many perceived as perplexing beliefs.

The opposition in the church today reflects tension over Mrs. Eddy's legacy. Is the Scientist's first priority to teach one-on-one spiritual healing? Or is it to offer a non-proselytizing vision of social healing to the world?

"This is a church, not a news organization," said one mid-Atlantic church member. "A lot of us feel these news activities are totally out of proportion. They are not of use to us or our movement."

Critics say they are concerned by several developments:

* Finances: Last year the church's media operations lost almost $57 million. This year, losses may hit $50 million. Some opponents of the media expansion estimate almost $250 million has been spent already. Operating funds are solicited through church publications and direct mail, and some critics say contributions are off. Non-media programs -- outreaches to local churches, college students and the armed forces -- have been pared down.

During the church's annual meeting this summer, church leaders denied that their mission's effectiveness could be measured by financial data and emphasized that they were, indeed, fiscally responsible.

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