Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines the roles of women in the Holy Order of MANS and in the Order of Christ Sophia (OCS) and offers a model for understanding the relationships among gender roles, gender qualities, and power in religious movements. It explores the teachings of these orders and how they relate to the roles of women. The founders of the OCS live in a time that is more appreciative of the feminine and have created an organization that more effectively empowers women and values the feminine. But, as happened with the Holy Order of MANS, there is always the risk of reversion to societal pressures to conform to gender roles. The fact that the OCS has integrated an appreciation of women at all levels of the structure and that the order educates its members to see, understand, and combat social and emotional pressures to conform to gender roles is key to its support for the long-term empowerment of women and honoring of the divine feminine.
There has been considerable academic and mainstream media exploration of the issue of women, power, and religion, but far less about specifically new religious movements (NRMs). There are a few issues that complicate the study of women’s roles in religious groups. These issues include disagreements about how power and subjugation are defined, the question of who gets to decide if another person is empowered, and what power means and how power is expressed. Additionally, there does not appear to be agreement about what characteristics are “natural” to women as opposed to men and how femininity and masculinity are defined. These issues are unresolved in the fields of gender studies and psychology, and they spill over into a consideration of women’s roles in religious groups.
In Godly Women: Fundamentalism and Female Power (1998), Brenda Brasher explores the way that women evangelicals see themselves and their role in the church. She explores how many of the women in these churches define themselves as empowered and their perceptions of traditional gender roles, the church, and their own identities as women. Brasher attempts to both honor their self-perception and question it. Her book brings up one of the most persistently challenging questions of psychology: who gets to decide if a perception is accurate? It is easy to demonstrate that perceptions are potentially inaccurate and that our ideas about our own motivations can be as untrustworthy as our assumptions about others’ motivations. From this perspective, it is impossible to know the (p.126) difference between women who actually feel empowered within a patriarchal structure and those who tell themselves that they are empowered to avoid the discomfort of facing the truth. The question of the accuracy of self-report, self-perception, and other issues is centrally important to understanding women and power in NRMs, and at the same time it is almost impossible to fully and fairly address.
In Women in New Religions (1997), Elizabeth Puttick examines a wide range of religious groups and perspectives. She explores issues of power structures, doctrines, and practices of various NRMs as they relate to women and power. Puttick was a member of the Osho (Rajneesh) group and focuses on that NRM in many of her examples. She effectively brings to light the complexity of the issue of empowerment for women. She notes that although Osho (the leader of the movement) was notably positive toward women and seemed to offer empowered positions in the organization to women, he also stated that women were not qualified to be masters. Puttick quotes him as saying, “women have a much more feeling heart, are more loving, are more open, are more receptive. But these are the qualities of a disciple not of a master” (1997:178). She also reports that he claimed that only a male mind can be a master because one must be aggressive to be a master and women by nature are receptive. Osho’s adherence to traditional gender roles in this area was counter to more gender-neutral perspectives in most areas of the organization. This group presents us with an excellent example of the enduring power of the patriarchal structures and how they often hold sway even in otherwise empowering environments for women. Another interesting point is made regarding two women, Shiela and Poonam, who held the highest positions in the organization. Although both women held a great deal of power, and Shiela may have actually functionally controlled the organization, both eventually left the movement, and the organization remained intact under Osho. This demonstrates the vast difference between being one of the leaders of an organization and being the leader of an organization. Though some women were empowered, they were also replaceable; ultimately, Osho held all of the spiritual and temporal authority.
Both in her book Moon Sisters, Krishna Mothers, Rajneesh Lovers: Women’s Roles in New Religions (1994) and her chapter on women in NRMs in The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements (2004), Palmer puts forth a modification of Allen’s (1987) typology of sex identity. Palmer retains Allen’s original terms and basic definitions but alters them to better fit the needs of NRMs. The types are sex complementarity groups, sex unity groups, and sex polarity groups. Palmer describes sex complementarity groups as those that believe that women and men are equal and necessary for each other’s spiritual growth. Sex unity groups tend to believe that gender is unimportant and/or mutable, while sex (p.127) polarity groups tend to foster the belief that men and women are different and that one is superior to the other (usually with men being labeled superior). In her book, she categorizes seven different NRMs in terms of this model and explores the roles of women in these organizations. Palmer gathered data on these groups through interviews with current and ex-members, their own census data, and questionnaires. She endeavors to integrate theories that explore the motivations of participants for joining NRMs and information about the roles of women within each organization. She touches on, but does not examine in depth, the mechanisms by which organizations maintain or change their attitudes and practices concerning women and power.
Palmer and other researchers have noted how the relationships among the hierarchy of an organization, its teachings, and its daily practices affect women’s roles and level of empowerment. Her adaptation of Allen’s model is useful in organizing NRMs into wide categories of gender relationships. However, as both Palmer and Puttick note, doctrines regarding women and the roles of women in these organizations are complex and often even contradictory.
In my perspective, there are many levels at which an organization deals with the themes of women, femininity, and power. Each of these levels is important, and at each level there are ways in which the security of the empowerment of women can be compromised, dismantled, or strengthened. In this chapter, I will offer a model that allows a more systematic approach to the multiple levels at which an organization deals with gender roles and issues of equality. In doing so, I hope we can begin to identify patterns within a variety of NRMs and observe how these structures affect the long-term stability of the organization and its relationship to women, femininity, and power. Specifically, I will examine the roles of women in the Holy Order of MANS and in the Order of Christ Sophia in terms of the relationships among gender roles, gender qualities, and power. I will include an exploration of the teachings of these orders and how they relate to the roles of women. I have been a member of OCS since its inception and have only secondhand knowledge of the HOOM. I am therefore at a disadvantage in describing the role of women in HOOM but have used the research and available accounts to give HOOM a fair reading.
In order to fully understand how a religious group relates to women and the feminine, I believe that one must consider at least five levels of structure (see figure 6.1). At the top is the group’s conception of the divine. This is paramount because the divine is by definition the ultimate good, and therefore an image or description of the divine as being exclusively male situates female followers in the position of “other” or “less than” the ultimate good. Therefore, it could be argued that a religion cannot be fully egalitarian if God is conceptualized as male.
(p.128) In Christianity, the conception of divinity is extended not only to the Creator God but to Jesus Christ and, in some cases, the Virgin Mary. How a group places these figures in relationship to each other and in an overall hierarchy may reflect its expectations for followers’ relative roles. For example, if Mary is conceptualized as a “good woman” who through her chastity and obedience to the masculine God was able to be a vessel for a male embodiment of God, then the expectation among followers may reflect this concept, and women may be valued primarily for their submission to “godly” men. Puttick seems to support this perspective when she asserts that “the most fundamental problem for women in the Judeo-Christian tradition is the overpowering dominance of the male perspective, which has constructed and distorted the core symbolism and language of the system” (1997:196). She goes on to assert that “the most obvious manifestation of this sexism—both underlying and overriding—is the lack of any concept of the divine feminine.”
At the second level are the founder(s) and spiritual leader(s) of the organization. This level is significant because the spiritual leader(s) of the organization act as a model of enlightenment, holiness, and godhood. And models can be more powerful in the communication of role expectations than are explicit teachings.
The third level represents the overt teachings of the organization, including sacred texts, official oral communications, and supplementary writings or sayings of the leaders. This includes not only the content of the teachings, but also the form. Gendered language and male-dominated stories can support the devaluing of the feminine, while degendered language and examples of both women and men as prophets, heroes, or sages can support an egalitarian structure. In her survey of the Raelian movement, Palmer suggests that the poor (p.129) representation of women in the highest levels of the organization despite their higher overall representation in the organization may have been partly due to a male gender bias in the language of the movement and the male-dominated nature of its central myth. This example supports the idea that factors like language use and male-dominated myths can affect the overall structure of an organization.
The last two levels are leadership structure and daily practices. At these levels, the teachings and culture of the organization can be made manifest in the daily lives of the followers. Leadership structure includes the ratio of male leaders to female leaders and the ratio of men to women in the highest levels of the organization (e.g., the board of directors). The last level consists of the daily practices and the roles of men and women in the organization. This includes the division of labor, access to sacred teachings or people, and other prescribed sex roles.
I have placed these levels in a hierarchy as a way of representing the tendency for these patterns to trickle down from the highest levels of the organization, but this picture is not completely accurate. In my studies of the lifespans of several NRMs, it appears that, at certain periods in the groups’ development, changes in the lifestyle patterns of the followers lead to changes in the power structure and teachings of organizations. Palmer describes how, in the Krishna consciousness movement, the pairing of couples led to changes in the rules about how old a man had to be to leave his wife to pursue solitary religious practices. Lucas describes how in the Holy Order of MANS a maturing of the follower base led to a surge of marriages and childbearing, and this pattern made a shift in the overall structure. The relationships among the different aspects of an organization are complex and difficult to define. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this chapter, I have used a simplified hierarchical model to compare the structures of HOOM and OCS.
Holy Order of MANS
The Holy Order of MANS was founded by Earl Blighton (referred to as Father Paul) in 1968 (though Blighton himself cited 1961 as the “birthday” of the order) in San Francisco, California. Father Paul seems to have calculated the date of the start of the HOOM based on the timing of his movement into active spiritual leadership, which eventually culminated in the formation of HOOM rather than the incorporation of the organization itself. The HOOM went through various stages of development while Blighton was alive and more dramatic ones after his death. I will focus on the time period before Andrew Rossi (p.130) orchestrated the move into the Russian Orthodox Church. For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to four stages of HOOM’s evolution: stage 1: 1967–1970, stage 2: 1971–1972, stage 3: 1973–1974, and stage 4: 1974–1984.
Conception of God
Throughout the first three stages of HOOM, the conception of God seems to have been primarily nongendered, though the language for God was masculine. According to Lucas (1995), the conception of the role of Mary, the mother of Jesus, changed several times over the lifespan of HOOM. Lucas notes that, between 1971 and 1972, a new emphasis arose on Mary as a vessel for grace and mediation with God. In this first stage of the elevation of Mary, Blighton’s focus was primarily on Mary as a vehicle for connecting to Jesus and her role as a healer of women and children (Lucas (1995). In this position, Mary was conceived as important and blessed, but her role was limited to a focus on feminine things. Mary was not conceptualized as a full equal to Jesus until at least 1974, when Blighton asserted that Jesus and Mary shared full responsibility for mediating God to human beings (Lucas 1995). In the last stage of HOOM, after Blighton’s death, there was a distinct move toward seeing Mary as an example of female submission and home-based womanhood. As mentioned above, the role of Mary or the divine feminine has a clear and direct relationship to the roles of women in religious organizations.
Blighton was clearly revolutionary in his empowerment of women into the Christian priesthood. He appeared to be supportive of women’s equality with men in all spheres of functioning. However, he was male and was the model of leadership and spiritual mastery. In addition, his wife, Ruth, although a master teacher in name, never shared his authority or power in the order. These facts may have weakened his teachings about the equality of women.
During the first three stages of HOOM’s lifespan, the overt teachings of the organization were clearly in favor of female empowerment. According to Lucas, Blighton was hesitant to ordain women but asserted that he had direct guidance from Jesus to do so. Lucas observes that Blighton felt that the empowerment of women was an integral part of the evolutionary movement of the planet, but had doubts about the practicality of training women and men (p.131) together. Father Paul taught that women needed to take on more of the masculine aspect in order to function well as priests, but did not suggest that men needed to take on any feminine aspects. Blighton did not teach that the feminine and masculine aspects are equally important, nor that both men and women should strive for a balance of these qualities. Therefore, in certain ways, masculine traits were given a higher status in the order.
In the fourth stage of the HOOM lifespan, the order moved distinctly toward a family focus with a fourfold increase in marriages and births over a three-year period. Though the overt teachings did not change dramatically at first, the message was given to the female priests that they could substitute child rearing for other ministerial duties (Lucas 1995). By the time the overt message condemning feminism and prescribing traditional subservient roles appeared in written form in 1984, the movement toward the disempowerment of women was well under way (Lucas 1995). As in many religious organizations, the disempowerment of women was framed as a protection of the sanctity of women and as an acknowledgment of their “true” spiritual nature—a nature that precluded overt power or status in the organization.
In the first three stages of HOOM, women enjoyed equal power to men and made up a significant portion of the priest body; half of the highest strata of the organization were female. Blighton downplayed the traditional roles of women and stated that a woman could only be fully free in her service to Christ (Lucas 1995). During his tenure as director-general, there were very few marriages. Many married couples were sent to different parts of the country to pursue their spiritual development, and some of the children born of these marriages were sent to a communal facility for raising children in the HOOM (Lucas 1995). These practices may have been an attempt on Blighton’s part to protect women from traditional roles in order to support their empowerment as priests and teachers. After his death, the movement toward family and traditional roles for women successfully undermined their status as leaders in HOOM and began the descent into the subjugation of women within the order. This descent concluded with a full denial of women’s rights to work outside the home, to have any authority, or to speak in church.
Blighton’s death in 1974 was clearly the turning point for changes in the power granted to women. The first clear indication of these changes may have been the election of Andrew Rossi as director-general, at which time his wife, Isjesian (Patricia) Rossi, was assigned the lesser position of co-director (Lucas 1995). It was the first time a female master teacher was downgraded from full (p.132) equality with her husband. In the previous year, they had officially been co-stewards of HOOM. But in the permanent election of Andrew to the position of director-general, Isjesian was demoted to a position below him. Andrew would later spearhead the movement toward the disempowerment and redomestication of all female ministers (Lucas 1995).
Many of the daily practices of the members of HOOM underwent dramatic changes after Blighton’s death. During Blighton’s tenure as director-general, female members of the order shared in all of the tasks of the ministry, though they were protected from more dangerous pursuits. Lucas states that while the men did “street missions” by themselves, the women were permitted to go out only if they were in pairs or had a brother to watch over them (1995). In the last stage of the order’s lifespan, women were first encouraged and then ordered to inhabit only roles that were considered to be traditionally proper for women, such as child care and homemaking.
One of the few aspects of HOOM that remained consistent throughout its lifespan was the use of masculine pronouns for God and the use of masculine pronouns for mixed groups of people, for example, referring to a time “when men will be healed of selfishness” when one was referring to a group of men and women. All of HOOM’s texts used this type of language and, whenever examples of a student’s behavior were given in the texts, the person was male. In the communion service and in other prayers, Jesus was mentioned and petitioned but not Mary. The Trinity was described as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, without a place for Mary or the feminine aspect of God. In contrast, the terms OCS uses for the Trinity are the Father-Mother (or Mother-Father, depending on the prayer), the mediators (Jesus and Mary), and the Holy Spirit. While this could seem to be minimally important in the scope of the practices, HOOM’s use of gendered language set a tone and an unconscious assumption of God’s masculine nature.
Order of Christ Sophia
Conception of God
The conceptions of God in both orders have a great deal of similarity, but OCS more fully integrates the conception of God as feminine as well as masculine. The feminine aspects of God are specifically acknowledged and seen as valuable. The feminine aspect of the Creator is referred to as Mother-God or Sophia and is treated as the equal counterpart to the Christ. The OCS has a model of (p.133) divinity that honors both the feminine and masculine aspects of the divine at each level of the hierarchy. It starts with Father-Mother God, followed by Christ/Sophia, which comes into human/divine form in Jesus and Mary. Mary is treated as a co-mediator and co-redeemer with Christ. This means that it is believed that she too paid for the sins of the world with Jesus and therefore plays an equal part in the redemption of humanity. This level of integration of the feminine as equally valuable to the nature and power of the God holds a significant power in the psyche of the order and supports the equality of women and respect for the feminine throughout the structure of the OCS.
The Order of Christ Sophia was founded by Mother Clare Watts and Father Peter Bowes as a coalescence of the orders that each of the founders ran separately until 1999. Bowes was trained in HOOM but was ordained a priest and master teacher by Raeson Ruiz after Blighton’s death and the movement of HOOM into the Russian Orthodox Church. Bowes, his wife, Andrea, and Ruiz ran the order together until Ruiz’s death in 1983.
Watts was trained in the Brotherhood of Christ by Bowes between 1983 and 1984, and then by Master John Hartman, a master teacher ordained and functioning under Bowes. After Bowes dissolved the BOC in 1989, Watts continued to work with Hartman until 1993. Between 1989 and 1994, Watts had sporadic contact with Bowes. In 1996, after Watts shared a dream she had with Bowes, he received inner guidance to ordain her a priest in spite of the fact that there existed no order through which she could function.
After Watts’s ordination, she stayed in contact with Bowes but began an independent order named the Holy Order of Sophia (HOS), which was focused on the spiritual empowerment of women. She began having meetings in her home for women to discuss spiritual topics and to practice meditation. During the first two years of the HOS, Watts did not use the Tree of Life texts from HOOM nor follow a pattern of initiation based on HOOM’s teachings. She eventually found that the students were not moving forward spiritually and decided to return to the structure and materials of HOOM, but was concerned about the obliqueness of the writing, the organizational style used in the original texts, and the predominance of gendered language. Bowes agreed to edit the texts for clarity and changed the male pronouns to female ones in the Tree of Life lessons. Watts immediately began using the texts and adopted many of the teaching and sacramental patterns used in HOOM. Meanwhile, Bowes began once again to teach meditation classes in Wisconsin and soon had students who were being instructed directly and given initiations.
(p.134) As Watts’s order grew, she found it unconscionable to not include the men who were requesting to be trained in the HOS, and she shifted the mission of her order to include men in the mystical teachings and practices. In 1998, Bowes and Watts began visiting each other’s centers and providing guest lectures and workshops. In 1999, Bowes and Watts combined their orders into one, which became the Order of Christ Sophia. The OCS continued the mission of HOS to empower women while also training and ordaining men.
The genesis of OCS is relevant on many levels. The fact that Watts ran her own order and joined Bowes as the co-director of OCS speaks to the pattern of gender equality in the highest levels of the organization. Bowes and Watts never undermined each other, partook in gender-prescribed roles, nor had a romantic relationship with each other. Their relationship as leaders of OCS was equal and mutually respectful from the inception of the order. Watts and Bowes share all directorial duties in OCS equally. They ordain and train the priests and deacons, travel to all of the Centers of Light to teach seminars, run retreats, and supervise the financial and administrative aspects of OCS. This speaks to a fundamental difference between OCS and HOOM. The fact that Blighton ran HOOM and that his wife, Ruth, also a master teacher, never functioned as an equal to him seems to have undermined his teaching of gender equality.
The teachings about men and women are similar in both orders but have been greatly elaborated in OCS. Blighton taught that women were as capable as men to be leaders and that women should be empowered to take on traditionally masculine roles. Bowes and Watts added a body of teachings about the different ways that men and women express masculine and feminine aspects. They describe how women who try to take on masculine attitudes and energy can fall into a “mock masculine” or “negative masculine” role. In the mock masculine position, a woman or man may be dictatorial, overly critical, inarguably right, or controlling. In contrast, a woman or man expressing “positive masculine” would be confident, relaxed, active, and direct. The same applies to men. Men can act out positive or negative masculine, but are more prone to “negative feminine” or “mock feminine.” Watts and Bowes teach that negative feminine is expressed in moodiness, sulking, acting powerless, and shallowly expressing emotion or empathy. Negative feminine would prefer to have passive control rather than active power. In contrast, positive feminine is expressed in receptivity to divine energy, containment and nurturance of new internal growth, intuitive understanding and wisdom, and deep expression of feelings, empathy, and connection. Bowes and Watts say that both expressions are equally imperative (p.135) for spiritual work and that men and women are both allotted the task of coming into a balance of the masculine and feminine expressions in themselves. Students of both genders are encouraged to strengthen their weak feminine or masculine aspects and are taught spiritual and interpersonal skills to better express themselves in a balanced way.
Watts and Bowes also teach that the soul is not gendered and therefore the sex of the body is secondary to the nongendered soul. As a soul, one chooses a male or female body because it will best support the lessons that the soul is to learn. The OCS teachings do not support the idea that developed and spiritually healthy men and women need each other nor that either sex is incomplete without the other. Nor do they say that there are no differences between men and women. In this way, OCS does not fit neatly into one of Palmer’s types but is most closely aligned with the sex unity typology.
From its inception, OCS attracted a disproportionate number of women, and the first five years of the Order were marked by a nearly five-to-one female-to-male ratio. It is difficult to pinpoint the source of the disparity in male versus female members, but it is likely that some men were uncomfortable being led so directly by women and/or saw the order’s focus on valuing and empowering the feminine as unwelcoming of men. In the last five years, the number of male members has grown significantly, and there now appears to be closer to a three-to-one female-to-male ratio. There are currently significantly more female priests than male priests and more women than men on the board of directors, but the leadership of the organization reflects the overall ratio of the body of members and therefore does not suggest a bias against men.
The daily practices of OCS reflect a deeply egalitarian relationship between men and women. Married couples share housework, child rearing, and work outside the home. Priests who run Centers of Light with their spouses are expected to share administrative, financial, and teaching duties equally. Students and ministers are supported in pursuing gender-typical or -atypical occupations without bias. Members are supported in choosing to have children or to remain childless and to marry or remain celibate. In all aspects of daily life, the ministers and teachers encourage members to release undue attachment to ideas about what would make them happy or what roles they should play. They are encouraged to seek balance and to strengthen weak aspects of their (p.136) personalities rather than to do what is easiest or what has been expected of them. Couples and individuals in OCS receive ongoing counseling and instruction toward building mutually loving and respectful relationships, overcoming gendered tendencies to be passive or controlling, and working through pain and conflict.
The OCS members also use degendered references for God. Degendered Bibles are used for readings, contemplations, and personal use. Mary is discussed, prayed to, and revered equally with Jesus. At retreats or whenever both directors are present, Bowes and Watts take turns leading lectures and discussions. During the period when one is leading, the other is quiet and only rarely adds to the discussion. Neither director spends more time talking or teaching than the other. The same applies for male and female priests at the Centers of Light.
One important factor that was not explored in the discussion above is societal influences. It is easy to forget that Americans have only allowed women full access to careers and education and protection against discrimination and sexual harassment since the 1970s. We are truly in the process of finding and practicing a new model of female identity and expression. It seems that NRMs have often been the laboratory in which new models of gender relations have been tried and tested, and the HOOM is no exception. I believe that OCS has effectively used the tools and lessons from HOOM’s successes and failures to build a better model for gender equality and for the honoring of the divine feminine.
In my observation, a number of factors that influenced the incomplete and/or unstable empowerment of women in HOOM have been corrected in OCS. The primary two seem to be (1) Earl Blighton’s failure to fully empower his wife and/or Ruth Blighton’s refusal to be outwardly powerful; and (2) the lack of appreciation for and teachings of the value of the feminine. Blighton encouraged his students to overcome emotional problems through selfless work. He did not appear to value sharing feelings, processing conflict, or any of the more feminine processes of healing, and he did not encourage his male students to develop their feminine attributes. Likely, this was due, at least in part, to his age and the period in which he was teaching. The culture itself did not yet appreciate emotional processes and healing, and his generation valued it even less. Bowes and Watts have had the distinct advantage of living in a time that is more appreciative of feminine processes. Trained as psychotherapists, (p.137) they both have reported personal revelations regarding the importance of empowering the feminine. These factors have coalesced to create an organization that more effectively and more steadily empowers women and values the feminine. But societal factors continue to be powerful, and there is always the risk of reversion, of succumbing to societal pressures to conform to expected gender roles.
I do not think there is any way to guarantee the continuation of positive equality and the empowerment of women in OCS. However, the OCS has integrated an appreciation of the feminine into all levels of the organizational structure, and it educates its members to see, understand, and combat social and emotional pressures to conform to gender roles. These factors are key to supporting the long-term empowerment of women and to honoring the divine feminine. (p.138)