Despite Unresolved Split, Religious Science Convention Goes On
Religious Science, a nationwide movement founded and based in Los Angeles, has been around 70 years and its churches nearly as long. But Religious Science members say they are often confused with Christian Science churchgoers or Scientologists.
Unlike Christian Science, however, Religious Science permits medical treatment as a supplement to prayer for healing. And Religious Science’s eclectic metaphysical philosophy and local independence for its 170 congregations stand in contrast to the tightly run Church of Scientology.
So, as the United Church of Religious Science debates ways to establish its public identity at its annual convention this weekend at the Sheraton Universal Hotel, it hardly needs the distraction of a legal battle for control of its historic Founder’s Church in the Wilshire district.
But it has one anyway, a feud involving a celebrity televangelist.
The Founder’s Church of Religious Science--once the 6,000-member, flagship congregation of the denomination--split apart last fall when the congregation’s board of trustees fired Pastor Arthur Chang.
Hundreds of church members, angry at the board, stuck with Chang. “About 400 strong are attending services” he leads each Sunday at the Proud Bird Restaurant near Los Angeles International Airport, said spokesman Jim Brubaker.
Meanwhile, Terry Cole-Whittaker, the bubbly teacher-preacher in San Diego who in 1985 tearfully left a national television ministry in debt, emerged from a long self-exile in December to take over the pulpit at Founder’s Church.
“I was asked to help bring peace and help the church ride through this difficult time,” said Cole-Whittaker, adding that Sunday attendance has gone from about 40 to 400 since she took over.
Cole-Whittaker, 57, author of “Pro$perity: Your Divine Right,” announced in a tearful Easter service in 1985 that her television ministry was $350,000 in debt and that she was quitting amid mounting problems. She said this week that the debt has been paid off and that she spent most of the intervening years reassessing her life at an organic farm in Washington.
She said she has taped eight new programs to be shown on several Los Angeles area cable television systems starting Sunday night.
Cole-Whittaker is not a delegate to the five-day convention of the United Church of Religious Science at Universal City that ends Sunday. Although she was ordained by the denomination in 1975, Cole-Whittaker severed ties with it six years later while she was pastor at a La Jolla congregation.
But the bylaws of Founder’s Church (named in honor of Religious Science founder Ernest Holmes) permit its board to hire a minister outside Religious Science.
“However, that person has to become certified by us,” said J. Robert Gale, chief operating officer of the United Church. Cole-Whittaker said the denomination has not asked her to seek readmittance.
A bigger problem than Cole-Whittaker’s standing is the stalemate produced by two court decisions--one favoring each side--said Gale and the Rev. Margaret Stortz of Oakland, the national president of the church.
“It would be wonderful to come together and resolve difficulties, but the courts are involved now,” Stortz said.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Horowitz ruled on Jan. 23 that the Founder’s Church board, in firing Chang, did not follow its own bylaws, which require approval by two-thirds of the membership.
But in an additional ruling this month, Horowitz declined a request by Chang’s followers and others to remove the trustees from office. Brubaker, a spokesman for the group, said the decision will be appealed.
Both sides have declined to discuss the nature of the dispute between Chang and Founder’s Church trustees, but most church officials agree it was not a racial or ethnic issue.
“Arthur Chang has both a Chinese and Jamaican heritage, and some of Founder’s trustees are African American,” said Stortz, emphasizing that in her opinion bias was not involved.
Though trying to remain neutral in the Founder’s Church battle, the United Church of Religious Science’s trustees voted Wednesday to submit a resolution to convention delegates Sunday that would, in effect, urge affiliated churches not to fire pastors without the approval of two-thirds of their members.
“This is part of recommendations that we have offered as model bylaws for congregations for more than 10 years, but some older churches don’t include that provision,” Gale said. “We think it is only fair.”
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Church Has 40,000 Members
The United Church of Religious Science, headquartered in the Wilshire district of Los Angeles next to the Founder’s Church, is still small as denominations go--170 congregations and 103 study groups totaling only about 40,000 members.
However, the movement’s influence is extended by its magazine, Science of Mind, which goes to 150,000 homes. “We have a big subscriber base of people who never come into our churches,” said J. Robert Gale, chief operating officer for the denomination.
Founder’s Church was a showcase congregation for many years under the charismatic preaching of the Rev. William H.D. Hornaday, who was pastor from 1950 until his death in 1992. Today, among the biggest churches affiliated with the denomination are the 4,000-member Mile High Church in Denver and Agape Church in Santa Monica, led by the Rev. Michael Beckwith.
Religious Science International, a separate, smaller church association with identical upbeat teachings, maintains friendly relations with the United Church. Both are part of the century-old New Thought movement.