After reading The New Believers I'm relieved I wasn't suckered into a really weird cult. Worldwide was bad enough, but compared to some of the groups David Barrett discusses, WCG was downright well-balanced.
Barrett is English, and this large book (500 plus pages) is written with a British audience in mind. But don't let that put you off. Barrett's strength is as a sociologist, someone who is working in the field of alternate religions: as a result he is scrupulously fair to all concerned and generous-spirited. Unlike the more common material on sects, this isn't an "anti-cult" book, and Barrett isn't out to rally the troops to his own version of "the truth". The result is a thinking person's romp through an extensive list of bizarre and colorful "new religious movements". Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses are there, along with Christadelphians and Exclusive Brethren, Bahai and the International Church of Christ. Those movements I can deal with, but when Barrett moves to Eckankar, Theosophy and the Aetherius Society: well, give me Herb's shaking jowls any day.
For those of us with a WCG background, the main interest in this book will be Barrett's keen observations of Worldwide and its daughter churches. In fact he devotes the final section of his book to the WCG as a case study, as well as referring to it throughout the book. In doing so he gifts us with the rare ability to "see ourselves as others see us". In the concluding chapter, "Schism of a Sect", he tackles the phenomenon of a church disintegrating following the death of its leader. As an outsider you might expect him to get some of the detail wrong, but no, this is a meticulous piece of research. And, wonder of wonders, it is also highly readable. A small sampling:Armstrong was often photographed in Plain Truth and elsewhere with great world leaders - kings, princes, politicians, prime ministers, presidents - which gave him kudos and credibility. According to some former senior members, these photographs were intended to show Armstrong's importance by the circles in which he regularly moved; but very often, it seems, the great world leaders had no idea who this short, elderly man was, who asked to be photographed shaking hands. Garner Ted Armstrong disapproved of his father's many trips, calling them "the world's most expensive autograph hunt".
On many occasions Armstrong, as Chancellor of the Ambassador Colleges, is alleged to have effectively "bought" meetings and photographs by making donations to charitable causes supported by a world leader.
The Worldwide Church of God has always been very authoritarian, very "top-down", a classic case of establishing and maintaining "the purity of the truth." In sociologist Roy Wallis' words, "its protection... requires extensive control over those to whom access [to the truth] is permitted" - i.e. church membership... As senior leaders, powerful, ambitious men, constantly jockeyed for position in the hierarchy, they would suddenly find themselves demoted or even disfellowshipped for what often seemed trivial reasons. Six months or a year later they might be back in favor, and the person who had fired them might himself be in the wilderness. One reason for all the many variant offshoots today is the unresolved grievances and lack of trust between people who had worked together for decades.
Joesph W. Tkach died in September 1995, and his son, Joe Jnr (now known as Joseph Tkach) became Pastor General. According to a leading member of one offshoot church, Joe Jnr had effectively been running WCG for some years, under the figurehead of his sick father - a close parallel to the Armstrongs in the 1960s and early 1970s. But where Garner Ted Armstrong had been ousted from the Church, Joe Jnr, according to many internal sources, had been the one to push through all the changes in the Church.
Although Joseph Tkach had been appointed the successor by Armstrong, the continuing power of the leadership in WCG did not rest on the succession of personal loyalty alone. Armstrong had also enforced a strict top-down form of Church government, and this continued after his death. The Church leadership had its authority directly from God, and must be obeyed even if it was wrong (1 Peter 2:18). This was why so many loyal ministers struggled with their consciences so long to teach what they were told they must now teach, even if they personally still believed the old teachings. Some members... believe... they must remain in that Church even if it is now teaching what to them is outright heresy.
The majority still held to the teachings of Herbert W. Armstrong. The Tkaches rejected his teachings, but because of their position were able effectively to hijack his Church... If the Tkaches had left the Church Armstrong founded, they could have left the majority of members to remain true to those teachings within the organization founded on those teachings. That would, some feel, have been a more satisfactory, even a more honest, resolution.
Others have set out to chronicle the fortunes of the Worldwide Church of God, but each has had a very clear personal agenda. Joe Tkach and Mike Feazell are, for example, apologists for their reforms. David Barrett has no such constraints. Indeed, the current Pastor General will take little joy from Barrett's analysis. The 18 000 word WCG section of The New Believers is something special. It is an insightful and compassionate overview of the travail the church has gone through.
And, if Barrett is right, the soap opera is destined to continue well into the foreseeable future and beyond.