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New Church Leader Won't Cut Roots

July 01, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

When the Rev. Peggy Bassett--senior minister of the Church of Religious Science in Huntington Beach and the new national president of the United Church of Religious Science--asked the late R. Buckminster Fuller to attend one of her services a few years ago, he replied that he had no interest in organized religion.

"Oh," Bassett said brightly, "that's no problem. We're not very organized."

Although that's only partly true, it accounts for a great deal of the charm of both the senior minister and the Huntington Beach church itself that has built its membership from 40--when Bassett took over in 1974--to 2,700 today. And, Bassett said, "we're still growing." The leaders of the United Church were hardly unmindful of this when they elected Bassett as their first woman president last week.

"I had two concerns" about her selection, she said in her bright new office at the Seacliff Village Shopping Center. "Could a woman do this job, and would it take too much time from this church, which is my baby?" Challenged on the first concern, she modified it somewhat by saying, "At my age (65), do I want to put myself on the front line again, try to bring all those viewpoints together--especially when I'll be doing it as the first woman president, a matter on which I know there was some debate among the brethren."

But ever since she broke away from her Baptist upbringing and shocked her family by divorcing her first husband whom she had married at 19 "to find a way out," Bassett has not been one to turn away from a challenge. So at an age when most Americans are retiring, Bassett made a decision to take on some heavy new responsibilities.

If she has doubts, her followers have none. She's a commanding presence, a tall, stately woman with well-coiffed gray hair, remarkably gentle blue eyes and a slightly wistful expression, almost as if she's a little surprised all this is happening to her. Yet every gesture, every word speaks eloquently of self-confidence. It's a charming and warming combination. When pictures were being taken for this article and the photographer asked her to change her expression, she said: "I don't want to look as if I've got all the answers." But she does look as if she does--and yet, she doesn't. It works.

She is reluctant to admit that it is the charisma of the minister as much as the message that has made her church grow so remarkably. But a study made last year of the seven largest-growing churches in Southern California underscored that point. Bassett's church was one of those studied, and the research indicated there were four common threads in all of these successful churches: a heavy emphasis on music that set the tone of the service, a charismatic minister, a sense of community and a strong learning situation. Bassett's church rates high on all four counts.

"From the beginning," she said, "we said we wanted our service to be a celebration of life--and that showed up in the study as terribly important. People live such pressure-filled lives today that when they go to church, they don't just want some theological proposition presented to them that happened 2,000 years ago that they have to figure out. They want to have an experience, to come out charged up with something in today's world they can relate to. I'd rather attend half an hour's fellowship than an hour's sermon where I kept looking at my watch.

"Today, there are more women and minorities coming into the ministry, and I think there's a whole shift going on as the ministry turns away from the traditional concept of the helper reaching out to all the people he can help. As long as we have a helper and a 'helpee,' we'll always have people willing to be helped. The shift that is taking place is to show people they have the resources and power and creativity to help themselves, to take responsibility for their own lives."

This is how Peggy Bassett has adapted the teachings of Ernest Holmes, who founded the Church of Religious Science in 1926 and whose writings are used as a basis of the church liturgy. Holmes was a New England metaphysician who settled in California and studied all of the existing philosophies and religions before coming up with his concept--which is probably most closely associated with Unity but also has some elements of Christian Science as well as traditional theology. Holmes wrote: "We believe that the Kingdom of Heaven is within man and that we experience this Kingdom to the degree that we become conscious of it."

Religious Science allows a lot of latitude for personal choice within these parameters. Medical care, for example, is one of these choices. "If somebody believes a certain medication is going to alleviate their condition," Bassett said, "then that's what I want them to have. There's as much power in a pill as in a prayer; it's where your belief is."

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